When he was honored at the Center for Fiction gala last year, Sonny abandoned the taciturn habits of a lifetime and spoke at great length, and with deep emotion, about his life in books. All of us who heard him that day were greatly moved, partly because it was such a shock to hear him speak so openly — and so much! — and partly, I think, because we feared it was a sort of farewell. It’s so sad, today, to know that it was.
Many years ago, when I was in London to promote one of my early novels, Sonny Mehta somehow found out that I was in town and invited me for a drink at his flat in Knightsbridge. He also invited an Iranian novelist he wanted me to meet. The invitation was especially generous given that, if memory serves, I was then published in hardcover by Random House, though Vintage, Sonny’s imprint, published me in trade paperback. He and I had met maybe once or twice before in New York. But of course he’d read my early books and no doubt surmised from these that I was a small-town boy who would be feeling a bit out of his depth in London (I was), and that with this invitation he would make me feel both welcome and important. Anyway, at the end of a very pleasant evening we decided to go out for a bite to eat. It was raining, though, and the restaurant was a bit too far to walk to, so a taxi was in order. Outside Sonny’s flat, the Iranian novelist said, “We’ll probably have more luck if we let Richard hail it.” My first reaction was puzzlement. Why would someone like me, who hadn’t a wealth of experience hailing big-city taxis, be more likely to succeed than my two urbanite companions? But before I’d even fully articulated the question, I understood. I had light skin. I remember glancing at Sonny, whose sad expression seemed to say, “He’s right, you know.” Even now I can feel the profound embarrassment of acknowledging this shared truth about the world we lived in, and the look on Sonny’s face suggested that he, no doubt a regular victim of that same world, was also deeply embarrassed.
In fact, I think that’s what I’ll remember most about Sonny, the impression he so often managed to convey: not just that the world needed to be a kinder, fairer, better place than it was, but also that he might somehow be partly to blame, that he’d been aware of the world’s imperfections for some time now and meaning to do something about them, but it had somehow slipped his mind and so, as a result, here we were with no choice but to genuflect before its ugliness. In a world where far too many people refuse to take responsibility even for what is clearly their fault, here was a man who felt responsible when he wasn’t. A man, in other words, whose moral imagination could be counted on. The kind of man you’d be pleased to give your book to when you yourself couldn’t make it any better.
After my novel “A Boy’s Own Story” was turned down by my previous London publisher, Sonny bought it, surrendered his own office for interviews with every small gay bar publication, arranged for a sellout public event at a trendy theater, gave a chic party at his house, where his jet-set wife arrived after jumping out of a plane with Viscount Linley, the queen’s nephew, and where the beautiful whippet wore an expensive pearl necklace and half the guests were sniffing cocaine. He sold 100,000 copies, and the publicist, Jacqui Graham, won a prize. A heady moment for a simple guy like me from the Midwest.
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