All Lionel Goldstein had to do to write a great novel was fall in love for a lifetime and talk to a couple of dead people.
The conversation with the dead took place in 1968. The younger brother of his best friend had just died at the age of twenty-three. “The family was terribly distraught as you can imagine,” Goldstein recalls. “And the way they comforted themselves was to talk to him through a Ouija board. I thought it was nonsense, but, as I say, it gave them comfort.”
One night when he arrived for a visit, the family had the Ouija board out and his friend, David, the mother and father as well as a sister, were taking turns communicating with the dead young man.
Most of the family went off, leaving Goldstein with his friend David who suggested the two of them try the Ouija board.
To his amazement, when they touched their fingers to the planchette, the heart-shaped piece of wood that moves around the board, it spelled out the letters of a man’s name: Arthur Hilton. Goldstein wasn’t moving the planchette and his friend swore he wasn’t either.
The next thing, the planchette started spinning wildly, until it fell off the table into Goldstein’s lap. When they returned it to the table it spelled out, “He knows!”
He was not a believer then and is not now a believer in ghosts or the hereafter, nonetheless, “I was very effected by this. I was in shock.”
So much so that he set out to discover if someone named Arthur Hilton actually existed. He did. There was an Arthur Hilton from Hull, England, who had died in 1905.
Goldstein’s unsettling encounter with the Ouija board and Arthur Hilton stuck with him and formed the basis for his remarkable novel, The Man Before Yesterday. It has just been published in electronic form by Toronto’s West-End Books.
The book tells the story of Wallace, a fiftyish Toronto businessman who, much like the author, reluctantly participates in a séance involving a Ouija board that summons a dead man named Arthur Hilton.
In Goldstein’s fashioning of the story, Hilton confesses to a murder that sends Wallace back to his native England in search of the truth about the crime.
While in London, Wallace is also drawn to a former girlfriend, Loretta, the lost love of his life with whom he attempts to re-establish a relationship, despite the fact she is married and is now a grandmother.
The Man Before Yesterday is part murder mystery, part love story, and part rumination on age and memory and the possibility–or impossibility–of going back in time. It is extraordinarily well written and at times quite moving, yet it maintains the page-turning drive of a thriller.
As good as the book is, Goldstein over the years has become better known as a playwright and television script writer, ironic for someone who admits that thanks to World War II and the German bombing of London, he did not start school until he was ten and then left at the age of fifteen.
“I just didn’t like it,” he says. “I liked learning all right, but I didn’t like the school part.”
He started writing short stories when he was in the merchant marine, but it was many years and a bewildering number of jobs (including furrier, ladies hairdresser, slot machine repairman, and antique silver dealer) before he dared call himself a professional writer.
In fact, when he couldn’t get his first novel published, he turned it into a TV movie titled The Executioner and that launched his career.
“With The Executioner, I found my métier, my destiny,” Goldstein says. “And it wasn’t writing novels, it was writing plays and scripts.”
One of those scripts, Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson, about two old friends who discover that one was in love with the other’s wife, co-starred Jackie Gleason and Sir Laurence Olivier. Goldstein then transformed the TV script into a play that since then has been performed all over the world.
At the age of seventy-six, Goldstein continues to write: among other projects, he’s currently adapting a sequel to Mr Halpern and Mr. Johnson into a movie for Toronto producer Gene Mascardelli.
Delightfully candid and witty about his life and loves, Goldstein admits he would like nothing better than to be world-famous. “I’d love it, absolutely love it,” he says. “If I was famous there are two or three old girlfriends who I would like to get in touch with me. Come to think of it, there are five or six.”
One of those former girlfriends, Susan, a model he met in 1960, forms the basis for the other part of The Man Before Yesterday that is autobiographical: Wallace’s efforts to reconnect with his long-ago love.Susan’s photograph adorns the book’s cover (and that’s her at the top of the blog), evidence that all these years later, Goldstein still carries a torch for her, along with many regrets.
“We split up in 1962 and then met again in the 1970s. But by that time, we had changed. It wasn’t young love any more. She was married with three children, I had two children. Time had passed. Still, I look back with a great deal of regret.”
So much so that he’s tried to find Susan yet again, even searching through death certificates, but without any luck. “She would be seventy-two now,” he says. “I have no idea whether she’s alive or dead.”
Then he brightens. “Maybe she will read the novel. Maybe I’ll hear from her. It would be nice to see her again, have a cup of coffee or something.”