A Confederacy of Dunces

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Nightcap with Gian

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This is a story I now wish I could revisit in more precise detail, the way I’d read work on the written page. We were not really friends, and he did not publish me; I never sent any writing his way. I doubt he’d have recognized me years later and to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him either, despite our having been in the same room more than once since this happened. I have heard his name a lot in more recent times. Spoken of like an anchor amid the storm of literary ambition, or to put it more clearly, a pivot around which a great lot turns. I met Gian only once, though, circa 2012. It was with some finance guys a couple of years older than me who I used to go drinking with (round after round on them), among whose number was a friend in common. I remember the beatific energy, and his eyes, that hilarious mercurial shine, the way he leaned in to share an opinion. It was late, a vast, posh, nearly empty space in TriBeCa, all copper and dark glass, our final destination of the night. Since almost nobody else was there, we eventually left our booth and were perched at the bar. He didn’t say that he was a publisher or an editor, only that some of his own writing could be found here and there, like in Vice, really being modest about himself, while I plumped up about, you know, whatever I believed my accomplishments were at the time. I probably at some point mentioned James Franco. He talked up A Confederacy of Dunces, and Firework by Eugene Marten, which I had to read because I’d love it, he told me. I texted “Eugene Martin Firecracker” to myself. He asked whether I was working on a novel manuscript in a way that suggested I had no excuse not to be working on a novel manuscript. But I want it to be perfect, I believe I probably said: you know that feeling—of wanting something to be perfect? Doesn’t have to be, I believe he answered, laughing: Have you seen the kind of shit they publish? I had no understanding he was someone who could have published me himself; we were speaking only as avid believers in the art of fiction. I was truly, thoroughly soused, and another four or so rounds were ordered after his arrival, none of which I paid for—the kind of night into which you grow more intensely present for the knowledge of what you and your cohort are doing to your bodies, while at the same time your awareness starts going swimmy at the edges, slipperier and more unsteady, a state preceding the obliteration of consciousness. Even in your proximity to another human being, the force and style of increasing candor—my God how eloquently you are now finally saying all the things you really mean!—recognition dawns that you will soon start to forget, are already forgetting, for example, what just happened. What did just happen? In the end it was him and me. What I do most definitely recall is Gian ordering another round—I might have just as well told him not to, however many sheets to the wind I was, but didn’t want to be rude. I remember watching as he leaned over the leatherette check presenter, penning his signature. Then, when I looked again, after taking another slug of scotch, his own drink was sitting there to my right, on the corner of the bar, just barely touched. And he was gone. I initially had the thought that he’d ducked into the bathroom and would be back. I continued to nurse my drink. The bartender asked, “Is he coming back?” I said that I didn’t know, maybe not. Eventually the drink, which had started to spin like a barrel over a waterfall, was cleared. A friend I’ve told this story to called it an “Irish goodbye,” but it seems to me to go beyond that… More lavish somehow, and prompting a different set of thoughts in the aftermath. What kind of a goodbye is that? I remember how the fact of his mostly full drink on the dark bar made his absence feel provisional, as if the drink itself, unconsumed, were a commentary on what all we’d just been rapping about. I remember how my attention clung to it, attempting to will my surroundings into a steadiness that my swimming consciousness refused. Absence as a precondition of the power of literary fiction was a favorite topic of mine back then. Maybe it had come up along the way. More certain is that he punctuated his gesture of magnanimity by disappearing, whether deliberately or on the spur-of-the-moment, I can’t say. Through the next morning’s hangover I went on Twitter, where I’d only recently started an account (30 followers), and found my erstwhile interlocutor: Giancarlo DiTrapano, publisher of Tyrant Books (probably about 7,000 followers at that point). Honestly can’t remember exactly whether I followed him, then unfollowed a week later when he didn’t follow back, or if I was just too cowed to show myself, fellow of grand literary ambition, as a fringe character with tweets of little to no traction. Either way, how totally ridiculous. The main feeling I took from that night, as pieced together over the course of the following day? I actually had better finally write a novel manuscript if I was going to continue calling myself a fiction writer. This, to be able to, if not impress someone like Gian, then, at least, hold my own in that kind of company. If you take a look at what he published at Tyrant, with Atticus Lish’s novel probably being the most well-known among several other darkly glimmering titles, you’ll see his taste was pretty pronounced: granular gritty evocation of states of sexual and drug-induced derangement that skirt up against titanic emptiness, with a major emphasis on authenticity. You couldn’t doubt when reading these texts that the authors had experienced something very much like the extremity of what is described. He lived hard himself, and published work that reflected his own openness to experience, and while I wouldn’t say we need more like him—because, honestly, who could be just like him?—we definitely do need more generous readers with the courage of conviction in their own taste, who believe in books and are willing to stand up for those convictions, which he was, and did, in spades. Who know, as Gian did, that artistic integrity is tough to maintain without opposition to the reigning pieties.
***
I initially started writing the above for myself after reading news of Gian’s passing during the week of April 4. When I thought I had something coherent (what’s above), I shared it with a few friends: “A sweet story,” one wrote. “Seems like a classic Gian evening,” voiced another. I went ahead and read the remembrances in the Paris Review Daily and at the Believer, which being mostly by those who knew him far better than I did, offer a fuller portrait of who he was. I also read, in its entirety, the text chain from the course of a single year that Tao Lin and Gian shared on Vice, a thread whose general tenor is probably recognizable to many of us who have lived in New York City for any significant amount of time (what’s happening tonight?, when are you going to get there?, what’s the crowd like?), if not necessarily in canny specifics (jokes about their shared dealer, habitual invocations of the word “sweet”). Later that week I finally followed the link to Gian’s story from the now-defunct lit site Pindeldyboz, preserved for posterity with all the ballyhoo of the trunkless legs of Ozymandias. Fortunately, for a writer, all that matters are the words on the tablet, and with “The Rumor That Reached West Virginia” Giancarlo DiTrapano seems to have boiled the essence of his being down to around a thousand keenly ordered parts, fiction that registers as stingingly fresh today as it probably did the moment he decided his work on the piece was complete, and shifted focus to ushering into being other writers’ aspirations. “The Rumor…” reads like an ars poetica almost, vivid in both language and arc. ‘Content’ is the word that some use now for literary work and much of anything else, the suggestion being that all writers are doing is supplying chocolate dollops on a never-ceasing conveyor belt—and not, like, the essence of themselves—something it might be remotely possible to get right in one go. “I want to be able to say, ‘I’ve had my vision,’” seems like the kind of thing I might have said, quoting Virginia Woolf’s Lily Briscoe, mid-drunken monologue, on my night at the bar with Gian, the kind of thing he might have cheered on my saying. As he did for me that night, he was willing to make himself available to young or up-and-coming writers, to show himself as a human being, the polar opposite of a corporate functionary.

Part of the humor, I imagine, of publishing a piece as cheekily mind-melting and potentially shaming as a year’s worth of text messages, is knowing that when you did shatter the clock with that one flash fiction piece, every word seared in a defining passion, you then woke the next day to find… well, the heads along the way might have proven savvy to what you did. Generally speaking, though? The world goes on as before, apparently none the wiser. I know there is some question of what will happen with Tyrant Books; if there’s any justice in the literary realm, always a disputed notion, to be sure, “The Rumor That Reached West Virginia” will find its way between two covers, on the printed page, perhaps in a book that contains both Gian’s own work, and remembrances of him by the writers he championed at Tyrant, a form of collective legacy-making.
***
All of us who aspire to create art have our muses. Alongside those guiding spirits, in a kind of dialectic, are the actual gatekeepers, those who say yes and no. I think, for some reason—maybe because located next door to KGB Bar, where a memorial for Giancarlo DiTrapano was held on Friday, April 16, is the New York Theatre Workshop that debuted Hadestown here—of Orpheus and Eurydice. Who bring to mind Persephone and ol’ Hades himself. Would Gian have hated being compared to the King of the Underworld? Hoping not. Like all the great publishers, he probably knew it was best to be a little bit muse and gatekeeper.

On the entrance floor, those who made the trip to KGB Bar that evening left flowers—bunches of roses, single stems, a cluster of lilacs—around a circle of votary candles, at the center of which other personal offerings were arranged with care. Above the candles’ gently wavering glow and attached to the closed grate of the downstairs theater (the pandemic still hovering) stood a large printed image of Gian: affectless, in a dark t-shirt, and with cigarette poised by his side, a lamppost’s light glaring through the night sky. Almost seeming to dare the viewer not to make such a big deal. Saturnine grace acknowledging the brokenness of things, without sentimentality or posturing. Yet those who made his acquaintance for almost any period of time will recall that he also laughed. That he joked. That some shit was too fucking hilarious not to. Running over the top of the picture, another printed banner, larger even than what was below, of a tweet from winter of 2014: “it’s ok to say no, it’s okay to say fuck you, and it’s okay to say goodbye.” Gian’s choice to abridge the first ‘okay,’ no doubt made in abeyance to Twitter’s then 140-character limit, now all but sacramental. Friends and admirers paused before the shrine to pay respects, some weeping. For others, it seemed, it was all they could bear to spend a moment there, then head back outside, red-eyed, for a cigarette and a walk off into the awaiting evening.

Upstairs, in the third floor Red Room at least, where the overflow crowd found itself, things were weirdly—if not exactly normal—then the most casually familiar they have been, for me anyway, in a good long while. This, despite the current of sadness underlying most all that was said. Perhaps disconcertingly, conversations picked up, in some cases, almost exactly where they left off in December of 2019.

Late in the day, as light faded outside the open window, the writer Kaitlin Phillips spoke briefly before editor Jonathan Smith read a statement from Gian’s husband in Italy, Giuseppe Avallone: a remembrance of a chance first meeting involving a missed subway stop, followed by a statement of intent concerning the preservation of the legacy of Tyrant Books.

From our grouping over by the window, someone observed a guy in a gray sport-coat and loafers who had just walked in the door at a good distance from where we stood. Gian almost definitely had no friends who fit that guy’s description, the observer suggested.

“The night I hung out with him, we were on the town with a group of finance guys,” I volunteered.

“Finance guys?”

I nodded.

“Finance, really?”

We all of us speak our truth against that which would subsume us.

Death is, naturally, the cosmic Big Gulp awaiting if not all of humanity—will Peter Thiel’s consciousness live on, in a container somewhere, on a rocket out past Pluto, in centuries to come?—then for the vast majority of us. Against that encroachment on our lives, for some time now, there have been those who answer the calling to commit words to the page. Behold, all those in the grip of metempsychosis! Yes, finance guys rule the epicurean sandbox of the city, lords of pleasure and forgetting, while increasingly corporatized, risk-averse book publishers carry on at least the facsimile, if not always the spirit, of the rogue gatekeepers who founded the houses whose names they still carry. All these efforts geared toward resisting the seemingly unbreakable monopsony whose name we all know. Hey, don’t get me wrong—the ground beneath us all is shifting; the ground beneath us all is always shifting. Great books still make their way through the channel. It is not, after all, a science. Big money, as it always does, runs off in myriad directions, some more and some less worthy: angel investing, film production, economy-of-scale driven apps, crowd-funded performance spaces, drugs (that old staple), activism, festivals, presidential campaigns. All I’m saying, really, if legacy still matters—and given the prospect of rising ocean water, there are no doubt those who would scoff at the presumption of claiming it does—is a body could do a lot worse, in 47-too-brief years, than to found a publishing house to champion works of art on the page. All I’m saying, really, is the editor and publisher of Tyrant Books, by every indication, took a lot of love with him when he went.

Thanks for the drink, Gian.

Image Credit: Pixabay

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