Safe Words: The Millions Interviews Teddy Wayne

-

Early in the Trump years, novelist Teddy Wayne grew so irate at the seemingly endless river of presidential perfidies that he and his wife, the novelist Kate Greathead, had to establish a safe word to indicate that it was time for his political ranting to end. Years later, with Trump out of office (but not yet out of mind), Wayne has off-loaded some of that free-floating ire onto the protagonist of his latest novel, The Great Man Theory. Paul, a recently demoted adjunct instructor of freshman comp, is angry not only at the president but at our entire dumbed-down, media-obsessed modern age. Except that Paul doesn’t have a wife—she’s ditched him for a “Tom Cruisian” second hubby—so he has no one in his life to help him edit his rants.
In The Great Man Theory, we watch the slow-motion meltdown of a proud would-be public intellectual undone by his outrage at a world gone wrong and at his inability to accommodate himself to its digitally mediated demands. But what makes the book a joy to read is Wayne’s deep empathy for his sad-sack protagonist, who, for all his preening moralism, remains a dedicated teacher and a loving, if sometimes inept, father to his preteen daughter.
Wayne is the author of four previous novels, including Loner and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and regularly writes for the New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” column. We caught up with him recently for an email interview about The Great Man Theory, which comes out today.
Michael Bourne: As I read The Great Man Theory, I was doing that thing where you cast the book for the movies, and it seemed obvious to me that your protagonist, Paul, should be played by Paul Giamatti. Which reminded me that Paul Giamatti has been getting a lot of work in the last decade or two. Why do you think this character of the hapless, yet aggrieved middle-aged white guy has become such a cultural staple? Is this character a part of the present zeitgeist or has he always been around in our books and movies?
Teddy Wayne: Historically, there’s certainly been no deficit of disaffected or disenchanted middle-age white male protagonists in American literature. But those unhappy characters typically chafed against their putative success, from the man in the grey flannel suit to the Armani-clad Wall Street psycho. There’s been a marked diminution in the white male’s self image that mirrors the decline of America’s stature since 9/11. (Or since at least 1999: that year, in the first episode of The Sopranos, Tony laments that he “came in at the end—the best is over,” and that fall the film version of Fight Club depicted various crises of modern masculinity).
Throw in the 2008 recession and a steep drop in military veterans (from 37 percent of the male population in 1950 to about one in eight now) and the U.S.’s disastrous record in wars since 1945, and you get a country of men who perceive themselves as being weaker and poorer than those in their father’s and grandfather’s America. It’s no surprise that post-9/11-culture introduced all those feckless losers—the Giamattis, the Walter Whites, the Judd Apatow characters—as well as the compensatory buff of superheroes to shore up fragile egos. The rapid gender and racial shifts of the past decade or so have further threatened the white male, accelerating his descent into a state of aggrievement or, worse, anger; whereas the younger ones have a chance to come of age seeing these changes as signs of progress, the older ones are more likely to feel that for them, too, the best is over.
MB: So how did you come to write this character? I know you a little, and you strike me as neither hapless nor aggrieved. And it’s not just Paul from The Great Man Theory. The protagonists of your last two novels, Apartment and Loner, are socially awkward, sometimes malevolent guys. Why are you drawn to writing these characters, do you think?
TW: The narrators from my first two novels, Kapitoil and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, were far more talented and lovable figures, so it’s been more of a recent trend. In part, I think writers in their early books—especially their first, when readers assume a debut is veiled autobiography—are concerned with how they may come across as authors and therefore strive to create likable protagonists. Having gotten that out of my system, I seem to be going the opposite direction, nearly inviting readers to confuse me with the last three protagonists, all of whom share at least some details of my own life and are repellent to varying degrees.
But the bigger factor is the political and cultural environment. Loner came out in September 2016, so while it’s technically a product of the Obama years, it feels more like a precursor to the gender and class dynamics of his successor’s reign, and Apartment and The Great Man Theory were both started during the Trump administration. I can understand a desire for art to serve as a beacon in benighted times, but I’ve been more interested in exploring commensurately darker characters—in particular, men who are responding with growing frustration and aggression to their changing status.
MB: The Great Man Theory is indeed deeply engaged with the cultureand politics of the Trump era. In a recent Publishers Weekly interview, you said: “I was obsessed with the Trump administration, but I didn’t want to write a sanctimonious novel, a takedown.” What specifically were the pitfalls you were trying to avoid? And why not a takedown? What’s the danger, in an artistic sense?
TW: In the early days of the Trump presidency, when the shock was fresh and violated norms still came off as abnormal, I would read the news at night and rant to my wife about the latest horror. She was in agreement but found my jeremiads hard to take before bedtime—so much so that we introduced a kind of safe word to indicate that I needed to wind down. (It was “sufficient.”) So, the biggest pitfall would have been writing just that, a book-length tirade about the obvious—that Trump is a corrupt, incompetent, bigoted con man; his cronies in politics and media are cowardly cynics; and his followers are greedy or ignorant or racist—while preaching to the choir, readers of literary fiction who are overwhelmingly liberal and who, too, would tire of being told what they already know.
The path I hit upon was to write a character who was like me in his hectoring outrage, but to regard him from a slight, at times comic, distance so that the book itself did not recreate that unpleasant or tedious experience for the reader. Paul is angry—not just at the unnamed president and his right-wing media enablers, but at his liberal friends for what he sees as their hypocrisy, at younger people for their presumed apathy, and at a consumerist, technocratic society that he believes is anesthetizing us all. Again, many readers are already likely to be in sympathy with some of his positions, and, taken on their own, his ideas might be better served by a nonfiction book. What potentially redeems this as a novel is that Paul is ultimately embittered most of all by his own failures: as a man, a writer, and especially as a father to his young daughter. This tragic quality, I hope, gives his “sufficient” lectures a more acutely painful sting.
MB: I like the idea of a safe word to end political rants. I think we need to institute a national safe word, particularly online. But you’re right about Paul and his daughter, Mabel. Paul loves Mabel deeply, but he also feels a compulsion to curate her life, particularly her media diet, to meet his sometimes fusty standards. What’s your take on this? We’re clearly not supposed to see his political obsessions as healthy. What about his parenting? Is he blowing it there, too? Is it possible to not blow it as a parent these days?
TW: My own children are still too young to be in danger of succumbing to the temptations of the internet, so I can’t speak from a place of real experience, though I’ve already seen how hooked they can get on superficial visual entertainment; they’d watch Tom and Jerry all day long if they could. (My own curation has been to steer them to older movies and cartoons when possible.) If there’s a major overlap between my and Paul’s cantankerous judgments, it’s in the effects of modern technology on all of us, especially children and adolescents. After Paul lectures his students on this topic, one of them raises the point that the internet and social media can be democratizing forces and amplify voices of those who would otherwise be silenced, which I agree with.
Other than that, I think it’s mostly hurt us, as a body politic and as individuals, in all the ways that don’t need to be restated, with the most pernicious effects on those who are too young never to have known a disconnected life. The experience of spending hours by yourself with no external stimuli other than maybe the printed word is getting harder and harder to come by, and at the risk of sounding like a sentence from Paul’s book-in-progress, The Luddite Manifesto, we are losing something essential to our humanity in the process. So, to answer the question in this roundabout fashion: it’s probably not possible to not blow it as a parent, but maybe that’s always been the case.
MB: I know you have adapted some of your earlier novels for TV and film. Is there interest in a screen adaptation of The Great Man Theory If so, what’s that process like? Do you find that elements of the original novel get sanded off in the transfer to screen or does the extended space of a cable series allow you to explore characters and themes that got left out of the novel? 
TW: I’m adapting it for a production company for TV. Not to be annoyingly secretive, but I’m not supposed to publicly state which company it is. Without revealing too many details, one change I decided to make with the producers is switching the era and the country so as not to set it in Trump-era America (even though Trump is never named as the president in the novel), to sidestep viewers’ MAGA-fatigue and the skittishness networks have over depicting modern American conservatives as villainous.
With the shorter runtime of a film, you have to pare away the source material and leave only the absolutely essential scenes, and if there’s a character-evoking moment in the novel that doesn’t take place in a scene that moves the story ahead, you have to find a way to incorporate it into one that does. With the longer span of a TV series, there’s still a premium on implacably advancing the narrative, but with some wiggle room to include subplots, minor characters, and smaller scenes that are more about building tone and character.
I find the creative aspects of screenwriting very enjoyable. In my experience, at least, I’ve collaborated with smart people who want to make elevated fare, and I like the craft of the medium quite a bit; there’s something a little mathematical about the form in its emphasis on structure. The business part is less appealing and involves a lot of waiting around for contracts to be reviewed by lawyers, for executives to read things, for decisions to be made by entities you never meet. Ultimately, hardly anything ever gets produced, so I enter into each new project with enthusiasm while also assuming that it won’t get made.
MB: So what’s next for you after The Great Man Theory? Can you talk about your next book or are you worried about jinxing it?
TW: I’m working on a new novel. I’m hesitant to say much about a work in progress, but the protagonist isn’t hapless and aggrieved, which is a refreshing change.

Don Winslow’s ‘City on Fire’: Good, Old-Fashioned American Pulp

-

Don Winslow’s latest novel, City on Fire, set in the author’s native Rhode Island, is the first in a trilogy about a mob war between Irish and Italian crime families in 1980s Providence. It is not, to be frank, top-shelf Winslow. The plot is leisurely in ways his novels rarely are, and I felt the dearth of fully realized female characters more keenly than I had in his earlier books.

But to put it this way is unfair to City on Fire. Winslow has set the bar so high with books like Savages, his paean to homicidal SoCal stoner cool, and with his masterwork, the Cartel Trilogy— The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border—about Mexico’s bloody narco wars, that what for most writers would be a career-capping achievement is, for Winslow, just ho-hum, another solid crime tale fresh in from the Winslow assembly plant.

Still, City on Fire isn’t a bad place to start building your Winslow collection. Before he wrote novels, Winslow was a private investigator, and he brings to all his books a deep understanding of criminal organizations, both at a human level and as business enterprises.

This is especially true in City on Fire, which opens as two local crime families, the Murphys and the Morettis, gather for a big clam bake held every year to cement the peace between the families and keep the junior mobsters from killing each other. As the scene unfolds, we learn how the Providence mob works, the Irish Murphys running the longshoreman’s unions and the Italian Morettis the Teamsters. “How they had fought each other, these two immigrant tribes, for a place to put their feet,” Winslow writes. “The Irish in Dogtown, the Italians on Federal Hill, toeholds carved out of grudging New England granite.”

In the years since, the mob leaders have forged an uneasy peace, which is broken after the clam bake when a brash Murphy lieutenant makes a play for the girlfriend of one of the Moretti mobsters. She claims he assaulted her, and the Moretti men, in full chest-thumping fury, beat the offending Irishman nearly to death with baseball bats, setting in motion the mob war at the center of the book.

The press materials for City of Fire attempt to coat all this with a frosting of Greek mythology, likening the novel’s hero, a young Irish dockworker named Danny Ryan, to Aeneas, and Pam, the girlfriend whose accusation sets off the mob war, to a modern-day Helen of Troy. Maybe. The novel’s more obvious antecedents would seem to be Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and the mobster films of Martin Scorsese. City on Fire is good, old-fashioned American pulp fiction—intelligent, well-written pulp, even—but pulp nonetheless.

In the 1980s, when the novel is set, the port of Providence is slowly dying, and the local mob outfits, always in the shadow of the big-city Mafia outfits, risk being swallowed up by New York’s Five Families. This leaves local mobsters to make Lincoln-esque tactical calculations aimed at maximizing their fighting strength without sacrificing their criminal enterprises or the goodwill of local politicians and police, who look the other way so long as they stay away from drug dealing and don’t leave too many dead bodies on the streets.

For Danny Ryan, who gradually gains control of the badly outgunned Irish mob as other family members are killed off or prove unworthy, the calculus is brutal. His Italian rivals can call on hired assassins from the
New York Mafia families and own the city’s mayor and a sizeable portion of the local police force, while he’s stuck with a handful of local men and a lone Northern Irish separatist, who quickly gets himself shot.

The financial mismatch is even more lopsided: “the Irish have the longshoreman’s union, the docks, and some small gambling and loan-sharking; the Morettis have the Teamsters, the construction unions, the vending machines, cigarettes and alcohol, major gambling, major money on the street, strip clubs and prostitution.”

“That’s the problem with a war,” Danny reflects, “you have the challenge of trying to stay alive and at the same time make a living. Hard, when you’re being hunted, to go out and make your collections, or make a score, or even get back and forth from work.”

Of course, this being a gangster novel, Danny makes up for what he lacks in men and materiel with brains and pluck, and he survives, battered but unbowed, to take what surely will be a starring role in the next two installments of the trilogy.

And of course, Danny being a man, he gets to use his brains and pluck. For the most part, the women in City on Fire are relegated to the role of worried wife, or, in the case of Pam, the novel’s would-be Helen of Troy, the face that launches a thousand mob hits.

The lone exception is Danny’s estranged mother, Madeline (an Aphrodite stand-in, according to City on Fire’s press materials scorecard), who has traded on her beauty to escape her trailer-park beginnings and become first a Vegas showgirl and then one half of a marriage of convenience to a spectacularly rich, and spectacularly ugly, manufacturer of women’s undergarments.

This is a common figure in Winslow novels, the calculating woman who uses her beauty to buy power and influence over men. But here, perhaps because Madeline’s Vegas milieu isn’t drawn with Winslow’s usual exacting verisimilitude or else because Madeline doesn’t have a lot to do in the novel other than be fiercely maternal toward Danny and his family, her character feels flat and not a little contrived.

This strikes me as a problem male crime writers need to solve. Crime is, almost by definition, a male-dominated world, but Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn and Tana French, who writes the Dublin Murder Squad novels, have found ways to make women central to their plots without resorting to clichés. And because women read many more novels than men do, their books have been runaway bestsellers.

One senses Winslow puzzling out how to pull off this same trick, but even in his best novels, a woman’s principal power resides in her beauty —that is, in how men see her and how she’s able to use that to get what she wants. That was never really how the world worked, but in books written and talked about exclusively by men, it could plausibly seem that way. But those days are gone and men with protean storytelling talents like Don Winslow need to adapt to the times.

A Year in Reading: Michael Bourne

-

Twenty years
ago, my sister sent me a book in the mail. My sister isn’t one to send letters
and she’d never sent me a book before. The book was a debut novel by a writer I’d
never heard of, and inside the front cover my sister had written a short note, which
read:

“This is a
book about elevators. You have to read it.”

The novel was The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and my sister was right, I did have to read it. Set in a city that sounds a lot like postwar New York but isn’t, the novel conjures a world in which elevator inspectors follow two competing schools of thought: the Empiricists, who use traditional instruments to diagnose an elevators’ problems, and the Intuitionists, who ride the elevator and feel what’s wrong with it. When Lila Mae Watson, a young Intuitionist and the city’s first black woman inspector, is blamed for the failure of an elevator, the novel sets in motion a sly allegory on racial uplift.

After I thanked my sister for the gift of The Intuitionist, I became a Whitehead evangelist, reading all his books and pressing them on friends. I didn’t love everything he wrote—Zone One, his 2011 zombie novel, is pretty meh—but with each book, Whitehead seemed to be stretching himself, restlessly experimenting with form and genre and subject.

So I was puzzled by my reaction to the two novels he wrote after Zone One, The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2019). Both won the Pulitzer and cemented his status as one of the pre-eminent novelists of his generation, but they left me underwhelmed. I don’t know how defensible this reaction is. It could very well be that, like that annoying guy who can no longer listen an indie band after it starts winning Grammys, I was merely resenting having to share Whitehead with the wider world.

But the
thing I like about reading Whitehead is how you never quite know, from book to book
or from page to page, what he’s going to do next. Who else would think to tell
the story of race in America through a parable of elevator repair? But with The
Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys I knew what to expect, and I
got it. Even the speculative elements, like the fact that the route to freedom
in The Underground Railroad turns out to be an actual underground
railroad, struck me as groaningly literal-minded. Okay, so it’s an actual underground
railroad. So?

All of which helps explain why I was so thoroughly gutted by Whitehead’s latest novel The Harlem Shuffle. I read plenty of other great books this year. I went on a bit of an Ann Patchett binge, reading Commonwealth, The State of Wonder, and The Dutch House. I reread Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, two classics that get more relevant with each passing year. I inhaled the crime stories IQ and Righteous by Joe Ide and Razorblade Tears by rural-noir genius S.A. Cosby. In nonfiction, I choked with rage at the destruction wreaked by the Sackler family as reported in Patrick Radden Keefe’s Empire of Pain and empathized with Matthew Specktor’s tale of failure and creative rebirth in Always Crashing in the Same Car.

But nothing touched the mastery and ease of The Harlem Shuffle. A collection of three linked novella-length crime stories set in Harlem in the late ’50s and early ’60s, The Harlem Shuffle follows Ray Carney, a striving young furniture store owner drawn (mostly) against his will into criminal capers. The most inventive and engrossing of these is a heist at the famed Hotel Theresa, “the Waldorf of Harlem,” but a lot of writers can cook up good caper plots. What sets The Harlem Shuffle apart is its voice, by turns witty and urbane, thoughtful and brooding. Take, for instance, this delicious bit of scene-setting early in the book as Carney’s ne’er-do-well cousin Freddie meets Miami Joe, the mastermind of the Theresa job, at a bar called Baby’s Best:

The lights were going, though, spinning and whirring, perhaps they never stopped, even when the place was closed, red and green and orange in restless, garish patrol over surfaces. It was Mars. Miami Joe had his arms spread on the red leather when Freddie walked in. Miami Joe, sipping Canadian Club and twisting his pinkie rings as he mined the dark rock of his thoughts.

That’s what
I mean by never quite knowing what’s coming next. You think you know where this
is going. You’ve literally seen this movie before: the noisy club, the garish
lights, the underworld figure off on his own with his whiskey and his pinkie
rings, and then, out of nowhere, he’s “min[ing] the dark rock of his thoughts.”
This is classic Whitehead, at once a punchline, a dead-on character moment, and
a deft rhetorical move away from crime fiction into the loftier realms of
literary fiction.

I have no beef with readers who loved his two previous Pulitzer-winning novels. Maybe they’re even objectively better books. But I couldn’t kick the sense that in taking on American slavery (The Underground Railroad) and the Jim Crow South (The Nickel Boys), Whitehead felt he had to pull out all the stops, out-Whitehead Whitehead. Compared to these literary symphonies, The Harlem Shuffle is a chamber piece, played in a minor key. But sometimes the simple pleasures are the best.

More from A Year in Reading 2021 (opens in a new tab)

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2020,  20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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
game.

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.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017201620152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

Motherhood Is Life-Shattering: The Millions Interviews Kirsten Lunstrum

- | 2

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

- | 1

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

- | 16

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.

“Where?”

“Anywhere?”

“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.