Thursday, January 13, 2005

Coup on Liberty Crescent

Author note: The only rational way to deal with the outrage of this wrong-headed U.S. war in Iraq is through satire. I'm not laughing at the war. While driving in Michigan a few months ago a car passed me with a handprinted sign on cardboard in its rear window that read: BUSH LIED NEPHEW DIED. Moreover, the son of a very close friend is soon to be sent to Iraq. So, in the spirit of Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22 I have written "Coup on Liberty Crescent," which will appear in the February issue of Blank Magazine.

Coup on Liberty Crescent

It was noon on a Saturday in spring, and the mustached man of the house—whose Middle Eastern name had been anglicized to “Sam” by the neighborhood—stood in his kitchen making a hero sandwich. His face was grim-set as he sliced a plump tomato picked moments ago from his garden. Sam’s house was old and small—“modest” his wife, Sajedah, called it—but it had the largest backyard on the block, in which Sam grew a variety of vegetables that were the envy of the neighborhood. He was alone in the house, wearing boxer shorts and an undershirt: a “wife beater shirt” his eleven-year-old son, Rudy, called it. Following an argument a few days ago, Sajedah took Rudy, and his eight-year-old brother, Quincy, to her mother’s for an indefinite stay.

After placing the final slice of bread on his towering sandwich, Sam went into the living room to watch television. As if on cue, his neighbor, Don, across the street, fired up his lawn mower; an abused second-hand machine, which bellowed a grating, groaning cacophony that rattled Sam’s windows.

“A riding mower?” Sajedah had said, watching Don first motoring around his front yard with it three years ago. “His property’s smaller than ours, and Rudy cuts ours in forty-five minutes with a push mower.”

“What do you want from me?” Sam had said, smoothing his bushy mustache.

“Be a man! Tell Don to stop!”

There was no telling Don anything—Don was a seventy-two year old insurance salesman who refused to retire. He had lived on Liberty Crescent for almost forty years. After an argument, years ago, over some missing garbage cans, Sam learned that behind Don’s benign, grandfatherly exterior were tobacco-stained teeth, and a tongue that had been cursing longer than Sam had been alive. Didn’t even seem like Don had eyes behind his small, round glasses.

Sam bit into his sandwich. A glob of Russian dressing dripped down the front of his shirt; his fingers were already slick with mustard and mayonnaise. And of course he forgot a napkin. Rising from his chair, Sam started for the kitchen—and stopped. He went to his front window, moved the curtain aside. As Don circled back toward the street on his mower—a gargoyle in a gray cardigan; his hair the color of dirty dishwater—Sam raised a fist, and extended his middle finger.


George woke with a sour beer belch rising in his throat. He had stayed up until two in the morning drinking with his daughter’s boyfriend, Godfrey. “Back in the day,” George had said to Godfrey, while watching reruns of American Gladiators on satellite, “I used to pound back the beers.” George had wondered if kids still called it “pounding back.”

He rolled out of bed, and stumbled in the direction of the bathroom, but found himself in the hallway instead. His eyeglasses had gone missing days before, and the world around him was a blur.

“Honey?” he called. No reply. “Pumpkin?” He figured his wife had gone shopping with their daughter and Godfrey, who came home from college the day before.

As George felt his way downstairs, Don’s lawn mower roared into action next door. Sounded like a jet taking off. George cringed, head throbbing. The son of a bitch—but what could he say? Don was an old friend of George’s father, Prescott. Together, Prescott and Don had been active on City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Elks Lodge. Four years ago, when there were plans to turn a large Liberty Crescent lot into a park, Don’s connections and Prescott’s checkbook stepped in, and soon a contractor was there building George’s five thousand square foot home. A present from Prescott.

George found the kitchen. He had heartburn, and was deadly thirsty. As he drank chocolate milk from the carton, the ache of his bladder became too much. With no time to stumble around searching for the main floor bathroom, George pulled open one of the empty produce drawers at the bottom of the fridge, and urinated into it.


The sound of Don’s lawn mower didn’t disturb the Zen tranquility of Colin’s exercise regimen; he continued doing push-ups with military precision. A security guard at a plastics factory, Colin worked midnights. This morning he’d stayed on a few hours longer because the morning guy was late. Didn’t matter—Colin would have lunch with his wife today, rather than breakfast.

When he completed his one hundredth push-up, Colin walked out of the bedroom, still wearing his uniform. He didn’t have the largest house on the block, or the most enviable garden, but his wife, Conde, was the most beautiful woman in the neighborhood. Colin saw how men looked at her as she watered the garden, and felt a silent pride that she was his wife. He found her in the kitchen drinking an energy shake.

“Any left for me?” Colin said.

“No,” Conde said, turning her cheek for Colin to kiss; seeming to bristle at his touch.

“No probs, how about some lunch—”

“I’m going out,” she said, pouring the near-full drink down the sink.

“I’ll go with you. I just have to shower—”

“No, I’m late meeting Laura.” With that, Conde grabbed her purse, and left.


Rounding back toward the street, Don looked up and saw Sam in the front window of his house. What the hell—? he thought. Don halted his mower.

Sam had flipped him the finger.

The sight of it roused the Korean War veteran in Don; roused his inner disgruntled consumer who provoked tears in any waitress, cashier, or customer service rep who refused him what he wanted.

He shut off the mower, and dismounted. Stepped to the curb, and pointed at Sam. “You think I can’t see that?!” he shouted. “You lawless barbarian, I know about you!”

The sound of Don’s mower stopping prematurely brought Mrs. Limbaugh, the neighborhood busybody, out of her house, still speaking on her cordless phone. The sound of Don’s shouts brought more neighbors onto their porches. Men looked up from washing their SUVs.

The last significant altercation Don had had was with the paperboy who hadn’t wrapped the newspaper in plastic one rainy day. When he caught him the next afternoon, Don lectured the boy for twenty minutes on honor, duty, and taking pride in one’s work. The boy crumbled like dung in the desert sun. Neighbors walking by had looked at Don as though he had gone soft and was content to harangue little kids. This afternoon Don would prove them wrong.

“He beats his wife!” Don shouted. He looked around at his neighbors. “Did you know that? Sam beats his wife!”

“Are you sure?” said Mrs. Limbaugh.

Don learned in Korea that sureness was in the mind of the beholder. You see something move on the perimeter while on guard duty, you shoot at it—and worry about being sure later on. He knew the Cheneys who lived next to Sam for years, and moved away three months ago. Richard Cheney told Don he often heard Sam arguing with his wife. And there was the time Sam’s son, Rudy, ran over a soda can while cutting the lawn—Sam had yelled at the child in front of the whole neighborhood. One thing war taught Don: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

George came out of his house wearing Bermuda shorts and his wife’s salmon-colored golf shirt. He winced in the daylight. Don approached. “There’s trouble with Sam—”

“He’s beating his wife!” Mrs. Limbaugh shouted, shrill.

“Sam?” George said, shading his eyes with his hand. “Remember when that son of a bitch broke my car window?!” No one actually saw Sam do it, three years before, but the stone that shattered George’s window came from Sam’s rock garden. George explained that to the police, but they said it wasn’t proof of Sam’s guilt. Jerks, George had thought. Damn cops are so tied up with rules and regulations, they’ve lost all of their instincts.

“It’s worse than a broken window,” Don said. “Sam’s beating his wife.”

“The cowardly bastard,” George breathed.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Letters Lost on a Publisher

From As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories


(Letters Lost on a Publisher)

April 2

Ms. Wilbourne,

I was glad receiving Ms. O’Herlihy’s kind and courteous reply, saying that you are now considering my project—or, more accurately, that you will be in touch once you’ve done so.

I figured I would send along a note just the same.

If you will pardon the indelicate analogy, I have always been told that an editor considering a manuscript is much like a dog with his dinner—leave him (her) to it. But since conventional wisdom has never done me any good, and I was always the kind of guy to go swimming after eating a meal, I figured I would discuss what I think we are both hoping will happen—something like nuclear fission, something like Fatima: I have written a book that I hope will be published, and you are looking to accept manuscripts that the press “will do well with” —a wonderfully vague goal that has been the lynchpin of a number of rejection slips.

Having completed a master’s degree in literature last year, my taste in writers has never been more highbrow than Hunter S. Thompson, Flann O’Brien, and a wonderful Canadian author, Terry Griggs.

I try to be an avid reader, and most of the time succeed at this. I am always in bookstores looking for something that will excite and engage. When that book is by a writer whose name I have never heard before, all the better. But when I consider the books that make up the better part of most bookshops, I feel weak and sick and bored. I think this comes about because the editor/publishers are playing market strategists, and the MBAs are playing editor. So that books that passoff ambiguities as art, and trendy cynicism as philosophical insight, are taking space on shelves where books of real soul should be standing.

Speaking about “the one that got away,” the name John Kennedy Toole comes to mind. Toole was an instructor/doctoral candidate in New Orleans in the 1960’s. He wrote a novel called A Confederacy of Dunces, which he sent to every major publisher in the USA. It was rejected every time. In 1969 Toole committed suicide, unpublished, unknown. Understandably heartbroken, his mother found his novel and took it upon herself to have it published. The book was published in 1980. In 1981, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

I have read the novel. Though it was written in the early 1960’s it is not “dated.” For a book born of such a tragic circumstances, it is the funniest novel I have ever read.

I guess the preceding paragraphs are leading to this: over the course of years and many miles, I have tried out the stories in my collection on many ears in numerous pubs and parties and poetry readings. If I were a scientist proposing some new theory as widely tried and tested, I suppose I would do so with an air of confidence that would border on arrogance.

To spare you that I will end this note with eight concrete reasons why you should publish “As My Sparks Fly Upward:”

(1) Best Man
(2) Grudgingly
(3) Hadley
(4) Come Out and Play
(5) Continental Divide
(6) Under the Bridge
(7) As My Sparks Fly Upward
(8) my next book, “The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing.”



April 20

Dear Ms. Wilbourne,

The biography of my days in Dublin would describe afternoons and evenings lost to drinking, dreaming and general misguided wandering. It seems life is devolving into an Otis Redding song, leaving me with no change in my pocket, only the unspendable currency of my own ideas; the calories of my character to sustain me. Leaving me with the length of my shadow, the creak of pub floors beneath my step—leaving me to my pen and paper and blather.

Neither this letter, nor my previous, was written to coax, convince or persuade you toward my work. I am writing to converse—about the politics of poetry, the price of prose; about beer, bologna sandwiches and blowjobs. About real life and real fiction, and how one writer marks a trail toward the light. Toward a sympathetic eye, a willing mind, a soul with some soul in it. Because I am willing to chance casting my pearls before swine (more indelicate analogies!). Because I remember the evening my best friend, Dennis, asked me to be best man at his wedding—only bare weeks after he asked my advice on how to break it off with Mira.

And there was a time I remember reading a friend’s name in a newspaper obituary—which turned out to be an unnerving coincidence. I still dream about the long hours, the lonesome miles, the empty sky of the Continental Divide. I even saw a backpack lying at the side of the road at 5:45 a.m. But I didn’t stop.

I saw Lou Reed live at the Fox Theatre in Detroit in 1992, and was struck by how the evening had more the feeling of a revival meeting, an exorcism of sorts, than a rock concert.

A soda can fell from the Ambassador Bridge late, very late, one night as I drove home from a friend’s house. I wasn’t crazy enough to get out of the car.

And I had a few final nights with friends before embarking on this fiasco to Dublin.

And staring down the barrel of my empty pint glass, I remember Hadley. She wasn’t deaf and she didn’t write poetry but she ignited something rare and ravenous in me—something seismic and aching that set to drilling through my solar plexus. Something no poetry can say and no liquor can allay.

And with the confidence of credibility, I wrote these stories. And with confidence in my spiritual credentials I submit them to you. But all in all in all—in all my remembrance, in all my bewilderment, I am ultimately consumed by one thought, one fear, embodied in a sentence in a letter I wrote to a friend a few months back: “It sometimes seems that all I share with great men is selfdoubt.”

But in my days and in my nights and in my writing, I am one thing more.

Very serious.


April 27

Ms. Wilbourne,

Another achingly clear evening, and I look to the mellow purple horizon and think of “Hadley.” I have known her by different names: Hanna, Briana, Caitlin. As the weights and pulleys, the scales and measures of this life work their daily magic of vanishing another day, the Hadleys of our lives appear and vanish, though her memory only grows more vivid.

In the Afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig writes about how the ancient Greeks believed that the future figuratively approaches humanity from behind, and the past recedes before us. An apt image. So, I have kept my eye on the spark of light that was Hadley in my life, see her even tonight. Watching as she hurries toward the horizon.

Mark Twain wrote two stories titled, “Extracts From Adam’s Diary,” and “Extracts From Eve’s Diary,” not long after the death of his wife. The stories are not satirical, but humorous and imaginative and exquisitely touching. Adam is portrayed as a gruff, linear, Alpha male. Eve is lovely and pretty and patient. At first Adam doesn’t understand who/what Eve is, finding her more a nuisance than anything else. But he is slowly won over. By the end of the story they have fallen in love, been banished from the Garden, and gone on to live a long life together. And when the dark day of Eve’s death comes, Adam buries her and leaves a flat stone marking her grave. On that stone he wrote: “Wherever Eve was, there was Eden.”

That’s Hadley.

I miss her, and still dream of her. Somewhere inside of me is written: “Wherever Hadley was, there was Eden.”


April 29

Ms. Wilbourne,

The day after Christmas, 1992, I went out with my friend, Owen Huckley, and got wildly, roundly, thoroughly shitfaced drunk.

Owen and I had gone to a nightclub, arriving early to have some dinner, and settle down to devouring pitchers of beer before the crowds and music took the place over. By eight o’clock, I was metaphysically and philosophically ratarsed. Returning from the toilet, I ran into old friends and acquaintances near the bar. We exchanged slurring Christmas greetings, and each time I was offered a shot: kamikazes, B52s, zombies, tequila. And I accepted. Every time. Then returned to the table where Owen and I reminisced about past adventures.

At one point, while pausing at the bar on my way back from the toilet, a couple of old schoolmates bought me a shot of tequila and a B52. In a fit of caveman bravado, I took a shot in each hand, and threw them back simultaneously, to the general cringing and warnings of bystanders and onlookers.

By ten p.m. I was clinically pissed. And not thinking straight. Coming back from the toilets, yet again, I bypassed the doorway leading to where Owen sat, and went looking for my younger brother who was also there that night. I wanted him to take me home: I’d had enough. And with timing so bad as to be described as exquisite, I passed the club’s entrance at the precise moment a pack of impatient clubgoers tried to force their way past the doormen (off duty cops in full regalia, sans pistols). The commotion startled me—

—suddenly a hand grabbed the front of my shirt, and in a Twilight Zone blur, I was thrust out the club’s door, flung to the pavement out the front. I landed face down, scraping my hands, and breaking my glasses.

Stunned and drunk and cold, I got up to explain the mistake. The off duty cop spun me around and slammed me to the pavement again.

So the odyssey began.

The rest of the night comes to me only in a riverrun collage of scattered moments: A couple of girls commandeered me, promising warmth, and led me to another club; through which I wandered, bewildered and blind (my broken glasses shoved in my pants pocket), feeling the growing pangs of The Fear. Somehow, I managed to get a bottle of beer from the bar.

Meantime, Owen was at our table wondering where I had gone off. After fifteen minutes he went looking for me. Finding me nowhere, his drunken judgment told him to walk back to my house. And though I have only Owen’s description with which to create a mental picture of what happened, I can see it clearly in my mind as though I had been there:

He walks back to my house, knocks on the front door. My father answers, surprised to see Owen back from the club so early. Just as my father is about to ask where I am, Owen slurs, “Is Matt here?”

As I attempted to exit the second nightclub, Owen and my father took the car out looking for me. They searched for more than two hours.

Somehow, I found my way out of the second nightclub and came across a friend of my brother’s outside of the first club. The smiling young Samaritan blessedly/charitably wrapped his jacket around my shivering form. And as I tried explaining the stupid mistake that ignited the whole mess, Owen and my dad and brother suddenly burst out of nowhere, grabbing hold of me, shoving me into my father’s car.

The following afternoon I woke with a monstrous hangover, dimly aware through my haze of nausea and growing shame that it was the day of my parents’ annual postChristmas party, attended by a wide circle of friends and family.

And attended by Briana. Significant only for the fact that we had spent the previous three months apart on the “outs.” Four years we had been together and she had gone away to college with little more than a hug and a goodbye. I had done my best to be cavalier about the whole thing, but ended up sulking my way through the semester, drinking and jogging and writing. I figured we were finished, and felt sick about it.

But Christmas brought Briana home. I saw her a couple of times, went to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve as “friends.” And as I crept through the day of my parents’ party, sick and shaken and pale, I briefly saw Briana, vaguely remember saying hello to her; preoccupied with my hangover and jangled pride.

Following one of my many trips to our upper floor bathroom to dry heave, I was met on the stairs by Briana. She stepped past me, and stood on the stair above me. She looked at me. She’d heard about the previous night.

“Your mother’s so angry with you,” she sighed. Then she hugged me. When we let go she placed her hands on my quivering shoulders and said, “Why do you do this to yourself?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know.

That evening, when the guests had left, I retreated to the basement. As I lay on the couch, nauseated and exhausted, my hands scraped and aching, Briana came down the stairs. She knelt by the couch, and looked at me. I closed my eyes, and turned my face away.

She gently massaged my hand.

“Darling,” I moaned, “I think I’m dying.”

“You’re not dying, sweetie,” she said, and kissed my hand. “You’re just tired.”

May 1

Ms. Wilbourne,

If I wrote to you about the band on which I based the band in “Under the Bridge,” you would not believe it. They called themselves Sawney Beane, after a 10th century Scottish cannibal, who’d had sexual congress with his sister which brought about a dozen, or two, offspring, all of whom shared Sawney’s preferences in sexual partners and cuisine. When all was said and done, the brood numbered forty, or so, and over the course of a decade they devoured one thousand human beings. When finally hauled out of the cave where they lived—obscured by the sea at high tide—the entire lot was lynched. Even the infants.

So, my friend Sean and his brother Finn, formed a band and took the name Sawney Beane. The band lived in a rundown house on Prince Road. The most prominent feature inside the house was a six foot long fibreglass hammerhead shark, named Fiona. I will never forget driving over to The House one May afternoon. As I cruised down Peter Street a police car pulled out from a side street, and I followed it all the way to Prince Road. As the cop car rounded the corner at Prince Road and pulled in front of The House, I looked up and could not believe my eyes. For hanging from a length of rope from the roof of the front porch, was Fiona, like some misplaced trophy from a Hemingway novel. And the band and about forty beer drinking merrymakers crowded the front porch and yard. The band had their instruments out, seemingly ready to play.

The interior of the house defied description. Full of broken furniture, the floor covered with the foam chip carnage of a tornopen couch cushion; instruments and gear strewn about among the vast scattering of pornography, beer bottle caps, scratched and ruined CDs; as well as a host of items stolen from the Catholic secondary school we all attended. There was a faculty notice board with the hallowed names of the 1971 administration. There was a shallow silver goblet with ornate handles which we used in a sort of ritual of our own. When the Brethren of the Church of the Holy Spook gathered at the House (the usual band of drunks), the goblet would be filled with Scotch and we would kneel, in turn, while the others gathered around, raising their hands in benediction, saying The Prayer:

In the name of the beers
In the name of the whiskeys
In the name of the skills
And in the name of the problems,

Then we would slam back the Scotch.

The walls were strewn with graffiti and posters—the band’s sense of irony was exponential: posters of Bruce Lee, Michael Jackson’s Thriller album cover, an old Beatles poster, and a poster of Cyndi Lauper, arm raised in rebellion. And some unnamed vandal had circled the dark stubble visible under her arm, with a marker.

When Sean met me in Dublin for Bloom’s Day, 1995, we had gone on a four day tear that culminated in him swimming across the Liffey near the Tara Street Bridge.

Shane MacGowan was the official patron saint of The House on Prince Road. In late July 1995 I went to Detroit to see him in concert with a couple of friends. And knowing that Sean felt about MacGowan the same way I feel about Bob Dylan or Tom Waits, I wore my Sawney Beane Tshirt to the show. After a dozen beers I made my way along the lefthand side of the upper tier of the very small venue, took off my shirt to reveal my bestial form. I balled the shirt up, and hurled it at the stage, aiming for MacGowan’s head. But the aerodynamics of the balledup shirt were miscalculated—it sailed past MacGowan and struck the neck of the bass player’s guitar. The show stopped for about three seconds. MacGowan reached for the shirt when a roadie raced onstage and retrieved it.

Another night a drunken Battle Royale erupted in the unlit living room. At one point, I climbed onto the back of the couch, steadying myself with a hand on the ceiling. At what seemed an advantageous moment, I dove from my mount, intending to tackle the entire drunken mob. However, the couch was not pushed against the wall, and no one sat on it to counterbalance the thrust of my leap. So, the couch tipped entirely backwards, and I fell facefirst into the grungy carpeting, missing the mob. The sound of my impact was like a bomb detonating. It left me with sore ribs, ruptured pride, and a lovely embarrassing cut on the bridge of my nose where my glasses frame cut me.

The fellas were evicted and The House was sold. And I am sure the new owners are wakened in the night by the ghostly noise of massive drunken congalines, wrestling matches and other assorted madness. My friends and I have scattered to far corners spreading The Word about the righteousness of debauchery and the sanctity of bad craziness.

It was a good time.

I miss Fiona.


May 4

Ms. Wilbourne,

The first rock ’n’ roll concert I ever saw was Bob Dylan when he toured with Tom Petty, in 1986. I was fifteen. My parents took my good friend named Neil McFarlane and I. Many an evening I spent with Neil swimming in his pool. After swimming we sat on lounging chairs looking at the stars arching above in a clear, late spring sky (there didn’t seem to be a single tree in the new subdivision where Neil lived—giving us an immense, unobscured view). More than a few evenings Neil sat back, and said, “What the hell’s all that?” Meaning, the Cosmos, I guess. “It’s ridiculous.”

And I suppose it was.

And it was under that sky full of stars that Neil and I (and my goodhearted folks) sat on the grungy hill at Pine Knob, watching Bob Dylan play a fulllength acoustic version of “A Hard Rain’s AGonna Fall.” And under those same stars Neil and I played basketball: on the driveway at my house, at the playground near his house. The games were often cut short because Neil had sore knees. The pain flared and that would be it. Growing pains.

I sit here, listening to Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and I can’t put my finger on why or when Neil and I began to drift. But we did, and soon enough he was just another face in the high school hallways. No falling out. Just the casual drift that happens with people.

There came an afternoon fully two years later, as I sat in my twelfth grade English class. An announcement came over the P.A. asking that prayers be offered for Neil McFarlane who had been diagnosed with cancer that morning. It was in his knees, and worked its way into the bone marrow.

And Goddamn me, I thought a hundred times a day to visit him and talked myself out of it every time.

When I saw Neil at our twelfth grade prom, May of 1989, he was on crutches. I went to his table and said hello, introducing him to Briana. And it was likely my imagination, but I’m sure that I saw something in Neil’s eyes that told me he understood why I had not stopped by for a visit—and that it was all right. Whether it was there, or not, Neil was dead two months later.

He died on July twentyfirst. I celebrated my eighteenth birthday the following day. A day after that, I set out on the driving holiday depicted in my story “Continental Divide” with Owen Huckley. I took my guilt along with me, and all my worthless excuses why I hadn’t visited Neil.

Three days later Owen and I pulled into Banff, Alberta. One night we sat on the balcony drinking beer. At one point, I had torn down the curtains worn them like a cape, declaring myself MATTMAN. Then we raised our drinks to Neil McFarlane, and broke into a braying, tonedeaf rendition of the Rolling Stones’, “Ruby Tuesday.” And it was likely the beer and the sunset and the long drive just (halfway) completed that me thinking such strange thoughts: I got to imagining Neil in heaven, standing on an observation deck, looking out at the starvast cosmos, saying to Aristotle or Galileo or Newton (maybe even God Himself), “What the hell’s that all about? It’s ridiculous.”

I still drink beer, and I still listen to Bob Dylan. And I’m apt to watch a sunset and wonder about things far and near, gone and done. Sometimes when I look at the stars, I hear Neil old exclamation, “What the hell’s all that? It’s ridiculous.”


May 11

Ms. Wilbourne,

When I dizzy with calculating the equation of my life, and get the chills, and feel the pangs of doubt and dread and fear—getting scared that I might be standing on the wrong side of a dream, when I might have recycled all my wishing one too many times. When I get to worrying that I have no emotional fixed address—I tell myself a true story about myself.

The time Peter Sirr, director of the Irish Writers’ Centre recommended me to Barra O’Sheaghan as a temporary instructor at the Academy of English Studies. After a brief interview with Barra, I was hired for two weeks. Among my duties as substitute instructor was the midafternoon tutorial with Las Chicas: two beautiful Spanish girls in their early twenties, smiling and shy—strong vocabularies hiding behind pronounced accents.

I was to teach them Conversational English. Basically, sit and converse with them for sixty minutes. After meeting the girls, and becoming immediately infatuated with them, I told Barra I had been practicing for that assignment for years at bars.

Within days, the girls’ good looks became secondary to the ideas they expressed about art and politic. The sound of their voices, the raising of eyebrows, their graceful gestures of the hand. They laughed at my jokes, my stories of burning dinner, spilling a pint of beer on my electric heater.

My two weeks as substitute instructor were over all too quickly. By the time my affection for Las Chicas flowered, I was left only to say goodbye to them.

But there had to be one last word, gesture.

Our final class was almost finished when I told the girls it was my last day. As I searched their lovely faces for a reaction, I took a book from my bag: a volume of Pablo Neruda’s poetry.

I handed the book to the girls. Two poems were marked. The English translation was on all of the right hand pages, mirrored on every left hand page by the original Spanish.

“Please,” I said. “Read the poems to me in Spanish.”

The girls frowned, not understanding. They knew I only spoke English.

Then I said, “I want to hear it in Neruda’s language.”

The girls read, in turn, the poems that had months ago awakened me to the virtuosity of language—volcanic, romantic—even after being sifted through translation. Las Chicas, heirs to such poetry. The words rolled off their tongues like surf over stones: liquid and sensual and elemental.

And with the eventual, inevitable closing of the book came their gazes. Unreadable at first. Eyes wide, seeming to know something, seeming to search my face. After a moment I could name what I saw in their expressions:

Recognition: Reading those poems to me in a language I did not understand revealed everything to those two lovelies that I could never say myself.

I remembered that afternoon in a poem I titled "Las Chicas":

I bought this volume
of Pablo Neruda’s poetry
Knowing nothing of the man
& certainly never considering
I might one day hand it to you
& ask that you read passages to me
in the original Spanish, from pages
opposite the translation that
baffled & awakened me, hearing
the music of all that eluded me
strummed beautifully by your tongue.

I miss those girls, and miss that part of me who handed them that book.


My other unpublished novel

From my query letter:

I am writing with regard to my novel, “The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing:” a 116,000-word haiku, a 350-page soul song, an Augustinian Rabelaisian Bildungsroman; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets The Great Gatsby; a copy of which was thrown over the gate of Bono’s estate in Killiney, County Dublin in 1999.

“The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing” is a pseudo, fictionalized memoir presented as a novel. It depicts the narrator’s life—and memories—following his departure from the anesthetized structure of home, school, and country, as he ventures into the world and discovers the only bounds on his conduct are conscience, the law, and getting caught. With a liver like polished chrome, money saved from a part-time job tending a downtown parking lot, the narrator moves from Ontario to Ireland, seeking escape from the toxic familiarity of his hometown, Windsor.

Written from present day Dublin, the compass arrow of the narrator’s creative energy points homeward. The recurring question driving his recollection is “Where does this evening find you?”—as it finds him dodging a Dublin knife-fight, dreaming of old girlfriends, and carousing with cronies from the hotel where he eventually finds work. Until he journeys home for a Christmas visit, and encounters Hadley, the first girl he ever loved.

“The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing” is a story of transformation along the line of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It contains observations about the world as perverse as those in Gunther Grass’ The Tin Drum. With the flair and folly of Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, the parties of Pynchon’s V, and the memory-steeped sensibility of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel, “The Devil Wouldn’t Kill a Bad Thing” is also informed by world cinema, a voracious appetite for TV, the music of Tom Waits, and the satire of Lenny Bruce. The novel lands on its feet in much the same way as Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

* * *

My query letter was dismissed and rejected by numerous agents and publishers in the spring of 2003. However, one did respond positively:

Date: Thu, 26 Jun 2003 12:42:10 -0400
Subject: RE: The Devil Wouldn't Kill a Bad Thing
From: Agent

Dear Matthew:

My name is Jennifer and I am Beverley ______'s assistant. I have just read the book proposal for, The Devil Wouldn't Kill a Bad Thing, that you sent is in April. Your writing and plot outline has intrigued me. I would love to read the manuscript in whole. You can mail it to me at the address below and I can perhaps pass it along to Beverley.

I look forward to hearing from you,

I sent on my full manuscript, which I had just finished writing and was fully prepared to revise based on any suggestions the agent might propose.

Date: Thu, 03 Jul 2003 15:42:18 -0400
Subject: RE: The Devil Wouldn't Kill a Bad Thing
From: Agent

Dear Matthew,

I just wanted to let you know that I received your manuscript today and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ll be in touch as soon as possible.

Best wishes,

Then the waiting game. It was excrutiating, yet gratifying, to force myself to move on to other work, especially knowing that a novel that took me six years to write.

Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2003 12:46:03 -0400
Subject: My Progress
From: Agent

Hi Matt,

I just wanted to let you know that I'm still reading, The Devil Wouldn't Kill a Bad Thing, and I absolutely love it! I want to read more before passing it on to Beverley but as soon as I do, I'll let you know.

I hope you had a great summer.


It seemed my work had made contact. After my first book (As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories) was published I just couldn't reconcile the glowing reader responses I received with the uncountable rejections I had received from editors and publishers for the very same work. It was my first glimpse into the gaping chasm between the reading tastes of readers and the reading tastes of jaded, blunted editor/publishers. But it seemed "Devil" had bridged that gap.

Date: Mon, 17 Nov 2003 10:33:23 -0500
Subject: Re: ATTN: Jennifer
From: Agent

Dear Matt: Thanks for your letter to Jennifer. I’ll save it for her. But I also wanted to write you myself. You are a talented writer but I felt more attention needed to be paid to structure and story. I really hope you will contact us when you are ready to submit you next novel. With warm wishes, Beverley

So, there it be -- the blunted senses won out in the end. I was wholly prepared to deal with and fix the issues the agent had with my novel, but she wasn't asking for revisions. This was flat out rejection. Talent didn't matter. Her assistant's response to my work didn't matter. I'm no naif when it comes to the bland business aspects of publishing. Dollars and cents are the first and last consideration. But didn't the agent's assistant's response to my novel indicate that there was a market for it? Sure, the assistant was but one person, but looking back on my experience following the publication of As My Sparks Fly Upward, I knew the assistant's reaction wasn't isolated.

I have spent the intervening time working on my other novel, "Randham Acts," and revising whole sections of "Devil." I have also embarked on writing another novel. Work continues, the query letter still go out every once in a while. Somehow, somehow, somehow I continue to hope that that agent's assistant might one day start her own agency.

One of the worst jobs I've ever had

The worst job I ever had from my novel "The Devil Wouldn't Kill a Bad Thing":

We arrived in Fort Lauderdale around three in the afternoon, and checked into the Polynesian Hotel. After tossing our bags in the room, we headed for the beach. The main strip, out front of the hotel, was busier than I would have guessed for early May. But when the weather was better than anything this side of Christ’s kingdom, I supposed that people flocked to it no matter what the season.

We found a spot on the beach, and spread out our towels. After lathering on sunscreen, Briana lay back and closed her eyes. I looked around, watching people playing volleyball, others throwing a Frisbee, rollerbladers gliding along a paved path. The surf was strewn with swimmers.

I looked at Briana. Leaned over and kissed her knee. She smiled, and stroked my arm.

I cast my gaze toward the horizon, and saw merchant ships out amid the white caps. And wondered how horrible it would be working on a freighter off the gorgeous coast, in weather that spoke only of leisure and fun.

Memory grabbed hold of me, and I was transported to the previous year, when Briana and I first took our apartment. Having spent weeks submitting resumes to every ad agency, publishing company, and public relations firm between Windsor and Ottawa, I received no replies. With rent to pay and groceries to buy, Briana took a job at a clothing store downtown, and I applied to work as a security guard. I knew the pay would be lousy, and the hours would be worse, but I figured the graveyard shifts would afford me time to write. My interview at the security company consisted of filling out an application, and having my background checked through the provincial police. When it came back clear, I was fitted for a uniform.

“There’s something about a man in uniform,” Briana said, as I affixed my clip-on tie the evening of my first shift.

“Yeah, Gomer Pyle reporting for active duty,” I said.

My supervisor, Dominic, drove me out to my post the first night: the Windsor Grain Terminal, off Highway 18. My window was rolled down as we drove along the gravel lane to the site’s main gate. The first thing I noticed was an overpowering stench—like Cheerio’s and puke.

“What’s that?” I said, as the afternoon guard opened the gate.

“Rotting grain stuck to the sides of the silos.”

The guardhouse sat at the far end of the parking lot, near the gate. It was an aluminium-sided box the size of the kitchen in my apartment. There was a table inside, a phone, and papers strewn everywhere. When the afternoon guard left, Dominic took me through my duties, showing me the Detex clock, which looked like a stopwatch the size of a tea saucer.

“There’re six keys located around the site,” he said. “You stick a key in the bottom of the Detex clock, turn it, and the time is logged—so the company knows you’re doing your rounds.”

We crossed the parking lot, headed to the main building—the grain silos loomed above us like medieval lookout towers. A freighter sat at the dock fifty yards away. There was a word stamped across its side. It wasn’t written in English.

“Where’s the freighter from?” I said.


Beyond the freighter was the dark body of the Detroit River. Across the river was a Detroit industrial site, which looked like an alien installation. One structure was dotted with emerald-coloured lights that were almost pretty. A row of red lights flashed atop another building. Between the two stood a tower that spewed a massive ragged flame.

“There’re fans in the silos,” Dominic said. “Sometimes they jam-up with grain dust. When that happens, a siren goes off. When that happens, you gotta climb up to that catwalk,” he pointed at the silos; I couldn’t see what he was referring to, “and try getting them going by hand.”

I laughed. I was used to “new guy” jokes from previous jobs. Dominic looked at me. He wasn’t joking.

“You gotta be careful. A guard fell into a silo a few months ago, and we had to call in a special rescue team. He broke an arm, and nearly suffocated. The rescue costs a fortune, and really pissed off head office.”

The first Detex key was in the main building, in a room with large screens along the front wall, filled with colour-coded lines and squares and rectangles; a row of ancient computer consoles faced them—right out of a science fiction movie.

As I slotted the key into the Detex clock, I said, “What if I run into an intruder?”

“You won’t.”

I laughed. “No, seriously. They’ve got guards out here for a reason. What if I run into somebody who shouldn’t be here?”

“You won’t.”

The closest thing to a weapon I had was the set of site keys. I hadn’t even been issued a flashlight, much less a revolver or nightstick. Beyond that, I was to call head office each hour to check in.

“Pretty useless if you asked me,” Dominic said. “Somebody will come out if you’ve missed three or four calls, but by then anything could’ve happened.”
As we walked out of the main building, headed for a tool shed by the dock, I decided that if I ran into an intruder, I would throw the keys at him, and run like hell.

Dominic left around one in the morning, saying he would be back around seven to drive me home.

“The day guy said the sailors from the ship went to a strip bar,” he said, walking to his car. “So, they’ll probably be drunk and wound-up when they get back.”


“If you’re in here when they get back, lock the door, and keep the phone handy. Doesn’t happen often, but sometimes sailors give guards a hard time.”

Looking out the guardhouse window, at the industrial site across the river, hearing an alarm roar at the Windsor Salt Mine next door—and the skunks and raccoons looting the toppled garbage can beside the guardhouse—I felt an old shaky fear worm through me. Like when I was a kid, and got lost in a department store. Unadorned fright, anxiety, foreboding.

I called Briana around two o’clock, waking her. Although she had to work the next morning, she talked to me until I was ready to hang up. Hearing her voice only increased my lonely isolation. I hardly had the voice to say goodbye.

Each time I made my rounds, wandering through the stench-filled shadows, I thought, This is only a job. I go home in a few hours. I’ll get another job soon. This isn’t forever.

The balcony heckler countered with: You’re gonna die out here. The Polish sailors are gonna get you.

Back in the guardhouse, I couldn’t write a word; couldn’t eat the sandwich Briana sent with me. The Polish sailors came back around three-thirty. Sweating, shaking, I locked the guardhouse door, and sat on the floor so they wouldn’t see me in the window. I listened to the approach of their drunken laughter, and my heart nearly exploded when they pummelled the side of the guardhouse as they went by.
When I saw the first strands of dawn, hours later, it was a victory. I had lasted the night, made all my rounds. When Dominic arrived around six-thirty there were no incidents to report.

“That’s how we like it,” he said, and drove me home.

In the time it took to go from the sidewalk to our apartment unit, I almost came apart. My hands trembled as I opened the apartment door. I walked into the bedroom, where Briana slept, and took off my clothes. By the time I lay down next to her, I was crying—quiet, little-kid-crying into the palms of my hands; throat ready to burst, tears scalding my cheeks. Briana rolled over and touched my shoulder. “How’d it go,” she yawned.

I clutched my pillow, swallowed hard. “Okay.”

When she heard the tears in my voice, and came full awake. “What happened?”

“I can’t go back,” I said, and braced myself for more questions. There were none.

“If it’s got you this upset, call your boss and quit,” she said. And I did. Weeks later, I was hired at the sports store in the mall.

Reader responses to As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories

November 2003

I read your story at eyeshot. solid stuff. i went and checked out your site as well...kept me entertained for quite some time; i’m sure my employer loves that.

anywho, just wanted to let you know that i’m goona go and buy your book...

keep up the good work.


October 2003

dear matthew,

last month i was attending a reading, benefitting the online literary magazine small spiral notebook. jonathan ames read from his soon-to-be published novel. he is hilarious. there were many prizes being raffled, and i won an autoraphed copy of your book, as my sparks fly upward. normally, i don’t make the effort to seek out worthy books from the independent press. in fact, i find it quite distressing to know that there is so much amazing writing (similar to amazing music) that i have no idea is in existence. it’s overwhelming. but i found your book to be real, honest, vulnerable. You have a very engaging style that propells a reader through your prose. I especially enjoy your skill for dialogue. “Hadley” was touching, and “Under the Bridge” was quite compelling.

I am a 26-year-old writer, living in New York City. A journalist by education, I used to write for an actors’ trade magazine in L.A., now a managing editor for children’s books (Scholastic, the house that Harry Potter built, as I sarcastically refer to it).

thank you for sharing your writing.


August 2003

Dear Matthew,

Yesterday in Chapters book store in Windsor, Ontario I spotted a new release with cover art that looked a lot like The Ambassador Bridge. Of course, it was your book and it was indeed the Ambassador Bridge. Ironically, I wanted a book to read last night while I worked an overtime shift at The Ambassador Bridge. I am a Windsor Police officer and we’ve been posted at the bridge since the September 11th terrorism incident. I read ‘As My Sparks Fly Upward’ completely last night. I read constantly, fiction and non-fiction, ranging from Jimmy Buffett to Hemingway. Your book is absolutely excellent. As I read your stories I was amazed at the similarities between them and events in my life. Two years ago I had to talk my best-friend into marrying a woman who I thought (and still think) is a beast. In my teenaged years I was mesmerized by U2 and my life revolved around the band. I have often pondered the impact my fan worship of U2 had on the person I have become. I was flabbergasted while I read those stories because it was so much like reading memoirs of my life which I have never written. A short time ago I was nearly killed on duty. Only two weeks ago I found myself sitting at a quiet Windsor bar thinking about how close I came to death and what I should do with the rest of my life. If you still reside in the Windsor area you may be acquainted from the newspaper coverage with the incident and subsequent trial in which a Windsor taxi driver ran down a family with his taxi, killing a little boy, then ramming my police car in an attempt to kill himself and me. I’ve lived the stories in your book.

I was so impressed by your book, pleasantly surprised that its author is a fellow Windsorite, and had such a deja-vu experience from reading it that I wanted to drop you an email.


August 2003

Hey Matt,

I’ve been reading your book throughout the weekend, I’m almost finished, got one story left I believe. I’m really enjoying your stories, I started with “Best Man” and completely sympathized with you. However, I figured that I’d tell all this to you on Monday over our habitual lunchtime Pool game, but after reading “Hadley” I felt compelled to e-mail you. This is not to say your other work isn’t good, I just felt this story was fantastic. It captured the essence of first love that we’ve all had, and combined it with those summer loves I’ve known, and wished could have ended differently. My heart ached when I read the letter from Hadley at the end, and I’m not an overly emotional guy. It was a great story without falling into love story clich├ęs or excessive sentimentality.

Thanks for the book, the stories and reliving all those memories of my own.

Talk to you later,


August 2003

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32) Bono grew up on Dublin’s Cedarwood Road, which is not in Ballymun. Please visit and click on About Ballymun for a detailed map of the area. Of the five neighborhoods in Ballymun, Cedarwood Road is not in any of them. My family moved onto Cedarwood Road in 1962 and all documents listed the road as Ballygall. Further, Cedarwood Road is under the police jurisdiction of Finglas Garda Station (not Ballymun Garda Station) and is under the health jurisdiction of Ballygall Health Center (not Ballymun Health Center). Ballygall is between Ballymun and Finglas. At the entrance to Cedarwood Road is Willow Park Crescent where one can see the Ballymun towers in the distance. However, a view of those towers in the distance has never placed Cedarwood Road in Ballymun. For further details, one can refer to the Ordanance Survey Ireland (OSI) map of Dublin.

God Bless,


May 2003

Had a great read of your site today, a good gut wobbling laugh (yes gut is impressive) at the re-inactment of your trip to Dun Laoughaire with your folks!!!!! Still remember the Orla incident as well, but however I must confess never realised you heaved in the dustbin in the Dav kitchen - unfortntely it is probably not a record considering the company we kept (and still remains today)...

Have just thought of the Sunday afternoon we had in that pub opposite the chipper (can’t remember name) when all the lads from england were going home - nothing like an innocent cure at 12 noon, with the deadly effect leaving you absolutely fucked by 6pm. I think the Pope should have made (at least) one of his 128 new saints on Sunday (yes I even read the paper) responsible for the lovely effects of drink. Just imagine having a ‘Saint of Hangovers’ or ‘Saint to Pissheads’ to curse.

Well nearly enough rambling, hope your lovely wife is well, will atempt to plug away at these keys on a more regular basis.

Best regards


May 2003

I just read the excerpt of As My Sparks Fly Upward thanks to a link on Just had to say it’s one of the better tributes to the fan impulse I’ve read. Thanks.



March 2003


I happened along your website while searching for a totally different agenda, and found myself forgetting the task at hand and reading all you had to say on the site.

I could relate to much of what you wrote as I am from Windsor myself and also grew up for part of the time in the same area as you did. I am guessing that I am older than you and if you knew anyone in my family it would be either my younger sister Patricia (Pat or Trish) or Jimmy the youngest.

Your experiences in Ireland interested me because that is where my families roots are. I immigrated to Canada with my family when I was quite young. My grandfather was born in Ireland and left at 14 to go to Scotland for work, as many did in that period. I have enjoyed working on some family genealogy and have become somewhat of the family historian.

Well enough of all that, just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your writings you put magic in the words as you describe experiences when you were young that we have all experienced but most of us are afraid to talk about or admit to for fear of embarrassment.

Good Luck in your future ventures and thanks for sharing.

Anne Marie


January 2003

I just wanted to ssay I just finised reading you collection of short stories and am using the along with no Great Mischief as a comparison for my ISU in grade 13 english. I am also a windsor resident and that is why I chose to do my project on your book as well I met you at chapters. I am wondering if you have any insight that you could share with me in regards to your book and alistair’s being similar. and how you were influenced by him thank you muchly - from cassandra


January 2003

Dear Matthew,

I grew up on Bridge Avenue, directly across the street from your father’s boyhood home. I remember well your grandmother, Mrs. St. Amand, who was always reminding me about my “poor mother,” who had nine children, and your Uncle Donald’s Ford Galaxy 500, convertible, the greatest car ever invented by Detroit. Your father sponsored me at my confirmation, and I took Andre as my name. I was the altar boy at your parents’ wedding in the Assumption University Chapel. I can still see Mrs. St. Amand crying in the front pew. I also remember your maternal grandfather, Mr. Hickey, who never seemed to be without his hat and pipe, regardless o f the season or the time of day. I suppose, he is your connection to Ireland.

All of which brings me to your book, “As My Sparks Fly Upward.” My father told me about it over the phone. He had read the story about it in the “Windsor Star,” and when I was down in Windsor this past weekend, I picked up a copy. So far, I have read the first four stories. Windsor -- dear, crummy, crowded Windsor -- does suffocate but it never quite kills. Spend some time away from it, and one realizes just how intensely in love you are with the place. Leave it, and you’ll start writing about it. I’m an historian by trade, foostering around in footnotes for a living, but I’ve spent whacks of time writing poems and short stories and journal pieces on Windsor: Bridge Avenue, Shore Acres, Sacred Heart School, Assumption High, Holy Name of Mary, the university campus (where I was a student for five years), the Bridge House, Thursday night Spitfire hockey games, the DH, the Detroit River, Tiger Stadium, Erie Street, and on and on. I know what you mean....

Congratulations on getting your stories published. You’re very good at setting the scene and with dialogue, no easy task.

(You are a dead ringer for your father.)

Wishing you all the best, I remain,
Yours sincerely,

Friday, January 07, 2005

Trying to sell my latest novel

In 1989 I was first struck by the idea that became my novel Randham Acts. From my query letter to publishers and agents:
"After receiving his latest rejection letter, aspiring writer Hugh Longford purchases The BlockBuster™ plot generation software, which analyzes fiction and suggests ways to "punch up" storylines. Soon, Longford consults BlockBuster™ about real-life problems, including a miserable co-worker who makes his job unbearable and a "ball busting" history exam threatening to derail his university career. Meanwhile, the mother of his girlfriend suffers a catastrophic nervous breakdown suggesting she might be capable of violence."
I completed the final draft of the novel in October 2004 and have queried more than two dozen agents and publishers. Most have rejected my proposal as quickly as the mail would allow. After the experience of finally seeing my first two books into print (As My Sparks Fly Upward & Other Stories and a volume of poetry, Forever & a Day) and hearing firsthand numerous reader responses to the work (all positive to varying degrees), I realized that I'm writing salable fiction, fiction readers want to read, but it's a matter of getting beyond this blurred, slicked wall of jaded, blunted reading palettes with which too many editors and agents are afflicted. I guess this blog is my way of appealing directly to readers. To what end? So that readers will storm Random House like the Bastille and demand that Matt St. Amand's novel be published!? That makes a pleasant fantasy, but even I feel embarrassed indulging it. No, I'm appealing directly to readers so that they have this front row seat in the hotdog factory and see just how the books they buy and enjoy make it to their bookstore shelves (or don't make it there).

This is my way of being a tree falling in an unpeopled forest, curious to hear if I make a sound.


Randham Acts
Five Years Ago

A teacup exploded against the wall.

Martin Sayer ducked.

A saucer crashed against the wall.

“Please.” It was the first word he said to his wife in three months.

Entering the living room he saw that she was full into a manic phase. He needed no psychiatrist to explain that. He should have guessed she was off her medication.

Bev glared at him.

He began to apologize. It would have all the calming effect of pissing into a forest fire. His daughter Stephanie told him about the letters and phone calls from bill collectors. They shut the telephone off last month. From the newspaper Martin Sayer learned he missed his father-in-law’s funeral three days ago.

“Please,” he said. After three months of booze, cigarettes, and sleeping on a friend’s couch he felt queasy-weak, exhausted. He wanted to sit down, take Bev’s insults and accusations and then sleep for a week.

Bev uttered a high, whining sound. Her eyes bulged as she charged at him. Martin possessed all the reflexive grace of a fly with its wings torn off. Bev was at him in an instant, fists flailing. He raised his hands. She pummeled his abdomen and chest, landing punches on his chin and cheeks, boxed his ears and bashed him in the nose.

Martin’s lungs were aflame. He cried for help, but his throat was sealed. The burning in his lungs spread through his chest like a meltdown. Blood thundered in his temples, his vision grayed. He sank to his knees gaping at his Bev’s snarling countenance, grabbing at one of her wrists. She struck him on the chin, jerking his head back so hard Martin’s neck flared with pain. Then the world fell to blackness.

Hearing a car pull into the driveway, Stephanie wondered if it was her father finally returning home. She pushed her studying aside as the front door opened. She frowned. The family entered by the back—

A dish crashed outside.

“Dad?” she said.

Another crash.

She opened her bedroom door and entered the living room. She stared at the scene: her father kneeling on the floor, red-faced, gripping his chest, her mother thrashing him with her fists. When her mother bashed him on the chin, sending him sprawling onto his back. Stephanie lunged across the living room, tackling her mother from behind. They tumbled against the couch and onto the carpet knocking a lamp from a side table. Bev fought to free her arms. Stephanie grappled with her mother’s shoulders. Bev head-butted her in the nose, bringing tears to Stephanie’s eyes.

Her younger brother Adam came out of his room.

“Get help!” Stephanie shouted.

He stood there stunned.


He ran out of the house.

Bev writhed in Stephanie’s grip. Stephanie’s arms numbed with the strain. She wondered if she could hold her mother until the police arrived. Her father’s eyelids fluttered. He foamed at the mouth. Stephanie wanted to go to him, but she didn’t dare relinquish hold of her mother. She wrapped her legs around her mother’s thighs. Bev’s squealing guttural sounds became sobs.

Stephanie pressed her cheek against the back of her mother’s fever-warm head. Stephanie closed her eyes, saying, “I love you, Mom. I love you. I love you.”

* * *

Chapter Sixty Two

Hugh stood in the bus shelter wondering if Derek would come after him. He didn’t. Hugh touched his head. There was blood streaked across his fingers. He still couldn’t believe it, Derek clubbing him with a bottle. How the hell did he know it was me under the umbrella? he thought. Shit, he would’ve clocked anyone coming out that door. Hugh’s head roared with pain. The right elbow of his jacket was torn and his jeans and jacket were wet and dirty.

What if he shows up with friends next time?

Hugh didn’t want to think about that.

Soon the 1C bus approached. Hugh fished some coins from his pocket. The bus stopped and the doors opened. Steph’s dad was at the wheel. Mr. Sayer didn’t look up as Hugh dropped his fare into the coin slot and headed to the back of the half empty bus.

Hugh had planned on going after the history exam tonight. Stephanie had the car and there would be no questions about where he went after work. Sooner I get that damned exam, he thought, the sooner I can stop worrying about it. Bad as the night was going there was no real reason to call off the plan. He didn’t feel like going home to the empty apartment to mull the tortures he should have perpetrated on Derek or to write a heated e-mail message to Manny.

Hugh glanced at Mr. Sayer’s expressionless reflection in the rearview mirror. This is like a bad dream, Hugh thought. What’ll happen in the secretary’s office? I’ll find Mom and Dad having sex on the desk?

He had not seen Mr. Sayer in two months and the man didn’t look well. Seemed like he had lost weight. Hugh didn’t remember his face being so jowly. His complexion was gray. As he drove, Mr. Sayer let out a few raspy coughs. Hugh recalled Stephanie fearing her dad was back on the cigarettes. A low grade contempt surfaced in Hugh. He ditched his family, he thought. I should ask where he’s been.

One look at his dull eyes and Hugh knew he didn’t want to hear Mr. Sayer’s reply. Who cares anyway? Hugh thought. Steph’s moving in and that’ll be that.

He watched the stop near his apartment go past.

So, I’m going to do this, he thought.

When the bus stopped in front of RU, Hugh exited through the rear doors. The drizzle had stopped. His watch read quarter to ten. Campus was empty, save for a few people standing by the library’s entrance, talking.

Hugh walked down the wheelchair accessible ramp at the side of the social science building. The doors there were locked.

“You gotta be kidding,” he muttered, walking around to the front of the building. If this is locked, I’ll break in, he thought. The first door he tried opened. Hugh jogged up the stairs to the history department.

The door of the TAs’ office was shut. Hugh pressed an ear against it, listening for activity inside. Nothing. All of the professors’ office doors were closed, too. Hugh passed the secretary’s door to check the intersecting hallway. Empty. Even the door to the photocopy room was locked.

Pulling the newly cut keys from his pocket, Hugh tried each of them in the door. Three of the five fit the lock’s keyway, but none of them unlocked the door. He tried the keys again, making slight adjustments on how far into the keyway he slid them. Backing the keys out, millimeter by millimeter, Hugh tried the door handle at every point. By the time he got the third key into the lock, his hands throbbed. He jiggled and cajoled the key. Finally, he slid it all the way in and pressed up on it with his knuckle. The door handle turned.

Stepping into the darkened office, he wondered if he left wet footprints in the hall. Shit, he thought. Too late now. Get this done and it won’t matter.

He took a penlight from the backpack’s pouch and shone it at the filing cabinet’s lock. Hugh went through the same process of coaxing the contraband keys in the lock’s keyway. There came a moment when he wondered if he would just have to break open the filing cabinet. Then he started over, fiddling with the keys in the lock to a slower, finer degree. One of the keys finally turned.

Holding the penlight in his mouth he searched the folders in the drawer. The folders were in alphabetical order by the professors’ last names. He knelt down, pulled open the bottom drawer, searching for DR SARCHUK. As he flipped through the folders, he heard a sound in the corridor. He stopped, breathing hard with the penlight clamped in his teeth.


TA? he wondered. Prof? Janitor?

The footsteps stopped and there was another sound—someone trying the handle of a locked door.

Did I lock the door? Hugh wondered.

He rounded the desk, shining the penlight on the door handle. The plunger was out.

The footsteps came closer. When he heard the sound of another door handle being jiggled, Hugh pressed in the plunger of the secretary’s door, locking it. And if I left footprints, he thought. What if the janitor comes in? Break the coat tree over his head?

He backed up to the desk, facing the door and grabbed his backpack. The footsteps stopped outside of the secretary’s office. Hugh held his breath as the doorknob was jiggled. A moment later, the footsteps continued down the hallway. Soon, they were gone. Hugh still had the penlight clamped between his teeth. His jaw ached.

Returning to the filing cabinet, he searched until he found Dr. Sarchuk’s folder. He opened it on the desk, looking through the pages for one with his course number on it. When he found it, he dropped himself into the secretary’s chair.

He took out the Polaroid camera and photographed the exam. After the assault on Derek, the camera’s body was cracked on the bottom, but aside from that the camera seemed to work.

As the camera ejected the fourth photo of the exam a car came to a squealing stop in the street outside. Hugh peered out the window. A campus police car pulled up.

As Hugh backed away from the window, someone pounded on the secretary’s door. “Come out! We know you’re in there!”

Hugh’s nervous system went incandescent.

There was the jingle of someone fumbling with keys beyond the door. Hugh’s mind threatened to go blank, then he pressed his palms to the edge of the desk and rammed it across the tiled floor with a great screeching flourish, crashing it against the door. He stood there a moment, breath coming quick and shallow, wondering what the hell to do. He looked at Dr. Sarchuk’s exam on the desktop.

They’ll know it was me.

He pulled the bottom drawer from the filing cabinet and dumped its contents onto the desk. A key slid into the door handle. Hugh turned to the window, raised the latch and pushed the pane out as far as it would go. He dropped his backpack into the shrubbery below. Behind him, the door was forced open against the desk. He heard voices in the corridor. Hugh sat on the window ledge and spun around so his legs dangled outside. As the desk’s legs screeched against the tiled floor, the office door opening against it, Hugh slid out the window and hang-dropped fifteen feet into the evergreens below. He landed hard, raising a mist of rain droplets and evergreen needles. A lightning flash of pain shot through his mouth as he bit his tongue. He rolled into the foliage. His feet flared with sparkling pain that dissipated after a moment. The wet earth clung to him. He was tangled in the evergreen branches. He fought his way free and grabbed his backpack.

His first thought was to flee down an intersecting side street—

Exhaust plumed from the tailpipe of the campus police car. There was no one inside the vehicle.

Hugh leapt out of the evergreens.

The clumped mud stuck to the bottoms of his sneakers. It was like wearing uneven platform shoes. Leaving a muddy track across the pavement, he jumped into the campus police car. His thighs collided with the steering wheel—the seat was moved up too close for him. The CB squawked static gibberish. Tossing his bag on the passenger seat, Hugh threw the car in gear and sped away. In the rearview mirror he saw two figures come out of the social science building and run down the sidewalk after him.

When he hit Pickering, he hung a right.

“What am I doing?!” Hugh shouted in the car. His tongue felt like a piece of rubber.

A few blocks from his apartment, he turned into a neighborhood. He drove to the far end of the street, and parked the car amid a row of vehicles along the curb. He grabbed his bag and darted across the street, running in between houses, cutting through backyards, through alleys, until he finally scaled the fence giving onto the parking lot behind his apartment building. It was only then, in the shadows by the garbage dumpster, that Hugh stopped to catch his breath. Nausea spiraled through him. Every inch of exposed skin on his hands, neck, and face stung from the campus evergreens, and the hedges through which he plunged after ditching the car.

Fingerprints, he thought. My prints are all over the steering wheel. He wanted to cry. He looked at his hands, and the fatalism dropped away; his hands were covered with mud. Like gloves. Didn’t matter either way, he had never been fingerprinted. Hugh spit blood and hobbled across the parking lot to the rear door of the building.

As he entered, he saw someone standing in the glassed-in foyer at the front of the building down the other end of the first floor hallway. Hugh cringed against the stair railing. They tailed me, he thought. Somehow. But then he recognized the person in the foyer. It was Adam, Steph’s brother.

“What the hell?” Hugh muttered, rising. He went to the foyer, opened the door as Adam pressed the buzzer by the intercom.

“What’re you doing here?” Hugh said, his speech slowed by the gash in his tongue.

Adam looked at Hugh, not recognizing him for a moment. “What happened to you?”

Hugh looked down at himself, covered in mud, pants and jacket ripped, soaking wet. “Don’t ask.”

“I wanted to talk. Is this a bad time?”

Hugh laughed. “No,” he said.

He led Adam up to his apartment. Every part of Hugh ached and stung. He kicked off his mud-caked shoes and dropped his muddied backpack by his desk. He went into the kitchen and grabbed two beers. As he handed one to Adam. “Don’t tell your sister.”

Hugh downed his beer—the cold liquid felt good on his injured tongue—and went into the bedroom. “Fire up the computer and go online, if you like.”

In the bathroom, Hugh spit blood into the sink. In the mirror, he looked like he wore military camouflage make up. Hugh stuck out his tongue and examined the bite. Halfway back, on the side was a red imprint. The outside of the wound was already turning white. He ran the cold water and slurped some from his hands, rinsing out his mouth.

He ran the shower. As he pulled off his shirt, his muscles screeched through his back and neck and shoulders. He found the Polaroid photos in his pants pocket and looked them over. The exam pages were surprisingly legible. Half the exam, he thought. He stashed the pictures in his shaving kit.

After his shower, Hugh came out of the bathroom wearing boxer shorts and his robe. He grabbed another beer. Adam sat at the desk. As Hugh approached, he saw pictures of naked girls on the screen. He laughed. “Make yourself at home.”

Adam turned, his expression somber. “She goes to my school. I thought she was my girlfriend.”

“What?” Hugh said, leaning closer, looking at the pictures. It was all of the same girl, a pretty brunette, naked in the usual porn poses.

“Her name’s Sue.”

Hugh sat on the couch. “Did you take those pictures?”

“No,” Adam said, taking the armchair. “She—”

The telephone rang.

“Hang on.” Hugh hobbled to the phone. “Hello?”

“May I speak to Hugh Longford?”

“You’re talking to him.”

“This is Randham Regional Hospital calling. Stephanie’s had an accident.”

Poetry: Forever & a Day

In the spring of 1995, I learned the younger sister of an ex-girlfriend became pregnant at the age of seventeen. For the next nine years I wrote Forever & a Day, a volume of poetry more inspired by Lou Reed, Bono, and Pete Townsend than Shakespeare or Shelley.

Have you ever heard the classic recording of Sam Cooke live at the Harlem Club in Miami in 1963? Side Two begins with the music of the previous song still rolling along (“Somebody Have Mercy”), and Sam Cooke says, “I think it’s time I told you about my baby...” And he takes the audience through five minutes of spontaneous combustion, talking about how he and his baby “fuss and fight, and sometimes my baby leaves home ’cause things ain’t right...” culminating in an incendiary rendition of “You Send Me.” The audience responds, applauding, crying out, and when the moment has reached its emotional apex, Sam Cooke explodes into a heart-shattering version of “Bring It On Home To Me.” That's Forever & a Day.

From the back cover:
In this debut collection of poems, Forever & a Day, the poet wishes for time to slip away through an open window. It happens for him. Although they are set to the ingrained pacing of the calendar, the poems move forward at a standstill, so tight is the poet’s vision and lyrical focus: an ex-girlfriend’s pregnant younger sister. If it sounds taboo enough for rock ’n’ roll, it is. But the confessional pleas are made with equivocation, awkward charm, and judgment tempered by heartfelt compassion. Reading Matt St. Amand’s first collection of poetry is like cataloging the music he grew up listening to on Detroit radio stations. You can hear the warm analog of crackling vinyl. It’s punctuated with the brutal brief lash of “Pang”; tight and confined refrains that hit like a well-timed drum fill or the atmospheric squawk of strings during a chord change (see “Poem for the Girl I don’t have the guts to talk to”); visceral evocations of places and their people: “The villagers are restless, like agitated mice./Painting their doorways with blood.” The setting is largely nocturnal, at once dream-like and hyper-real. A neighborhood with gambling clowns, propless magicians, politicians and their daredevil drinking companions; where strongmen and wordsmiths play chess, and pipers and Illuminati feed the birds…. And the poet whispers verses through timeless midnight windows accessible only by high tree branches. Forever & a Day is a concept album that actually works because it was never recorded.

— Bob Stewart, author of Something Burnt Along the Southern Border

Thursday, January 06, 2005

"Authora Non Grata" -- Interview with the best writer you've never read

You're standing on the bald, frozen pate of the planet Pluto, focusing your gaze on the blue/green planet floating third from the sun. Your vision telescopes, breaching the hymen-membrane of the earth's stratosphere. Narrowing still, your vision falls upon the continent of North America, to the United States, to the mid-West, the state of Iowa, the city of Des Moines… until you're fine-tuned on East 7th Street, at the window of a home owned by a scowling man who still does his writing on a typewriter.

Meet Gary Britson, the best writer you've never read. When asked if he would consent to be interviewed, Britson replied: "Sure. I'd be delighted, as long as it doesn't conflict with my appearances on Leno and Letterman."

Over the past thirty-two years, Gary Britson has written seven novels (two unfinished), three plays (which have also been adapted into screenplays), and a few dozen stories.

I first came across Gary Britson's work randomly clicking through stories on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. I stumbled upon his story "A Job For Gotsdiner," and knew within a few paragraphs that I was reading something written by a man who was The Genuine Article. The story was insanely, demonically funny. I wrote to Gary asking if I could read more of his work, and he sent me one of his novels.

"I started writing a novel entitled Scoop about 30 years ago," Gary Britson says, sipping from a tall glass tumbler filled with bourbon and ice. "At that time, I didn't know Evelyn Waugh had already used the title. It was about an incompetent newspaper reporter."

Matt St. Amand: What became of Scoop? Did you send it around to publishers?

Gary Britson: I worked at it intermittently until about 20 years ago, when I realized that it was unmanageable. It was spread out over many boxes and various other locations. So I wrote three other full-length novels, starting around 1987: A Sad Tale's Best for Winter, Freedom of Choice, and Stray Cat.

MSA: I've read Stray Cat—it's a sprawling, hilarious novel. How did publishers and agents receive it?

GB: In the late 80's I realized that you can't get a book published unless you're a pretty girl sleeping with a publisher or a pretty boy doing the same. Being neither...

I got a note from a New Yorker editor in 1986, telling me if I changed a story she might consider it, but I had no idea what she was talking about so I didn't make the incomprehensible changes.

MSA: With all of these rejections, what successes has your writing enjoyed?

GB: I have also written 3 plays. One of them placed 2nd in the Writer's Digest playwriting competition 3 years ago. I got $350. That's the sum total of my writing earnings for 30-plus years of work.

MSA: What keeps you going?

GB: Writers write. I'm a writer. I write. But writers are now expected to be vaudeville performers, doing erotic dances for agents, standing on their heads, doing comic turns, singing and acting like imbeciles to sell their stuff. Worse: they're expected to write 2-sentences synopses of work it took at least a year to produce. If I could have said it in a sentence, I wouldn't have spent a year writing it.

Random short story quote: "Susan's father, driven out of his own living room by culture, knew how to enjoy himself. No tyrannosaurus rex dining on a hapless herbivore was ever more content than this man, his pile of newly-released, digitally-enhanced Three Stooges tapes, and the keg of suds in the middle of the airless room. He looked up and eyed Paul as Moe attacked Curly with a blunt instrument. Paul was just another walk-on in a play this man had seen before, and he asked Paul for no identification, reaching instead for an empty cup, tossing it to his new guest, and inviting him to help himself to the keg. He bade him sit on a dilapidated and suspiciously stained sofa. Paul sat. He had never enjoyed the Stooges, but now he saw their real worth, their aesthetic principles, their raison d'etre: In a world where happy, good-looking people are singing all the time, sometimes it does a man's heart good to see someone get hit with a wrench."

MSA: Have you crossed paths with any famous writers?

GB: In 1973, John Cheever was teaching for one semester at the U. of Iowa. I thought he'd be flattered if I dropped by his room, unannounced, and asked him to sign my copies of Bullet Park and The World of Apples. He was very polite about the whole thing. "Next time, call first?" was all he said. He should have scolded me for my unbelievable rudeness at knocking at the door of his hotel room on a summer night while he had company. He should have had my inconsiderate self kicked down the stairs. Instead, he signed the books very politely and didn't call me a rude, presumptuous nerd. I dropped by John Irving's office in Iowa City around 1976 or so, and asked him to sign two books. He was friendly and witty and signed without complaint. Since then, other book collectors tell me he's been "Pynchonizing" about signing books. Who can blame him, at this point?

MSA: Have you received any feedback from editors or agents about your writing?

GB: (Hands me a typewritten page with the letterhead redacted with black marker. The first paragraph reads: FREEDOM OF SPEECH [sic] is brilliantly written, Mr. Britson. It's as witty, as haunting, as enjoyably lacerating in its perceptions of the human condition (and particularly the condition of lawyers, whose ethos you explore with a good deal of ambiguity and mordant insight) as anything we've seen in 1993 and our hope for your future as a writer of fiction is accordingly high. If only this novel had a plot...)

MSA: How do you approach writing? Do you map out ideas in outlines? Do you write in longhand at all, or do you create at the keyboard?

GB: No outlines. Spontaneous combustion. Vague idea as to ending, but no idea, at the outset, how I will get there.

The best writing is in longhand, on legal pads, then revised at the typewriter. Jimmy Breslin has written eloquently about how writing in longhand influences the content of the writing, for the better. But of course it's much easier to turn on the word processor. It's quicker and looks better.

MSA: What do you use?

GB: I have a 15-year-old Brother word processor. It's a typewriter and a word processor. It is a dinosaur. Very slow. After many battles, we have reached an understanding and we hardly ever threaten to kill one another any more.

MSA: Do you ever mix alcohol consumption with writing? If so, what's your poison?

GB: In days of grace and cheer, I drink tumblers of Wild Turkey with Heineken chasers. On normal days, I go down to the Git 'n Go and fork over $3.29 for a 12-pack of Natural Light (the young people call it Natty Lite). The advantage of the former beverages is that the clerks compliment you on your nice smile and wish you a happy day. At the Git 'n Go, I have to listen to the clerk bitch about her no-good boyfriend and she tells me all men are perverts.

MSA: Does drinking help your writing?

GB: Drinking helps writing not at all. However, it is easier for me to appreciate what I've written if I have a bottle of Wild Turkey by my side.

MSA: What's been your experience submitting short fiction for publication?

GB: Today I reached the distinction of having my ninth story rejected by Glimmer Train, yet another grimy chapter in the long weary saga of my failure. I would be willing to bet my '63 Sandy Koufax that NO ONE ELSE ON THIS PLANET has been rejected by Glimmer Train NINE TIMES. I'd bet my house on it. We've all been rejected by The New Yorker more than nine times, we've all been rejected by the Atlantic and Paris Review, etc., more than nine times. But Glimmer Train? They should have published a couple of these pieces just out of a basic sense of common decency. What's a mother to do.

MSA: Why does so much of your work involve lawyers, the law, and "officialdom"?

GB: I've been licensed to practice law in Iowa for a long time and have had my share of jury trials on both sides of the fence. I'm not very good at it, because I lack killer instinct. The ideal lawyer has no conscience whatsoever. Lest I be accused of patting myself on the back for being too nice a guy to be a lawyer, let me add that when the Yankees are being victimized by corrupt officiating, I can also be something along the lines of a misanthropic son of a bitch. Or so I've been told.

Lawyers in America tend to be people who weren't smart enough to get into medical school, not tough enough to cut it in the construction trades, or too lazy to do anything honest. As a result our courts are run by mediocre college boys and girls whose one goal in life is to appear to be superior to you. Note that I said "appear." They ain't superior to nobody. Lenny Bruce was right about the courthouse: "In the halls of justice, the only justice is in the halls." There are, however two honest lawyers in Des Moines, and if you buy me a beer I'll introduce you to the other one. It's a violation of the canon of ethics to honestly tell another lawyer what you think of him/her, so I do it in my stories. I know there will be no adverse reaction, since lawyers can't read.

MSA: Where do you see your writing going from here?

GB: Well, it's not going to Glimmer Train, that much is certain. I read about 30 biographies last year, most of them literary: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Dorothy Parker, Sherwood Anderson, Charles Ludlam, Eugene O'Neill, Rod Serling, Janet Flanner, e.e. cummings, James Agee, Nelson Algren, and others. Not one of those individuals ever:

  1. Received a rejection slip;
  2. Wrote a piece that had not been accepted and paid for in advance;
  3. Stood in line at Kinko's.

Great violinists don't make mistakes in concerts, great pitchers don't give up 6 runs in the first inning, and great writers don't get rejection slips. A few good writers may get one or two in the early stages, but if you're REALLY GOOD it's not going to happen.

Does this mean I'm not REALLY GOOD? Yes. As a matter of fact: Hell, yes. That's what it means. The knee-jerk reaction to all this despair will be: Why continue, then? Why don't you do something else? Quit complaining, already.

Well: writing's interesting. It's cheaper and healthier than chronic alcohol addiction. I've never been arrested while sitting at my typewriter, and my typewriter has yet to call me an loser. I'm too old for softball and way too temperamental for volleyball, chess or Tai Chi.

Also, it's good for my cat, Annie. She's peaceful when I write. She sits by me and dreams of mice. You see, while I'm writing, I'm not charging around the house cursing the phone company, the Iowa Legislature or the Minnesota Twins bullpen. I keep a bag of treats handy for her snacks. She associates typing with serenity. I usually listen to Debussy or a Strauss opera while typing. My cat knows more about Debussy than the rest of Polk County put together. Debussy is not a big part of day-to-day cultural life in these here parts. In these here parts, we sell insurance.

MSA: How about being an Iowan? Does living in the mid-west inspire your writing?

GB: Des Moines, you see, is an insurance capital. If you go downtown, you can't buy a shirt or a baseball cap or some really good Jamaican ribbed condoms. You can, however, buy massive amounts of highly specialized insurance for oil rigs, cotton plantations, high-rises on Maui or ranches in Perth, Australia.

In my little book Getting Laid in Des Moines, there's a pleasant scene in which a serial killer passes through Des Moines on his way to starting a new life far away from his native ground. He looks around town and thinks this might be a good place to settle. Since he has nice manners, except when he's plying his trade, he could get a job in the insurance business with ease. And best of all, he opines, going from serial killing to selling insurance would be a smooth career transition. Easy, since both trades involve making life miserable for poor people who have done you absolutely no harm whatsoever.

I thought it was a highly commercial novel, but I couldn't give it away.

My novel The Courthouse Record Store was intentionally written to be a best-seller, unlike the other novels, which are highly literary, strange, funny, shocking and probably neurotic. I tailored Courthouse for the movies. I made it the same length as The Bridges of Madison County. I wrote it in easily digestible, bite-size chunks you could have between sessions of selling insurance to Australian ostrich ranchers.

I couldn't give it away.

Regarding my plays, I did get a couple of thoughtful, encouraging letters from Lanford Wilson. My other efforts to interest agents, other writers and various literary types in my work has been, um, of limited success, as they say in the insurance biz.

MSA: Thanks for your time! Any final thoughts?

GB: I'd like to say hi to [American actress] Valerie Bertinelli. I can't understand why she married that rock star [Eddie Van Halen] when she could have had me.

Ear to My Neighbor’s Wall

Remember the British documentary Living with Michael Jackson? It played on television during the weeks leading up to the U.S. attack on Iraq. The morbid voyeur in me couldn’t resist the documentary. When its surface titilation wore off and news of the impending war asserted itself on my TV, I realized that Michael Jackson is a microcosm of America: He is fabulously rich and famous throughout the world, existing in a rarefied stratosphere of his own creation that bears fleeting resemblance to reality. He accepts no criticism. He is incapable of self-reflection. Michael Jackson and America look in the mirror and see seamless sanity—it’s the world that’s crazy. Michael Jackson dangles his infant son out of a hotel window in Berlin, and can’t imagine why anyone would question his abilities as a father. America launches a wrong-headed, pre-emptive war on Iraq, yet wants the world to believe it remains a beacon of democracy and fair-minded peace. Looking across the border at the United States, I feel like I’m gazing at a dear old friend who has joined a cult.

I’m a Canadian who has lived most of his life a stone’s throw away from Michigan. Until George W. Bush occupied the White House, I always thought that presidents were basically figureheads. However, Bush has shown me just how much power a president wields, and why he should not be wielding it. To quote from the book that George W. Bush sleeps with under his pillow, “A good tree cannot produce bad fruits, nor a worthless tree produce good fruits” (Matthew 7:18). George W.’s actions speak louder than his words, and his talk about a “war on terrorism” has all the credibility of O.J. Simpson talking about going after the “real” killers of his late ex-wife.

The early morning of September 11, 2001 found me at Detroit Metropolitan Airport dropping off my inlaws who were flying to Arizona. From there I headed to work in Southfield, Michigan. I won’t soon forget that awful morning, standing with my colleagues on an unused floor of our building, watching live pictures of the devastation in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Before noon that day, there came word that the Canadian border was closed. I was stuck in Michigan for the night. Within minutes of this news being reported, numerous colleagues and some people whose names I didn’t even know asked me to come home for dinner with them, and offered me their spare bedrooms. I gratefully accepted.

That is America. Nowhere in George W. Bush’s administration, nor in any of his policies have I seen the face or conscience of the America I know.

Hand to Crotch: Dear Mr. Auster

In 1997 I finished my education and moved to Dublin, Ireland to live and write and work. One dreary afternoon—hungover, lonely—I wandered to Eason’s bookstore on O’Connell Street and stumbled across your memoir Hand to Mouth. Reading the jacket blurb, I was hooked:
Hand To Mouth tells the story of a young writer’s struggle to stay afloat. By turns poignant and comic, Paul Auster’s memoir is essentially a book about money - and what it means not to have it. From one odd job to the next, from one failed scheme to another, Auster investigates his own stubborn compulsion to make art and, in the process, treats us to a series of remarkable adventures and unforgettable encounters. The book ends with three of the longest footnotes in literary history.
Fortuna had surely led me to your book. I dipped into my dwindling drinking funds and bought the book, hurrying off to a pub to begin reading it.

Seven years later, the searing disappointment I felt reading Hand to Mouth is still with me. It was beyond mere post purchase dissonance; it was existential anger and sorrow at reading such hamhanded, inspired tripe. My beef with your book? It’s shameful superficiality, it’s abject laziness—my God man, you actually cut off interesting digressions by writing “Not to go into detail here.” Well, if not in a memoir where the fuck does one go into such detail? Christ, the pose behind that book, the bullshit pretension; a rube’s inarticulate oration of experience he doesn’t comprehend, but hopes makes him seem worldly.

And then there was that bizarrely boring, arcane “playing card baseball game” you devised. It hurt my head looking at it.

In the space of hours, I went from believing I had come across a kindred soul, a new writer (to me) into whose canon I could launch myself, to feeling the stinging outrage and flushed cheeks of one heartily offended. That book held such promise, and at a time when I sorely needed to hear the story of a successful writer’s “lean years.” Little did I know the book itself was so lean. Frankly, it’s an abortion.

Ultimately, Hand to Mouth was one of the few books I actually tossed into a garbage bin. Threw it out with banana peels, empty soup cans, and crumpled pages of the novel I struggled over at the time. Normally, I would take such a book to a used bookshop, but Hand to Mouth did not deserve to be shared. It needed to be buried. I couldn’t inflict the same soul crushing disappointment on another aspiring writer.

I have never read a single published word of yours since and never will. I wish you a long and happy life, and continued success with your endeavors. Please remember how much is hinging on the written word. It’s not a hobby. It may be someone’s lifeline. Make sure it’s anchored to something secure, something real, something honest.