Requiem for a Tough Guy

A Vietnam vet with a wicked sense of humor till the day he died of cancer last December, my friend Bob Nylen wrote a memoir, just published posthumously, that will blow your mind.

Back in 1984, when I was a 29-year-old would-be magazine co-founder, I was in awe of a brand new magazine called New England Monthly. New England I didn’t care about so much, but the magazine was smart and tough and looked great and had unbelievably good writers—and, thrillingly, it was the independent creation of a couple of guys who had raised the money and invented it from scratch. I met Bob Nylen, its publisher and co-founder, in the 1990s, not long after after the magazine had gone out of business following after a six-year run. And because it was no longer competing for National Magazine Awards with the monthly I had co-founded with a couple of friends—and unlike Spy, repeatedly winning those awards—I was sincerely unstinting in my praise for what he had created.

After I jokingly suggested that since Nora Ephron had a bestseller with I Feel Bad About My Neck, we could call Bob’s book I Feel Bad About My Colon, I actually had to talk him out of that title.

We didn’t become close pals—I lived in New York, he lived mostly in western Massachusetts—but whenever we ran into each other over the next dozen years we were very friendly, brimming with mutual admiration. Then in the summer of 2007, I heard from him about a new project. I had just become a part-time editor at large for Random House, and Bob said he had the perfect book for me: half memoir (highlighted by his year as a decorated combat platoon leader in Vietnam and his last several years dealing with colon cancer), half meditation on the nature of American male toughness—and fully fresh and provocative and irreverent.

I agreed, and so did Random House. Bob conscientiously and radically revised his manuscript for a year and a half—a year and a half during which his cancer seemed at first to be in remission and then, once and for all, was not.

Read an Excerpt of Guts

During our time working together, he never abandoned his sense of humor. In fact, it amped up. After I jokingly suggested that since Nora Ephron had a bestseller with I Feel Bad About My Neck, we could call Bob’s book I Feel Bad About My Colon, I actually had to talk him out of that title. Last fall, when we were discussing promotional plans, he warned that by the time of publication, “I may resemble the love child of the Bride of Frankenstein and Skeletor.” When I praised his final revisions, he agreed: “Pretty good for a nearly dead guy.”

One of his emails to me was typically expansive and entertaining about the rapidly approaching end.

“Drove home. Kit” —his wife of 40 years—“and Cassie”—his only child—“ran to the door. ‘Are you all right?’ they asked in unison, frantic. ‘Of course. Aside from the lethal disease.’ ‘We were worried about you. You ran into two trees on the driveway.’ ‘Bullshit. I did no such thing. I nicked a tree, sure, but that was it.’ ‘You blacked out,’ Kit said flatly. That couldn't be possible. I didn't remember any such thing. Only when I inspected the front of Kit's new VW, with $1,500 in damage, did I realize that they were right. I submitted to house arrest. The indignity! So in addition to having a quickly deteriorating liver, very bad blood work, Belyrubin levels through the floor (I won't bother spell-checking, I'm so tired and pissed off at myself), now my brain is on the fritz, too. Fuck.”

Then in December, this email to the Random House publicity director, cc-ing me: “I'm feeling buoyed today. [But] given my degenerating portability, I'm probably not suitable for live-in-studio-Charles-Rose-TV. On the other hand, I'd come in an iron lung with snow tires if Jon Stewart beckoned. Good production values, eh? And if I'm not actually alive, Kurt could bring my urnful of ashes and do ventriloquism. In fact, I like that idea better.” And another, 10 days later: “Dr. Smith warned me that among the charming side effects would be several effects from my new muddling brain. I expected this, but wow, now I'm on the fast train—the Zephyr—for stupid. Think we should consider eliminating all interviewers with IQs above 91.”

A few days later, he died at home. And now, a few months later, here I am, attempting the posthumous ventriloquism. The book has just been published, and I think it’s amazingly good, one of the best high-stakes nonfiction combinations of humorous and serious—and, finally, inspiring—I’ve ever encountered. You can watch and listen to a video of the great man himself, in a bit of the hour-long conversation we had last fall, here. And you can read an excerpt from Guts: Combat, Hell-raising, Cancer, Business Start-ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy's Reckless, Lucky Life here.

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Kurt Andersen's new book, RESET: How This Crisis Can Restore Our Values and Renew America will be published by Random House in July.