Year in Reading: Michael Bourne


I first read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in my teens. I discovered it on my parents’ bookshelves alongside Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, all of which I inhaled in greedy gulps the way other kids I knew attacked their bongs. I had a strangely divided childhood when it came to race. Most of the year we lived in a leafy commuter suburb of San Francisco, where everyone was forever congratulating themselves for how progressive they were in their views about Black people, but where actual Black people were a very small minority of the population. Then in the summers I stayed with my grandparents in Danville, Virginia, a gritty Southern mill town, where nobody was progressive in their views about anything, but where Black people were, for me, a daily, confounding presence.

One of my primal memories from those summer visits is tagging along with my grandfather to drive the family cook home after work. Each night after supper we set out in my grandfather’s hulking Oldsmobile, driving through the clean, wide streets of the white side of town, crossed some railroad tracks, and watched as the houses got smaller and the streets got narrower and more crooked and pocked with potholes.

Years later, as a grown man, I spent months driving my grad-student Nissan all over Danville talking to people on both sides of the color line for an oral history project on the Civil Rights Era. But in the 1970s I was just a white boy in the back of an Oldsmobile. I knew something was very, very wrong with the picture I was seeing out the window, but no one would tell me what it was.

This was the conundrum I turned to James Baldwin to unravel. In a white culture marked by deflection and denial, Baldwin and Cleaver, along with the comedy albums of Richard Pryor and the proto-rap tunes of Gil Scott-Heron, told it straight. And what a relief that was. No, these Black artists said, I wasn’t crazy. No, the world I lived in wasn’t fair or right.

I was
reminded of those evening rides across Danville this summer during the waves of
protests that followed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of
Minneapolis police officers. As the demonstrations spread, millions of white
Americans found themselves, as I had in the back seat of my granddaddy’s Oldsmobile,
in the uncomfortable position of seeing for the first time how they looked in
the eyes of people of color they shared their cities with. And like me, they
turned to books to understand what they were seeing.

I did, too. Early in the summer, I read Sarah M. Broom’s epic New Orleans memoir The Yellow House and Colson Whitehead’s short but equally epic The Nickel Boys. By lucky accident, I happened on S.A. Crosby’s propulsive crime novel Blacktop Wasteland, set in Southeast Virginia, not too far from where my grandparents lived. Later, remembering my childhood trips to my parents’ bookshelves, I picked up Begin Again, critic Eddie Glaude’s meditation on James Baldwin and history. Glaude’s book was a revelation to me because it focuses not on The Fire This Time and the other early nonfiction that had so spoken to me so forcefully as a teenager, but Baldwin’s later work as a writer and activist struggling to make sense of what Glaude calls the “after time” following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the slow collapse of the Civil Rights Movement.

But nothing else I read this year taught me more about America and its tortured history than Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. So many of the classic American texts on slavery focus on the impact it had on white political history. The Half Has Never Been Told touches on American political history, but it is principally about the daily mechanics of Deep South cotton plantations, how market forces spurred 19th century plantation owners to drive their enslaved workers to produce ever more cotton per hand, year after year. Without appreciable advances in technology or seed varieties, slaveholders could only achieve such exponential growth through constant and systematic application of physical torture – what Baptist calls “the whipping machine.” The fact that Baptist manages to convey the sheer brutality required to get rich raising cotton without turning the book into 500+ pages of horror porn only makes it that much more chilling.

They should hand out a copy of The Half Has Never Been Told to every American kid finishing college and every newly elected member of Congress. You can’t fully understand the stubborn persistence of racism in this country without grappling with the economics of a Deep South cotton plantation. Slaveholders, as Baptist makes clear, didn’t necessarily hate their slaves. They were business people responding to inhuman but rational market forces, who saw their enslaved workers as property, another kind of livestock to monetize in whatever way possible. Cruelty was essential to their business.

More than 150 years later we’re still living in the world they made.

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A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne


How is it
that Don Winslow is not a household name?

I’ve spent the last few years plowing through the Winslow oeuvre, including his masterly Cartel Trilogy, and wondering why I still get blank looks when I mention his name. Yes, he occasionally gets a rapturous review, and, yes, his books sell. But how can it be that, as I write this, Lee Child’s umpteenth Jack Reacher novel and John Grisham’s latest lawyer tome are numbers one and two on the New York Times Bestsellers list for hardcover fiction while Winslow’s The Border isn’t even among the top 15? How can it be that, 20 years into Peak TV, we still don’t have any cable series based on Winslow’s relentlessly telegenic books?

I have no
answers to these questions. I just think America’s readers need to step up their

Crime writers, the good ones, anyway, are the poor man’s social historians. Open a Richard Price novel like Clockers and you learn the brutal mechanics of the drug trade in a gang-ridden urban housing project. Read Tana French and you see how the politics of social class roil just below the surface in the quaint neighborhoods of Dublin.

What sets Winslow apart is both the depth of his social insight and his versatility. Like the criminals they write about, most crime writers stick close to home. French writes only about Dublin and environs. Price’s books rarely leave New York and northern New Jersey. Winslow’s 18 novels range from surfer-dude Southern California (Savages and The Kings of Cool) to gritty New York (The Force), to the Mexican drug war (The Cartel Trilogy: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border). He’s even set a few novels in Asia (The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror and Satori).

This would seem only a writerly parlor trick if it weren’t for the fact that each time Winslow drops into one of these wildly different worlds, you feel like he must have lived there his entire life soaking up social detail. Savages, the first Winslow book I read, exudes SoCal cool. The prose itself seems stoned, blissed out on some primo couch-lock weed that leaves you feeling both transcendently chill and hyper-aware. But then The Force captures world-weary New York, a cop-centric world of dishwater coffee and 4 a.m. cigarettes with a junkie informant jonesing for a fix.

Savages and The Force are first-rate
crime fiction, smart, well-written, and compulsively readable, but they don’t really
transcend the form. They’re merely good. But with the Cartel Trilogy, a
ripped-from-the-headlines fictional retelling of the drug war in Mexico and the
United States, Winslow holds a mirror to contemporary North and Central
American society in the same way Dickens and Balzac did for their
societies. He tells a story of ourselves and our age that we all know in our
hearts but would rather not have to hear spoken aloud.

The trilogy
focuses on DEA agent Art Keller and his Ahab-like obsession with stomping out
the Mexican drug trade, especially cartel kingpin Adán
Barrera, a ferociously violent philosopher-villain based loosely on real-life
drug lord Benjamín Arellano Félix. But if Keller’s pursuit of Barrera
and his fellow cartel leaders forms the narrative spine of the three long,
twisty, blood-soaked books, what sets them apart as fiction is Winslow’s
reckoning of the human cost of a long, senseless war waged in order to get
Americans high.

The sheer
body count of the three novels is staggering. Children are thrown off bridges.
Civilians are slaughtered in drive-by shootings. Cops and informers are
tortured to death in any number of gruesome and inventive ways. But Winslow
also spends long passages in The Cartel, the trilogy’s second book,
following a band of courageous Mexican journalists and a small-town mayor
trying to take back their town from the murderous cartels. In the most recent installment,
The Border, published earlier this year, Winslow follows a young boy’s intercontinental
journey to escape poverty and a sadistic gang enforcer in Guatemala, only to
find himself years later poor and enmeshed in gang life on the streets of New
York. The violence in these books is relentless and stomach-turning, but it’s
never mindless or gratuitous. This is a war, Winslow is saying, and this is
what war looks like.

I just wish more of my fellow Americans were willing to look.

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne


These are tough times for fiction. According to a report released by the Association of American Publishers, between 2013 and 2017, sales of adult fiction fell by 16%, and according to BookScan, which tracks print book sales, no fiction title topped a million copies in print in either 2016 or 2017. In contrast, just six years ago, in 2012, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy sold 14 million copies in print, along with millions more e-books.
Earlier this year, in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, literary agent Lynn Nesbit, whose clients include Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, and Jeffrey Eugenides, told me she thinks the current political climate is partly to blame for sagging fiction sales. “Even commercial fiction isn’t selling well,” she said. “Everyone is consumed with reality, the news. Every day there’s some new breaking scandal. We’ve all become ambulance chasers.”
Nesbit is onto something, I think. For too many of us, the hours we used to spend at night reading are now consumed with deep dives into polling numbers or the latest twist in the Mueller investigation. But while the space Donald Trump is taking up in the collective American mind is surely a drag on fiction sales, our obsession with all things Trump is but one particulate in an ever-thickening haze of digital noise coming between ourselves and our thoughts. Novels are hard, Facebook posts are easy – and more and more we seem to be going with easy.
I’m no exception. If you take out the novels I get paid to review, I’m reading less fiction these days, and the novels I do read for pleasure tend to lean more heavily on plot-driven suspense than on literary quality. Still, every few months a great novel punches a hole in the digital fog. Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry  was one of these for me this year. With its heady mix of publishing industry gossip and writerly ambition, this enigmatic little novel worked like a 300-page internet-blocking app, locking me on my couch for three nights straight, absorbed only by the pleasures of words on paper.
The first half of Asymmetry traces a May-December affair between Alice, a twentysomething book editor, and Ezra Blazer, an aging literary lion plainly modeled on the late Philip Roth. That, as has been widely reported, Halliday herself had an affair with Roth while she was working for Roth’s literary agent Andrew Wylie, adds voyeuristic appeal, but what might have become tawdry and puerile is instead deeply affecting. This is the book Roth’s own creepily priapic late sex novels should have been.
Then, halfway through, Halliday abruptly abandons Alice and Ezra’s doomed affair for a wildly different tale of Amar Ala Jaafari, an Iraqi American economist enduring a Kafkaesque detention in border control at London’s Heathrow Airport. If the opening section of the novel goes down like spiked fruit punch on a summer’s day, this second section is more like a heavy dose of ketamine: deadening, surreal, and profoundly disturbing. I raced through the first part and battled my way through the second, but through it all, I never once felt the urge to check my Facebook feed.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room had a similar effect on me, though Kushner’s women’s prison tale is ultimately a knottier, angrier read. I bought The Mars Room with Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers and read The Flamethrowers first. The Flamethrowers is a very good novel perhaps a little too in love with how good a novel it is, forever flaunting its central character’s preternatural cool and its deeply researched forays into the New York art world and radical Italian politics. The book seems to constantly demand of its readers that they tell it again how smart it is.
The Mars Room also features a fiercely cool female narrator in a fictive universe few readers will know first-hand – in this case, a bleak women’s prison in California’s Central Valley – but The Mars Room spends little time insisting on its own excellence. It is merely excellent. The plot, such as it is, turns on the longing of Kushner’s narrator, a 29-year-old exotic dancer serving two consecutive life sentences, to be reunited with her young son, but the novel’s emotional power lies in its ability to lock you up, whoever you are, with 3,000 poor, desperate women in a featureless wasteland where wine is made from ketchup and fruit juice, violence is everywhere, and the best anyone can do – indeed, all there is to do – is survive another day.
I wanted to click onto Facebook a thousand times, but, Reader, I did not.

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Motherhood Is Life-Shattering: The Millions Interviews Kirsten Lunstrum

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Ten years ago, Kirsten Lunstrum was leading a life many young writers would kill for. Having published two well-regarded story collections before she turned 30, Lunstrum landed a tenure-track teaching job in the creative writing program at State University of New York at Purchase, the arts campus of the SUNY system.

But in 2012, homesick for her native Seattle, Lunstrum and her husband Nathan, also a professor at Purchase, chucked it all and moved back West with, she says, “no jobs, no real plans for how to make life in the Seattle area work.” For nearly two years, the couple and their two children lived at her parents’ home as Lunstrum took adjunct teaching gigs at local colleges and her husband left academia altogether to become an electrician.

Six years on, the move seems to have paid off. Lunstrum, now 39, teaches at a small, progressive high school near Seattle, and this week she’s published her third story collection, What We Do with the Wreckage, winner of the 2018 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

In an exchange of late-night emails, Lunstrum talked with The Millions about her loyalty to the short story form, the strains of writing while parenting, and the many ways her experiences as a mother of small children informed and deepened her fiction.

The Millions: You published your first two story collections, This Life She’s Chosen (2005) and Swimming with Strangers (2008), while you were still in your 20s. Now, a decade later, you’re publishing a third collection. So tell us first: What have you up to during those 10 years? Have you been writing all along? Did you stop for a time?

Kirsten Lunstrum: The most succinct answer to that question is that I was simply living my life.

Like a lot of people, the period of time between my mid-20s and mid-30s was a radically turbulent (but great) stretch of years. Between my first two books and today I finished a graduate degree, held something like 15 different jobs, moved house eight times, and became a parent. Of these changes, parenthood was probably the biggest. Actually, my son was born just three weeks after I turned in the final edits on my second collection—a well-timed entrance into the world, for which I thanked him in that book’s acknowledgments. Three years later, my daughter was born. It makes me laugh now, 12 years into parenting, but before my son was born I had a vision of myself writing away the long hours of his infancy while he napped in a baby-wrap on my chest. I had no idea (clearly) how all-consuming parenting would be.

As I say this, though, I’m feeling aware of the flak I’m likely going to get for acknowledging that parenting played a role in the long silence between my books. There’s been a kind of literary applause recently for those mother-writers who refuse to discuss the effect parenting has had on their writing, and—to be honest—I find that refusal endlessly frustrating. The fact is this: Motherhood is life-shattering. I don’t feel it diminishes my voice as a writer or necessarily narrows others’ respect for me if I say those things out loud in a conversation about my writing life. Writing around the demands of my children’s needs—and my own desire to be with them (because I love them and enjoy being part of the daily and familiar routines of their childhoods)—has slowed my production of new work more than my pre-parenting self could ever have imagined. But being a parent has also completely reconstructed my sense of wonder, my sense of attention to the world and its details, my understanding of relationship and identity and vulnerability, and all of that shows up in my work now. I write less than I might have if I hadn’t chosen to become a parent. That’s just the truth. But my fiction has deepened because of the experience of raising other humans.

To be fair to my kids, though, the other love competing for my time and slowing down my fiction writing has been my work life. I’m not a writer who can just write. I need to work a day job. I didn’t always know this about myself, and for a period I believed that what I really wanted most of all was the luxury of devoting all my working hours to my writing, but that was a misunderstanding of myself. I love to work. My work is teaching—which I did at the college level for about a decade, and then six years ago I became a high school English teacher at a progressive, independent school near Seattle. Being in the classroom gives me a sense of clarity and purpose and connection to community that writing doesn’t, and I’m daily happy to go to school and see my students and colleagues. But between teaching and parenting, my time is pretty fully consumed during the academic year, and so I get very little writing done during those months.

This is all to say that it took me a long time to get this book written because I was busy (and happy) living. I never stopped writing, but I did write inconsistently, fitting my writing hours around my other responsibilities and loves. The stories in this collection were written in the very early hours of morning, before the kids woke up for the day. They were written late at night, in my dark bedroom, after everyone else in my household was asleep. I wrote these stories sitting in the backseat of my car during piano lessons, perched on the top bleacher at the natatorium during swimming practice, and locked inside my own bathroom (where no one could bother me). These stories feel hard earned in a way that those of my first two books didn’t, and I’m kind of proud of that, actually.

TM: I’m interested in this idea of a writer’s role as a parent enriching his or her work. Can you point to an element from a story in the new collection—a scene, a character, a plot point, whatever—that you couldn’t have written before you had kids?

KL: I think the influence of my family is everywhere in this book. In a very direct (but significant!) way, the book owes its cover image and first story to my daughter. A couple of years ago, when she was a first-grader, she did her school “interest project” on the Tasmanian tiger, an animal most people (but not all—which is part of the animal’s intrigue) believe became extinct in the 1930s. In helping my daughter gather information for the project, my own interest was sparked, and I ended up reading several articles and a book on the extinction of the tiger, as well as sort of obsessively watching a YouTube video my daughter and I found—black-and-white footage of the last tiger (Benjamin) pacing his cage at the Hobart Zoo. In the video, Benjamin looks anxious and trapped, and the image of him circling his little cement paddock stuck with me for months. Then later, when I couldn’t get beyond the first couple paragraphs of a story I was working on, I remembered Benjamin, and the story (“Endlings”) came together. In the end, the story is about two characters who (like Benjamin) are “endlings”—the last of their line—and about how they navigate through the world carrying the trauma of that isolation with them. Like Benjamin, both of the story’s central characters bear their isolation very literally in their bodies, but their isolation is also defining in less visible ways—in how they see the world, themselves, and their relationships with other people.

In a less direct, way, though—and maybe more to the point of your question—there are so many moments in these stories that came out of my experience with the daily reality of parenting. The story “Matter” is about a woman who becomes a mother through an international adoption, and then brings her son home with her to California. When the story takes place, her city has been evacuated due to the threat of encroaching wildfires, and she’s wrestling with how best to protect her son—to evacuate with him, though she knows that doing so will upset the very fragile stability she’s just managed to create in their new relationship; or to stay in place, keeping the routines that have proved essential for them both, but risking their safety. I researched and wrote the story in 2009. My own son was 3, and I was pregnant with my daughter. I felt—to be honest—worried about how I’d manage life with two children. During those early years of my children’s lives there were definitely moments at which I felt totally ill equipped to mother. Periodically, I’d experience a little fit of terror over what I’d committed to in parenting. How can I manage this? I’d think, overwhelmed. How will we make it to the other side? These aren’t the sort of thoughts mothers are culturally allowed to voice, though, and so I had a lot of guilt about them. The complexity of that, then—the incredible, fierce love of parenthood lived side-by-side with the real fears I felt about successfully raising my children—was what became the heart of that story.

The other story I think of in response to your question is one titled “Tides.” It, too, circles the frustrations and—the word coming to my mind right now is suffocations—of parenthood and family life, but it’s actually about deep, committed love. And I suppose that’s really the best answer to what you’ve asked me here. What I could not have written before experiencing family life are these explorations of deep, committed love. I don’t think parenthood is necessarily the only entry point for writing the complexity of that love—not at all—but for me, motherhood has radically altered my identity and perspectives, and that’s been central to how I process everything, both as a person and as a writer.

TM: This is your third story collection without a novel in between. Do you see yourself as primarily a practitioner of the short story or are you drawn to stories because you can write them in shorter bursts while keeping all the plates in the air in the rest of your life?

KL: I love the story form above and beyond all other forms. As both a reader and a writer, I gravitate toward story first. I love the story’s ability to be precise, to push the boundaries of space and time and memory and point of view, and to lean a little closer (in its attention to imagery and use of repetition and play with structure) to poetry than a novel (with its heavier burden of plot) generally can. I love all of that. Stories are exciting reads—urgent and intense; and as a writer, stories never give me time to get bored (which I’m too prone to do).

In the back of my mind, I admit, I have a fantasy about finally finding that novel I just have to write and then sitting down to write it. In almost 20 years of writing I’ve never gotten around to doing that, though, mostly because new stories keep interrupting me, diverting me. And also because when I have attempted novel-length drafts, what I’ve really ended up with have been linked story collections. That might be a product of my limited writing time, but I doubt it; plenty of novelists write around jobs and families. I think I’m simply a story writer. I’m solidly in the middle of my career, and I’m no less interested in discovering new ways into and through story—no less ambitious about improving—than I was when I began writing, so I suppose that says something, too, about where my heart is.

TM: What a perfect segue to my last question: What’s next for you? What are you working on now that What We Do With the Wreckage is out in the world?

KL: Like a lot of writers, I stopped writing altogether for a while following the 2016 election. I felt as if the breath had been knocked from me, and I just couldn’t put words on a page for a long time. I got involved in organizing with the Seattle branch of Write Our Democracy and volunteering with a couple of social justice groups in my local area, and most of my creative thought and free time in the last several months has been directed there. I’m slowly coming out from under the shadow, though, and I’m in the very early stages of a new story collection. I’d love it if this one could come together faster than Wreckage did—under a decade would be great!—but I’m going to be patient and see how it unfolds.


The Failure Artist: Writing Bullshit, Getting Rejected, and Keeping at It

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A few years ago, in a moment of white-hot inspiration, I wrote the climactic scene of a book I had only half finished. The novel is a love story, and at that point, one of the few things I knew about how it would end was that one of the characters would reveal a deep and embarrassing secret he’d been holding back since the beginning.

So I wrote a scene in which the two characters, a man and a woman, are in bed. It’s early morning and the guy is awakened by the crying of one of the woman’s children by her first husband. Her kids do not want this guy in their mother’s bed, but now in the middle of the night, he handles her child’s distress surprisingly well, and when he returns to her bed, one of the big questions of the book—Can this man enter this woman’s life without destroying it?—seems to have been answered. The affair they’re having, which at first seems so self-destructive, might just work. She’s turned on by his domesticity, he’s turned on by the fact that he might not be so wrong for her after all. Things are getting steamy—and then the secret comes tumbling out.

I loved the scene’s intimacy, its rawness. I also loved the fact that it existed. The rest of the book was barely crawling along, and much of what I was writing on any given day kind of sucked, but I had this great scene in the bank, just waiting for me to catch up to it.

Then this summer, after I turned in my final grades, I had an unexpected burst of productivity—30 new pages in 30 days, which is light speed for me—and all of a sudden, I’d caught up with my climactic bedroom scene. With a silent internal drumroll, I scrolled down to the pages I’d written so long ago, and almost immediately I caught the strong odor of bullshit wafting up from my laptop screen.

God, it was bad. Indescribably bad. The kind of bad where—if I hadn’t written it myself—its badness would have cracked me up. The sex stuff was unreadable, all throbbing organs and clotted moans, but what really what got the flop sweat rolling was the scene’s soul-deadening literalness. My characters were lying there in bed, horny as rabbits, and for two or three pages they explained the meaning of the book to each other. And then, oh, the guy let slip the big bad secret for no very good reason and everything went to hell.

If you’re a writer not spoiled by genius, you’ve had a few of these moments: You’re cruising along, seeing your book through the eyes of your characters, and then one day, the lens shifts so you can view your work through a potential reader’s eyes—and what you see is what total shit you’ve written.

Anne Lamott touches on this in her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from her writer’s guide Bird by Bird. Amateurs, Lamott writes, imagine that great writers sit down each morning, flip some magic inner switch, and start cranking out deathless prose. Real writers recognize this as a fantasy and plow through their miserably bad first drafts by convincing themselves no one will ever see them:
The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. … If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.
For Lamott, the enemy of good writing is perfectionism, and the trick to overcoming perfectionism is giving yourself permission to write badly. She’s right, of course. She’s right, too, that you can dial down performance anxiety by breaking an overwhelming task, such as writing a novel, into a series of smaller, discrete tasks—short assignments, she calls them. She says that she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind herself that she doesn’t have to write a whole book today, just one solid paragraph, one good physical description—enough to fill a one-inch picture frame, not a wall-size canvas.

Like Lamott, I’m a recovering alcoholic, so when I first read Bird by Bird years ago I recognized much of her writing advice as reconstituted 12-step wisdom. What is “shitty first drafts” but another way of saying “Fake it till you make it”? What is Lamott’s one-inch picture frame but a handy reminder to take it one day at a time?

Which might make you think I’d heed her advice. But I didn’t. For decades, when I read a story of mine that didn’t work, I didn’t break out my one-inch picture frame and focus on just getting one paragraph right that day. No, in those painful moments of clarity when I saw my own work not as I wanted it to be but as it was, I panicked. The failure wasn’t a few bad sentences or a story twist that rang false. The failure was me. I had no business trying to be a writer, and the fact that I kept writing in the face of incontrovertible evidence that I could not, in fact, write was not merely stupid, but a species of moral failure. I wasn’t just guilty of writing badly. I was a fraud, a man living a lie.

[CW: Brief description of suicidal ideation]

I’ll spare you the description of all the dark places this kind of thinking took me. Suffice to say that for many years I soothed myself to sleep at night by imagining my own death. Sometimes I pictured putting a shotgun to my chest and pulling the trigger. Other nights I mapped out, in exquisite detail: the route to the nearest high bridge. This was, I want to make clear, purely an act of imagination. I’ve never owned a firearm, and I never once stood on a bridge deciding whether to jump. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I wanted, for one blessed moment, not to be me. And since being some other person wasn’t physically possible, the next most soothing option was to imagine that I had ceased to exist.

But that isn’t the really weird part. The really weird part is that it worked. After a few lonely minutes feeling the bullet going into my chest, or picturing the long walk out to the center of a very high bridge, I could imagine myself as no longer existing. And then I could sleep.

As you might imagine, this played havoc with my writing life. I wrote defensively. The goal was less to write well than it was to avoid writing so badly that it would make me want to jump off a high bridge. I have a whole shelf full of stories, some of which have appeared in literary magazines, whose chief virtue is that they aren’t bad. They aren’t good, either, mind you. They’re lifeless and safe. A number of them are plainly autobiographical, yet there’s virtually nothing of me in them. That guy soothing himself to sleep by imagining a shotgun shell entering his chest? Nowhere to be found. The central character in those stories shares a family resemblance to me, with my fears and desires and vanities, but he’s never in real danger. He’s safe. The prose is safe. The whole thing is a sealed system cleansed of the impurities of real life, the sole purpose of which is to prove to the world that I’m not a bad writer.

I spent years doing this, alternating between writing airless works of fiction whose purpose was to not embarrass me and shards of more daring things that embarrassed me so much I never finished them. And then the worst possible thing happened: I finished a novel. This novel found an agent and this agent sent it to 20 editors at reputable publishing houses, who responded with 20 variations on “no.”

Let me pause here to state the obvious: Failing to sell a novel is pretty much the dictionary definition of a First World problem. When it was all over, I still had a job. My marriage was intact. I had a roof over my head and a fridge full of food. My kid still loved me. But as it was happening to me, failing to sell a book didn’t feel like a First World problem. It felt like a kind of death. The drama I’d enacted night after night as I aimed an imaginary shotgun at my heart was, for about six months, enacted each morning as I checked my phone and found yet another email from my agent forwarding yet another politely worded rejection from yet another New York editor.

Good morning. Boom. Dead. Repeat times 20.

But that’s not the really weird part. Of course those rejections felt like a kind of death. I worked for five years on that book. Before that, I spent another 10 years writing bad stories and parts of failed novels. I had presented my life’s work to the world, and the world took a good hard look and passed. It hurt like hell. The really weird part is how eerily that experience mirrored my imaginary suicides. I felt like I had died, over and over, but I wasn’t actually dead. I checked my phone and felt the shotgun shell strike bone, but then I put down my phone and five minutes later I was pouring my son some cereal. And when it was all over, I felt oddly free.

I don’t want to oversell this. After my novel failed to sell, it sent me down a dark spiral of obsessively revising an obviously failed novel and toying with the idea of publishing it myself so that my mother and seven of her closest friends might download it off Amazon. This went on for years. But then about a year ago, around the time I stopped trying to fix my broken novel, it hit me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d soothed myself to sleep by imagining my own death. I didn’t need the act of imagination any more. The deed had been done by 20 editors in New York. Failing to sell my book killed the part of me that still believed, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, that someday I was going to be a famous writer. And to my astonishment, this realization set me free.

This has not, interestingly, made me a better writer. That’s one of the great lessons of sobriety, too, as it happens. Getting sober doesn’t make you a better person. Sober people like to pretend otherwise, but sit in a meeting sometime—it’s just as full of assholes and morons as any other room you could wander into. All getting sober does is stop you from drinking and using drugs. The rest of your problems are still there, same as they ever were.

So when my novel didn’t sell, I was not magically reborn as a better writer. It’s true that I write less defensively now, and I’m much better at punching holes in those sealed narrative ecosystems to let the air in. But I’m still painfully slow, and I still write sex scenes full of throbbing organs and clotted moans in which the characters spend the better part of two pages explaining the themes of the book to each other. What’s different is that I’ve forgiven myself. I’ve failed. Not metaphorically. Not in some complex psychological way. I spent five years writing a book, poured my heart and soul into the thing, and no one wanted to buy it. What can they do to me now? Turn down this book? Take a number, dudes. If my new book doesn’t sell, I’ll feel bad for a while, because a failed novel is a kind of death, but then I’ll start working on another one. Because this is what I do. I’m a writer. I write books not because it’s going to make me famous but because writing books makes me feel alive.

So a few weeks ago, when I read over that horrible climactic bedroom scene and smelled the ripe fragrance of trite, overwritten bullshit rising from my laptop, a wave of panic still coursed through me. My pulse quickened, prickles of sweat broke out across my scalp, and for just a moment, I thought about finding a nice high bridge and taking a swan dive into oblivion. But then I logged onto Facebook to post a self-deprecating remark about how embarrassing it is to read over a scene you wrote years ago and realize it’s trite, overwritten bullshit. Then I backed up about 30 pages in the manuscript, where the prose was bad, but manageably so, and got back to work.

Image: Flickr/Christopher Drexel

The Queering of Nick Carraway

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In the middle of a class discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby some years ago, a student raised his hand and asked, in essence: What are we supposed to make of the scene where Nick Carraway goes off with the gay guy?

And I said, in essence: Wait, what gay guy?

He pointed me to the scene that closes Chapter II. This is the chapter in which Nick accompanies Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, to an apartment Tom keeps in Manhattan. Myrtle invites her sister and some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, to join them, and they throw a raucous party that ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose. Amid the blood and the screaming, Mr. McKee awakens from an alcoholic slumber:
Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.

“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.



“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.

“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”

“All right,” I agreed. “I’ll be glad to.”

…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.

“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse…Brook’n Bridge…”

Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.
I had, I’m embarrassed to say, never seen that passage before. Except that’s not true. I’d read the book half a dozen times since college, and taught it once, but I had somehow missed the fact that the narrator wanders off in a drunken stupor with a stranger and ends up in his bedroom.

Whether my student knew it or not, he was tapping into a strain of scholarly inquiry into the sexual orientation of Nick Carraway that dates back at least to Keath Fraser’s 1979 essay “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby.” Fraser ultimately equivocated on the question of Nick’s sexuality, but in 1992, Edward Wasiolek argued in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby” that the gay subtext in Gatsby is crystal clear: “I do not know how one can read the scene in McKee’s bedroom in any other way, especially when so many other facts about [Nick’s] behavior support such a conclusion.”

In the decades since, suggestions that maybe, possibly, there’s more to Fitzgerald’s narrator than he’s letting on have given way to ever more self-assured, even faintly indignant, assertions of Nick’s queerness, with titles like The Atlantic’s 2013 article “The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay” or BookRiot’s 2017 piece “Nick Carraway Is Queer and in Love with Jay Gatsby.”

Most queer readings of Gatsby begin with that scene with Mr. McKee and branch out from there to note that Nick’s love interest in the novel, Jordan Baker, is an athlete who carries herself “like a young cadet” and is most alluring to Nick when they play tennis and “a faint mustache of perspiration appear[s] on her upper lip.” When she and Nick break up at the end of the book, Jordan tells him she had thought he was “an honest, straightforward person,” to which he responds, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor”—a line that rings differently if you read Nick as a closeted gay man.

Of course, all of this shapes how we view the relationship between Nick and Gatsby. In a straight reading of the novel, Nick is merely an interested observer who helps facilitate Gatsby’s mad dream to rekindle his love affair with Daisy, now unhappily married to Tom Buchanan. That Gatsby, the one taught for generations in high school and college classrooms, is a classic tale about the American Dream and doomed love and the impossibility of turning back time. In that novel, Nick loves Gatsby, the erstwhile James Gatz of North Dakota, for his capacity to dream Jay Gatsby into being and for his willingness to risk it all for the love of a beautiful woman.

In a queer reading of Gatsby, Nick doesn’t just love Gatsby, he’s in love with him. In some readings, the tragedy is that Gatsby doesn’t love him back. In others, Gatsby is as repressed as Nick, each chasing an unavailable woman to avoid admitting what he truly desires. “Nick chooses Jordan for some of the same reasons Gatsby chose Daisy,” writes Wasiolek in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby.” “Daisy is Gatsby’s defense against women, and Jordan is Nick’s against women.”

That last one, I’ll admit, is a touch too Freudian for me, but if Nick were gay and in love with Gatsby it sure would clear up some things—such as what exactly Nick sees in Gatsby, a social-climbing fabulist with gangster friends who moves heaven and earth for a woman Nick plainly sees as a ditz. It would also make sense of Nick’s emotionally sterile affair with Jordan. And, of course, if Nick is queer, his trip to Mr. McKee’s bedroom isn’t merely a mysterious interlude in a canonical book, but a secret key that opens the door onto one of America’s first great gay novels.

So then, is Nick gay? The short answer is we’ll never know. The only person who could say for sure is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s been dead since 1940. But it’s worth noting that when he wrote Gatsby, Fitzgerald was the golden boy of American letters at a time of near-universal homophobia. Had readers picked up even a whiff of gay subtext in Gatsby, he risked losing everything: his career, his marriage, his reputation, his friends. But no one did see it, and, in fact, as Wasiolek notes, among the thousands of essays and critical studies of one of America’s most widely read novels no one noted the gay subtext in the McKee bedroom scene until Fraser wrote about it in 1979.

So, making Nick a closeted gay man makes little emotional or artistic sense unless Fitzgerald was using Nick’s sexuality to explore in a deeply coded way his own guilt and shame over his unspoken desires—a theory that runs into the not inconsiderable hurdle that there is zero evidence that Fitzgerald was attracted to men. Yes, his wife Zelda did once accuse him of being in love with Ernest Hemingway, but at the time their marriage was unraveling and she was months from being hospitalized for schizophrenia. (Zelda also despised Hemingway, whom she reportedly saw as “a pansy with hair on his chest.” Hemingway, for his part, hated Zelda right back, times approximately a million.)

But here’s the thing: If Fitzgerald had wanted to scratch a sexual itch badly enough to make him write coded gay characters into his books, he suffered no shortage of opportunities. For the last decade of his life, he lived apart from Zelda in European resort towns and in Hollywood, where he was surrounded by men living more or less openly gay lives. Yet not one credible story of Fitzgerald having sex with another man has turned up, either in his journals or in the famously gossipy movie colony. Instead, he had a few minor flings with female starlets before settling into stable relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who was with him when he died.

But okay, people are complicated. Maybe Fitzgerald had a secret life he was able keep under wraps his entire adult life despite the fact that he was falling-down drunk for much of that time, or perhaps he desired men, but was so disgusted by this need that he never acted upon it. There is, I think, a deeper reason to question a queer reading of The Great Gatsby: It doesn’t sound much like a novel F. Scott Fitzgerald, gay or straight, would write.

Fitzgerald was a compulsively autobiographical writer who wrote his flaws into his work, unflinchingly and in plain English. When he drank, his characters drank along with him. When his marriage failed, his characters lost their wives, too. When he had a nervous breakdown, he wrote a searingly honest set of essays called “The Crack-Up” for Esquire. It strains credulity to suggest that if Fitzgerald were gay, he would expiate his guilt and shame by writing a veiled gay love plot nobody would notice for half a century. It’s just not how his artistic apparatus worked. As a writer, Fitzgerald wore remarkably few veils. For 20 years, he opened a vein and beauty flowed onto the page.

None of this, of course, proves that Nick isn’t gay—that can’t be proven one way or the other—but I suspect the queer readings of Nick Carraway say more about the way we read now than they do about Nick or The Great Gatsby. We read with a perpetually queered eye, forever on the hunt for coded language or secret lives in characters. This is not in itself a bad thing. It layers our reading, opening our eyes to stories within stories that we missed before, but it can blind us, too, because once we know the code, we start to think all writers are in on it, when some of them might not be. Just because Fitzgerald wrote a scene that reads to us like a gay tryst doesn’t mean that Fitzgerald was gay and trying to send us a message in a bottle. Similarly, the fact that Nick meets a gay man and doesn’t run screaming doesn’t make Nick gay. Maybe it just means he’s tolerant and curious about people, whether they’re closeted gay men or bootleggers who want to turn back time.

Let’s go back to that scene with Mr. McKee. No writer as attuned to wordplay and symbols as F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that line about touching the elevator lever before a scene in which two men end up in a bedroom and not meant for a reader to catch the double-entendre. Whatever his sexual persuasion, Fitzgerald wasn’t an idiot.

To us, reading with our queered eye, the double-entendre must be a veiled hint that Nick is gay, but that’s us now when the closeted gay man has become a stock character in film and literature. Fitzgerald’s original readers wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same conclusion. The savvier among them might have picked up that Mr. McKee is gay. It’s McKee, after all, who invites Nick for lunch and gets accused of touching the lever. It’s also McKee who’s in bed in his skivvies while Nick stands, outside the bed, listening to McKee drone on about his photo album.

Of course, Nick does follow McKee from the party and accept his lunch invitation, but that’s Nick’s role in Gatsby: he follows people and agrees to things. Nick’s tolerance, his curiosity about people, isn’t just some minor character quirk. It’s key to Nick’s character and central to Fitzgerald’s narrative strategy. Over and over, Nick meets bizarre, interesting people and reserves judgment until they reveal themselves to him—and us. It’s right there on the first page of the novel, when Nick relates the advice his father gave him about keeping in mind that not everyone has had his advantages. “In consequence,” Nick explains, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”

Thus, when Gatsby’s friend, the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, winds up a story about a mob hit by showing off his cufflinks fashioned from the “finest specimens of human molars,” Nick doesn’t back slowly out of the room and call the cops. He looks closer at the mobster’s cufflinks and exclaims, “Well! That’s a very interesting idea.” Later, when Gatsby arranges for Nick to set up a date with Daisy, a married woman Gatsby hasn’t seen since he was a poor boy about to be sent off to war, Nick doesn’t tell Gatsby gently and firmly that he’s out of his mind. No, he calls Daisy to set up the date.

This, to my mind, is what a queer reading of Gatsby misses: Nick’s tolerance, his willingness to reserve judgment about things his world found frightening or wrong. Yes, it’s possible Fitzgerald was using the scene with Mr. McKee to speak in code of his own hidden desires, but more likely it’s a scene in which a straight man in 1920s America meets a closeted gay man—and listens to him. Likewise, maybe Nick’s love for Gatsby is queer, but more likely it’s queer in the nonsexual sense, meaning odd, uncanny. Maybe Nick really is who he says he is: a nice, decent, rather conventional bond salesman from the Midwest who knows he shouldn’t admire Jay Gatsby, but does anyway. Maybe he loves Gatsby, not because he wants to have sex with him, but because he wants to understand him, make sense of his queer and improbable dreams.

Bottoming Out: On Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Recovering’


The first time she told the story of her recovery from alcohol addiction, Leslie Jamison recalls in her memoir The Recovering, an older man in the front row of the meeting where she was speaking started shouting: “This is boring!”

Jamison is quick to assure us that the man was ill, “losing the parts of his mind that filtered and restrained his speech.” Still, diminished though he was, the man had been a pillar of the local recovery community, and even now “he often sounded like our collective id, saying all the things that never got said aloud in meetings.” And now he was saying, very loudly, that he was bored.

The moment clearly shook her—it comes up twice in The Recovering—but perhaps she should have paid more attention to what the man was saying. Jamison, author of the 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, is an incisive stylist and has amassed an enormous amount of information and insight on what her subtitle calls “intoxication and its aftermath.” But her own recovery story, the spine on which she hangs reams of archival research and reportage, is—well, boring is a little harsh, but it’s not enough to carry a 500-page book.

Jamison is what is known in sobriety circles as a “high-bottom drunk.” The daughter of a prominent health economist, she earned degrees from Harvard, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Yale. Along the way, she started drinking. Then she started drinking a lot. In her mid-20s, while on break from her doctoral program, she stopped drinking. A few months later, she started again. Seven months after that, she stopped for good. She was 27 years old and had never been arrested, never lost a job to drinking, never landed in jail or a psych ward, never shot drugs, nor caused bodily harm to another person.

To state the obvious: this isn’t a bad thing. Jamison is to be commended for seeking help before she tore up her life, and in truth, her story probably hews closer to the lived experience of most addicts than the lurid tales of junkies shooting up into their genitals that you find in pulpy memoirs and on reality TV. It also hews pretty closely to my own experience. I can’t claim Jamison’s Ivy League pedigree or her precocious literary success, but, like her, I quit drinking in my 20s, leaving a long trail of “nevers” and “not yets.” Even so, addiction, and the years it took me to recover from it, left a blast hole in my life I still grapple with to this day.

So, for the first 100 pages or so, I cheered on The Recovering as a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do. Jamison offers up instead a quieter story of an addict whose life looks great on the outside—She’s in a doctoral program at Yale! She has a debut novel coming out!—but who, unbeknownst to those around her, is slipping deeper and deeper into despair. She sneaks white wine at a B&B where she works and picks endless low-grade fights with her boyfriend until, at a low point, she comes home already drunk and fills a cup with eight shots of whiskey and drinks until she can’t remember. “I hadn’t set off a bomb in the middle of my own life,” she writes. “It had just grown small and curdled. I lived with shame like another organ nestled inside me, swollen with banal regrets.”

The Recovering shimmers throughout with lines like that, but 500 pages is a very long time to watch a woman suffer in silence. Perhaps sensing this, Jamison intercuts her story with archival research about other addicts, like singer Billie Holiday and poet John Berryman. Too often, though, stories of lifelong addicts like Holiday, who grew up black and poor and died literally handcuffed to a hospital bed, sit uneasily alongside that of a Harvard-educated novelist who sobered up her 20s without so much as a DWI.

Jamison is, of course, wise to this. “I am precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationships to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable—a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than a punishment,” she writes, adding: “My skin is the right color to permit my intoxication.” But awareness of privilege doesn’t blunt its protective force, and in the end the borrowed pathos of the stories of Holiday and Berryman and other writers like Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace never solves the core problem, which is that Jamison’s own story lacks the dramatic heft to bear the weight of analysis and research she piles upon it.

Much of this, I suspect, could be resolved by more ruthless editing. There is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long. But I wonder, too, if in her effort to highlight the stories of addiction, Jamison shortchanges another essential element of recovery. Midway through the book, newly sober and stranded at a weeklong writing retreat in a converted tofu factory in small-town Iowa, Jamison stays up until five a.m. obsessively watching an obscure BBC miniseries to distract herself from drinking.

The next morning, desperate, she finds a meeting at a nearby church, where there are only three other people, two of them leather-clad bikers passing through the area. When Jamison tells the group about staying up all night watching the BBC miniseries, “one of the bikers—a huge man with a snake tattooed around his neck—nodded so vigorously [she] was sure he’d say he’d seen that miniseries, too.” He hadn’t, of course, but as Jamison says, “he knew what it was like when craving tugged you like a puppet.”

He knew what it was like.

I’ve spent decades in church basements listening to people tell their stories, and I can’t say I recall the details of more than one or two. I’m a story person, but it wasn’t the stories that got me sober. It wasn’t anything anyone said, really. It was that for the first time in my life I felt heard, that when I said aloud completely insane things whole rooms full of people nodded along in perfect understanding.

In an afterword, Jamison writes that she “wanted to write a book that worked like a meeting,” by which she means that she “needed to include the stories of others alongside [her] own.” That’s one way of describing how a meeting works, as a series of people telling their stories. I’ve certainly sat through my share of those, but the meetings that stuck with me, the ones that changed me, were the ones where someone cried out in pain and a room full of people listened.

To my mind, that is the deeper secret to recovery, that force of constructive listening, the almost osmotic process of drawing the pain out of a human being in crisis and allowing it to settle, if only for an hour, in the body of the group. Jamison describes several moments of this kind in The Recovering, like that morning in the Iowa church basement and others later when she meets with a sponsor and begins helping people with less sobriety than herself, but each time she moves on to recount yet another argument with her boyfriend, yet another anecdote about John Berryman.

What drew me to The Empathy Exams was the sense I had of Jamison as being a crackerjack listener, a woman willing to sit without judgment as people told her, for instance, about their experience with Morgellons disease, a crackpot-sounding syndrome in which people believe their bodies are being attacked from within by tiny fibers no one else can see. The Empathy Exams is a book-length feat of constructive listening, and I suppose I came to The Recovering hoping Jamison would do the same for a world I know well. Instead, I got a lot of stories about addicts. Some are absorbing, others less so, but let’s face it: ours is a culture awash in addicts’ stories. They fill whole shelves at the bookstore and amuse the millions on TV. What we need is what there has never been enough of: more, and better, listening.

What Steve Bannon Saw: On Joshua Green’s ‘Devil’s Bargain’


It can be hard to keep track of who’s up and who’s down in our nation’s Gonzo Presidency.

Just days ago, as I was finishing Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain, the book’s central figure, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Steve Bannon, was still rumored to have the president’s ear, phoning in to the Oval Office to give political advice even after his support of accused child molester Roy Moore gave Democrats a Senate seat in Alabama, the reddest of red states. But the day I began writing this, the president broke with his long-time consigliere, issuing a blistering public repudiation saying, among other things, “When [Bannon] was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind.”

At times like these, it can be hard to take the occupants of the White House seriously as anything other than smack-talking stars of a not-especially-convincing politically themed reality TV show. But we need to take Donald Trump and Steve Bannon very seriously because one of them is president of the United States and the other is the man who got him there.

This is precisely the virtue of Green’s absorbing book: It takes Trump and Bannon seriously, not as the overgrown teenagers they seem so intent on playing on TV, but as two canny media manipulators who, together, won the most powerful political office in the world.

As it happens, the source of the sudden blood enmity between the two men is yet another political tell-all book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff. That book has not yet been released as I write this, but going by the tabloid tone of the excerpts that have appeared in New York and The Hollywood Reporter, and the scabrously critical quotes from Bannon and others that have leaked elsewhere, Fire and Fury is likely to become the one Trump/Bannon book most people will read.

This is unfortunate because while Green doesn’t quote Bannon accusing the president’s son of treason or offer juicy peeks at Trump’s efforts to keep the White House staff away from his toothbrush, Devil’s Bargain is the first thing I’ve read in the last year and a half that manages to make some sense of the human catastrophic weather event that is Steve Bannon. And make sense of him we must. Now that Trump has cut ties with him, Bannon may well fade from public consciousness as have many other one-time right-wing stars like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck before him. But that won’t change the fact that Bannon did more than anyone besides Trump himself to elect a politically naive reality TV star president of the United States.

That, of course, isn’t how Trump sees it. In his incendiary public statement announcing his break from Bannon, Trump noted that Bannon joined the 2016 campaign only after Trump had won the Republican nomination, adding: “Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country.”

This, as is the case with so much the president says when he’s in a mood, is demonstrably untrue. Green persuasively argues that Bannon, who first met Trump in 2011, offered the future president two services without which Trump never could have won: first, “a fully formed, internally coherent worldview…about trade and foreign threats,” and, second, a turn-key ready “infrastructure of conservative organizations” that had spent decades attacking his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Indeed, at times reading Green’s book, one comes away with the gnawing sense that Trump did not so much win the 2016 election as happen to be the guy who benefitted when the darker forces on America’s right wing finally succeeded in destroying Hillary after failing to drive her husband from office in the 1990s.

Bannon, Green maintains, deserves credit for being at the center of this effort. Now, before we go too far down that road, it should be noted that Bannon is clearly the source of much of Devil’s Bargain and that, like everyone else in Trumpland, Bannon has a habit of taking credit for every least thing that happens, including the sun rising in the morning. But Green, a senior national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek, has done some important journalistic spadework, including deep dives into the sources of Bannon’s political philosophy and the inner machinery of his political and media operations, that lends credence to the pivotal role Bannon played in Trump’s improbable rise.

Among the more fascinating nuggets Green has unearthed is the fact that, before he ran for president, Donald Trump, the TV star, was wildly popular among immigrants and African Americans. Starting from its debut season, when its breakout star was a black Howard University grad student named Omarosa Manigault, The Apprentice was not only unusually integrated for a prime-time American TV show, but presented minority contestants as striving, ambitious entrepreneurs. As a result, Green reports, “the audience that tuned into The Celebrity Apprentice was among the most liberal in all of prime-time television, owing in no small part to the large number of minority viewers Trump attracted.”

It was this popularity among liberal-leaning minority audiences that Trump torched when he chose to enter the national arena by questioning Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Thus, it was in a certain way fortuitous for Trump that he was able to graft Bannon’s hard-right focus on traditional values and nationalist policies onto his own ever-shifting worldview. Even “the Wall,” Trump’s signature campaign pledge, turns out to have been “a trick, a mnemonic device,” according to Green, who quotes Trump staffer Sam Nunberg saying he and fellow campaign operative Roger Stone came up with the line about building a border wall in 2014 as a way “to make sure [Trump] talked about immigration.”

But perhaps the most decisive gift Bannon offered Trump was access to a vast, well-financed machinery designed to take down Trump’s general election opponent, Hillary Clinton. In the early 2000s, Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who owes his personal fortune to, of all things, a stake in Seinfeld reruns he picked up in a deal, began making political documentaries. The films don’t seem to have made much of a ripple in of themselves, but they put Bannon in contact with fringe right-wing figures like David Bossie, president of the anti-Clinton group Citizens United, and reclusive hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who financed Bannon’s political and media operations.

It was the Mercer-funded outfits, chief among them the feisty alt-right news site Breitbart News and the lesser known Government Accountability Institute, a Florida-based research group, that played the largest roles in the 2016 campaign. In Devil’s Bargain, Green outlines a two-pronged media strategy in which Breitbart administered daily doses of political provocation aimed at the alt-right masses while the research group played the long game of digging up just enough legitimate dirt on Clinton that the mainstream media would have to pick up the story. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon tells Green. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

This, it strikes me, is the true genius of Steve Bannon. His politics are a muddle of white-identity grievances and crackpot theories, his nose for political talent is dubious at best, and he has a singular gift for self-destruction. But the man understands systems. Peel away the revolutionary bluster and the three-day stubble and you have a Goldman Sachs banker engaging in a smart bit of media arbitrage. Bannon recognized that the mainstream media, despite its liberal lean, was willing to go after Clinton, but didn’t have the resources. So, leveraging the Mercers’ millions, he provided those resources for them, financing a team of data scientists who scoured the deep web for unreported donors to the Clinton Foundation who may have benefited financially from their relationship with the Clintons. They hit pay dirt in the form of a book called Clinton Cash, which sped to the bestsellers list and spawned multiple independent media investigations, including one that landed on the front page of The New York Times, setting off the first of a cascade of scandals that painted Clinton as incorrigibly corrupt.

As I write this, The Washington Post is reporting that Rebekah Mercer, one of Bannon’s earliest and most prolific political patrons, has also broken with him and sided with President Trump. For now, Bannon remains in charge of Breitbart News, but he may be thrown under that bus before long, too, leaving the man the national press once portrayed as the mastermind of the Trump administration as little more than a national punchline.

If that happens—and given the post-resignation track record of so many senior Trump aides, it would hardly be surprising—the currency of Devil’s Bargain will no doubt fade as well. That would be a shame because whatever you may think of Steve Bannon, he saw better than almost anyone else how to exploit the vulnerabilities in the modern media landscape to elect a man president. Many of those vulnerabilities still exist, and anyone who wants to elect the next Donald Trump—or to prevent his election—had better understand what Bannon saw.

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne


When I was growing up in suburban California, whenever my high school baseball team had an away game in farm country north of San Francisco, as soon as we passed the first cow pasture some wiseass in the back of the bus would break out an imaginary banjo and start into the theme song from Deliverance.

Dum-da-ling-ding-ding-ding-ding. Dum-da-ling-ding-ding-ding-ding.

This was the 1980s, so we were too young to have seen the 1972 film, and I’m sure none of us had read the classic James Dickey novel on which it was based. Still, the infamous Dueling Banjos scene from the movie was by then such a part of American pop culture that the brief banjo riff had become, for kids like us, a kind of snarky shorthand for “rural” and “backward.” Each time, the joke would spread outward from the back of the bus until half the team was picking imaginary banjos, all of us cracking up at these inbred hillbillies who would within a few hours beat the tar out of us soft suburban boys at baseball.

I thought of those long bus rides, and that banjo tune, when I recently picked up Deliverance for a book club I belong to. Weeks later, the tune is still in my head, but it has curdled into something far darker and more sinister in light of the brilliant, troubling novel that helped ingrain it into American culture.

In the book, as in the movie, four bored suburban guys from an unnamed Southern city take a weekend canoeing trip down a remote stretch of wild river slated to be dammed to make way for a reservoir. One of them, an avid outdoorsman named Lewis—played by a beefed-up Burt Reynolds in the movie—knows a little about the backcountry, but the others can barely tell a canoe paddle from a slotted spoon.

One of the more remarkable qualities of Deliverance is how much the experience of reading it mirrors that of a river trip gone horribly wrong. For the first 90 pages or so, the narrative floats merrily along as the four soft suburbanites set off on their journey into country they know nothing about on a river they have neither the skills nor the equipment to navigate. Dickey is a master at building suspense, and one feels it building, building, building, like the low roar of an upcoming rapids, as Lewis natters on about his survivalist fantasies and the narrator, Ed Gentry, a semi-successful ad man back in the city, dreams of killing his first deer with a bow and arrow.

When Deliverance was first published in 1970, before the dueling banjos and the unforgettable sight of flabby, naked Ned Beatty squealing like a pig had become cultural touchstones, readers could be forgiven for assuming that the menace the men face would come from nature—a wild bear attack, a torrential rainstorm that swamps their canoes. I am not that reader. I have seen the movie and I even read the book once before many years ago, yet still it startled me when, on page 94 of my ancient Dell paperback, two armed men step out of the forest and kidnap Ed and his flabby, hapless friend Bobby.

Until that moment, Deliverance is a well written, if somewhat talky novel about four suburban idiots on a camping trip. From that moment on, the novel is a perfectly realized parable of Southern manhood in a time of great cultural change. For 94 pages, Dickey bangs the reader over the head with how suburban life, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and shopping malls, has emasculated these four sons of the South and the fantasy they’ve built for themselves about how a weekend in one of the last remaining pockets of Southern wildness will untame them.

Then, in the blink of an eye, one of their number suffers the ultimate emasculation when he is raped at gunpoint by a pair of toothless hillbillies, and the four suburbanites return to a state of nature where they must kill or be killed. The novel’s themes of manhood and leadership and the will to survive at all costs, which Dickey has kept dammed up under endless pages of talk and rambling narrative observation, are released by the abrupt, shocking sight of a man being raped by another man—and for another taut, marvelously rendered 130 pages all the reader can do is hold on for dear life as Dickey shoots rapid after rapid in this wild, neo-Southern Gothic adventure tale.

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Publishing a Novel, as Explained to Aliens

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If you’ve ever wondered how a novel gets made, from the first glimmerings in the author’s imagination to what readers say about it in their book clubs, Clayton Childress’s Under the Cover is the book for you.

Childress, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, has performed a remarkable feat of investigative reporting, interviewing dozens of writers, editors, and readers, and even embedding himself for a time as an intern at an indie publishing house, to follow the tortuous path of Cornelia Nixon’s 2009 historical novel Jarrettsville from inspiration to publication and beyond. Unfortunately, because Childress is a social scientist and Under the Cover is part of the Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology series, readers have to drill through layers of academic framing and insider jargon to find the nuggets Childress has mined from his years of research.

This is a shame because, whatever his gifts as a sociologist, Childress is a first-rate shoe-leather reporter. He begins by getting inside Nixon’s head, tracing the origins of Jarrettsville back to a family story about a Maryland ancestor, Martha Jane Cairns, who fell in love with a Union soldier shortly after the Civil War, became pregnant with his child, and then, after he left her, shot him dead in broad daylight as he marched in a parade.

In these early sections, Childress occasionally gets sidetracked by his academic training, as when he suggests that “in Nixon’s writing group, recompense operates largely within an economy of time and artistic attention, a gift exchange of sorts,” as if trading story drafts were a lit-world equivalent of the exchange of shell necklaces among Trobriand Islanders. But he does a superb job of showing how Nixon’s decade-long struggle to write and publish Jarrettsville transformed a raw family story into a published book.

Nixon spent five long years researching and writing a draft of the novel, then called Martha’s Version, which she sent to 22 publishing houses, all of which rejected it. Childress, ever the social scientist, breaks out the positive and negative comments in Nixon’s rejection letters into a handy bar chart showing that while editors liked Nixon’s treatment of the time period and the issue of race, they felt the plot was too slow and the major characters needed work.

Anyone who has ever sent out a novel for publication has created their own mental version of Childress’s soul-crushing little bar chart, and like Nixon, has pored over it looking for the signal in the noise of conflicting editorial feedback. To her credit, Nixon figured out what was wrong and overhauled the book, adding a long section from the perspective of Martha Cairns’s doomed lover. Or, as Childress puts it: “Nixon took the editors’ explanations from the field of production, and first alone and then with guidance from her social circle used them to redraft Martha’s Version into Jarrettsville.”

Much of Under the Cover is written in this curiously anthropological tone, as if Childress were explaining how to eat a bowl of cereal to a race of aliens who had never seen a spoon. What is even more curious, though, is that, amid all the jargon, Childress nails the great secret of publishing, which is that it is a business fueled by special brand of infectious enthusiasm. (This might be the place to mention that Childress quotes, at some length, from a Millions piece of mine, “‘A Right Fit’: Navigating the World of Literary Agents”.)

In his chapters on Counterpoint Press, where Childress worked as an intern while it was publishing Jarrettsville, he documents how Nixon’s book passed from her agent, to her editor, to her publisher’s sales force, to buyers at major bookstores, rising and falling in value as each person in the chain fell in love with the book or didn’t. Of course, each of these people are busy professionals who can’t possibly read every page of every book that crosses their desks, so much of the time they were falling in love, or not falling in love, with the idea of Nixon’s novel.

Since each person in the chain was being paid to hype a full slate of books to the next person in line, any sign of unfeigned enthusiasm—a kind comment by a proofreader, a review of half the book from a sales rep—rippled through the system, carrying the book along in its wake. In the case of Jarrettsville, the book rode this tide of readerly goodwill straight onto the high-traffic front tables at Borders, the now-shuttered bookstore chain, where it foundered, in large part due to a single bad review in The New York Times.

Childress gets this deeply human element of publishing exactly right, so it’s disheartening to see it explained in sentences like this one:
While most sociologists, following the theory of Bourdieu, bifurcate the literary field into artistically and commercially driven poles, it is at the organizational level within the field of production in which art and commerce are harmonized as a requisite feature of being in the business of promoting and selling books.
Translated into plain English, Childress is saying that despite what people think, publishing isn’t a war between art and commerce, but a business that thrives by blending these two things. This is a core insight of his book, and he’s right, but he’s buried his point in a sentence that seems almost scientifically designed to be impenetrable to non-specialist readers.

First, there’s that single-name reference to Bourdieu, tossed in without context as if the late French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu were a cultural phenomenon like Madonna or Beyoncé, so instantly recognizable that you only need the one name to know who he is and be fully up on his theories. And if you weren’t scared off by the mononymic French dude, the rest of the sentence will stop you cold, with its weakly focused main clause (“it is at…”), awkwardly placed introductory prepositional phrases (“at the organizational level within the field of production”), passive voice (“are harmonized”), insular terms of art (“the field of production”), and ornate Latinate phrases (“bifurcate,” “requisite”).

I’ve been teaching writing at the university level for more than 20 years and I can assure you no one writes like that naturally. You have to train people to write sentences like this, and when they regress and start making sense again, you have to ensure that their livelihoods depend on being consistently incomprehensible outside a narrow set of like-minded colleagues.

Therein, to my mind, lies a small, perhaps unavoidable tragedy of how knowledge is produced and promulgated in our society. Childress was able to do such a fine job researching American publishing in part because he was heavily subsidized, first as a doctoral student at the state-supported University of California at Santa Barbara, and later as a junior professor at a research university partially funded by (Canadian) tax dollars. When he began Under the Cover, Childress explains in an afterword, he was a grad student looking for a subject, and now, many years later, he is a tenured professor at the University of Toronto, no doubt thanks in large part to the publication of Under the Cover.

So the deal worked out well for Childress, and it has worked out well for cultural sociologists and their students, who now have a new text to study in their classes. But for other readers who might be interested in the subject matter of Childress’s book, particularly writers and people considering a career in publishing, it’s more of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Childress has given us a deeply reported insider’s look at how the sausage gets made in contemporary publishing. On the other hand, he has built such high walls of academic verbiage and doctrinal framing around his work that only a few hardy souls outside his area of specialty will ever succeed in climbing them.