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Saturday, October 08, 2005

A Last Round With August Wilson - New York Times

A Last Round With August Wilson - New York TimesOctober 9, 2005
A Last Round With August Wilson

IN early May, I spent a Saturday evening in my Manhattan apartment with August Wilson, the celebrated and much beloved playwright who was laid to rest yesterday. We ate dinner and watched a pay-per-view boxing match.

August, a big fan who kept track of the rankings, used to call me from the road to excitedly ask whether I was picking Mike Tyson or Roy Jones on a particular night. When he visited New York, he'd come by my place to unwind from his usual routine of luncheons, dinners and receptions, or just to escape the confines of his Edison Hotel room. Dapperly dressed, he'd always bring along a "beaucoup" bottle of brandy or whiskey and some flowers for my wife. He'd doff his black-brimmed felt hat and make himself at home.

He liked the views of the river from my windows, New Jersey twinkling in the distance, and the Victorian club-like atmosphere of certain of my book-lined rooms. He always looked around to see what books I had been reading, and occasionally, if I'd left some pages of a manuscript lying about, he'd give me a sly look as if to say: "Ah, productivity! A good thing!" He didn't talk that way, but that was what his expression conveyed to me.

He loved discussing literature: Ralph Ellison, Gabriel García Márquez, James M. Cain, Jorge Luis Borges and Tennessee Williams were but a few of the writers we talked about over the years. We tried to maintain a scholarly tone about such things, especially when our wives were around, but when it was just the two of us, our upbringings kicked in and our language was riddled with scatological turns of phrase. August's sentences blossomed with such language, especially when we came to the history of slavery and the black man in this country.

That night in May, as on so many similar nights, we ended up in my study to watch the fight, the sound turned low and some Clifford Brown on the stereo until the main event finally came on. In times past he'd sit in that room with guests ranging from my old, blue-collar neighborhood friends to Lou Reed, who, to August's delight, played a couple of his songs one evening on a nylon string guitar. But whoever had joined us, August always remained somewhat apart from the persona of one who had received so much acclaim.

If he at all considered his creative output the product of genius, he distanced himself from such thoughts, as if the social August Wilson were the caretaker of the creator. He talked books, boxing and jazz; sometimes about his own plays, the hard work of putting them on, the vagaries of tinkering with the script. And often he spoke about his family: especially his little girl, Azula.

"Sign your novel for me, but make it out to Azula," he'd say. "It's for her library."

In retrospect, knowing what I now know about his health at the time, he did seem to have slowed up a bit that May night. He had begun the evening his usual ebullient and opinionated self, but when the main boxing match (admittedly a lame one) came on, August, comfortably seated in an easy chair, a glass of wine before him, dozed off. He had never done that before. I assumed he was simply tired, because he had just come off the final stages of putting "Radio Golf" into production.

I watched him in repose that night. He had a great face, sharply featured, with ever so slightly slanting plains that gave his expressions a soulful and seemingly Asiatic cast. As he softly breathed he had about him the serenity of a man who fully knew the historic worth of his accomplishments. What he dreamed about, I cannot say.

Oscar Hijuelos is the author of "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love" and the forthcoming "Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise."

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