By the 1970’s, Charles Citrine, a respected author in his mid-fifties, has won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for a book on Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States, and one for a Broadway play, Von Trenck. Charlie’s former wife, Denise, is demanding higher support payments, and his twenty-nine-year-old girlfriend, Renata Koffritz, wants him to marry her.
During a poker game, Charlie loses $450 to Rinaldo Cantabile, which he pays by giving the gangster a check. Charlie’s friend George Swiebel says that he saw Cantabile cheat, however, and at George’s insistence, Charlie stops payment on the check. Insulted, Cantabile batters Charlie’s Mercedes-Benz with a baseball bat and forces Charlie to pay the debt in front of several people. Then Cantabile takes Charlie to the upper floors of an unfinished skyscraper and drops all the money except two $50 bills, which he uses to buy dinner. At dinner, Cantabile asks Charlie to help his wife with a doctoral dissertation on Charlie’s dead friend, the poet Von Humboldt Fleisher, but Charlie refuses.
The next day, Charlie meditates while waiting to take part in a court hearing about his payments to Denise. Cantabile arrives, and Charlie tells him about a movie scenario he and Humboldt had written in 1952. In court, the judge, upon learning that Charlie has plans to go to Europe, threatens him with bond and then sets a payment sum of $200,000 for Denise. Denise gives Charlie a letter from Kathleen, Humboldt’s former wife, in which she informs him that Humboldt left him something. Charlie is surprised because he and Humboldt had been estranged and because he did not think that Humboldt, who died destitute, had anything to leave.
That afternoon, Charlie meets his friend Pierre Thaxter, with whom he is hoping to publish a journal. Cantabile finds Charlie and Thaxter, forces them into his car, and takes them to the office of a businessman who has been caught cheating the Mafia. Pretending that Charlie is a Mafia gunman, Cantabile threatens the man. A police detective subsequently arrests Charlie and Cantabile but lets Thaxter go. Instead of trying to get Charlie released from jail, Thaxter goes to the movies. Charlie is released when the secretary of the threatened man talks her employer into dropping the charges against Charlie.
Several days later, instead of going directly to Milan, as planned, Charlie and Renata fly to New York to find out about Charlie’s legacy from Humboldt. They go to Coney Island, where Waldemar Wald, Humboldt’s uncle, lives in a nursing home. There, Waldemar gives Charlie a large envelope containing a letter that Humboldt wrote to Charlie shortly before his death. Although Humboldt had been suffering from bipolar disorder and paranoia for years, according to the letter he had regained his sanity shortly before his death. The envelope also contains a movie scenario that Humboldt had written and a copy of the 1952 scenario he cowrote with Charlie. Humboldt had sealed...
(The entire section is 4,369 words.)