Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Return of King Kong

“What is the purpose of your visit to the United States?“ asked the immigration officer at Newark Airport. “I’m a gorilla man,” I proudly replied. Without batting an eyelid she stamped my passport with a B1 business visa, valid for six months. 

I grabbed my bag from the turnstile, stepped on to a fume-choked loading zone, and lit a cigarette. I’d flown thousands of miles from one of the planet’s most remote locations, and was about to enter its most central. I needed a minute to adjust.

Pirates, my second novel, had just been released in the US. Both my editor and agent thought it was a remarkable improvement on my first novel. But the book had yet to inspire more than a handful of reviews. 

Though fun, guiding gorilla safaris in Uganda these past five years had proved counterproductive to generating a readership. Social networks aside, selling books requires an active participation in the marketplace. I needed to personally reach out to my audience. 

My publisher wasn't against the idea of a two-month press tour of the United States. He sent me the money for an air ticket. But he refused to commit to anything more. Boarding my flight in Entebbe, I trusted his support would grow once I sold a few books.

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike / They’ve all come to look for America.” 
- ‘America’ by Simon & Garfunkel 

As my cab climbs an elevated overpass on Interstate 78, Gotham’s full commercial might comes into view: the jagged gleaming skyline, vast industrial complexes, and an endless stream of planes, trains, and automobiles. 

Traffic slows as we approach the Lincoln tunnel. My heart begins to race. Fearing I am about to get crushed in a giant metal compactor, I'm having second thoughts about making my mark here. Driver, turn this taxi around!

How could I possibly have any impact on such a monumental marketplace, amid the pandemonium of all those well-oiled voices vying to be heard? I am punching way above my weight.

We exit the tunnel on 39th Street. Helicopters are hovering overhead, sirens wailing, and the sound of humanity is turned up all the way to eleven. Welcome to anxiety central! 

As we turn north on 10th Avenue, I catch a glimpse of a giant limestone edifice piercing the urban haze behind us. Even today, 83 years after it first opened, the Empire State Building stands head and shoulders above the rest of Midtown’s skyscrapers, and never fails to inspire. 

It's time to unshackle myself from all this self-doubt, seize the moment, ascend to the highest apex, and swat a few preconceived notions out of the sky; I’ll show them what a 21st century gorilla man can achieve in New York City.

“One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” 
- Tom Wolfe

I’m not a stranger to this town. I was six years old when I first visited in 1969 with my family, en route to our new home in Nigeria. My mother's brother Bob was a banker in lower Manhattan, so it served as a convenient stop-over on the many journeys my family would make between Montreal and Africa during the 1970s. 

On Independence Day 1976, standing next to the corner window of Uncle Bob’s 45th-floor office, I watched in awe as a dozen tall ships from all over the world sailed into New York harbor to mark America’s Bicentennial.

One time I came down by road from Toronto, in a car full of drunken reprobates. The last of the campus bars had closed so we set out on a 440 mile road trip to New York City, picking up a Balinese dancer along the way. 

As we drove through the night, radio broadcasts began reporting that a freak snow blizzard was hitting the Big Apple hard. Should we turn back? No fucking way, we’re Canadian. 

When the sun came up that April morning in 1982, New York had been magically transformed into a glittering wonderland of crystal-white snow. Eight to twelve inches had fallen during the night but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. From the Verrazano Narrows bridge, the city looked like one enormous ice sculpture, still steaming from the artist’s blood, sweat and tears.

That weekend, claiming to be experts from north of the border, we made a small fortune digging New Yorkers’ cars out from under the snow.

Between 1994 and 2006 I often visited to raise money for gorillas in the wild. And in late 2009 I spent two months living on the Upper West Side, working on the manuscript for my debut novel, Gorillaland. Since then I’ve published two books. 

So what? Tell someone who gives a shit! That’s what it comes down to in this town. When in New York, ape the natives. Every one of them is struggling to rise up through, or maintain their status in a city that never sleeps. It’s a nightmare. But then I’m a night dancer. Gorilla man will succeed in the concrete jungle.

It’s 7 pm, and the sun is still shining brightly on the Upper West Side, searching for gaps in the money trees that line the back lots of West 77th Street. I’ve been here a month and, as far as book selling is concerned, still not made the slightest dent. 

But I’ve learnt a hell of a lot. No doubt New Yorkers are avid readers, and many of the countless independent bookstores in Manhattan and Brooklyn are up for hosting readings by unknown authors, just not at such short notice. Also literary publicist are paid more than lawyers in this town.

As it turns out, my circumstances and reason for returning to Uganda in July have since evaporated so I will now remain in the US for the duration of my visa, ride down the opposite slope of that steep learning curve I just scaled. Take two...

Hopefully, what happens next will be beyond all expectations.

Greg Cummings is the author of Gorillaland and Pirates, published by Cutting Edge Press, London.