OCTOBER 30, 2013
In 2011, publishing bad boy and New York Tyrant editor Giancarlo DiTrapano wrote the essay “How I Found Love Through Television,” sharing his personal account of how he met his longtime partner Chris March after seeing him as a contestant on Project Runway. (March now has a major distribution deal with Target.) DiTrapano writes in Thought Catalog, “I’d never done anything like this, ever. The only ‘fan mail’ I ever sent was to the writer George Saunders after I read his story The Barber’s Unhappiness…” And yet, the same night that he saw March on TV, DiTrapano made contact: “[W]hile shooting out emails before I left my place, I had googled his name, found his email, and emailed him asking him out for a drink.”
But did the reality of Chris March equal DiTrapano’s fantasy of him? On the off-chance that we catch a star, the distance and detachment of the real world can dispirit even the most lovestruck hearts. This is the central thesis of Vintage Attraction, Charles Blackstone’s poignant novel of celebrity romance and wine.
In real life Blackstone is the managing editor of Bookslut and a longtime fixture of Chicago’s literary community. His previous works are the avant-garde novel The Week You Weren’t Here and the experimental anthology The Art of Friction. For Vintage Attraction he mines more familiar territory: Blackstone is married to Alpana Singh, Chicago TV personality and former host of the Emmy Award-winning restaurant review show “Check, Please!”; his novel traces the story of Peter Hapworth, part-time adjunct lecturer and admirer of Isabelle Conway, host of the popular Chicago TV wine show “Vintage Attraction.”
Seeing as Ms. Singh is not only the proprietor of Chicago’s hot-spot restaurant The Boarding House (which boasts an art installation consisting of 9,000-plus suspended wine glasses) but also the youngest woman ever to achieve the rank of Master Sommelier, reading Vintage Attraction seems to provide a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style glimpse into the courtship of Blackstone and his wife, lightly blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. It’s a cute courtship, but like remote-relationships-turned-real of the recent and distant past, Hapworth and Conway face tough obstacles. Their story becomes a guessing game of whether or not they were meant to be.
Blackstone’s protagonist Hapworth mirrors DiTrapano in more ways than one. As an adjunct creative writing professor, his familiarity with Saunders is guaranteed. He’s single (“part of it was my exacting standards, as esoteric as they were unrealistic”) and barely scraping by in his love life, but when he turns on his TV and discovers “Vintage Attraction,” he becomes unrepentantly and hopefully smitten with Conway, or as he calls her, “Izzy.” He establishes familiarity with her without permission:
I was struck. Izzy was answering in medium-shot a complex question about how it is a white wine can be made from red grapes, and somehow it felt like she was talking directly to me.
Hapworth becomes a fanboy, even though he cares about wine only vaguely. (In his Craigslist casual encounters ads, he asks for “someone who knows the difference between Shiraz and Merlot, because I don’t; someone who knows the difference between metaphor and metonymy, because I do.”) In a clever twist on “love at first sight,” Hapworth becomes convinced that Izzy is the one for him and so he sends her an email. And though the probability of an email from a lonely lit professor reaching a high-flying local TV star is low, Hapworth is greeted by a warm response from Izzy — it turns out she’s always wanted to be a muse. Upon meeting, the two waste no time establishing their relationship. Over Truffaut double-features and bottles of Brachetto d’Acqui, they form an alliance that is as image-conscious as it is physical. Hapworth’s intellectual gloss and Izzy’s smart Chanel ensembles mesh to create a sophisticated power couple. Soon Hapworth is accompanying Izzy to cocktail parties and store openings, their photos surfacing in Chicago Social, Today’s Chicago Woman, and the “scene” section of the Sun-Times.
This sort of relationship dates back to long before DiTrapano saw March on TV. Portions of Vintage Attraction recall eminent Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine’s controversial and well-sponsored pursuit of Rimbaud in the early 1870s. Conway is well-heeled from her TV show and so all of Hapworth’s plane tickets, outfits, and meals are charged to her AmEx. Hapworth is initially guilty about his good fortune, but soon convinces himself that he’s bringing value to Conway’s life. First of all, there’s his well-documented virility to consider: “For twenty years my cock has stood at perpetual attention, stoic, compliant, dimly guileless, smiling dumbly, yet capable, in theory, of wreaking great havoc, like an armed and overweight bank branch rent-a-cop.” But perhaps more significantly, Hapworth is conscious of his affect on Izzy’s public profile:
[N]ow that she had popped up in this week’s restaurant of the century with a rather good-looking man, she had become resubstantiated, if there was such a word, once again corporeal, a woman whose life suddenly stimulated curiosity …
The relationship between Hapworth and Izzy resmbles the modern marriage of convenience between Ray Peepgrass and Martha Croker in Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. Martha Croker needs Ray Peepgrass because she’s the disenfranchised former wife of a business magnate. Izzy Conway has no such problems, but she grew up in Carbonville, Illinois, 333 miles south of Chicago, and worked to achieve her position without ever going to college. Her self-taught climb to success is perfectly complimented by a professor who teaches Melville; she calls Hapworth her “stalwart” and “voice of reason.” After six weeks of dating, she and Hapworth cosign on a loft (she covers the entire down payment — is this where feminism went wrong?); then, over dim sum, Hapworth proposes with a fortune cookie. Replacing thrift-store bureaus and IKEA pullouts with Ethan Allen color swatches of wood, silver and glass, they both max out their credit cards (mostly hers) and take a leap of faith:
I’d always remember, as we purchased and packed and pared, sending our quiescent particles into motion, how blissfully unaware I was during those joyful, auspicious days of what life was to decant next.
It seems whirlwind romances arranged through epistolary means not only rely on blind faith, but a blind eye. With sexts from former lovers running rampant on their phones, Hapworth and Conway must decide if a deeper connection lies beneath the dazzle and convenience of their courtship on a make-or-break vacation to Greece. They appear to find it in wine and food. Their experiences in Greece recall Colossus of Maroussi-era Henry Miller:
The Greeks had ordered the meal before menus even reached the table. Shortly, waiters brought bottles of wine … Moschofilero was very similar in style to Sauvignon Blanc. Malagousia reminded Izzy of white Grenache. As we swirled and tasted, mezedes, small canapé portions, began to come. There were baskets of grilled black and sesame breads, onto which we spooned taramosalata, a pink-colored spread made of fish roe … Another spread, tsatsiki, was flavored with garlic. Everything was flavored with garlic.
One of the sumptuous thrills of Vintage Attraction is its description of wine. When Blackstone gets rolling into “red Mandilaria grapes that create a Bordeaux-style dry rose,” any wine-drinker might find it difficult to refrain from going into full-assault mode on a rack nearby, and in many ways the author’s epicurean writing is his most passionate. Jay McInerney comes to mind, in his more recent incarnation as the author of Bacchus and Me and A Hedonist in the Cellar. McInerney’s varietal writing is so good he makes drinking wine feel like fodder for the enlightened soul. He makes you want to drink. Likewise, reading Vintage Attraction is like a being a vampire and reading about phlebotomy. It’s going to make you thirsty.
DiTrapano’s essay concludes:
That was three years ago today when I sent out that stalkery email. We are still together and I can’t see that going away anytime soon. I love him. And I think he still loves me … So, not to encourage any weird and unseemly behavior, but, you know, if you see someone on television that you might want to ask out, you should totally just fucking do it.
Blackstone and Singh’s marriage is also a success, along with their restaurant, which offers some of the most sought-after tables in Chicago. The recipe for finding love — before chemistry or compatibility come into play — may be a healthy shot of courage, followed by a chaser of effort, regardless of whether the effort seems “stalkery” or legitimate. Even the most recognizable, high-profile people need love. Rimbaud and Verlaine shared a wild partnership spiced by absinthe and hashish — through blind faith and a letters brimming with sentiment. These days these sentiments are seconds away from send. Inboxes are inches away from our beating hearts. Lights, camera, avatar.