It Happened In The Bronx?
An audiobook encounter with a novel from the 1960s leads to our exclusive interview with the narrator
My commute is more than two hours every day, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I have so many badges and prizes from Audible that I’m like an auricular Eagle Scout. I’ll listen to just about any book that doesn’t use the word “todger,” and let the glorious mix of the author and reader transform NJ Transit into a paradise, although with blue vinyl seats. Occasionally I’ll stumble across a book so astonishing that I’ll listen over and again, rewinding whole chapters. And at times I’ll find a masterpiece. Russell Greenan’s It Happened in Boston? is that masterpiece.
This stunning novel, published in 1968, is a startling treasure and has confused and terrified me all year. The novel was reprinted in 2003 in the Modern Library series with an introduction by fellow superfan Jonathan Lethem. An unnamed Boston artist unspools his life and history in an increasingly confused narrative. Our artist is a master in the Renaissance style, with a passionate commitment to his craft. He also spends at least an hour a day sleeping under his bed and believes pigeons are spying on him. He spends his days in reveries on a park bench, bitterly recalling his experiences and possibly debating the Devil about life insurance. There’s also a hunt for restaurants with sugar bowls, mysterious deaths, gorgeous descriptions of paintings that do not but should exist, and a growing sense of paranoia. Do we believe the artist? What exactly happens at the end of Boston?
The novel was published to rapturous reviews and excellent sales. Then it was slowly forgotten–but not by Robert Fass, who first read it as a teenager. Fass grew up to become an actor and a professional audiobook narrator. He’s narrated dozens of books, but never forgot the distinct joy and confusion of It Happened in Boston? So he decided to get the audio rights and produce an audiobook. Hopefully it will be your obsession too.
Armed with a cup of milky tea, Fass spoke about the audio process and Boston from his Bronx studio, his baritone warm and resonant even over the phone.
I saw that you had an acting background, and so I wondered, what is that and how does it work for you now?
It’s what I always wanted to do. I was in community theater by the time I was 11. Probably started working on stage training, went to college for theater, and then came to New York, studied with Uta Hagen.
I did a lot of regional and off Broadway and off-off Broadway. I had an improv company for many years. I was deep in that world for probably a dozen years, and spoken word was just always really important to me. That kind of aerial view as well came in handy when it came to starting to do spoken word stuff, because you have to be aware of both, you have to be in the performance and modulating it as you go.
I started reading to the blind on something called the InTouch Network in New York in about ’97, ’98, after my father died. He had been involved in Reading for the Blind in Washington for 25 years or so. He was on the board, and recording for the Blind and Dyslexic in D.C., and in his honor I started doing it. I was called out to read the New Yorker with a reading partner, live over the air, and I was supposed to just be filling in that day. I wound up being in that chair every week for 11 years. Having the best writing of every kind and having to read it pretty much cold every week, it was just the best training imaginable. It was a really great place to cut your teeth and reading all the fiction writers, the essays, the poets, the critics. At that time, the Audio Publisher’s Association was looking for more trained actors to enter the field. Timing was good.
How many times would you normally read a book before you begin to speak it?
One and a little bit. It’s rare to have the luxury of reading the book more than once beforehand, but I am with what I hope is still the majority that believes you absolutely must read the entire book carefully and thoughtfully before you get behind the mic with it. There’s just too many reasons why you’re asking for trouble if you don’t. There are narrators who insist on encountering the script completely fresh in the performance, but I think that’s a minefield. You can be fully in the performance, but you also need to be aware of what the narrative arc is, how you’re going to modulate how you’re going to get to the climax or to the main points. If it’s non-fiction it still has a narrative arc.
I’m guessing you often record at home?
I have a home studio. I prefer to work at the publisher’s whenever possible because then you really can focus just on the performance. If you’ve got an engineer and/or a director in the room with you who’s listening, who can catch you if there’s an issue or who wants to suggest an alternative approach to something. That’s great. I’ve been doing it long enough that I’m very good at self-directing. A lot of publishers trust me, even the ones who typically bring their narrators in house. Of course, COVID changed a lot of things, but everybody was working from home. Yes, I’d say 80% to 90% of my narrations are done at home.
What are you looking at when you’re reading, because I never hear any noises, like pages turning. What is it that you have?
It’s been a good 10 years since iPads revolutionized the process in that regard. Used to be that you would have pages and you would get very good at silently turning. But now everything’s on an iPad and you can just scroll along.
How long can you read every day?
A typical day in a recording studio is going to be six hours, six to seven hours. With breaks, a good 45 minutes for lunch. If you’re prepped, you’re hydrated, you’re pacing yourself, that’s not a bad day.
How long would it take up you to finish an entire novel, one around 350 pages?
Most novels come in between 11 and 14 hours. In the studio it’s typically two hours in the booth to have one hour of finished audio. If it’s difficult material, it can be double that. At home, I’m much, much slower because I stop for every little noise. I don’t trust that it’s going to get taken out if I’m not taking it out.
When you say difficult material, what’s an example? What’s difficult?
If it’s non-fiction, it can be just incredibly dense, it can be sentences that go on forever. If you’re not careful on how you’ve set it up at the top of the page, you get to the bottom and you realize the emphasis is off or you haven’t quite set it up right. Non-fiction can flow beautifully, or it can be a bit of a slog. I’ve always been kind of honored with the good books a very healthy percent of the time.
On the fiction side, it can be just that it’s really challenging language. It can also be very challenging emotionally. I’ve done books like Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman. It was a devastating book emotionally. To be able to rein in your own emotions so that the listener can make their own journey can be a challenge. Narrators will take crying breaks. We’ll pause until we can collect ourselves.
I’ve never thought of that.
All those things can make for a longer experience in the booth, but super rewarding. Then there’s books that you don’t have to bat an eye. It just fits like an old shoe and it just flows beautifully. Then you bust through those and you wish they’d go on longer.
I want to ask specifically about It Happened in Boston? because you seem to have had a lifelong relationship with this book. How did you discover it?
I was probably 15. I read voraciously and I belonged to some of these book clubs like the Mystery Guild, and I think the book was one of the Guild’s selections. It was in my mailbox one day, and it completely enchanted me. I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to believe. It was my first experience with an unreliable narrator of such complexity and magnitude. I didn’t know what an unreliable narrator was at that age, but the language was so dense and exotic, and I loved that. It had me reading it with a dictionary by my side. I would always recommend it to people. I wrote to the author at one point asking if I could adapt it as a play, and I got a reply saying, “Thanks, but I really want it to be a film first.”
What happened next?
I had a colleague who was a member of the improv company I was part of and I gave her a copy. She flipped over it. She wound up a few years later being an editor at Random House, and they gave her the opportunity to add any one book to the Modern Library. She chose Boston? and got Jonathan Lethem to write an introduction because he had written an appreciation of it at some point in the past. I thought, “Hey, the audio has never been done, and maybe I’m at a point now where I can get it done.” I wrote to Russ Greenan and I reminded of my original connection to it and he was amenable.
We got the good folks at Blackstone Audio to be my distributor for it. Then as it started to happen, I got a lot of really lovely press for it. I wish I could say it became a best-selling audiobook, but those that have listened to it have been very positive about it, and it’s still out there. Thanks to you, there’s another set of listeners queuing up.
That’s what I’m hoping, although I find the book painful to hear at times. There are sections that I’ve skipped the second time and the third time. The scene with the cat.
Yeah. I mean, it wasn’t until I reread Poe’s Black Cat that I realized how much it owes to that, that it’s actually tame in comparison to Poe. As a narrator, you’ve got to be the author’s representative, the conduit to the author’s ideas and language. There are great books out there that cross a line that has shifted over the last generation. I just did a memoir from 1967 called Stop-Time by Frank Conroy.
I was offered it and it blew me away. It’s an amazing piece of work. It’s really that sort of seminal stream of consciousness, memoir coming of age story from a certain slant, and it’s quite wonderful. It has racial stereotypes. It’s got bad behavior by the male character towards women. It’s got language that’s frowned upon, shall we say, that wouldn’t be able to be published quite the same way today, I think. Certainly not read in the same way.
We’re narrators, we’re not editors. If you take the job, you are reading the book as written, and it’s up to the listener to make their judgment about its acceptability or its objectionability.
Are there books that perhaps should not be recorded? Should we silence ideas that are truly awful? What is just plain censorship?
That’s fascinating to me. Everything is on a tide, isn’t it? Things become in fashion and out of fashion, things change meaning. They shift across cultural receptors how stuff is received. As we say, once it’s out of your mouth, it’s not yours anymore. Once it’s off your pen, it’s not yours anymore.
I remember feelingvery hurt a few years ago when they changed name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Prize, which basically stopped people from reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, because her books had been such a massive part of my childhood. Older books are windows into 1860 or 1967, and shutting those windows seems like a really odd decision for librarians or for publishers. Decent impulses take a very dark turn when they’re actually put into effect.
We have this infinite variety of outlooks for better and for worse, and what’s necessary to one person is repellent to another. We can go down that whole road about the deterioration of critical thinking. A lot of it stems from that for me, that people aren’t thinking for themselves as much. They aren’t exposed to and debating ideas. They’re just receiving received opinions.
For Boston, what was it like to read a book that you knew as a very old dear friend, had you imagined how characters or situations would sound?
I guess I had very vivid pictures in my mind. I don’t know that I had the ancillary characters’ voices particularly clearly in my head, I guess for some of them, Sebastian and Mr. Beels, who was just such a hilarious time. Yeah, I think that I certainly had a sense of the narrative arc, the beats within the story, and how the narrators and the protagonists grasp on reality starts to slide downhill.
I wish I knew when. I can’t tell at what point, was any of it true?
Or was any of it not true?
I’ve listened to it several times now. I’m at a complete loss at precisely what’s happened at the end.
I want to say, thank you for that. That’s really important to me. I found that when I first read it, I just believed it wholeheartedly. I just took him at his word the whole way, and I didn’t ever want to lose that. I had a friend who actually did get the film rights for a brief period, though he didn’t get on with it, but I felt that he had taken the opposite opinion. By making that decision and telling the story with that in mind, I thought wasn’t going to serve the book. I really wanted to try and preserve that ambiguity because it’s first person, right?
If you’re tipping your hand outside of the protagonist’s consciousness, then you’re imposing something that’s not there.
I decided to believe him. If he thinks he paints in the style of da Vinci, then he did. For the purposes of me as a reader, those things were true.
Great. Oh, I love to hear that.