Not the New Messiah (NaNoWriMo 2022 #25)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Believers)

Nine months after the civil unrest in sixteen cities had been stubbed out (historians would later call this period the 2027 Pancake Riots because many of the protesters had doused bankers and Wall Street men in pancake batter, spawning an unanticipated costume trend the following Halloween in which kids bought third-hand business suits, dressed up as the rich, and trick-or-treated with gallons of pancake batter dumped over their heads), the Democrats — who controlled both the House and the Senate by a mere thread — had finally figured out, twenty years too late, that business-as-usual lip service and squeaky-clean centrism were probably not enough to hold the country together. They began welcoming more progressives into their wings, largely out of conceptual desperation rather than any genuine respect for a more left-leaning view, and the people elected them.

Sure, it wasn’t enough to prevent the Republicans landing the Presidency in 2032. But even the right-wing demagogues, whose veins popped out of their furious necks in much the same way that the Aztecs were drawn to ritual sacrifice, couldn’t gainsay that actually paying people a living wage and accounting for their heightened productivity had curbed both inflation and crime. The public copulation trend had fizzled out, replaced by a new self-love meme in which people became more encouraged to build off of the conceptual masturbation video framework initiated by Beautiful Agony and upload videos of themselves happily engaged in self-pleasure, which had the additional benefit of quelling the dangerous alt-right incel movement that had flourished for a good fifteen years. Somehow, the left and the right could find something to agree on. Everyone liked sex. Self-pleasure was also something that those who believed in abstinence before marriage could be included in. And while the more fundamentalist strains of Christianity thought this was all a moral catastrophe, several progressive-minded pastors had pointed out that this was better than people openly fucking in parks, cafes, and restaurants. And while dating apps had toppled on the verge of bankruptcy for the last few years (to say nothing of dating, which had become more cost-prohibitive during the 2026 recession), when the tech companies began encouraging people to include videos of themselves masturbating from the neck up, the strange honesty of being able to see how someone looked during an orgasm resulted not only in heightened sex, but healthier relationships. There were more enduring marriages (many of them rooted in the rising trend of ethical non-monogamy) and fewer divorces.

Celebrity scandals became less scandalous. When your spouse had an affair, there was more honest talk. And because people were a lot happier, more peaceful, and more comfortable with expressing their sexuality, the religious right swiftly descended in popularity. I mean, who wanted to get out of bed on a Sunday morning, put on a constricting necktie or a dress with a constraining undercarriage and listen to some pompous pastor expatiate about the professed virtues of the Holy Bible? Some churches were so desperate to stay afloat that they constructed glory hole rooms next to the confession booths. And when releasing your tensions — often to a frustrated housewife or a man who had stayed closeted for most of his life, both thrilled by the sudden acceptance — proved more popular than revealing your sins, even staid and humorless organizations like the Catholic League had to confess that they had lost the culture wars. They formed postmortem committees and tried to figure out new ways to court their declining constituencies. But it was all for naught.

And because people knew that there were all these new private and nonjudgmental venues to explore their kinks, there was a return to the enticing mysteries of meeting people without judging them solely on their social media footprint. The revenge porn problem was nipped in the bud. How could you humiliate an ex by despicably posting an old sex video if she had already beaten you to the punch?

After had gone bankrupt — in large part due to the erratic insanity of a billionaire CEO who burned through VC money faster than Elon Musk had — a new open source movement had arrived — one similar to the Fediverse — where a code of conduct was practiced and people were no longer publicly shamed for the spicy videos they posted. And this proved so paradigm-shifting that not even an obnoxious British writer named Ron Johnswain could find a conceptual hook for his facile Gladwellian books anymore — in large part because Johnswain had constructed his flimsy self-help premises without considering anyone other than damsels in distress. Johnswain was revealed as the knee-jerk huckster he had been all along and not even his annoying high-pitched British accent could win him an audience. He returned to Britain in shame to manage a Tesco supermarket.

Because the literary Daves had proven to be so monstrous during the Stroller trial (deemed the “trial of the century”), which had exposed the sex trafficking ring in all of its cruel depravity and caused Sophie Van Kleason, Clark Mannix, Bill Flogaast and numerous others to land long prison sentences, it took a good nine years before the publishers would buy a manuscript from anyone named David ever again. A few distinguished MFA workshops had even declined entry to anyone named David. Because Davids could no longer be trusted. Which wasn’t entirely fair to the more innocuous Davids out there. And when the David Oppression Movement emerged at Zuccotti Park in 2038, with numerous Davids descending on New York and declaring that they had the right to write novels, there was not only a new David Renaissance, but an unexpected rise in literacy. Numerous articles had declared the novel dead, but it was still quite alive — in large part because anyone with even a vague command of spelling and grammar simply didn’t know how to shut the fuck up.

And Ezmerelda Gibbons had emerged as the hero, even making the cover of the New York Times Magazine in a splashy profile. When Benjamen Stroller had been revealed as the man she had performed oral sex on in her final OnlyFans video, and the disturbing coercive measures he had used to silence her had at long last been released to the public, she wrote a memoir, which sold three times as much as Ali Breslin’s volume had. The film rights had been optioned for $4 million, though not without Ezmerelda exacting a contractual condition for Sven to serve as director of photography. Ezmerelda stopped production on Toking for Elders, but the backlist episodes proved insanely profitable. Because everyone wanted to know every detail about Ezmerelda’s story.

And on a spring day in 2031, Ezmerelda and Sven were sitting in Velseka at 2 AM after attending the film premiere of Not the New Messiah at the Paris Theatre and attending a ridiculous after party in which many Hollywood people had offered the two of them dubious promises of creative freedom and financial lucre. New York City was the last place on earth that even the quasi-famous could sit down and enjoy a meal without being mobbed. Sven spooned his borscht and Ezmerelda laughed when not eating her stuffed cabbage.

“How did you come up with that final shot?”

Sven picked up his phone and texted her. He still refused to talk.

The director had no idea what to do. John Ford seemed a good fit.

“John Ford?”

Sven delicately set down his spoon and held up his finger, urging her to watch. He picked up one of the paper menus and formed it into an improvised cowboy hat. And then he walked slowly towards the door. He looked back to see if Ezmerelda had figured it out.

“Oh! The Searchers!”

Sven returned to the table and excitedly nodded his head.

“But I’m not a racist.”

It was a joke.

“A joke?”

None of the film critics have figured it out yet.


And once they do, they’re going to be pissed off.

It was certainly true. They’d been crazy about Not the New Messiah and there was early Oscar buzz.

“They mythologized me. They turned me into some paragon of virtue. Me! Of all people!”

Sven nodded.

“Sven, are you ever going to talk with me? We’ve known each other long enough to move past the Harpo act. Besides, the New York Times called me the ‘new Oprah.'”

“Okay,” said Sven.

Ezmerelda spit out her holubtsi. His voice was beautiful: dulcet, bright, and — she couldn’t deny — sexy as hell.

“Sven! Your voice is gorgeous.”

“It doesn’t matter.”


“If I talk, they’ll find a reason to hate me.”

“But you’re hot, man! Teflon proof! For fuck’s sake, Paul Thomas Anderson wants you to shoot his next movie!”

“They canceled me when I spoke up.”

“But, dude, we’re winning! Look around us. People are actually enjoying themselves.”

And it was true. A couple swiftly falling in love with each other held hands. A group of twentysomethings laughed over their disastrous failure at the Rumpus Room. And a man who had looked very sad and lonely and friendless when they had walked in was now starting to smile after two guys had the decency to introduce themselves. And the three of them were now picking away at their beef stroganoff and making funny airplane sounds.

“Come on Sven. It hasn’t been this peaceful since Obama was President.”

“It will pass.”


“Everything passes,” said Sven. “Ups and downs. It’s part of the human cycle.”

“You want to know something, Sven?”


She placed her thumb and her forefinger to her lips and zipped it. Then she picked up her phone and started texting Sven.

Do you think I can last a week like this?

Sven laughed.

“They’re going to hound you.”


“The media.”

Let them. I’m done being their Messiah.

“They’ll offer you lots of money.”

I have everything I need.

“They’ll want your thoughts on everything.”

They should learn to think for themselves.

A young woman approached the table.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Are you…?”

“I think you have the wrong person,” said Sven.

“But she’s…she’s Ezmerelda Gibbons! Oh my god! I loved your memoir. It changed my life!”

Ezmerelda pointed to her mouth and held her hands up in the air.

“Oh! You’re mute! I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sven. “She gets that a lot. Have a good night.”

The young woman curtsied and returned to her friends.

“You see,” said Sven. “Staying silent is a choice. And it’s very empowering.”

I get it now.

“I knew you would.”

But why are you talking now?

“Because now it’s time.”

Sven paid the bill and the two walked out of Veselka. They hugged and said goodbye. The Lyft driver was one of those mercifully silent types. And in the back of the car, Ezmerelda deleted her YouTube channel, her TikTok account, her Instagram account, and pulled the plug on her website. Let them find somebody else to speak for them. Let her audience speculate about why she had done this or what she was now doing. They would forget about her, just as they forgot about anyone who had landed fifteen minutes of fame.

She stayed up to watch the sun rise. She was too excited to sleep. There was a lambent blaze upon the glistening streets. And Brooklyn looked more beautiful, more gravid with exciting possibilities. She looked out the window and watched the people walking to the subway, the kids laughing on their way to school, the old school dude beatboxing on the corner, and a woman dancing as she cleaned her car. And she laughed. Everything was going to be all right. She finally knew what real life was. All she had needed to do was to cede the stage.

Edward Champion
Brooklyn, New York
November 1-30, 2022

(Word count: 52,702/50,000)

The Believers (NaNoWriMo 2022 #24)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Dead Journalist)

“I don’t need your help,” said Senator Rob Rollins, who had been in Washington long enough to know not to be intimidated by even the first-rate big shots. Even the big shots who were smarter than he was. After all, he was Senator, wasn’t he? But it was now clear that, for all of his bluster, Bill Flogaast was no longer a king. Bill Flogaast had violated the sanctity of his mountain retreat and he was now little more than a larval grifter. In fact, ever since Flogaast had left his perch as head publicist, he had looked more and more like an insect. There was now a strange buzzing quality to his voice: an emphysema-like rasp to his sentences. His hair had receded after his wife had left him and the thinning thatch had revealed the slithering chalky sheen of a spotted forehead: the kind of ugly and unsightly dome that only constant spite for others managed to bring out in bitter people afflicted by male pattern baldness. At least white supremacist opportunists like Tim Pool had the decency to cover up their hideous hate-riddled heads with a beanie.

“Don’t you want to preserve your political career?”

“At this point, I really don’t care. Bill, I have a few years left in my term. I came up here for some inner peace so that I could figure out how best to serve the South Carolinan people. Particularly with all the riots now going on.”

“Aha,” said Flogaast. “You want people to believe in you.”

“They can believe whatever they want about me.”

“But the videos, Rob.”

“It’s Senator to you, Bill. Yeah, my people are aware of this and they are on it.”

“I mopped it all up for you five years ago. Ask yourself, Senator, how much more your loyal constituents can handle images of their golden boy screaming at his flabby acolytes?”

“Debbie Ballard has been handling all issues related to my campaign. She’s handling my public image. Not you. You can take this up with her.”

“Oh, but I already did,” said Flogaast through a sinister smile that he had practiced after laughing over the way that a slimy former editor of the New York Times Book Review — a closeted misogynist who could never finish his book on a conservative “titan” — had somehow won over book nerds with his sleazy middle-aged teeth.

Flogaast flashed Rollins that smile. And it reminded Rollins of the skeeze lobbyists who had tried to bribe him in his first year in office.

“Debbie Ballard,” said Flogaast. “What if I told you that she was no longer around?”

“Are you threatening her?”

“Now, Senator,” said Flogaast, who now took a seat in the sacred wicker chair. “You and I both know that I don’t kill people.”

“You’re getting sloppy, Bill.”


“This James Bond villain monologue. I thought it was beneath you. If you’re saying that you know about Atticus and me, well, tell it to the world. I don’t fucking care.”

The Senator walked to the minibar and overturned a tumbler, pouring himself two jiggers of bourbon. He rarely drank these days, but there were some times when you needed succor.

“Thanks,” said Flogaast.


“I mean, thanks for offering me one,” said Flogaast, holding up his empty palm.

And the parallel to Ricky Gervais being brutally humiliated by Garry Shandling was too much for the Senator. He heartily chortled.

“Wow, Bill,” said Rollins. “You’ve become a walking cliche. Do you steal all your moves from stale memes?”

“70% of them, if you must know. Debbie Ballard is dead. Or at least she should be dead by now.”


“As is Ali Breslin. And another not very bright journalist by the name of Herbert Budruck. Who knows, Senator? Maybe you might be next.”

“You know, threatening a government official is a felony under federal law. Up to five years of imprisonment. Do you want to go to prison, Bill? I mean, if you’re confessing to me that you’re an accessory to multiple murders, it sounds like you do.”

The Senator took a swig from his glass.

“Maybe,” said Flogaast. “Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t really care.”

He stood up, walked to the minibar, and poured himself twice as much bourbon into his tumbler as the Senator.

“What do you believe in, Senator?”

“Many things.”

“Do you believe in a god? I mean, I know you make appearances at churches to woo the Catholics and those middling and gullible Presbyterians. But you’re not really a religious man, are you? What do you believe in?”

“The human ideal. Or, rather, what people can make of themselves. Nobody’s perfect.”

“The physical body?”

“It started there.”

“How Leni Riefenstahl of you.”

“I’m not a Nazi, Bill. They can criticize my voting record or the bills I’ve had my people draft, but the one thing they can’t say about me is that I’m a Nazi.”

“No, they can’t,” said Flogaast, who took a big swig. “You’re something worse.”


“You’re a covert believer, Senator. Someone who props up the sham narrative that everyone gets a piece of the pie. I mean, do you think it’s an accident that we punctuate our Thanksgiving meals with pumpkin pie? Which we never eat any other time of the year?”

“What are you getting at?”

“Belief, Senator. Everybody wants to believe in something. Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, democracy. You name it. They used to have the Church. But practicing the teachings of Christ meant that they actually had to read books. That they had to be good. And they didn’t want to be good, Senator. No, not at all. I’ve seen it. I’ve covered up misbehaving authors and true reprobates. I tried coaching them, but they didn’t listen. Just as most people don’t want to listen. Because being good is too difficult, Senator. It requires effort. It requires thinking outside of yourself. And most people don’t want to do this because they are inherently selfish. Do you think it was an accident that empathy became politicized after the pandemic seven years ago? That helping people became a partisan issue? I’ve also been in publishing long enough to know that people don’t read as much as they used to. But here’s the big surprise. They are reading Ali Breslin’s book and they will learn about you.”

“So I trained the woman — what was her name?”

“Ezmerelda Gibbons.”

“Ezmerelda Gibbons, that’s right. So I had an appointment with Ezmerelda Gibbons on the day that Paul Van Kleason died. Big deal.”

“But Ezmerelda told you about the ring, didn’t she?”

“The ring?”

“Don’t be naive with me, Senator. The ring! The little getaway to Amsterdam that Stroller had cooked up, where anyone — including a lot of award-winning authors who I handled, including all of the literary Daves — could engage in the most vile depravity imaginable and suffer no consequences. No questions asked. They fucked children, Senator. Children who were groomed through alt-right websites and smuggled to Europe in airplanes. They had so much money — and, with inflation, money has talked more than it ever has in American history — to bribe families and anybody else who wanted to look into this. I mean, did you ever wonder why so many Republicans — your party, by the way — are so obsessed with pedophilia? That Pizzagate conspiracy theory from way back when. That was mere projection. They were the ones who were running the ring in plain sight. And they would never acknowledge this because they wanted to believe they were good. Even when they were spouting homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism on social media. They had Elon Musk and Kanye West under their finger, right when these wildly mediocre men were losing their fortunes, and that made the expression of hate and nastiness — under the guise of being good, under their twisted virtue of ‘free speech’ — so much easier before Twitter went down. But then they started fucking each other in public. And some of the more prominent figures — like Brad Carmody and David Fitzroy — had to kill themselves. And some of them — like David Leich — became murderers. And if they couldn’t outright kill people, they’d find someone who could. Because they couldn’t live with this contradiction. The idea of being good when they really weren’t. The impossible ideal of living up to perfection, easily punctured by some troglodyte in his basement dredging up tweets from twelve years ago to cancel them. They started tracking everyone around them with the Samsung Surrounder and ascribing a new and completely manufactured currency of goodness through online reputation.”

“What does this have to do with me? I’ve never been to the Netherlands.”

“Oh, sure, I know you weren’t directly involved, but you withheld knowledge.”

“I was never questioned.”

“Your name was in Stroller’s black book.”

“He had a lot of names. I never visited him in the Netherlands.”

“But you know people who did. And Ezmerelda confided in you to name these names. Just as Paul Van Kleason was about to do before — well, before, certain people — maybe some man fond of wearing burgundy ties who fled to the Dominican Republic, one of those guys who never stays loyal, that asshole! — took care of him. But Ezmerelda? Well, they couldn’t kill her. Because it would look very suspicious if the person who discovered Van Kleason’s body was also dead.”

“And then Ali Breslin came along.”

“And made Ezmerelda a hero. You see, she was in a rough spot with that last Onlyfans video she made, which she didn’t want to make. And you knew her. And what will the American people have to say about that?”

“I never talked with Stroller.”

“No, but your association with Ezemerlda speaks for itself. And Stroller did have your number. And a lot more than that. You had Atticus.”

“Bill, I work with colleagues who have done far worse than I have and who have been far more reckless. I mean, they’re so flagrant that they don’t even try to disguise their Cash App transactions anymore. And you know what? Nobody cares. Unless you’re a Democrat. And then you step down from office like Al Franken.”

Flogaast returned to the wicker chair.

“Nobody cares, huh?” he said. “Oh, but they will care. Because it’s very easy to make people believe. Let me tell you a story. Have you heard of Peter Reilly?”


“September 29, 1973. He was an eighteen-year-old kid. His mother was killed the previous night in their Connecticut home. Her throat was slashed. Her legs were broken. There had been evidence that she had been raped, Senator. A grisly sight. And Peter came home from a meeting at the teen center and he saw his mother bleeding on the floor, unable to breathe. Oh, he had found his mother alive. But of course she soon died. And that last little detail raised the heckles of the local police. Sure, there was no blood on his clothes. Why, Peter was in the clear! But it was that tiny discrepancy that did it. He was held overnight by the police. And they interrogated him for six hours. Didn’t get a wink of sleep. And he finally cracked under the pressure of losing his mother, the lack of sleep, and the constant questioning by the police. And even though he was innocent, the police kept at it. It didn’t take all that much. They told him that he was confused, that he had somehow blocked the event from his memory, and that he must be mistaken in his account. Peter even refused the right to an attorney. Well, he signed a confession and he went to prison for manslaughter, still insisting that he had killed his mother. But he hadn’t. And really, Senator, that’s all it take to get people to believe. And as a publicist, I’ve been in the business of getting people to believe things that never actually happened. So that’s who you’re dealing with right now.”

“I’m not an eighteen-year-old kid.”

“Neither was Fitzroy, Carmody, Leich, or any of these guys. People want to believe, Senator. Orwell was significantly understating things. You don’t have to torture anyone with the rats to get people to believe that two plus two equals five. All you have to do is gaslight them. But you don’t even have to do that. If someone in a position of social media influence says something is so, it simply is. Forget Edward Bernays. It’s Goebbels who was right all along.”

“Get the fuck out of my house.”

“Or what?”

“Bill, you made the mistake of not remembering that South Carolina is a one party consent state.”

The Senator set down his drink on the table.

“Alexa,” he shouted to the ceiling, “play back the part about Amsterdam.”

The little getaway to Amsterdam that Stroller had cooked up, where anyone — including a lot of award-winning authors who I handled, including all of the literary Daves — could engage in the most vile depravity imaginable and suffer no consequences.

“Alexa, stop. I think that’s enough for the Feds, don’t you?”

Flogaast polished off the last of his bourbon and set his empty tumbler next to the Senator’s very full one.

“You’re making a mistake, Rob.”

“It’s Senator Rollins.”

That’s when Flogaast busted out his pistol. The Senator dived and Flogaast fired off a shot just six inches above his head, the bullet casting a hole in the Riding Bikes print. Flogaast was no match for the Senator, who had stayed in shape. The Senator tackled Flogaast with a fierce run directed at his waist, knocking the gun from Flogaast’s hand. They rolled on the floor, knocking over a vase on the credenza, which splintered into shards. But the Senator had Flogaast’s hands pinned behind his back in less than two minutes.

“You thought you were so smart, Bill. But you made one mistake. Every house is now smart.”

“Is there anything I can help you with?” said Alexa.

“No. Thank you, Alexa.”

“You’re very welcome, Senator. Estimated time of police arrival: two minutes and twenty-two seconds.”

But Flogaast didn’t need the countdown clock. Because the police sirens were now piercing through the peace.

Six months later, after the protests had died down, went belly up, and people had returned to the innocent practice of sharing cat videos on the Internet, the video of the Rollins/Flogaast struggle went viral and the Senator had publicly come out, Atticus took him back. They were married one year later. And in the 2032 presidential election, Rollins swiftly became the Republican frontrunner, roundly defeating Ron DeSantis and a wheelchair-bound orange menace in the primary debates. And it all happened because the people simply wanted to believe in something. That something became President-Elect Rob Rollins.

(Next: Not the New Messiah)

(Word count: 50,752/50,000)

The Dead Journalist (NaNoWriMo 2022 #23)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Seagulls)

Contrary to what most people have seen in movies or listened to on true crime podcasts, it is actually quite difficult to get rid of a dead body — as David Leich was swiftly learning. For one thing, a dead body is extremely messy and disgusting and, even if you are the most prodigious deep cleaner in the world, it will take hours to dispose of it properly. There are also DNA samples to worry about, the potential witnesses who can testify against you later, and, most annoyingly, settling upon a proper place to ditch the corpse. Which is a lot more complicated than trying to find a decent fusion restaurant in the Lower East Side for that promising date from Bumble.

Leich had believed he could simply dump Budruck into the East River, a tried and true venue that was used by many mobster and where it is estimated that at least one freshly dead body sinks to the bottom every week. The most courageous deep divers rarely talk about all the skeletons that have seen at the bottom, largely because it is quite embarrassing to be aware of the full extent of human depravity, but mostly because they are too busy worrying about whether or not the toxic water will cause their hair to fall out or shorten their life span in some way. But somehow Nature has accommodated the vast influx of homicides over the centuries. Which is quite impressive, given that the East River runs a mere sixteen miles and has a maximum depth of 108 feet. Escalated climate change in the 2020s had caused some of these human remains to wash up on the shores of Brooklyn and Manhattan more and more. And even the gangsters had to confess that the East River was not as reliable as it had once had been.

But Leich, for all of his self-professed smarts, was not a professional on this front. He had taken on the disposal of Budruck’s body himself, much like sheltered affluent types believe that they can hang drywall. And he was realizing that the stink and mess of Budruck, complete with the dripping geyser still spilling from Budruck’s recently hammered skull, was a lot tougher to scour than a wine stain from his couch.

Should he chop the body into several bits? Well, that would create a bloodier mess. He had busted out a large burlap rucksack he had used back in his upstate hiking days. But there was no way that Budruck was going to fit into it. And then there was Budruck’s weight to factor in. 170 pounds perhaps? He had once been able to bench-press 300 pounds, but was not in the best shape these days. Why had he allowed pride to overwhelm him when the vacuum guys had called? You needed at least one other guy for a job like this. And Leich had somehow managed to alienate everyone. Even the sociopathic writers who shared his hatred of Mike Harvest didn’t come around for dinner and drinks anymore.

So he had moved around a lot of furniture. And he heard the thumps from downstairs: the neighbors complaining with loud booming collisions against the ceiling at the worst possible time. And he shouted obscenities through the floor. And they stopped. And he tried to mop up the mess, doing better than most people in the situation. And the repugnant smell caused him to puke several times in the bathroom. But he kept at. Leich kept at it. Only succeeding in making a bigger mess, particularly when he had unwisely tried to saw the body in half.

More bangs on the floor from downstairs.

Those goddamned neighbors. Would he have to kill them too? That seemed a bit ridiculous. There were five people who lived downstairs. An entire family. Yes, they were annoying, but that seemed like too much work. And then he would have six bodies to dispose of instead of one. The criminal answer to running a triathlon.

Just as he was about to swallow his pride and call back the vacuum guys, there was a knock on his door.

“Mr. Leich?”

He looked through the eyehole. Two cops. One doughy, one in shape.

They knocked again in that hard masculine way that cops tend to rap on doors. It is a knock that usually fails to consider that the person on the other side may be a PTSD victim.


He grabbed a bedsheet and a comforter from the closet and tossed it over the dead body. Even beneath this, Budruck still clearly resembled a human.

Knock knock knock.

“Mr. Leich, we just want to have a word with you.”

He raced to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, hoping that nothing of Budruck’s blood or skull fleck was there. Then he hastily put on a new shirt as the cops still knocked and opened the door.


“We’re responding to a noise complaint.”

“Uh, don’t you have bigger problems?”

There was more gunfire outside.

“What?” said the doughy cop.

“The riots?”

“Oh,” said the fit cop. “We’ve got our guys on that.”

More gunfire. Someone screamed.

“For fuck’s sake, did you hear that?”

“We did,” said the doughy cop. “But we don’t make the rules.”

“The dispatcher sent us here,” said the fit cop.

The screaming in the streets continued.

“Wouldn’t you say that that is a bigger problem than a noise complaint?” said Leich, genuinely astonished.

“That’s not for us to say,” said the doughy cop.

“We don’t make the rules,” said the fit cop.

“Okay, I’ll keep it down,” said Leich.

The fit cop glanced behind Leich and saw the hasty job that Leich had made covering up Budruck, who appeared to be sitting on the settee.

“Are you alone, sir?”

“No,” said Leich.

“Do you mind if we come in?” said the doughy cop.

“Yes,” said Leich. “Come on, boys, don’t you have bigger fish to fry?”

“There’s a protocol in place,” said the fit cop.

“We don’t make the rules,” said the doughy cop.

“What’s that smell?” said the fit cop.

“Dinner gone bad,” said Leich.

“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step aside,” said the doughy cop, punctuated by radio crackle.

And that’s when the fear gripped Leich. He rushed out of his apartment. But the two cops had anticipated this. And by the time Leich had hit the floor below, the doughy cop — that hideous mass of high carbs and too many trips to Dunkin Donuts, of all people, had pinned him to the marble surface and had his hands manacled behind his back. They read him his Miranda rights and Leich’s frightened head darted left at the sound of a door opening. The apartment below him. A woman who was in her early fifties looked at Leich with contempt.

“Ma’am,” said the fit cop, “please return to your residence. It’s not safe.”

“I knew there was something wrong with this white man. Racket at all hours. Clomping this. Clomping that.”

“Oh, fuck you,” said Leich.

“Ma’am,” said the doughy cop. “Please.”

But the woman refused. There was a guttural hem from her throat and she unleashed an impressively phlegm of spit onto Leich’s graying head. It was, after all, important to mark your territory.

“Ma’am,” said the fit cop, “there will be plenty of time for that later. Please return to your residence.”

And the woman silently closed the door. She had a huge smile on her face and she slept very well that night, even as the rolls of gunfire showed no signs of waning.

* * *

Seven hundred miles south of David Leich’s apartment, Sophie Van Kleason had listened to Debbie Ballard. And she was relieved that Ali Breslin had managed to get many of the details wrong, but she still knew enough truths about the past. Enough truths to be a serious problem. At least that’s what Stroller had told her yesterday on the phone. Stroller said that he was on it and that anyone looking into the ring was going to be taken care of. She shuddered at the coldblooded tone of his voice. She knew what he had meant. She also knew what he had meant when he said that there would come a time in which she would have to make a big move herself. She wouldn’t be surprised if Ali Breslin was dead by now.

“So you can see that this is very serious,” said Debbie. “Your former husband was part of the trafficking ring and Gingrich Moore was the main contact in the publishing world.”

“Gingrich Moore,” laughed Sophie. She wondered what Bill Flogaast thought about all this. Yes, Ginny had been his rival and had ruined his career. But even this publicity spin, this revenge that Flogaast had so masterfully executed, was impressive. And that was the thing about Flogaast, wasn’t it? Everyone simply assumed that publicists were stupid. But if you were the king of the land, you not only knew where the bodies were buried, but how to make people believe that others had murdered them. I mean, look at how they had turned Teddy Winner into a pariah because they resented his smarts and his talent. Look at how they had made everyone in the media world — even Brad Carmody! — falsely believe that he was dangerous when he was merely a boisterous smartass.

“All the literary Daves were involved. And the Senator was too. And Ezmerelda Gibbons…”

Yes. No. And no, thought Sophie.

“What do you really know about Ezmerelda?” asked Sophie.

“I’m sorry.”

“She trained with the Senator too, didn’t she?”


“Then it stands to reason that she would have a motive to get rid of my husband.”

Clark looked at Sophie with that fawning romantic naivete that you often see in men who have spent half their lives being steamrolled.

“But Ezmerelda was innocent! Breslin talked with numerous witnesses. She has alibis! Lots of them who point out that she wasn’t anywhere near your old home at the time of the murder. If only we knew who the man was in the video.”

“The video?”

“The last OnlyFans video that Ezmerelda made before walking away!”

“But we don’t, do we?” said Sophie.


“So why did you come here?”

“Because you’re an old friend, Sophie,” said Debbie. “And I figured that you would have some answers.”

“You’re more interested in rehabilitating the Senator’s reputation.”

“Well, that I can’t gainsay.”

“Can you leave her alone?” snapped Clark. “Hasn’t she been through enough already?”

Sophie wheeled her chair around and looked Clark in the eye.

“Clark,” she said, “how much do you love me?”

“With every waking breath.”

God, she hated to do this to Clark. She had grown so fond of him. He had been so squeaky clean. So innocent. She actually wanted to love him. If Ali Breslin hadn’t poked her nose so indefatigably into her past, then she might have had a shot at a normal life. But she knew that was beyond her now. They’d find out soon enough that she had been another Ghislaine Maxwell.

And she did miss the old days. The men who begged to be hurt. The way that Paul sobbed when first learning the full extent of her many affairs. The way that he had begged him to stop. And the way that she had so nimbly manipulated him to be the fall guy for the ring.

“Would you do anything for me?” she said.

“Yes,” said Clark.

“You’re sure?” said Sophie.

“Yes,” replied Clark.

“Sophie,” said Debbie with the concern of someone who had somehow missed a dusty corner while cleaning the house, “what’s going on between you two?”

“Lock the doors,” said Sophie.

And Clark dutifully deadbolted the front door.

“Clark, I need you to kill Debbie.”

And the hell of it was that he did. In the end, all men guided by their dicks were the same.

(Next: The Believers)

(Word count: 48,295/50,000)

The Seagulls (NaNoWriMo 2022 #22)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Old Habits)

The seagulls dived upon the Myrtle Beach tourists and liberally scooped up bites of their corn dogs and churros faster than you could say “There’s a leopard taking a nap in the foyer.” While few people in Myrtle Beach had ever seen a leopard — much less a panther taking an afternoon snooze (a rare though not entirely unprecedented act in South Carolina) — they remained surprised and affronted by these impressive descents, which recalled the nimble gullshaped Stuka bombers from nine decades before. The Germans had, of course, built six thousand of these deadly planes, which had gleefully dropped bombs on thousands of people with that uniquely destructive gusto that white supremacy tends to bring out in its deranged acolytes.

But this wave of destruction had been largely forgotten by most South Carolinans, who were more interested in memorizing statistics associated with the Clemson Tigers and condemning Dabo Swinney for any perceived solecism in coaching — both foolproof methods of initiating conversations with strangers in bars.

And even if the largely uneducated clusters who gathered upon the beach during the summer months had known a few basic details about one of the most abominable wars in human history, the Third Reich’s mass military production was no match against the ferocious commitment of seagulls, who openly copulated under docks and on seaside rooftops with a randy glee that outdid Giacomo Casanova at the peak of his fuccboi prowess. Moreover, the seagulls were at least decent enough, despite their primitive animal minds, to not target Jewish people. For them, all humans were fair game. Which made the seagulls superior to ape-descended life forms on at least one front.

Every spring, the seagulls mated and popped out eggs and built nests. And by May, there were thousands upon thousands of new seagulls ready to harass helpless humans on the Eastern Seaboard. And these natural instinctive acts of gull lust and fledgling mayhem were decidedly more remarkable (and certainly less pernicious) than anything that an evil and hideously overpraised Nazi pilot like Hans-Ulrich Rudel had accomplished in his sixty-six years.

What nobody knew, however, was that seagulls could see the dead.

* * *

Ali Breslin first started to get the inkling that she might be dead when people didn’t acknowledge her friendly hellos or give her darting supercilious glances because of her sherpa beanies. She had been told by her agent to develop a fashion style to stand out and Ali had settled upon a rotating set of pastel hats — all lined in a soft jersey knit. And the people of Myrtle Beach, who already had to contend with the obscenely rich sneering down on them from their Dune Coves McMansions, had cultivated a natural antipathy to anyone wearing a sherpa beanie.

Granted, many Americans — with their incessant ghosting of lovers and job applicants and their distressing refusal to recognize people who work in retail as actual human beings — could be reasonably categorized as the living dead. Late-stage capitalism had made it evermore easier to become something of a zombie. But when Ali approached a snack bar set up on the boardwalk and tried to order a cheeseburger, she was stunned when the man behind the counter could neither see nor hear her. And she really knew something was wrong when she scooped out her phone from her purse to check on her current Amazon ranking (like most authors, she checked this no less than sixteen times a day) and text a few friends. Her fingers melted through the phone in a fine mist. She was incapable of summoning so much as emoji. On the other hand, this also meant that she wouldn’t have to sext anymore with that cute guy she had met on Bumble.

“What the fuck?” she screamed.

But nobody heard her. Families walked past her. No creepy men catcalled her. She waved her arms frantically, but none of these people saw her.

There had been moments in Ali Breslin’s life where she resolutely wanted to have nothing to do with people. Which was something that made practicing journalism a bit of a catch-22. You needed people to talk to you in order to write a story. On the other hand, you often loathed making a cold call to a potential source. Because the idea of interacting with these people in any way filled you with the type of dread that most regular people apply to filing their taxes or wondering if your former spouse’s divorce attorney would uncover some sordid embarrassment during the vicious rounds of discovery. And you complained about it because, well, writers are the biggest and most annoying complainers on the planet. Not even pampered billionaires complain as much as writers do. While other people quietly went about the unpleasant duties of their day with a quiet grace and a buttoned-down humility, writers were unapologetic and often wildly exhibitionistic victims, often when there was nothing particularly significant to worry about. And this incurable self-absorption is one major reason why so many non-writers secretly detest writers with the combined BTU heat of a thousand habanero peppers. It is also why certain bald Brooklynites engaging in fun but incredibly insane online creative experiments during the month of November feel the need to parody them in the most scathing manner imaginable. If writers could learn to shut the fuck up and abandon the foolish geocentric model that they still live by and maybe develop a smidgen of interest in other people, then literature would not be considered the least of all arts in the early 21st century.

Now that Ali no longer had the option to court or avoid people, she started to miss their vagaries and vacillations. And she even regretted choosing the writer life when she had lived.

She hadn’t quite recalled what had brought her to the boardwalk in the first place. She had still been committed to carrying on with her investigation to publish new material in magazines and write new chapters for the paperback edition so the saps would be forced to buy her book twice. She had some dim memory of arranging an interview with Benjamen Stroller, that seedy master operator who had resisted her requests for an on-record chat for years, but who had somehow changed his mind when her book started taking off and gaining considerable media attention. But after that, it was all a blur, as it often is for people who die.

When people die, there’s usually about a twelve hour fog, which includes the final two hours of their lives. You never remember how you died or what the exact circumstances were behind the death. And this is particularly useful if you died in an especially embarrassing manner. The soul — if there is anything left of it — usually needs time to acclimate to the ridiculous inconvenience of being dead. Your newly dead corporeal form, decidedly more ghostly and more abstract than its living fleshy counterpart, also needs time to readjust into something that is a bit more aesthetically pleasing — particularly if you have died in an especially gruesome way.

“Hello! Does anybody see me?”

Nobody responded.

Now if a newly dead person is especially arrogant, she will often shout like this a great deal longer than those who are humbler and more accepting of this regrettable state of affairs. And because there is no actual handbook — no Being Dead for Dummies that you can purchase at the River Styx Bookstore — it is often a great shock for newly dead narcissists when they no longer realize they are the center of attention and they can’t easily manipulate people anymore. When the once famous writer David Fitzroy had passed into the undiscovered country, he was such a supercilious and insufferable blowhard that he spent six weeks screaming at people until he finally accepted his rightly deserved irrelevance. Fitzroy became so desperate for attention that he spent several decades haunting the Space Mountain ride at the Magic Kingdom, but the thousands of kids were too dazzled by the strobe tunnel with the constantly flashing blue lights to care. And it was so depressing that Fitzroy wondered if he could off himself again. But he couldn’t. Because he was already dead.

Ali Breslin was not as arrogant as Fitzroy, but, because she as a writer, she was still smug enough to attract the swarm of seagulls who were now spiraling in the air above her. Their eyes bulged as they saw her and they began to squawk very loudly. (85% of the time, seagulls are squawking because they have just seen a newly dead human.)

“Would you shut up?” said Ali.

The seagulls responded with more squawking and they begin to swoop down on her, making passes right through her spectral body. Which was incredibly annoying to say the least. When she held her arms up and made feverish gestures at the birds to knock it off, this only galvanized the seagulls, who flew within her and made increasingly impressive arcs where her lungs and liver used to be. They seemed to very much enjoy this.

“Recently dead?” said a very familiar shadow to her left, somehow managing to lean on the boardwalk rail.

“Wait, do I know you?”

“It took me about a year to learn how to lean like this, you know. More difficult than learning how to ballroom dance. Because you don’t actually have any physical weight anymore.”

“You’re so familiar.”

“Oh, I get that a lot. You may know me because you may have read it.”

“You’re a writer. A writer I know! I’m a writer.”

“Well, I regret to inform you that the dead don’t read. You see, the dead trees are very upset about their corpses being used for paper. Oh look! There’s a few of them right now!”

The shadow pointed to a ghostly group of conifers walking along the edge of the surf. It reminded her of the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. Trees — true to their nature — lumbering forward in a slow undulating pattern. Their uprooted tendrils trailed behind them, casting rakes in the sand that only the dead could see and that would be quickly smoothed over by the waves.

“You see, the trees can actually move here. The dead have less weight. And the trees understand this better than anyone. And they torture the Chinese.”

“The Chinese? The trees are racist?”

“No. But they invented paper. Cai Lun — the guy who invented paper — is actually in a witness relocation program right now. Poor bastard. It’s not as if he could anticipate the human appetite for reading over the next several centuries. Although I don’t know why the trees still care. People are reading far less than they used to.”

Another seagull flew through Ali.

“This is so annoying.”

“Don’t worry. It only happens during the first week. It’s almost as if the seagulls came up with their own answer to sitting shiva. But instead of the dead getting an opportunity to heal, we’re pestered by these little bastards.”

“One week?”

“Seagulls stop seeing you eventually. But, for now, you’re their main focus of attention. That is, until they see some food dropped by a tourist.”

“What happens when the seagulls die?”

“Nobody knows. Dead gulls don’t seem to make it to purgatory. Nobody knows why.”

“Maybe we should leave.”

“You know, I could show you a few leaning basics. You’re going to need a lot of new hobbies, you know. Because from what I understand — and I’ve only been dead for about five years — you’re apparently dead for all eternity. At least that’s what the other dead people tell me.”

“How the hell did I die?”

“You see, all spirits have a bit of natural buoyancy. It was Orv Wright who taught me that. He was the first serious dead leaner. And you know what they say? If it’s time to lean, it’s time to clean. But since we dead don’t make messes, we can lean all we like. It’s actually quite relaxing!”

“Orville Wright? You mean, of the Wright Brothers?”

“He lived longer than his brother Wilbur, you know. But if you ask me, Wilbur’s a bit of a prick. The guy never comes down to earth anymore. All that whining about dying young of typhoid fever. Well, my death was far more embarrassing!”

“I’m sorry, but you look so…”

“Familiar? Yes, you just said that. And I think I know who you are.”


“You’re the silly woman who wrote that book about me.”

“Wait. You can’t be…”

“I was a writer, yes. These days, I’m a leaner. Quite frankly, I find leaning far more rewarding.”

And then it suddenly hit her. And she felt so stupid about only now recalling the voice that had appeared in those creepy videos. But the dead do have a lot of brain fog in the first twenty-four hours.

“You’re Paul Van Kleason!”

“Well, that used to be my name. These days, I got by Aelius.”


“Named after the sun. That’s something that Pontius Pilate suggested. Also an asshole, by the way. But then you’d have to be to crucify Jesus, wouldn’t you?”

“Does Jesus exist?”

Ali had never been especially religious. More of an agnostic than anything else. But if there was one singular faith that ruled the world of the dead and that humanity had invented countless insane rituals to explain, she wanted to know about it.

“You see, that’s the funny thing. Nobody has been able to find Christ in the afterlife. If you ask me, I think they made him up. Though Pontius swears that the guy did actually exist and was apparently very good at parties — you know, the whole water to wine act. But he was not the hero he was painted as. More of an insufferable blowhard. Believe it or not, I once ran into Bartholomew.”

“The Apostle?”

“Yes. Utterly hated Jesus. Regretted having anything to do with him. He sounded like some roadie who was stuck on a bad concert tour and had to finish the job. Never meet your heroes, I suppose. And unfortunately you’re probably going to run into many of them. Me? I haven’t run into Jesus yet. I don’t know anyone who has.”

“So this is the afterlife?”

“Honestly, the Jewish people had it right about Christ. If you ask me, Jesus had more in common with P.T. Barnum than Gandhi. John Lennon has some funny ideas about Jesus. But at least he’s free to say anything he wants in the afterlife. He’s in North Dakota if you want to meet him. Apparently, he insists on inhabiting places that involve Dakota. He’s also weirdly obsessed with the number nine.”

“Is there a god?”

“None that I’ve seen. Nobody seems to be in charge. It’s just a rampant free-for-all. There’s no heaven or hell. Though there are certain communities, which is where most of the dead end up.”

“Gated communities?”

“Yeah, a little bit like that. People like to socialize. It gets lonely wandering around the earth and not being acknowledged. But I honestly prefer to be down here. It’s fun to check up on other writers. Particularly the ones who thumbed their noses at me at book parties. And you learn a lot about people. How often they pick their noses. How often they masturbate. Man, you’d be surprised by how nasty people get when they believe that nobody is watching. And the porn they watch! It’s pretty disgusting. Everyone seems to have a weird kink! Sometimes it’s good to be dead.”

“I was never quite able to figure out how you died.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure myself. Those last two hours of your life, you know.”


“Always fuzzy. And it didn’t help that they doctored the autopsy report.”


“Ben Stroller, Bill Flogaast, all those people.”

“But I tied the connections directly to DC.”

Dead Paul laughed.

“Oh dear. Washington had nothing to do with it.”

“But Senator Rollins.”

“Oh, sure, he trained my wife and her best friend. But he’s merely an opportunistic numbskull.”

“He’s considered one of the most promising figures on the right.”

“So you bought into Stroller’s con.”


“He hooked me into his ring for a good six years. I was ready to go public. But then I ended up here.”

“You were murdered?”

“Probably. I don’t know for sure. But I honestly haven’t cared. I’m more interested in leaning.”

Paul then leaned with great subtlety against a live tree just off the boardwalk.

“Should you be doing that given them?” asked Ali, pointing to the three conifers continuing their great saunter along the beach.

“If the trees see me, they’ll consider this a form of camaraderie. Trees actually enjoyed providing shade to us. They didn’t mind it when we built houses on their branches. Even when we used the wood from other trees. Because every treehouse is a mortuary of sorts. And the sap that runs down branches? That’s tree grief.”

“How did you learn so much about trees?”

“A guy by the name of Alex Shigo. He’s considered a hero among the trees because he spent so much of his life trying to understand them. He’s sometimes called in to mediate disputes between the trees and the Chinese. Oh, and that’s one other amazing thing about the afterlife. You can understand everyone.”

“Well, that’s too bad.”


“I put in hundreds of hours into Duolingo. I guess it was all for nothing.”

“Your name is Ali Breslin, yes?”


“Well, I hate to break it to you, Ali, but most people — even the greatest figures in history — live pointless lives. Their achievements are usually forgotten within ten years. And we’re all left to watch ourselves become increasingly irrelevant for eternity.”

“That’s a lot to take in.”

“It’s not even the most depressing part of being dead.”

“Well, what is the most depressing part of being dead?”

“Learning who Sophie truly was. That’s why I don’t visit her anymore. She was a bigger part of the ring than anybody knows. Oh sure, they tried to pin my apparent murder on Ezmerelda. But Ezmerelda was innocent. Innocent of murder, that is.”

“She walked away from OnlyFans.”

“Do you want to know why?”

“It was that last video she made.”

“True. But did you ever find out the guy she was blowing on camera?”

“I had experts analyze the video. We did models of body types, but we couldn’t find him.”

“That’s because the guy had enough money to cover it up.”

“Wait a minute. You’re not insinuating what I think you are.”

“I am. You see, the guy was Ben Stroller.”

(Next: The Dead Journalist)

(Word count: 46,305/50,000)

Old Habits (NaNoWriMo 2022 #21)

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is the last new chapter I will offer until Sunday, as I am quite exhausted from writing 43,000 words in three weeks while working a full-time job and living a jam-packed life. I also have a great deal of Thanksgiving cooking to do. Many thanks to all of the kind emails and messages. I’ve been stunned and deeply honored by the positive reception to this insane endeavor, which I wrote in a bubble, without any plan, and simply to have fun. Happy Thanksgiving to all!]

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The White Savior Problem)

Nick Carraway (real name: ________________) was lying in bed with an obscene number of pillows, wearing nothing more than a robe he had purloined from the Cheval Blanc St-Tropez during his six month stay in the French Riviera. He sipped a tamarind mojito with measured leisure as the gentle water roared outside and the two women wrapped their arms around his neck, purring sweet Spanish into his ears that he could only half-comprehend but that had an infallible restorative effect on what little remained of his soul. One of the women had tied one of his burgundy ties around her neck and was wearing nothing else. The other dangled the brim of his fedora around her tousled brown bangs and laughed, thinking of the vast fortune she was making that morning, and she also wasn’t wearing anything else. He’d purchased this modest but cozy Puerto Plata bungalow — which was situated next to a large manse owned by an obscenely rich medical instrument titan fond of throwing obscenely opulent parties — through the shell company he’d set up four years before: the paperwork thoroughly vetted and steamed by the legal cleaners in Chicago. And while he had once possessed a formidable work ethic that still bubbled up from time to time when he worked on his garden, he was enjoying this new life. When you didn’t spend a large chunk of your week burying bodies, you tended to be a tad more relaxed.

That’s when the phone rang.

He picked up the phone, the old habit not quite capable of dying.

“Oh, chulo!” cried fedora. “Papi proxeneta, put teléfono down.”

And he was planning to do just that. Only a few of his old contacts knew this number.

But the name on the phone was Bill Flogaast. Shit.

“Yeah,” he answered.


“I’m retired.”

“You don’t understand.”

Burgundy climbed his neck and planted several rapturous kisses upon his nape.

“I do understand. I’m retired. Find somebody else.”

Fedora scolded Nick with her wagging finger. “No teléfono! No, no, no!”

“Who’s with you?”

“That’s my business. Not yours. Goodbye.”

And just as Nick was about to hang up and engage in round four with the two ladies, Flogaast said four words that swiftly altered his priorities.

“It’s the Big Guy.”

His lust quickly left him.

“Is this a secure line?” he asked.


“Your name flashed on my phone. So clearly it isn’t. Call me back at the right number in five minutes.”


He clutched the phone like Gollum refusing to capitulate the ring. He’d have to wipe it again. Contacts, texts, the lot. Just in case. And he liked this model. Bill Fucking Flogaast. Not as slick as he believed himself to be.

Nick darted out of bed, all business. He grabbed the pastel billfold of pesos and doled out a liberal sum to each of the two women.

“Oh, Nick!” cried fedora.

“Nick!” murmured burgundy.

“You two bonitas don’t make this easy. Lo siento. Business.”

“Nick,” hummed fedora. She put her scolding finger into her succulent mouth and lightly pulled it in and out to convey to Nick just what he was giving up, her beautiful almond eyes never leaving Nick’s gaze. Then burgundy grabbed fedora’s delicate hands in hers and the two started making out, moving closer, their palms flattening against the contours of their backs and tracing shoulders and curves, enjoying the spectacle of being watched, the thrill of trying to persuade this gringo to give them more money.

Dominican women. Worse than Portuguese women. At times like this, he resented having self-control.

He gave them more money.

“You have to go.”


“We can pick this up later. Ir ahora.”

Burgundy pouted. But fedora collected their thongs, their microscopic skirts, and their halter tops.

He walked into the study and shut the door. He sat down on the vintage swivel chair next to the old rolltop desk. He opened his laptop and activated the surveillance cameras (there were twenty-four of them in the bungalow), watching the two women get dressed and collect their things. You couldn’t be too careful. Then he heard the ancient chime of one of his no-frills Nokias. He slid open the drawer containing the twenty-three burner phones before seeing the word “Private” glisten on one of these in an early noughties typeface. Another look at the cameras. The two women walked out the front door, laughing and counting their pesos. Reasonably secure.

He answered the phone.

“Yeah,” he said again. “Yeah” was the way he answered all calls. He had honed his “Yeah” over time to make it as gruff and as peremptory as possible. You wanted a “Yeah” that could scare the living bejesus out of some cold caller misdialing from the Third World or cause some anxious stranger to take up therapy again.

“It’s me.”

“The Big Guy. He’s been dead for five years. I thought we cleaned everything up.”

“We didn’t. Two journalists were nosing around.”


“I took care of one of them.”

Who?” he repeated.

“A loser by the name of Herbert Budruck.”

How did you take care of him?”

“Well, I wasn’t the one to take care of him.”

“Okay, who did?”

“David Leich.”

“Leich? Oh no.”

“Well, what was I supposed to do?”

“You should have called me first.”

“You’re retired.”

“And let me guess. He screwed it up.”

“Yes. He called the vacuum guys per the protocol.”

Nick heard the telltale sound of a car passing in the background.

“Are you driving right now?”


“To where?”

“A sitting Senator, as it so happens. He’s also involved in this.”

“Bill, how many times have I told you? Low profile. No politicians.”

He recalled the botched job in Kansas City. The dossier hadn’t said anything about the target being a mayoral candidate. And that guy ended up surviving the attack, becoming a socialist hero, and winning the election. He’d been forced to lie low for two years before resurfacing. That had cost him a considerable sum of money and he spent the time in Italy learning how to make pasta from scratch. The Kansas City contretemps hadn’t impacted his reputation. Everybody knew that Nick was a consummate pro and there was always some Factor X outside of your control.

“You said there two journalists,” said Nick. “Who’s the other? I presume this one’s still alive?”

“You haven’t been paying attention to the news, have you?”

“And why should I? I’m retired.”

“Her name is Ali Breslin. I tried to stop her! Really, I did. And not everything came out.”

“Came out? How big is this?”

“She’s written a book about Van Kleason.”


“Yeah. Stroller had to flee to Groningen.”

Nick had always been suspicious of Stroller. Of course, he’d seen far worse over the years. Humans were capable of anything, especially when they were entangled with the criminal element. But you learned not to judge people for being monstrous. The money certainly helped to keep the unspeakable out of sight and out of mind. But the trafficking ring, connected to so many prominent people, was a bad idea. Bill had been immune to his logic, reminding him that Stroller had offered many of his authors a deal they couldn’t refuse and that he knew the right people. But knowing the right people didn’t excuse incompetence. He’d seen so many who “knew the right people” disappear. In the regular world, you were called into some human resources office and given a severance package. And maybe you’d cry and complain to your wife. But in the underworld, you didn’t have that middle-class luxury. If you bungled a job, there was a good chance you’d get a bullet to the head.

“How big is this book?”

“Huge. Breslin’s been doing media appearances.”

Goddammit, the mess was even bigger than he could have imagined.

“Bill, you assured me that people don’t read anymore.”

“Well, apparently, they’re reading Ali’s book!”


“So I hope you can understand why I called you.”

“I do. But I think I’m going to sit this one out.”

There was a gulp on the other end.


“I’m retired, Bill.”

“But this isn’t over. You’re still involved!”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“They’ll get you.”

“Let them try. I’m fifteen moves ahead.”

“Why did you leave the business, Nick? You were so good.”

“Do you want the honest answer? Or do you want the sweet lie that will help you sleep better at night?”

“You know what I want.”

“Give me two minutes.”

He placed the burner phone into the cradle next to his laptop and an enormous WAV file, an audio display of this connection, popped up on the screen. The software scraped the frequency. No taps. Nothing untoward in the peaks. Not a single tone revealing that somebody else was listening in.

“Good. You’re clean.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’d be surprised. Henry’s finishing up four years for vehicular assault. He should have killed Sophie, but he didn’t. And he hates himself for that. Really hates himself. It was an affront to his work ethic. And he’s loyal, Bill. Very loyal. One of the best men I ever had under my wing. Never talked. Even when the Feds tried to sweeten the pot with an immunity deal and get him in a witness relocation program if he named names. But he didn’t.

“He knew the risks.”

“But he didn’t talk. Other men have, but he didn’t talk. And because he didn’t talk, his husband left him. And he had a good thing going on with his marriage.”

“I know something about that. My wife left me last year.”

“I’m not sure you do. You never killed anyone.”

There was a pause. A pause he often heard from the squeaky clean with one toe in the sordid pool.

“Are you still there?”


“Okay. Bill, you have the privilege of being yourself. Sure, you have to keep track of the lies that you tell your authors, the media people, your coworkers, and all that. And you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘Fuck me. This is stressful.’ And I don’t want to gainsay your stress. I’m sure it’s something you unload to a shrink. But you’re small time, Bill. Just small time.”

“Come on, Nick.”

“Bill, I’m not finished. You’re a publicist, one of the smartest publicists in the publishing industry, and you haven’t learned how to shut up when someone is trying to unload a bit of wisdom.”

“I’m sorry. Continue.

“Imagine a set of lies that becomes a second identity. Or even a third identity. That’s a little trickier. That’s not something that everyone can do. That’s what separates the soft men from the hard men. That’s what distinguishes the professional from the amateur. And let me assure you, Bill, that I am a fucking professional. That’s why you called me, right?”


“Because you couldn’t find someone else.”

“You’re the only man who can do this.”

“Oh, I know that. But I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“Because, you needlessly persistent son of a bitch, I’m retired. Capisce?”


“So when I hear you beg me to clean up your mess — and I honestly don’t give a flying fuck about how bad it is because, as I’ve told you, I’m retired and I know this game better than you do — I hear a man who isn’t much of a man at all. I hear a man who probably made a big mistake and left his career far too soon. I hear a man who is riding on his laurels. Who lives in the past. There’s a reason I go by Nick Carraway. It is quite straightforward. You can’t relive the past, old sport.”

“Understood. I won’t bother you again.”

“Good. And Bill?”


“If you call me again, I’ll make sure that you sink to the bottom of the Hudson River, chained to a concrete block, wondering in your final moments why everything went so wrong.”


“And one last thing. Don’t call the guys at Coca-Cola. I worked with them to humor you. I did make some concessions with all my clients. But they’re not professional and they lack discipline. And they’re not going to help you out of this.”

“Who should I call then?”

“Oh, you’re a big boy. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go on my afternoon swim.”


“It was a pleasure doing business with you, Bill.”

Nick hung up. Then he looked out the window and wondered if he could retrieve his fedora and burgundy tie in the next fifteen minutes.

(Next: The Seagulls)

(Word count: 43,196/50,000)

The White Savior Problem (NaNoWriMo 2022 #20)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Talk)

The deli was located on Block 1263, Lot 26, assigned for rental by Rotaine Realty to an equity company run by bloodless money-hording men. They had learned in their formative years at Wharton and Kellogg that having either an active imagination or a human heart was a financial liability.

Many of the equity men had not laughed for at least a decade. They feared that possessing a sense of humor might loosen their vise-like grip on several Midtown buildings in the area. And on a nice autumn day, you could usually find many of them standing on the top of buildings practicing new ways to be more callous and considering the best method of plotting world domination. Which was absurd. Because they were merely intermediaries. They had as much of a shot at changing the world as a Green Bay Packers fan, his delirious face painted in the ritualistic paint of white and green, has in willing Aaron Rodgers to throw the right spiral to a wide receiver.

They kept a close eye on property appraisals and how much those bastards in Albany wanted to tax them and how much these heightened taxes could be used by Rotaine to alter preexisting agreements. They had to ensure that the millions they borrowed could be significantly offset by the exorbitant rents they charged to business owners operating with a dicey profit margin. And this was not always easy. These feverish and often cruel capitalists, who got excited about wealth acquisition in much the same way that the rest of us stare in wonder at cloud formations, had signed and notarized security instruments that were decidedly unfavorable to them. So they passed along this spirit of unfairness to renters, who had even less leverage than they did. Sure, the equity men had their own high-priced attorneys — men who had also not laughed for at least a decade but who were too timid and passive-aggressive to stand on the tops of buildings — look over the documents and try to negotiate with Rotaine. But the only point that Rotaine would concede involved the chalky strip of cornices lining the edge of the building’s roof, which the equity company hoped to upgrade and repair so that, collectively, Rotaine and the equity company could boost the property value and avoid pecuniary surprises.

Everyone in real estate knew that the insurance men had a weird fetish for cornices. Nobody really knew why cornices mattered so much, but they did. And when an insurance appraiser inspected a property to determine the next year’s premium rate, cornices were a very big deal. If even one of your cavettos flailed against the mathematical ideal or you couldn’t remove that flock of pigeons settling upon one of your eaves, you were basically fucked. You’d get dinged and reamed and the realtors remained unsympathetic about this state of affairs. The cornice problem had allowed engineers and contractors to make very good money preserving and replacing cornices. And this is why you see so many well-maintained cornices in Manhattan. It is not so much that these men wish to uphold architectural beauty. It really comes down to people in real estate having the joyless temperament of tight and cutthroat cheapskates.

It is safe to say that none of the parties assembled in the deli behind imposing steel gates had considered the role of cornices in their paycheck-to-paycheck lives. They were too busy trying to survive, scanning supermarket circulars for sales and finding inventive ways to pinch pennies as inflation reared its ugly head. Certainly Ezmerelda had never thought about cornices. But she was thinking about the creepy signs and Black Messiah incantations she had briefly witnessed in the scuffle outside right before the nice man had let her in.

She walked up the stairs and saw dozens of dewey-eyed refugees sitting at the tables on the second floor. Some of them made valiant efforts to join domino games, which were spearheaded by cheerful men who looked at the bones below them with a fierce intensity that more sheltered types devoted to studying the Voynich manuscript. Some of them whimpered in corners. One woman took advantage of this improvised lockdown and was practicing her twerking moves in time to the thumping bossa nova beats booming loud over the speakers. Blue collars and white collars were forced to console each other as the submachine guns roared and rattled outside, punctuating the apocalyptic aura much like a plate of tiramisu served after a nice Italian meal. But this was New York, a city where you yawned as some rando screamed obscenities on the subway. And they quickly grew accustomed to the fix they were in. And the deli was started to feel more like a happening block party before some affluent homeowner calls the police to break up the fun — largely because he is too miserable and mirthless to land party invites and he feels an overwhelming need to extinguish other people’s felicity.

A large flatscreen TV played CNN on mute, with the closed captions and the news crawl offering variations on the same theme that had already been swiftly established: this was the beginning of a civil war. And New York was not the only city where insurrections had breaking out. Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles. Firebombed buildings steamed with thin onyx teems of smoke as anchors offered the usual inappropriate cheerfulness and halfassed analysis, although this time they weren’t embellishing their reporting with a farrago of F-bombs.

They said that the long-standing tension between red and blue had simmered to a boil. Nobody knew who had assassinated Tucker Carlson. The Lee County Police, unaccustomed to doing little else on their shifts other than eating donuts and straining their brains with the latest Wordle puzzle, were not especially equipped or perspicacious enough to solve the mystery. And when the police chief appeared on camera to deliver a statement to the press, he had the look of a man who squinted with hopeless incomprehension when you cited Plato. And because the newsmen and the people in power were so inept when it came to informing the public, everyone was relying on Reddit conspiracy theories. Political leaders, who could not rectify their inveterate habit of doing fuck all to prevent such disasters, offered their thoughts and prayers.

Ezmerelda stood near the wall taking in the scene: a strange amalgam of people surrendering to the grief of an endgame they could not control or trying to make the best of it by throwing a party. The biggest surprise was that nobody was fucking each other out in the open. It was almost as if impending developments on a massive scale had caused people to reevaluate what was socially appropriate. Not unlike the way that people, shortly after 9/11, had for a brief time actually been there for each other.

She felt a hand on her shoulder. She spun around, prepared to deck a menacing stranger. But it was the same unassuming man who had ushered her into his deli.

“You eat,” he said, pointing at the open-air view that revealed a line of people gathered on the first floor, scooping soup from four very large tureens. “Sushi and soup. All free.”


“I take loss anyway. All free. You eat, rest up.”

“Thank you.”

The man didn’t tell Ezmerelda (or anyone else) that he was going to throw out the soup anyway and that, had not the excitement happened outside, he would be trying to sell off the remaining sushi that he’d have to toss at the end of the day by placing a 50% off sign next to all the plastic containers.

She didn’t know how long she was going to be here. Would the police be able to stop the two factions from murdering each other? She already knew the answer. She remembered her Carnarsie days, that ugly afternoon when she and her mother walked home with groceries and two cops stood outside a police car, arms crossed and staring into space as some gangbanger shot a brotha right in the head. They knew that they needed to walk right past them and not give them any eye contact. A pig always found any pretext to arrest you. There was a white gentrifier openly screaming at the two cops. “Aren’t you going to do anything about this?” he screeched in an adenoidal voice that Ezmerelda laughed about later. “Not our responsibility,” said one of the cops. “If you have a problem, call 911.”

The only way that you could get the pork chops to do anything was if unruly crowds directly threatened the financial interests of property owners. Only then would the police summon the nerve to serve and protect.

She scooped up a plastic container of spicy tuna rolls in brown rice and settled down at one of the tables, breaking apart the tiny wasabi mass with her chopsticks after pouring a penny-thin pouch of soy sauce over it.

That’s when the two white women approached her: one standing six feet tall and casting a strangely proprietary shadow on the table, the other a blue-haired riot grrrl with several studs in her nose.

“Excuse me,” said the tall one. “Are you?”

“I’m trying to eat,” replied Ezmerelda.

“You see?” said the riot grrrl. “It’s her!”

“Who?” said an old dude in a sad Sears suit sitting by himself.

“Nobody asked you,” sneered the tall one. “You’re part of the patriarchy.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, cupping his hand to his face to hide and returning to desperate pokes at his phone.

“You’re a hero, you know,” said the riot grrrl.

“I’m no hero.”

“You’re going to save us!” said the tall one.

Ezmerelda dropped her chopsticks onto her paper napkin.

“Bitch, I’m not here to save anyone. Can you just leave me alone?”

The riot grrrl laughed. “She’s so funny.”

“That wasn’t a joke.”

“She is the Messiah!” shrieked the tall one.

“The Messiah?”

“I saw a TED Talk from Brie Attenberg,” said the riot grrrl, “in which she said that Black people are the Messiah.”

“I’m not Christ. I don’t believe in a fictitious deity.”

“The Messiah is always humble,” beamed the tall one.

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not the fucking Messiah. Now can you please let me eat my sushi in peace?”

“Bev, I don’t think we’re being mindful,” said the riot grrrl.

“Oh right, Lydia,” said Bev. “We forgot to check our privilege.”

Bev and Lydia locked arms.

“Everyone!” shouted Lydia. “We have something that we want to share.”

“Oh no,” said Ezmerelda.

The men looked up from their domino games, half of them shaking their heads. Then they returned to slapping down bones. The only real audience these two women had was the friendless man who they’d berated only a few minutes before.

“My name is Beverly. And I’m ashamed to a colonialist!”

“My name is Lydia. And I hate being white.”

“We are here to save this woman!”

“Stop it,” said Ezmerelda.

“We are guilty.”

“Guilty of being white.”

“This is Ezmerelda Gibbons. A Black victim in the war against women.”

The friendless man pointed his phone to this scene and began to live stream it.

“She took to OnlyFans because the white imperialists oppressed her!”

“White imperialists like us.”

Ezmerelda hurled her chopsticks into the dark basin of the half-eaten sushi container.

“Bitch, are you trying to speak for me?”

“Wh — what? No!”

“Because it sounds like you are.”

The two women immediately shut up and waved their hands desperately to appear deferential.

“We didn’t mean it like that.”

“How you meant it,” said Ezmerelda, “isn’t how I experienced it. Let me ask you something. Do you know who Tyler Perry is?”

“Is he the guy on Friends?”

“Or how about jerk chicken? Ever had it for dinner?”

“What’s jerk chicken?” whispered Lydia.

“Yeah, I thought so,” said Ezmerelda with a smile. “Y’all trying to take my life and make it yours. But you don’t have a goddamn clue how I’ve lived. I’m not a victim. Maybe you are. But I’m not.”

“But you’re…you’re…”

“An OnlyFans girl? Yes, I was. But I wasn’t oppressed by imperialists! Girl, where’d you get that crazy white shit from? Y’all just looking for a reason to take my life and make it yours. White fucking saviors going around calling me the Messiah and shit.” She looked into the camera. “Can you believe this? Black people aren’t your collectible dolls. I got a mind and a life. And I’m damned happy with how things turned out. So you can take your Karen crusading bullshit and stick it up your bony, clueless, calorie-denying ass. Black people don’t need you.”

The domino guys began applauding.

“Holy shit,” said the friendless man.

“What?” replied Ezmerelda.

“This, uh, live stream is going viral. I’ve got fifty — no, sixty thousand people watching it.”

“Then maybe you should shut it off.”

“Okay,” said the friendless man.

Bev and Lydia slinked to the back of the room in embarrassment.

“What’s your name?” said Ezmerelda.

“Donald Moore,” said the man, offering his hand. “And I can’t get in touch with my wife Ginny.”

(Next: Old Habits)

(Word count: 41,096/50,000)

The Talk (NaNoWriMo 2022 #19)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Dark Soul)

She held Clark’s hand. Not with the dutiful cadences of a dying relationship on autopilot, but with a faith emerging from an unknown recess. A hope hard to pinpoint. An instinct she couldn’t explain.

She actually wanted to salvage this, whatever this was. And it was something.

He wiped the corners of his small mouth with the damp washcloth. His breath still pushed the malodorous zephyr of half-regurgitated blueberry-bannana mush into the intimate air between them. He was still there. Just as he always had been. Just as he had picked her out of the chair and helped her when she needed to relieve herself. Just as he cooked for her and made her believe that she still had a life even when she could not walk. And all this atoned for the stink veering into the space they shared.

And that was new for Sophie. Very, very new. The big draw that she had hoped to strike with Paul, but it had been she who had stayed, not him.

Clark had stayed. Even after she confessed to him about her previous kinky life. Even after she had shown her the video of long dead Paul being forced at gunpoint to perform fellatio on that child — that poor, poor child. And how many men would stay after seeing that? Knowing that this was the kind of creep that she had actually chosen to marry and somehow summoned the nerve to stick with.

“He wanted to go public,” said Sophie. “It started off as a way to woo new readers. Because he really wanted a bigger audience. And people in that circle knew people in power.”

“When did you know?”

“Three months before he died.”

“And you still carried on with your…”

“Subs. With my subs, yes.”

“And you…you bruised them?”

“Flogged them. Impact play. Much different from anything Paul was involved in.”

“But that’s…that’s…”

“More common than you know, Clark. These men all wanted me to hurt them. And that was the difference between Paul and me. I never did anything that they didn’t want me to do. We were very careful with consent, Clark. It’s the cornerstone of that type of life. But Paul? His sick world? He got used to it.”

She remembered that night when she had found the videos on Paul’s phone when he was in the shower. The two of them screamed at each other with more bitter ferocity than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had managed in the entirety of their famously fractious relationship. Several glasses — many of them wedding gifts from twelve years before — were hurled against the wall. She’d almost walked out and moved back in with her mother. The man she had married was a monster.

But then she saw the remorse in his eyes. Not enough for her to forgive him, but enough for her to see that he had nobody else to turn to. If she didn’t listen to him that night, then he wouldn’t find the right way out. And while she hated the fact that he needed to rely on her and that he had gone much further than anything she could ever imagined, she knew that sticking it out — he still carrying on his fixation on Ezmerelda Gibbons, she still carrying on with her revolving door of malleable beef — was the only way to save those kids and to expose the villainous media-industry complex that had kept this evil trafficking operation going. They called the FBI the next morning. A temporary immunity agreement was granted, though it was not a piece of paper that would exculpate Van Kleason from criminal charges. It was simply a stopgap. Three months later, Paul was dead.

“Who was involved?” asked Clark.

“Three Academy Award winners. Four Pulitzer winners. Two MacArthur Fellows. At least one former President. And that’s only a small sample, Clark. Really, you don’t want to know. There’s a strong chance that you’ve been a huge fan of at least one of these cultural figures. These people were bad, Clark. Very bad. They had no problem looking the other way while Benjamen Stroller…”

“Wait a minute. Benjamen Stroller? The podcaster?”

“How do you know Ben? You’ve never believed in conspiracy theories.”

“I listened to his shows on the drive into work. When you work for city government, it’s useful to study the fringe element. To unpack the lunatic mind. They show up to the office more frequently than you might expect. And if you know how they think, you can usually find a way to defuse them.”

“That’s very, very…”

“Strategic of me? Yes. But you know I don’t like conflict.”

“Then why are you still here?” she said.

He paused, temporarily releasing his hand from hers. His eyes misted up.

“What? Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re not put off by everything I’ve just told you?”

“Were you involved in the sex ring?”

“No. But I had my own little thing going on.”

“Yes, but you did nothing illegal.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“You think I didn’t go through an exploration phase.”

She laughed. “What? You?”

“Yeah. In my thirties. After my divorce. I was a hopeless slut, Sophie. I was what the kids now call a fuccboi. Tinder was new and I was lonely. And suddenly the very faults that Jill had condemned me for were pluses. I slept with dozens of women. I didn’t know I had it in me.”



She found it hard to believe. He had never been especially adventurous in the sack. Missionary, an occasional 69, that was about it. He had never picked her up and fucked her in the kitchen. Even when she asked him to after the accident. He felt that anything that transformed her into a fetish was too gauche. But that was the strangest thing. After years of tinkering with men and being a fearsome top, she felt that it was her turn to play bottom. And she didn’t know how to tell him this. He had never asked to bind her in restraints or to be tied up. He had remained relatively incurious and he frequently disparaged the couples copulating in public places.

“If you had this in you, why didn’t you try any of this with me?”

“Because I wanted to be…”



“None of us are normal, Clark. Deep down, we’re all fucked up inside.”

“But not as fucked up as Benjamen Stroller. Where did he get the money to finance this operation?”

“He worked for WNYC and his career went nowhere. Few people listened to his show. Then he met up with some Dutch people with money and he struck out on his own. As a podcaster. With the Dutch money behind him. And he realized that he was likely to gain more listeners if he courted the disinformation demographic. He wanted to be an edgier and angrier Art Bell.”

“Oh, he is.”

“And he needed big names as guests. So he started to blackmail prestigious names with Bill Flogaast.”

“Who’s Bill Flogaast?”

“He was a huge publicist at the house that published Paul’s books. Connections to the underworld. Paul called him the ‘Cleanup Man.’ He took many midlist authors under his wing.”

“Midlist authors?”

“Authors who sold well enough to keep in-house, but not well enough to hit the New York Times bestseller list. And he would turn them into overnight successes. Near the end of his run, he was handling all the literary Daves.”

“Literary Daves?”

“There are a lot of literary writers named Dave. Don’t ask me why that is. Maybe Davids are more inclined to write. Anyway, he steered them onto Stroller, whose blackmail operation was turning into a bonanza.”

“But why would Stroller and Flogaast single out authors?”

“Because social media tends to overlook their bad behavior. Do you know that author Zen Tang?”

“Didn’t he make a viral video years ago in which he said ‘the next morning we ate spinach’ over and over again?”

“That’s the guy. Well, Tang raped his partner and even stole her story for his bestselling novel, Stephen Dixon. And the literary people simply pretended that none of that ever happened. And he’s still very popular. Bill and Benjamen realized that, because most book people were incredibly gullible, the midlisters could be used as recruiters for the sex trafficking ring.”

“Jesus. And nobody looked into this?”

“Nobody reads anymore, Clark.”

“I do.”

“I mean, most regular people. Authors can be monsters, but literary people — who are, for the most part, incredibly sheltered and introverted — somehow overlook this. They believe in staying relentlessly cheery and positive. I mean, there was one guy, a website editor named Isiah Gatsby who was heavily involved with this creep in Los Angeles named Jason Prufrock, who established a ‘No haters’ policy that quickly spread to every outlet still reviewing books. Sure, there was the Shitty Media Men list, but none of those men ever got canceled. Most of them still have careers.”

“You’re going to have to slow down. I don’t know any of these people.”

“Sorry. An old habit. Paul was incredibly obsessed by all these names. One of the reasons I don’t read much anymore is because I know what a lot of these authors have done. And I just can’t stomach it.”

“So why is Senator Rollins so important?”

“I don’t know. Bill Flogaast usually kept away from politics. But after Paul died, Bill left the business. Something to do with an executive editor named Gingrich Moore, who I was regrettably friendly with.”

“How friendly?”

“She handled an author named Butch Wheel, who was also her boytoy.”

“Do you mean Gingrich was fucking Wheel?”

“Yes. And Paul attended some book party and got drunk and spilled something about my kinky life to her. And Gingrich swooped in and wanted me to coach her.”

“You couldn’t say no?”

“She had something on Paul, something that she wouldn’t elaborate on. Much of which I’ve already told you. And you have to understand something about Ginny Moore. She’s not someone you can easily say no to. Plus, Paul was thinking about jumping to another house and Ginny suggested that, if I helped her, she could help Paul. So sometimes she would be at the Atlantis with me. She seemed to have a natural instinct for beating the shit out of men.”

“Was Ginny involved in the sex trafficking?”

“No. But I’m pretty sure she knew about it.”

“How much of an open secret was it?”

“That I don’t know.”

There was a knock at the front door.

“I’ll get that,” said Clark.

Clark opened the door. It was Debbie Ballard. She was holding a large paper shopping bag.

Sophie rolled her chair over to the doorway.

“Debbie? What are you doing here?”

“I didn’t know who else to go to.”

“Well,” snapped Sophie. “We’re a little busy. And we’re no longer friends.”

“Sophie, please. Give me ten minutes. I’m in a pickle and I can’t even tell Gabrielle about this.”

“Sophie,” said Clark, “we’re a little busy right now.”

Debbie took a book from her bag. It was the Ali Breslin volume.

“How did you get a copy of that?” cried Sophie. “I thought there was an embargo.”

“I have my sources. But I’ve read the whole thing. You’re going to want to listen very carefully to what I have to say.”

(Next: The White Savior Problem)

(Word count: 38,907/50,000)

The Dark Soul (NaNoWriMo 2022 #18)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previous: The Scandal of Unfettered Speech)

David Leich nailed the third mouse that he had caught that morning to the bookcase in the foyer. The blood of these increasingly stinky rodent corpses spilled onto a flattened and slightly yellowed newspaper clipping from years ago — one of many copies he bought on the day Mike Harvest had savaged his third novel, Wake Up Little Sassoon. Harvest had ridiculed Leich’s long passages describing Siegfried Sasson’s nose, which had come from Leich’s keen interest in rhinology. Goddammit, they had never complained before! He was the nose guy. And it was one of the reasons why his work had resonated with the people who handed out the literary awards. But Harvest resented the fact that Leich had concentrated on the least interesting part of that World War I hero’s life: namely, his privileged boyhood and a thirty-page chapter in which young Siegfried carried on a dialogue with a horse about whether or not eating lots of carrots signaled that you were a closeted vegetarian.

So Leich had bought as many copies of the newspaper he could, particularly in his neighborhood. The last thing he wanted was for people in his neighborhood to slag him off, although he was often so unbearable that New Yorkers didn’t need to know that he was an author to tell him to fuck off. Leich was part of the last analog generation: someone old enough to remember the smell of mimeograph, that halcyon age in which you could walk down the street without bumping into some twentysomething staring down at her phone. As such, he had failed to anticipate that Harvest’s hatchet job was also online and that there was a great zeal to share it.

Leich knew that Harvest was a cowardly man who avoided authors he had trashed in print, which sadly precluded Leich from running into Harvest at a book party and socking him in the face. So he tried to take him out through his connections. Flogaast had said that he hated Harvest too, but that he was too big to take out. “Wait it out,” said Flogaast. And so he did. And that’s when the Jakester thing came up, which Leich believed that Flogaast had a bit of a hand in. And while Leich had popped open the champagne upon learning that Harvest had been shitcanned from his long-held perch, the sting of Harvest’s words still resonated years later. He was an artist, dammit!

Leich laughed as the drops of blood stained Harvest’s printed words from 2002.

“How do you like that, you little fuck?” he shouted at the newspaper, failing to understand in his derangement that newspapers were not sentient and did not talk back. In fact, the printed word was more futile than cats and dogs, who tolerated human monologues only because they were angling for treats. The domesticated animals knew — as so did many of the furry bodega mascots and the savvy street cats — that simply letting these very tall and strange creatures who fed and groomed them ramble in incomprehensible gibberish was an easy way to survive. All they had to do was wag their tails or meow from time to time, sometimes performing tricks as they held up thin rectangular objects, and these highly gullible ape-descended marks would give them anything they wanted.

The rodents that scampered through Leich’s apartment, however, were not so lucky. Sure, in highly contained and sterile environments, they could be cute. But they were much smaller, moved too fast, and carried disease. Thus, they become emboldened and fearless and feasted on the large heaps of trash bags regularly left on the streets that afforded them a veritable buffet. The humans were dirty and careless and often dropped wrappers and half-eaten sandwiches onto the street. And they had the nerve to bait them with peanut butter?

It was a pity that the rats couldn’t let their sons and daughters know about David Leich, who, with his multifarious traps, was one of the most dangerous of these giant executioners. Even when they squeaked to each other in hypersonic frequencies beyond the spectrum of the human ear, they still couldn’t telegraph to each other just how diabolical certain people were. You were minding your own business, innocently following a trail in the wall that had been scraped out over the course of several centuries by your grandfathers and your great great grandfathers, and then you felt this painful blade at the back of your skull from one of those enormous quadrangles that was offering you a free meal.

The foyer bookcase had contained the books of David Leich’s enemies, which he read over and over when he was feeling particularly masochistic. He wished that the books, simply by being close to the rodent corpses, could somehow open a telepathic link to the authors who wrote them, so they could see the full horrorshow of how we was handling the pestilence in his apartment right now. They’d be frightened out of their minds! He had considered burning the books, but realized that the Nazis had done this. And for all of his sociopathic faults, for all the qualities that gave so many people people several reasons to punch him in the face, David Leich was not a Nazi.

There was a scree from his phone, echoed by the high-pitched alerts from all other phones in adjacent apartments and the streets below. An Amber Alert perhaps?

He picked up the phone and read the text:

EMERGENCY! Riots have broken out in Midtown Manhattan. All subway lines have been shut down. The area between 34th Street and 59th Street has been closed off. The rioters are armed. NYC residents are urged to shelter in place. Remain in your residence. Residents in all five boroughs will be arrested if they are found walking outside.

Leich yawned.

The world had threatened to destroy itself so many times, but he was still quite alive. And living in a high-target city where he would be vaporized immediately if the Russians fired nukes. Which would be a better fate than slowly dying of starvation and radiation poisoning. If millions had to die, it was far more pragmatic to get your inevitable death out of the way rather than sob in a countryside dacha.

There was a buzz from down below.

Shit. Budruck. That insignificant little peon who had phoned him an hour before. Why had he said yes when he was so busy building a mouse mortuary?

“Give me five minutes and I’ll buzz you in,” he barked into the speaker.

“Come on! Let me in! It’s a war zone out here.”

“You can tough it out for five minutes.”

He got the mop bucket from the kitchen and did his best to pull out the nails with the back of his hammer. Two of the three mouse corpses plopped into the pail. The other one was more stubborn.

Budruck buzzed again.

“That contemptuous little man,” said Leich.

He grabbed the set of shears that he used for the private garden that he had a key to. His Angllophilia had turned him into a gardener. He actually enjoyed pruning the hedges, per his deal with the building. Then he snipped the tail.

He opened the window — the one at the back of the building that Budruck would not see — and tossed out the 2.98 rat corpses, watching them tumble down four stories. He heard the scream of some hapless pedestrian down below and then shut the window. He grabbed a comforter and nailed this over the foyer bookcase to disguise the tail. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a stink anymore.

Then he buzzed Budruck in.

He undid the three deadbolts and opened the door, being careful to stand with his back to the bookcase so that Budruck would not notice. But Budruck was in his own head, frantically waving his hands and talking a mile a minute. He rushed past Leich and headed straight to the settee in the living room.

“…and these fuckers bumped me! Me! The guy who had all the real dirt on Van Kleason!”

Leich locked the three deadbolts.

“You know, you never told me.”

“Told you what?”

“What dirt you had?”

“The Van Kleason death was a coverup!”

“Oh? I thought he died from a broken heart.”

“That’s not what someone who works at the Myrtle Beach coroner’s office told me. Apparently, the autopsy report was forged! Someone paid a lot of money to cover it up.”

Leich cleared his throat.

“And who do you think that might be?”

“I have reason to believe that Paul Van Kleason was murdered. Much like Epstein’s mysterious death in jail. Ali Breslin, that bitch, has already pointed to Van Kleason’s involvement with a sex trafficking operation.”

There was gunfire outside.

“Herbert, have you taken a look at the world outside? I think there we have bigger problems.”

“Oh, fuck civil unrest. It’s going to die down! It always does. This story has real legs! And I was meant to tell it.”

Budruck’s brown eyes fidgeted like two the two last beer nuts you find at the bottom of a dingy bowl at a dive. Nobody ever takes those last two nuts.

“Won’t the public grow bored?” said Leich. “They’re more interested in Ezmerelda Gibbons. If Paul Van Kleason was murdered, maybe she did it?”

“She’s not the type.”

“Why not?”

“She just isn’t, okay? And besides I talked with her former neighbor, who confirmed that she was blasting Doughbelly Stray at the estimated time of death! In fact, her neighbor has video with a time-stamp. Some long-standing beef over the noise she made that she was going to submit to the property manager, but never did.”

“Well, maybe Ezmeredlda hired someone to kill Van Kleason.”

“Why would she do that? He paid her generously for her private services. She had a good thing going on. You don’t kill the guy who’s serving up the gravy train.”

“Well, who do you think did it?”

“I believe this is connected to certain publicists in the publishing industry. Do you know Bill Flogaast?”

Leich began to sweat. While Budruck was looking out the window, he reached for the hammer and concealed it behind his back.

“I’m…somewhat acquainted with him.”

“Well, Flogaast is connected to some real creeps.”

Budruck busted out his phone, feverishly swiping with his twitchy finger before settling upon something, and then held up a grainy black-and-white photo for Leich to examine on the display. It was Flogaast alright. And he was shaking that man with the burgundy tie’s hand on what looked like the East Village. Flogaast had an attache case in his other hand.

“What’s this?”

“A still from security camera footage that I bought off a line cook. You see? That’s Flogaast. There’s clearly something going on here. I’m still trying to determine the identity of this man with the burgundy tie.”

“And why doesn’t the police have a copy of this?”

“Because the surveillance footage was conveniently erased. Although it actually wasn’t. And somehow this line cook, who has something on the restaurant owner, was able to get a copy of this. To the best of my knowledge, the police don’t have a copy of it. And neither does Ali Breslin.”

A gleam of hope rushed across Budruck’s face.

“Don’t you see, Dave? This is my big story. My scoop! I’ve always had this in me.”

Leich paced along the edge of the living room, his right arm still carrying the hammer behind his back. His left hand fingered the spotless surface of one of the living room bookshelves. Then he sat down on the Morris chair directly across from the settee and crossed his legs, his left foot twitching with celerity.

“What do you really know about people?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You have some interesting ideas. But what do you really know about people?”

“These are more than ideas, Dave! Don’t you see? With what I’ve been able to piece together, the two of us can get our revenge against these publishing assholes! Van Kleason was going to go public! I think he was going to cut a deal with the Feds because they tied him to the sex trafficking ring. He was going to be a friendly witness for a reduced sentence!”

“Come on, Herbert. Think this thing through. Why would he bite the hand that feeds him? His last novel had an enormous print run.”

“Because he wanted to save his marriage.”


“Sophie Van Kleason carried on several affairs. I know this because I bribed a bellboy who used to work at the Atlantis Hotel, where Sophie was a regular. In fact, this bellboy even saw Mike Harvest enter a room with her!”

“Mike Harvest.”

“Yeah, I know he doesn’t like your books. But think clearly. This bellboy saw Sophie and Mike Harvest leaving a hotel room on the very afternoon of the murder. And guess who was with them?”


“The man in the burgundy tie!”

He pulled up another photo on his phone.

“Don’t you see? This is the same guy who met up with Flogaast!”

Leich studied the two photos.

“I’ll admit that there are certain similarities. But you never answered my question.”

“What question?”

“How well do you know people?”

“Fairly well.”

“But not well enough to be taken seriously as a journalist.”


“Do you believe that everyone has something dark within them?”


“That everyone has the capacity for evil? Oh sure, it spills out in chunks. You use your contacts to prevent your enemy from landing a prestigious job. You cut off some asshole on the road. But that’s just small time, Herbert. Just small time.”

“What I have here is big time.”

“I don’t think it is,” said Leich. His voice grew increasingly chillier. “What do you know about me?”

“Well, you’re the last literary Dave. You’ve won a bunch of awards.”

“That’s all true. But what kind of dark unfettered qualities do you think I possess?”

“That’s your business.”

Leich laughed.

“Let me phrase it another way. What’s the worst thing that you think I’ve ever done?”

“I don’t know.”

“You’re not even going to hazard a guess?”

“Well, a lot of people think you’re an asshole.”

“Oh, but I am. But I’m more than a mere asshole. Do you want to know what happened to the last person who sat on that couch?”

“She ended up in your bedroom,” laughed Budruck with the greatest naivete that Leich had seen in five years.

“No,” laughed Leich. “Not at all. It was a man.”

“Hey, I’m not going to judge. However you swing is your business.”

“I didn’t fuck him,” said Leich. “I killed him.”

Leich lodged the hammer into Budruck’s skull. Budruck was too surprised to scream. Then he swung again and again, the blood shooting in geysers and mottling Leich’s face, until the mediocre journalist was dead.

He picked up his burner phone and dialed the number.

“Yeah,” said the gruff voice on the other end.

“The situation has been contained.”

“Do you need us to come by?”

“No, I’ve got this.”

“Are you sure? I can call six of my vacuum cleaning guys.”

“I kind of want to try this myself. My Shark Navigator Lift-Away Deluxe really could use a good workout.”

“But we’re professionals. I think you’ll find that the mess in your apartment is harder to clean than you think.”

“I’ll give you a call if my vacuum gets clogged.”

Leich hung up the phone and, as he was considering how to get rid of the body, he heard the squeal of another rat caught in a trap.

(Next: The Talk)

(Word count: 37,011/50,000)

The Scandal of Unfettered Speech (NaNoWriMo 2022 #17)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Public Eye)

Brad Carmody (1977-2027) was a lot of formers. He was a former reporter at Advertising Age, a former editor at Medium, a former senior writer at Wired, and a former regular contributor to Vox before starting this Substack newsletter in desperation after he experienced great difficulties landing work as a freelance writer. Yes, it’s true that Brad was difficult at times and felt the need to obsess a little too much over other media figures on social media, but he was one of the most vital conservative voices in American letters. Nobody knew if he was on track to becoming the next William Buckley or the next Alex Jones, but his vitriolic columns were always must-reads. He was often angry, but in the right way. On the rare occasions when he calmed himself down, he was an accomplished blueberry waffle king in the kitchen. Say what you like about Brad (and many of the people he publicly attacked will certainly have their opinions), but he really knew how to use a waffle maker! So this is a huge and deeply tragic loss — not just for Brad’s family, but also for men with middling breakfast-making skills.

His widow graciously permitted us to publish this final essay from Brad. It was found on the tablet next to his dead body. Please consider contributing to the Brad Carmody GoFundMe, as the Carmody family experienced great financial difficulties in Brad’s final years due to his regrettable OnlyFans addiction — particularly his fixation on Ezmerelda Gibbons.

In addition to his wife and his fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent son, Brad is survived by his brother, Killian, who is now the proud manager of a Burger King in Erie, Pennsylvania, finding a new life after experiencing an unfortunate mental collapse because he couldn’t finish his dissertation on narrative tropes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. We offer our thoughts and prayers.

And, remember, if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline. You are loved by more people than you know!

The Scandal of Unfettered Speech
by Brad Carmody
The JCPenney Chronicles, October 17, 2027

Last May, noted intellectual Martin Slabak appeared at the 92nd Street Y and used a term so infamous that it caused members of the audience to walk out “in a state of fear.” The word he used was “stupid.”

Now the origin of “stupid” goes back to the 1540s. It comes from the Latin stupidus, meaning “amazed, confused; dull, foolish.” It literally translates into “struck senseless.” From there, the French picked it up and all the other Indo-European languages followed. As any sensible person knows, “stupid” has had a long and glorious run.

On stage, Slabak called his ex-wife Emma Silverburg “stupid.” He called Senator Rob Rollins “stupid.” He was even courageous enough to call himself “stupid” for fathering two children with a stupid woman. And he condemned the epidemic of stupidity that has, even as I write these words, become so ubiquitous in our culture that numerous people are now openly copulating in public places and our now unregulated airwaves prominently feature once thoughtful anchors engaging in variations of “The Aristocrats” routine on-air.

But now the word is apparently offensive. And at a McNally Jackson appearance just a few weeks later, a group called Intellectuals Raise A Tedious Egofest (“IRATE” for short) disrupted a party for the latest issue of x+1 by pelting Slabak with dozens of eggs (which, given inflation, surely cost them a fortune) and told Slabak that he was the one who was insensitive.

I think we can all agree that IRATE is a domestic terrorism group — no different from the epidemic of ugly, childless, and unmarried cat ladies who continue to vote Democrat after getting their monthly payments from George Soros. It’s on the same level of al Qaeda, but with a different list of moral objections. IRATE represents the same unattractive mix of quavering personal sensitivity and totalitarian demands for ideological conformity.

As the most brilliant man on this planet, I’ve had my own unpleasant dust-ups with these unruly socialists. A professor at George Washington University once called me a “cockroach” after I flew to Greenland on my own dime to see if climate change was, in fact, a real thing. During a fierce rainstorm in Tasiilaq, where I had to buy boots and a poncho at the last minute, I still stuck to my guns and insisted, even as the town was five feet underwater, that climate change was one of those crazy liberal conspiracies. I put myself out there. And, for this, I was called a “cockroach.”

So I telephoned this professor and screamed at him for ten minutes. And this professor, who actually believes that critical race theory should be taught in classrooms, wasn’t man enough to shout back at me! Can you believe that this Marxist son of a bitch, this deplorable metrosexual who believes that it’s just peachy keen for men to get pedicures and for children to change their pronouns, never once raised his voice? I called him “stupid, oh so fucking stupid,” slammed down the phone, and proceeded to binge-eat a large box of White Castle sliders that my wife had the foresight to pick up for those occasions in which I get very angry reading things online.

I’m feeling nostalgic for the old days in which you could use the word “stupid.” Personally, I blame uppity women for this new age of hypersensitivity. We rightfully took away their reproductive rights and cited 17th century legal precedents to put them in their place. And they still called us stupid. We helpfully informed women with PhDs in English Literature that Virginia Woolf was the author of Mrs. Dalloway and they called us mansplainers!

I’m misting up right now remembering the good old days when your wife would make you a sandwich and never speak up while you watched a football game. You could slap your wife on the ass like James Bond and tell her to go away when a friend showed up for a “man talk” session. 1964, which was before my time, was the last time in American history in which you could be a real man and call people stupid. And if I lived back then, I’d probably get more action in the bedroom instead of the yearly ten minute ceremony my wife and I perform on our wedding anniversary.

But there was a time, a brief time sometime around the early 21st century, when you could still call people “stupid” on the old social media platform Twitter. You could even tell anyone who was smarter than you to fuck off forever. While it lasted, Twitter was a sewer. It brought out the worst in humanity. I again sincerely apologize for any part I played it making it worse, although I greatly enjoyed hurting people and allowing my unmedicated indignation to fly its freak flag.

But now we can’t call people “stupid” anymore. And if we can’t do that, then I have no real reason to live.

So this is my final Substack column. I want to thank everyone who has encouraged me to own the libs over the years. We came very close to overthrowing the capital on January 6th, but, in the end, the Democrats continued to steal all the elections. And now the burden of being me is simply too much to bear. There’s no place for me in the zeitgeist anymore. And I’ve grown tired of busting out the Adorime pump from the closet two times a day.

And while I may not have the will to live, you do, my fellow patriots! There is a place for you out there, somewhere, where you can be truly free! You can still buy guns and walk around states with open-carry laws. You can still invite that annoying neighbor onto your property, shoot him in the head, and hire a good defense attorney to uphold the castle doctrine. You can still count on a Supreme Court — even with two of the Justices recently assassinated — that will uphold the old ways. The only ways.

Brad Carmody, not a cockroach, logging off.

(Next: The Dark Soul)

(Word count: 34,405/50,000)

This chapter is dedicated to noted media asshole Tim Carmody, who fucked around and found out. (The coward even deleted the below tweet. I’m not on Twitter anymore and am quite delighted to see that toxic site bite the dust under Elon Musk’s disastrous watch, but a friend had forwarded this to me.)

The Public Eye (NaNoWriMo 2022 #16)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Mountain Retreat)

She had not expected the piercing Xenon lights of the ever-voracious public eye to cast more invasive lambency upon her hard-won life. Sure, the THC-friendly webseries had kept her a public figure, but her audience there had known nothing of her OnlyFans past or the ignoble circumstances — the line that Ezmerelda said she would not cross and did — that led her to surrender that lucrative arc and try something else. Thankfully, they were too incurious. Google was freely available on their phones to look up any goddamned thing in the world and yet they couldn’t even do this. Nobody could, other than the rare outliers who still summoned the now untaught skills of critical thinking and having a heart.

Empathy had become increasingly politicized since the pandemic, which now seemed like a century ago. How much you genuinely cared and connected with other people now determined your political allegiance. And the people who still honed their emotional intimacy were more ostracized, much like the sideshow freaks had been cruelly ridiculed only decades before simply because they looked different. No more than that. If you were canceled in any way, well, you could never come back. Or if you could, your every move would be monitored. And with the Samsung Surrounder selling a million units, the panopticonal police, a well-regulated militia that not even James Madison could have imagined, had additional tools to observe and accuse in the unpredictable court of public opinion. The deep fake epidemic, with its increasingly manipulated media and its machine learning lies, had further muddied the waters. These teeming teardown trogolodytes would scan your social media for any small solecism to impugn you, reminding you of the mistake that you were already painfully aware of. They claimed to stand against fascism, but were they truly not aware of how authoritarian they were when it came to unsubstantiated gossip and judgment?

Sven understood this. It was why he rarely said a word to anyone anymore, why he was so committed to memorializing his thoughts by text because he could always pull up the record of what he had actually said rather than how his words had been hideously distorted. He was a Silent Bob type, though not by choice. When Ezmerelda heard the story of how the filmmaking community had expelled him after he had stuck up for a friend accused of groping a film critic, she hired him on the spot. Few people had that integrity anymore. These lonely online avengers never seemed to comprehend the virtues of loyalty, of giving someone another shot, of commending them for rebuilding their lives and doing the proper work of atonement. Sure, the nation was more illiterate and more sociopathic than it had ever been in its two hundred and fifty-one year run (the 2026 semiquincentennial had been a loud jingoistic shitshow), but could they not remember Forster’s words about having the guts to betray your country? If they couldn’t heed the pithy wisdom of some crusty and long-dead British dude that nobody read anymore, then the American experiment was hopeless, wasn’t it?

But now that Ali Breslin chick had blown the lid on an episode that she had thought long settled. She read the chapters that prominently featured her: not from a position of narcissism, but as a way to anticipate damage control. Breslin had somehow captured every moment of their meeting along Kings Highway five years before, contorting the truths into an admittedly admirable can’t-put-down volume of sensationalism, but she had left out the details about her involvement with Ted Gustoff, that Myrtle Beach cop buddy who she had benefited from off and on and a man who had likely tampered with the evidence. And why wasn’t that the real thrust of the book? No, Breslin had needed a patriarchal variation of the hooker with the heart of gold to sell her story and Ezmerelda Gibbons had served as the unlikely actor pulled from Central Casting. Breslin had clearly studied the Maggie Haberman playbook: reveal your big scoop in book form years after the world had moved on, serve as an ignoble and ethically compromised Goebbels type in your media appearances, and write your largely unedited copy as fast as possible to ensure that your competitors couldn’t beat you to the finish line. Those five disgraceful words “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” appeared in a bright gilded font under Breslin’s name on the front cover. Like Haberman, Breslin had even won a Pulitzer Prize. Sure, she could tell the world about how Breslin had seduced her into spilling. On the other hand, maybe Breslin had been lying about her college summer working as a stripper. But if she did that, she’d probably be accused of jealous mud-slinging, of rigging the narrative. But Ezmerelda had lived the events that Breslin had merely reported.

And now her phone was blowing up. Texts, emails, voicemails, DMs. Dozens of journalists from outlets, equally legitimate and shady, insisted that they were the ones who she had to talk to. She blocked all their numbers and social media accounts. The Toking with Elders channel had gained 500,000 followers in the last 24 hours, but with the burden of rubes flooding the comments with painful reminders of that final video, the one in which she’d gone down on that Wall Street dudebro who flaunted a folding fan of Frankllins, that she’d posted on OnlyFans and that caused her to permanently close her account and never do anything like that again. Which, of course, had made its way onto and was now being broadcast over and over on the TV news channels. Only a few years before, you’d get hit by an FCC fine if you aired anything like this. But the airwaves were now unregulated and FOX News and One America had been particularly malicious with their segments. Tucker Carlson did an entire twelve minute bit in which he stood up from his chair and ordered a production assistant to get on her knees and mime the actions. And that too had gone viral. Carlson’s boorish misogyny had resulted in a few white women holding Ezmerelda up as a feminist icon: the 2020s answer to Monica Lewinsky.

Why were the white people so obsessed with her? Even with all this happening, they still viewed her as a superficial token, a vessel with which to summon their strident and oh-so-predictable liberal anger. Even when white people claimed to sympathize her, they humiliated her and dictated how she should act. They were clueless about their tone policing and they couldn’t seem to understand the harm they were doing. But Black people? They were all on her side. Because they knew that any of them would face the same fate if one of their worst moments had been disseminated on the Internet.

So she’d have to contend — again — with the beady supercilious eyes of the knee-jerk throngs. Covertly racist rods and cones beaming from dull pork chop husks who refused to step foot outside of their affluent neighborhoods and talked loudly of real estate and avocado toast when they weren’t bragging about the one Black friend they knew that suddenly made them self-declared experts on centuries of racism and oppression. White heat had seared her soul from day one. Their privilege robbed her of dignity and cast doubt upon her identity. You were theoretically supposed to tough it out by growing a Teflon skin. But Ezmerelda couldn’t. And she had wept as she turned the pages of Breslin’s awful book, a tome that had been written to propel Breslin like a rocket into the media stratosphere. CNN was now in talks to hire Breslin as a rotating pundit.

What killed her was that Paul Van Kleason had been the one who had inveigled teenage girls and corralled animals for his depraved operation. Shouldn’t the focus on the literary Daves who had openly abused these victims rather than her?

She walked past the News Corp Building on Sixth Avenue with its ugly red news crawl splaying the headlines for all to see. Midtown was usually a place where you could walk with anonymity — no matter how well-known you were. It was why so many celebrities still lived in Manhattan. This was the only place in the world where only the superstars would be mobbed and anyone who ranked just below A-list could walk in relative peace. But she was getting looks. “Why do I know that woman?” was the question mark contained inside their eyes. She was about to hail a cab, knowing damned well that most would pass her by because of the color of her skin, when her jaw dropped at the latest headline.


What the fuck? Sure, she hated this cruel demagogue with all her heart, but that didn’t mean she wanted him dead. Although she couldn’t deny the instant calm: the great relief and giddy elation that took hold of her in the same way that some struggling blue-collar type learned that he had won the lottery.

That’s when she noticed the hundreds of people angrily gathering at West 50th Street. Some held placards with her photo.


That’s when someone threw a Molotov. There was a fierce ear-piercing explosion. She dived to the sidewalk and looked up to see a police car in flames. No cars on Sixth. NYPD stormtroopers with mirrored faceshields and batons marched in a phalanx towards the protesters.

“Look!” cried one of the activists. “It’s her.”

She tossed off her heels and began running east through the Diamond District, with only the nylon protecting the bottom of her feet from the filthy concrete, passing a few Orthodox men in fuzzy shtreimels looking agape while desperately pulling down their steel gates to protect their shops from potential looting.

She stopped running when she saw the convoy of monster trucks: white men in flannel shirts crowded in ample cargo beds, all shaking their submachine guns and baseball bats into the air. Large American flags spiring and fluttering into the air. Their hateful threnodies were soon punctuated by bullets. More rounds per minute and much louder than anything she had ever seen as a Canarsie kid.

“Miss,” screamed a frightened man beckoning her with his hand and speaking in broken English. “You come in here.”

He was standing outside one of the many 24/7 two story delis in Midtown where blue-collar types secretly congregated at night to drink bottles of beer, blast Latin music at deafening levels, and slap down dominoes on tables that, only a few hours before, had been occupied by administrative assistants and receptionists on their lunch hour, quietly stewing over what had gone so horribly wrong with their lives.


“It not safe. I close gate soon. You come!”

And she scurried through the door as the steel covering rolled down with a peremptory thud behind her.

(Next: The Scandal of Unfettered Speech)

(Word count: 33,057/50,000)

The Mountain Retreat (NaNoWriMo 2022 #15)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previous: The Green Room)

He fled to his secret cabin in the northwestern corner of the state — only a few miles away from Sassafras, near the rugged tree-lined fringe of Pickens County where only a handful of locals owned a Samsung Surrounder. Nobody there was interested in the latest tech and, due to the dormant evangelical plurality, most were deeply offended by all the carnal exhibitionism, which was largely practiced in huge cities: places more ideal for total strangers to fuck in public places and disappear. But could he disappear in the mountains? He had rented a Subaru Forester, a fugly compact SUV that had somehow eluded the eco-friendly legislative avengers curtailing damn near anything contributing to carbon emission largesse. With its dumpy angles and gaudy grays, the Subaru Forester was a car so aesthetically hideous that nobody on the road could bring themselves to look at it. Even the gun-loving snipers hiding in the mountains couldn’t summon the desire to fire off shots while slamming back tallboys. Anyone with even a partial vista of the road pitied any sad bastard was driving this car of all cars. The overworked Subaru engineers had so badly botched the design (conspiracy theorists in online car forums had suggested that this eyesore was a deliberate inside job) that it didn’t surprise anyone when the University of Missouri published a study in 2026 concluding that the car owners doling out monthly payments on Foresters were the ones most likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

Rob Rollins wasn’t depressed exactly. Most people lost their will to live after three days of driving a Forester. But he was greatly unnerved. He drove up the winding potholed two-lane highway of US-178 (why hadn’t the road reform pork that he helped to get passed been consummated yet?) with a pit in his washboard chest. And he knew that he wouldn’t be found because the Subaru Forester was a vehicle he wouldn’t be caught dead in. Now he was being murdered by the press — though not in the more decisive and corporeal way that the Cherokees had been brutally slaughtered by British and American colonialists in this region only centuries before. He hoped that some reckless yahoo wouldn’t collide into him on US-178. In some ways, it was more painful imagining that he could be discovered driving this car rather than the vicious rumors of his involvement with Van Kleason.

The one thing he couldn’t let anyone see was how much all this hurt him. The onslaught of think pieces and media dissections and fledgling investigations had been merciless. Videos of Rollins berating his clients had bubbled up on YouTube and TikTok. He had mended these fences before with discreet hush money and the ruthless enforcement of NDAs, but now the degree to which a gym authority tortured his underlings had become a hot topic at cocktail parties. And those who stood against tough luck aligned themselves with those who protested fat shaming. And then the disabled community, the voting bloc that he and Debbie had so smartly cultivated, turned against him. Not even the Republican National Committee would support him. “Tough it up, Rob,” they said. “It’s not like you’re Dennis Hastert. It will pass.” But he didn’t think it would. Now he was on the cusp of getting canceled, his political career (and possibly his stature as a fitness guru) barreling forward in a car with bad brakes towards a dead end sign at the edge of that cliff signaling reality.

He had come to the “cabin” — the one he co-owened with his brother, who also wasn’t talking with him — to wait it out. It seemed unwise to pop up in the public eye in any way.

Would this go away? He had only been hustling on the Beltway for five years and, even though he wasn’t very bright, he was cognizant enough to understand that the public had an attention span shorter than an Alzheimer’s patient trying to recall why he had wanted to strangle the nurse who stopped him from sprinkling salt on his baked potato. The throngs would surely move onto fresher meat. The next main character. Real villains. Celebrities rather than politicians. But they hadn’t. His notifications blew up. And he turned his phone off. But not before one last call.

He asked Debbie for the latest Quinnipiac poll numbers and the results were decidedly not in his favor. He had three years left to serve in the Senate. And he wasn’t sure if he was going to be forced to resign over this. After years of extremist rhetoric, the red waves weren’t arriving. And so the GOP was cleaning house even as many of their baleful brand ambassadors openly fucked in the cloakrooms in the House.

Ali Breslin had linked this junior Senator from South Carolina to a sinister sex trafficking ring that involved some writer named Paul Van Kleason and many prominent authors. But he had never known Paul. He had only trained Sophie. He deeply regretted the texts he had sent to those who skipped their training appointments, the bills he had demanded Sophie pay to the Rollins Institute after she became paralyzed. But a contract was a contract, right?

During the first two chilly nights in the cabin, Rollins shivered beneath a three thousand thread count comforter on a feather bed — even after the twelve mile runs and the three hour calisthentics workouts that he had hoped would calm him. But no amount of burpees or pull exercises could untrouble his mind. He was implicated. Breslin had somehow pieced together his client roster from 2022 and discovered that half of his acolytes had some connection with Sophie. It didn’t help that five-year-old videos were resurfacing on and that Redditors were putting together intricate spreadsheets. And somehow it all lead back to him. But, unlike that dead creepy writer David Fitzroy, he hadn’t fucked any goats and he had no desire to. He certainly hadn’t been involved in sex trafficking. Had not the anti-trafficking bills that he co-sponsored proved his bona-fides?

And because of Ali Breslin — who had managed to get enough right for a persuasive book, but who was also an expert at insinuating something without inviting libel suits — sixteen women claimed that they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Rollins. They had only their stories, not hard evidence. And they were believed. This was, however, quite impossible for deeply personal reasons. Several political strategists (and even a few sleazy lobbyists) had cornered him in the Russell Building, asking Rollins why he wasn’t married. And he had laughed off their inquiries with some harmless locker room humor about how much a woman stood in the way of being a self-made success. Which put a target on his back and unleashed the indignation of febrile Jezebel readers. But why him? Sure, he had been gruff at times, but his closest advisor was a woman and he had tried to walk the tightrope by upholding with the GOP’s regressive values without coming across as a misogynistic asshole. He was one of the few Republicans who had voted with the Democrats to codify Roe v. Wade. Sure, it was a calculated move to appeal to independents and secure his Senatorial victory. But didn’t that count for something? Especially when the vote happened not long after Steve Scalise had fired a gun in the House chamber during an unhinged stump speech for the Second Amendment?

He had become obsessed with the physical ideal because of one deep secret that only Debbie Ballard and his brother knew about. As a fitness instructor, he had adopted his fiery tyranny because he didn’t want anyone to know the truth. If you scared them, they wouldn’t ask questions. They’d be too paralyzed by fear to poke into your private life. If they held you up as a god, the hero worship would guarantee their incuriousity. That was the other part of the ideal he liked. Not so much the hubris, but the insulation from scrutiny. And Debbie had told him that staying closeted was ridiculous because there were so many openly gay Republicans these days. Sexuality had become so translucent that public sex was now respectable, with kinky activity once confined to sex clubs now regularly practiced at tony townhouses.

But he couldn’t allow this to be out in the open. It was a matter of principle. It was a matter of pride. It was ultimately what kept him a conservative. And it was also the quality that kept Debbie around far longer than he had anticipated. A pitiful quality that had inspired her to discover herself and find true love with another woman.

And it was why he had cut loose Atticus just before running for Congress. Atticus. Such a beautiful and patient man. His hands were so graceful in the way they flattened homemade Phyllo dough into razor-thin squares and the slow and delicate way that he raised a cup of chamomile tea to his rich beautiful lips. Atticus was the only person whom he could be himself with. And he had been cruel, so cruel, in the way that he had sent all of his stray knick-knacks to his apartment with a peremptory note telling him to never contact him again. Because Atticus had never raised his voice. Atticus knew how to calm him down. Atticus, much like his literary namesake, was too honorable to go public. And he wondered what Atticus was thinking right now as the media machine still roared loud and long to distract everyone from the dying dregs of America.

The mountain air spilled from the open door into the cabin’s modest living room and Rollins felt a goosebump tremor upon his bronzed biceps as he stared at the empty wicker chair where Atticus had once sat and laughed. A chair that nobody had been allowed to sit in for the last five years and that he ordered the cleaning lady to pay extra attention to. He closed his eyes and thought of their schoolboy makeout sessions, Atticus’s reliable gentleness, the limber arm Atticus placed so lovingly around his shoulder when he opened himself up to him and told him, and only him, about the cruel kids who had singled him out for the modest flab on his belly in seventh grade and had made him so determined to never have so much as an ounce of fat on his body so long as he walked this mortal earth.

Maybe the Van Kleason scandal was the best thing that could have happened to him. Maybe he needed to be humbled. Maybe he could start over. He truly had not expected to build an empire or to rise up as rapidly as he had. But here in the cabin, he was anonymous, invisible. It was here, and only here, that he found the greatest peace.

There was a knock.

Rollins opened his eyes and abandoned his reverie.

Bill Flogaast stood in the open doorway, the great amber flood of the setting sun casting a piercing backlight against this shadow from the past.

“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Flogaast.

“How did you know about this place?”

“Come on, Rob. I know everything. I know shit about people that would truly surprise you.”

“I haven’t seen you in a while. I thought you were retired. Rhode Island, right?”

“From time to time, I am summoned out of my forced retirement.”

Flogaast sauntered slowly into the room, studying the print of Riding Bikes hanging on the rustic wall.

“Rauschenberg! Well, that’s a bit wild for a Republican.”

“What can I say? I like bicycles.”

“But, Rob, I know you’re a gym rat, but I’ve somehow never seen you on a bike.”

Rollins recalled the Sunday afternoons with Atticus. The joyful bike rides to Sassafras.

“It’s only up here. I have three mountain bikes in the shed.”

“You know, I met him once.”


“Bob Rauschenberg. I’ve met quite a lot of people. That’s what happens when you’re in publicity.”

Flogaast walked to the wicker chair and began to sit down.

Rollins stood up.

“Don’t!” he squeaked. “Don’t sit there.”

Flogaast laughed.

“Well, why not?”

“That chair has, uh, sentimental value.”

“That’s fine. I should probably stand anyway. The drive was thirteen hours, all told. I tried you in DC. But you weren’t there for some reason.”

“So you came here.”

“It wasn’t too much trouble. You see, when someone you hold dear leaves you, you’re left with an empty place that you need to fill. It takes years, sometimes half a lifetime, to learn how to live with yourself.”

“Patricia left you?”

“Yes. And a long road trip usually gives you time to ruminate. To summon gratitude. To fill in gaps. Gaps reflected by the territory filled in by the rest areas and the roadside diners that remind you that everything that is on the map is populated. But I don’t know if you’d know anything about that. I’ve, uh, never seen you with a special someone.”

“That’s my business, not yours.”

Flogaast stretched out his arms and yawned.

“So sorry. I’m not a young man anymore and these long drives, as useful as they are, tucker me out sometimes.”

Flogaast walked to a small shelf of books that was mounted on the wall right next to the fireplace.

“I didn’t know you were a reader,” he said with genuine surprise.

“I’m not.”

Flogaast rubbed the spines with his index fingers.

“He was one of my authors. She was one of my authors. And oh! What’s this?”

He pulled the paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from the shelf.

“Harper Lee,” said Flogaast. “I’ve read this four times. Are you more of a Scout man? Or an Atticus man?”

Rollins gulped.

“An Atticus man! I thought so!”

“Why the hell did you come here?”

“Because, my dear Senator, you are in a lot of trouble. And I know that you can easily get out of this trouble. In fact, you’d be easily exonerated. But you chose not to. Which is a bit strange from a man who Time Magazine once called a rising star in the Republican Party.”

“I have my reasons.”

“I have a hunch that it has something to do with this book and maybe even this wicker chair that you won’t let me sit in. I think you’re a secret reader, if you catch my drift.”

“What are you implying?”

Flogaast sat on the couch and leaned in very close to the Senator.

“Rob, I want to help you. But you’re going to have to help me first.”

(Next: The Public Eye)

(Word count: 31,219/50,000)

The Green Room (NaNoWriMo 2022 #14)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Italian Restaurant)

Herbert Budruck was sitting in the green room. He was too joyless to reach for the complimentary party mix placed at the center of the glass table for guests.

He despised himself. Despised the way that he had fallen so hard in the last five years. He hadn’t once broken a significant news story, although he had come close. But the other journalists were always quicker and scooped him in the same way that guys at the bodega effortlessly slipped in front of him as he vacillated for fifteen minutes over what kind of hero sandwich he wanted. This was largely because he didn’t have the time or the discipline or the work ethic to do the legwork. But mostly because he was absolutely terrible at his job.

He despised the way that his DC editor — a decent man who didn’t want to fire anyone, but who knew he had a problem with Herbert Budruck, who hadn’t so much reported anything as he had typed random sentences into a CMS at the bump-charged pace of seventeen posts each day, but who also knew that Budruck had a family to support and probably wouldn’t land another job because of his hopeless mediocrity — never let him have a single byline anymore and usually saddled him as second banana (often with a woman as the lead writer) on the increasingly incoherent and fact-challenged articles he regurgitated out of his feeble soul with careless cuckolded ineptitude. He particularly despised that personality he had cyberstalked for seven years, that fuckhead who had won nearly a million followers on TikTok. How had that happened? He put in eighteen hours each day on social media, hadn’t he? More time than he actually spent writing — that is, if his desperate grinding and woeful grammatical disasters could be called writing — or even learning how to call multiple sources and secure an airtight fact in the way that seasoned journalists had facilely mastered. He’d put in the work, responded to everyone, including the lowlifes with 48 followers. But somehow he couldn’t land the influence that this far more talented son of a bitch had garnered without apparent effort.

Not even his old friend Mike Harvest, who had long abdicated his duties at a book critic to publish more never-selling books that were merely collection of old tweets, famous quotes, and Vine transcripts, was taking his calls anymore. Although David Leich did. And it was Leich, after screaming over the phone for twenty minutes about some mouse he had killed in his apartment, who had taken the time to listen and who had called an old producer contact. Leich and Budruck had gone way back. All the way back to the big Myrtle Beach story five years before that should have been his, but that had been plucked into a hot journalism bestseller from the horribly pleasant Ali Breslin (some mere puffed up blogger!). Well, he was in the green room now! And he would tell the real truth!

Deep down, Herbert Budruck knew he was a hack. He had been at the content farm racket far too long. He wasn’t very good at it. But what else was he going to fucking do? Journos at other outlets had spoken about him in private group chats on journalism servers with increasing pity, but he was more of a footnote, a cautionary tale of a sad sack that any of them could turn into:

@LVossUSAToday he’s at it again
@DataRockstarNYT does he even sleep?
@YaelWaPo guys, just ignore him
@LVossUSAToday I can’t!!! 😂 Did you see his latest? Carville born in 1964 and married to Marlee Matlin. And THIS got past the fact checkers.
@DataRockstarNYT they don’t have fact checkers at politico
@YaelWaPo come on leave him be

So Herbert Budruck was tolerated.

Herbert Budruck cosplayed as a “nice” person. He boasted about how he would never name this hopelessly cheerful and witty TikTok personality (his name was Teddy Winner) who he had spent so much time harassing, the happy-go-lucky figure who was still killing it without succumbing to the national trend of unfettered free speech, profanity-spouting news anchors, and public carnality, a trend that he also despised. But he especially despised the way that Teddy Winner had found a way to appeal to his audience without being cheap about it. And he tendered variations of this disingenuous “I’m a nice guy!” lie even as he named and defamed Teddy Winner in the replies with half-baked rumors and libelous conjecture. He despised that Teddy Winner had not taken his bait and had not proven as “unhinged” as he had anticipated. Then one afternoon, he had become unhinged, firing off dozens of defamatory toots in under two hours. The instance admin had caught wind of this and Herbert was forced to beg the admin to restore his Fediverse account, even slipping the admin a $500 CashApp donation. And it worked, largely because the noble people who ran instances were always running at a loss for the greater good of open-source democracy and were always hard-up. God, things had been so much easier before Twitter went belly up! He longed for the days when rage and hits were the currency.

But the admin wasn’t the only fire he had to put out. Herbert’s editor had caught wind of Herbert’s latest manic episode and had called him at home, speaking to him in the gentle manner of a father addressing a small child about how this obsessive fixation on other media people was unhealthy and how he would be forced to forward the screenshots to human resources if he kept this up. And so Herbert Budruck stopped, though not without spending the next two weeks seething.

Herbert despised the way his wife had put on one hundred pounds in just eighteen months and how she had evicted him from their bed. She had often stuffed her face with high-carb meals rather than look at his increasingly aging and increasingly uglier face. He despised the rapid manner in which his hate was aging him. Despised the way that he had fantasized about beating his kids, even though there was good reason to. His two boys had grown up to be awful little bastards, far more likely to jump on the serial criminal existential trajectory than he ever could have anticipated. Constantly whining for snacks on a full stomach and putting on weight just like mom, always demanding the latest video game console, burning down the kitchen not once, but twice. It didn’t help that his children had taken on more of their mother’s physical features than his. It was almost as if genetics instinctively knew not to pass on Herbert’s characteristics down the line. Nature protecting what remained of humanity from those who contributed nothing. Or maybe his wife had fucked a few other men under his nose. He would never know for sure. His marriage was now on such thin ice that he was in no position to ask for a paternity test.

Herbert Budruck wanted to be a real man. He deluded himself into thinking that he was a real man by posting pictures of himself on social media and passive-aggressively begging his followers to confirm his worth. And they did. Because they had all bought into his big con and they were lonely. Tell an insignificant online nobody that their crude and uninformed thoughts actually matter, even when you don’t actually believe this, and they will sign up to join your army of trolls. It had worked for the Republicans in the mid-2010s, hadn’t it? And the 15k followers he sustained remained a benchmark that he could whip up every time his employer threatened job cuts. He had survived many purges not because he was particularly remarkable (he wasn’t), but because he was feverishly devoted to false metrics.

And now, as he sat on the green room couch and steepled his fingers, contemplating how he he could take the story away from Ali Breslin much like a fierce Bristol seagull swooping down on a hot dog and climbing back up into the sky while gnawing on newly liberated brat, a twentysomething, who looked as if she was the production assistant, waved hello.

“Excuse me, Mr. Budruck?”

“Yes. Am I next?”

“No. I hate to do this to you, but you’re getting bumped.”

“Bumped?” boomed Budruck.

“Bumped. And we won’t have a slot for you for another three weeks.”

He looked at the flatscreen above him on mute. According to the closed captions, a devastatingly gorgeous influencer was rambling on about how three chocolate milk enemas a day could reduce your chances of catching cancer.


“We will, of course, pay you for your time.”

“But do you know who I am?”

“Yes. Herbert Budruck. But you just don’t have the pull we need.”

“But I’m sitting on a major news story! What I have to say is going to significantly dispute the claims in Ali Breslin’s book!”

“Yeah,” said the production assistant, twirling her highlighted strands, “but nobody wants to hear that.”

“What? This is the biggest book of 2027! And you’re telling me that this floozy rates more than me.”

“Yes, Mr. Budruck, I am.”

“I want to speak to the producer.”

“Well, she’s quite busy.”


The producer that Leich had hooked him up with was definitely a dude.

“Yes, she. But if you’re going to be so condescending…”

“Now wait a minute, I didn’t mean it like that. I was told that Hank Sheffield was running the show.”

“Oh,” laughed the production assistant. “He’s only the booker.”

Only the booker? But Hank Sheffield was at NBC News for decades! Didn’t you see his Emmy-winning segment on the Fentanyl epidemic?”

“He’s just the booker. In fact, I outrank him.”

“But you’re only…”

“Twenty-three? Yes. So you’re ageist as well as sexist.”

“No!” cried Budruck. “Not at all!”

“Do I have to call security?”

“You don’t.”

“Maybe you can be more like Teddy Winner. I mean, he’s so funny. And he’s your age. He knows how to speak to people like me.”

Hearing Winner’s name was too much for Budruck, who became beet-red with rage and shoved the bowl of party mix off the table.

“Teddy Winner!” he screamed. “Teddy Fucking Winner!”

The junior producer pushed the bud of her headset closer to her lips and calmly called for security.

Two large men showed up in less than a minute.

“Do we have a problem here?” said one of them.

“No,” said Budruck. “No, not at all.”

“We’re sorry to have inconvenienced you,” said the producer. “Can I offer you a little piece of advice?”

Budruck grunted.

“Adjust with the times.”

These four words sent a shudder through his body. Adjust with the times? What the hell did they think that he was doing?

Fifteen minutes later, as Budruck tried to calm himself down with a Midtown saunter, passing two couples who were freely copulating against walls, it occurred to Budruck that “the times,” such as they were, would have to adjust to him! He began to conjure up great plans. Fuck Teddy Winner. Budruck wasn’t going to play nice anymore. He was going to take down Ali Breslin.

He called Leich on his cell.

“Herb!” said Leich. “How did the appearance go?”

“It didn’t happen.”


“Are you doing anything right now?”

“Not really.”

“Good. I’m coming over. You’re going to want to listen very carefully to what I have to say.”

(Next: The Mountain Retreat)

(Word count: 28,782/50,000)

The Italian Restaurant (NaNoWriMo 2022 #13)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Last Literary Dave)

Sophie Van Kleason sat in her wheelchair as Clark, hopelessly dull and unambitious Clark, made eggs and sausage in the kitchen. She’d kept the surname because it was good for the estate and it aggravated Clark, who puled incessantly about how he could not live up. He’d done it again last night and they’d had a fight. There hadn’t even been post-fight sex. So this didn’t augur well for the immediate future, not that she even knew if she even wanted one with this bespectacled, middle-aged, smoothie-drinking mollycoddle. But Clark was one of those easily malleable men, the kind of rube who still seeks approval over the age of forty instead of summoning any initiative from within, who believed in sticking around and keeping the peace. A predictable routine not unlike the way in which a dog futilely chases the mailman because he doesn’t have anything else to do other than to shit and eat and look adorable and perform treat-punctuated acrobatics for the human marks. But with Clark, there was no mailman. He had no new tricks. There was, in fact, nothing in his rudderless life to chase. His career as an urban planner had floundered. Sure, he still collected a biweekly paycheck, but he was also still sitting in the same cubicle he toiled in during his twenties, a time in which he still had the kernel of big dreams before the crushing tyranny of bureaucracy hammered out the bridge projects and the traffic corridor ideas that he had hoped to improve Myrtle Beach with. He never fought for a salary increase that matched his years of experience. He didn’t have the temperament to rock boats unless there was something to prove. And Clark Mannix couldn’t summon that hunger anymore. Sophie wasn’t sure if he had ever had it, which was another source of their dispute. Still, Clark had been the first normal man she’d been with since the milquetoast she’d shacked up with before Paul. And even when she had so many boytoys on the side, she still needed an anchor. Even a middling one.

When Paul had died, Sophie had been forced to reign in her kinky escapades. That’s what the publicity men had agreed upon. And Nick, after reluctantly plunging a sizable hunk of cheese into his mouth and soldiering his way through an allergic reaction, had invoked the fear of a fictitious deity to cajole her into cleaning up her act. It wasn’t necessary. Those disturbing videos, which Flogaast had somehow muzzled from public consumption, had scared her straight or, at least, momentarily hindered her from any further experimentation. She didn’t have the stomach to crush a man’s face with her feet after learning about Paul’s secret sordid life. He’d somehow exceeded her debauchery under her very nose. And so she was forced to close down her Fetlife account and circle the wagons. She had only been reflecting and reappraising her existence for six months when that car plowed into and threw her silk-smooth mass into the a roadside gorse bush and punctured her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. And it seemed that her sex life was done. (She tried taking up with two of her remaining subs, but she dropped them after they fetished her wheelchair.)

While she was relieved to learn that she could still come despite not being able to move her legs, she hated the way her disability had curtailed her speed and her mobility when it came to applying nipple clamps or carrying out impact play. It turned out that she needed the running start of her legs to flog a lover with any significant marks. And it was absurd to be at their eye level when she was in the wheelchair, barking at her subs to call her “Ma’am” or “Mistress.” The power exchange relied a great deal on how much higher she stood above her subjects. And, yes, she supposed she could ask them to crawl on the ground. And she did. But that didn’t satisfy her.

So she gave it up. She allowed her once immaculate body to atrophy and grow flab in places she hadn’t seen enlarge since that binge-eating phase in college. Chris or Jim had learned about the drunk driver who had felled her on Kings Highway and, while Sophie never found out if his name was Chris or Jim (he had hoped that he would mention it again casually, but he never did, even when the two of them hung out with one of his close friends, who never once said his name), he was the only man who never mentioned the wheelchair or her dramatic corporeal decline. Somehow, he had remained starry-eyed, even if he was still terrified about their little arrangement going public, which was the main reason he had scurried away. Lose command of your legs and somehow the men who show up are weaker. It was just as well. The thrill was gone. She had never loved any of these men and they, in turn, were merely infatuated with her.

And then there was Rob Rollins, who had improbably and cruelly tried to uphold the membership contract — this as the Van Kleason fortune, such as it was, was tied up in a vicious estate battle between Van Kleason’s repugnant sister (a doctor: what the hell did that six-figure bitch need the money for?) and an equally unsettling FOX News-watching uncle who arrogantly and risibly believed that he was the next Steve Jobs at the age of sixty-two, but who had never closed the deal on any of the dusty go-nowhere projects in his garage — before Debbie Ballard had moved in with some hush money and another NDA for her to sign. And the transfer of bundled Franklins in a taped paper bag had significantly eroded their friendship, turning it into something seedy and transactional. Debbie had been a liberal, hadn’t she? Sophie laughed when Debbie insisted she still was. And the two former best friends kept each other at a distance. Then, sometime after this Ballard early morning meeting with the bills, Rollins was a Congressman. And then, just as Sophie was taking in this fatalistic twist of the knife, he was Senator. And she wondered if she should go public about what Rollins had done despite the NDA. Especially since Rollins had campaigned as a champion of disability rights, one of the main reasons he had won a narrow 800 vote victory (after a runoff and a recount) to secure his first Senate term in office. He (or, more likely, Debbie) had taken a page from Fetterman and revived “compassionate conservatism” as an alternative to Trump extremism. And when Debbie realized that the disabled represented a sizable bloc, she adjusted his campaign. And the warm-hearted images of Rollins hugging a woman with cerebral palsy had somehow stopped the journalists from looking into the dicey financing and stories of abuse from his fitness empire. It had been the right move. Show that you are not a eugenicist meathead by spending time with the people with afflictions. And people would focus on that rather than his actual policies. There was, of course, nothing “compassionate” about kicking low-income tenants out of a housing project in the dead of winter, but the constituents he had hoped to woo didn’t care about that and believed in him. Voters now only responded to cartoonish appeals to their feelings. And if Sophie hadn’t stayed silent, then Rollins would never have landed his win. There were 1.2 million disabled people in South Carolina. If she blew the lid open, she was confident that they would have showed up to the polls for that far smarter Filipino woman. And yet she hadn’t. Because she remained stupidly loyal to Debbie, who had, after all, spent so much time with her after Paul passed.

God, she hated that word. Disabled. As if she wasn’t able in other ways.

That’s when she met Clark on Hinge. He showed up to their first date at a seemingly unpretentious Italian restaurant near the water wearing aviator glasses and a bomber jacket, but there was nothing Top Gun about him. If anything, he had turned out to be the antithesis of Maverick. Needy, without confidence, a silent victim who didn’t even have the guts to declare victimhood in the same way that financially irresponsible titans manned up and declared bankruptcy after they shit the bed.

What Clark had was mindfulness, a quality significantly lacking in the other men she had tried dating, who all out to be wheelchair fetishists who wanted to check “Fuck a disabled chick” off their bucket list. But not Clark. He helped her get into her chair after she parked. He was intuitive to know that she liked to roll herself. He held the door open for her at the restaurant. That’s when she eyed the three short steps leading to the oak host station, with its smiling vapid twentysomething pressing square buttons on an LCD. Well, for Sophie, the steps may as well have been Kangchenjunga. There was no outdoor dining because the owner was an anti-vaxxer who believed in a 5G conspiracy. So this was the only way in. Three steps that she could confidently rush up only a year before. And Clark, feeling guilt over his role in selecting the venue, couldn’t stay silent.

“We want a table.”

The chipper twentysomething host, busy texting some equally vapid friend on his phone, laughed. He looked up.

“I’m so sorry. We don’t have a ramp. But I can tell you about our lobster bisque special!”

“You’re not getting it, pal,” said Clark. “You see that woman over there?”

The host waved a limp hello.

“Why yes! She’s very beautiful! Good for you!”

“Well, she’s going to sit at a table here. Right now.”

“Well, I’m sorry, but we simply don’t have one!”

Clark looked at the numerous empty tables on the mezzanine.

“Then what are those?”

“I’m sorry, but that section’s closed.”

“Open it. There’s enough space for a wheelchair.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Son, I work for the Myrtle Beach Planning & Zoning Department. So I know the law better than you can tie your shoes.”

Clark pointed to the host’s Payless Shoesource faux leather lace-ups. The host blushed at the Euclidean mess that he had somehow not tripped over. He swiftly kneeled to rectify it.

“Clark,” said Sophie from her wheelchair three steps below, “it’s okay.”

But this mild-mannered man, who was no superman, was steaming from the ears.

“I have a friends in the Health Department. I can shut this place down faster than an F-35C Lightning II hitting Mach 1.”

“Oh,” said the host, noticing the bomber jacket. “Are you some kind of pilot?”

“No,” snapped Clark. “I’m just an enthusiast. Open the section. And install a ramp by next week. Because if you don’t, I’ll also sue your ass for ADA non-compliance.”

And the host opened the section. Clark scooped up Sophie from her chair and carried her to the table, as if he had been waiting for years to lift up and carry some unknown future bride across the aisle. The need to marry was strong in this one. And, well, Sophie couldn’t deny that this was incredibly hot. And she allowed him to take her home. It was the best sex she’d had since before the accident.

Unfortunately, these dashing qualities, which had largely atoned for Clark’s dependably male mediocrity, had dwindled hard and fast after they had moved in together after a year. But Clark, a man hopelessly enslaved to his narcissistic mother, started to take on fawning qualities that she had recalled in her subs. And while he had spent one morning sobbing after a regrettable candle wax brouhaha, which also resulted in an emergency room trip for second-degree burns because he had not listened to her, the sex remained largely vanilla and she had only the emotional control left to keep her satisfied.

Clark placed the plate of eggs and bacon onto the table. She dug in with a fork.

There was no plate for him.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Sophie.

“I’m not hungry. I already had a smoothie.”

Clark cleared his throat.

“I’m tired of living in his shadow.”

“Whose shadow, darling?”

“You know damned well what I’m talking about.”

“Oh, do you mean Paul? Well, he’s been dead for five years.”

“I know that. But I’ll never be him.”

She reached out for his cheek and pinched it.

“But, baby, you’re Clark Mannix.”

And the sour look on his face revealed that she had not been convincing enough. On the other hand, who in the hell could talk up Clark Mannix and keep a straight face? It would be like seriously suggesting that Emma Silverburg, the former Big Brother contestant who had turned to novel writing and who was now in the news for seducing underage kids, was a talented writer.

“Why don’t we turn on the news, darling? Maybe it will put all this into perspective.”

Clark picked up the remote, aimed it at the dining room flatscreen (one of three in the house), and fired up CNN.

…believed to be part of a sinister fucking ring worse than Jeffrey Fucking Epstein.

“They’ve started swearing on CNN too?” asked Clark.

“Declining ratings,” said Sophie.

“Yeah, but this is CNN. I thought Jake Tapper was better than this.”

The Senator refused to fucking address the new motherfucking claims made in Breslin’s book, which will hit bookstores tomorrow.

Sophie dropped her fork.

“Wait, is that…”

“Yes,” said Clark.

The cunts and cocksuckers in the Senate Select Committee on Ethics have made no fucking formal statement on whether they will be fucking censuring Senator Rollins for his involvement. But the list of involved parties is really fucking long. They include several prominent members of the literary fucking world.

“Oh no,” said Sophie.

The recently deceased author David Fitzroy, who took his own life after sales of his trilogy A Codex to All Legends were lackluster — because, let’s face the facts, viewers, his work was fucking shitty — is reportedly in one of these newly resurfaced videos. And get this! He’s fucking a goat.

Sophie grabbed the remote and shut off Tapper’s trap.

“Hey, I was watching that,” said Clark.

“Clark, I have to tell you something.”

Clark put his hand on hers.

“What’s the matter, baby?”

“There’s a very good reason why I still think about Paul.”

And he pulled out the outdated tablet and she typed in the password. And after he watched the horrible video featuring her husband, he was in the bathroom puking his smoothie up.

(Next: The Green Room)

(Word count: 26,875/50,000)

The Last Literary Dave (NaNoWriMo 2022 #12)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Dolly Parton is Not Dead)

Outside his window, the patter of soft rain landed upon the streets with a fine susurration reminiscent of a gentle grain silo spilling a hairline flow. Despite the stertorous roars and clamorous claptrap of the human-fueled apocalypse, the rain remained one of the most beatific and humbling sounds that you could hear in November. The earth, with its many promising elements, would long outlast the feeble lunges of ape-descended jackanapes: their feral stabs at relevance, the relentless envelope-pushing that amounted to nothing, the boisterous boasting that was increasingly dubious, the inevitable drift to ephemerality and ultimately being remembered by no one. The rain was truer than any red state bleat or scolding liberal finger. Humans would come and go and live and die, but the rain would always remain. An awe-inspiring autumn foreshadowing of the roaring snow to come. A warmup for the main meterological act. A tremendously pleasing sound that, had these silly humans possessed greater humility, openly invited you to stay in bed on a Sunday and be grateful for all the unseen wonders around you. The rain would drown out the pain and the grief and the collective trauma that had accrued too fast and that had been allowed to fester and that had pushed the humans into more exhibitionistic strains of depravity that were shaving more seconds off the Doomsday Clock.

David Leich didn’t care about the rain.

He also hated it when people mispronounced his name. It was “like,” goddammit, not “leech.” He had screamed at the telemarketers and the Democrat volunteers over the phone whenever this happened.

Unfortunately for David, nobody really liked him. Not the baristas who served him his $40 custom beverages — drinks so ridiculously bespoke that it clogged up the line. Not the landlord who knocked on his door to collect the monthly rent. His father had disinherited him a decade before and this had motivated him to become as rich as possible. And David Leich was so stubborn that he truly believed he could do this by writing books.

The only thing he cared about was whether his work was read. And it increasingly wasn’t. Just like all the other literary Daves. And it looked likely that posterity was going to be denied to him as well. He had tried to pitch himself as a Nordmaka candidate: one of those lucky writers drafting manuscripts that would be published in a hundred years once the trees grew in. Goddammit, he was better than Mitchell (a British literary Dave who was decidedly kinder and more generous to his readers than any of the American Daves and thus not excluded from the epithet of being a true literary Dave) and Atwood (where the fuck was his TV deal?)! But despite his numerous awards, the Oslo people gently told him to buzz off. The Norwegians were actually very good at this without offending the unwelcome party.

The only writer who was more insufferable than Leich was the Tory vulgarian teaching at Bath Spa University who had a raging hard-on for Arnold Bennett and who inhaled poppers like a giraffe wolfing down acacia thorns once he taught another class futilely trying to persuade young people to read the writer that Virginia Woolf had rightly destroyed.

David Leich wasn’t that Tory vulgarian. Nobody in America could be as awful as him.

But he was still strongly detested. And the invites to book parties grew less frequent.

Someone had planted a rumor that Leich was up for the Nobel Prize, but Bill Flogaast had told them that it was a joke and he walked into bookstores and raged at friendly minimum wage booksellers, who swiftly removed his volumes from their shelves.

He sat miserably in his East Village apartment and stared at the blinking cursor on the white screen. And he had nothing. Not a single paragraph. Not even a facile declarative sentence.

What he did have with an inexhaustible supply of white-hot rage, which accelerated the deepening crow’s feet swiftly staggering the sides of his bloodthirsty eyes. Other writers had tried to befriend him and calm him down. David Fitzroy, who shared a lot of Leich’s snobbish indignation towawrds the rabble, had tried to set him up with a friend. “Maybe a woman might calm you down.” And Alice had been smart. So smart. So kind. So patient. More patient than a Stepford wife tolerating an abusive mansplainer. And he had run her out. And there was nobody else. Not even his considerable wealth (thank you, MacArthur people!) could persuade a woman to stick around for longer than two months. It didn’t help when Patricia Vacation — a twentysomething whom he had improbably seduced at Central Park — wrote that bestselling roman à clef, Narwhal’s Tusk, which sent the whisper network on high alert when it came to having anything to do with David Leich and guaranteed that David Leich would be feverishly jerking off to porn until his junk became a chronically detumescent pig in a blanket, little more than an embarassing mechanism for constant peeing.

The rain carried on outside. Leich hated it. He opened the window and scowled at the glistening mirror that had replaced the teeming streets. He watched one poor man race through the showers without an umbrella. “Moron!” he screamed. And then he saw a sight that made him angrier. A man schtupping a woman against the brick wall directly across from his building, her legs impressively arched around his waist. Even from the sixth floor, he could see the whites of her eyes tilting like a pinball machine. And they were making noise. Constant moans that ricocheted against the dead air of other buildings with unrented units and that stabbed the depths of his ears. He had tried to avoid the heightened exhibitionism by not leaving his apartment and it had never seemed to spill into his relatively quiet patch on East 7th Street. He had been grateful to be so insulated from the steadfast salacity in Tompkins Square Park, where they seemed to be at it at all hours. But on his block? No, there were standards of decency to uphold.

He opened the closet and reached for his Louisville Slugger. He was quite prepared to unclick the three deadbolts on his door and bash in their brains, but he was precluded from his homicidal improv bit by the flash of a mouse scurrying across his living room floor.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed.

The rat problem had grown out of control in the early 2020s under the disastrous administration of one-term Mayor Eric Adams, who was so incompetent that he had improbably proven to be worse than Dinkins and De Blasio combined. Much like any public works project hindered by blundering bureaucracy, Adams had made the mistake — and this was the least of his errors — of unrolling his rodent extermination plan — which he had cluelessly named “the Final Solution,” seemingly oblivious to history and earning him the wrath of the Orthodox communities in Williamsburg and Sunset Park, both of which had protested his insensitivity at City Hall before Adams reluctantly renamed this “Operation Bobcat” — in six months instead of six weeks. And in those six months, the rats grew far bolder, making public inspections of restaurants impossible. And they spilled into nearly every residential domicile in the five boroughs, causing more New Yorkers to flee to Florida. But for the hardened New Yorkers who stayed — and, for all of his faults, David Leich was one of them — they grew used to the critters. This when there far more of them running around that at any other point in New York history.

But David Leich was not the kind of man who would accept any form of pestilence scampering around his apartment. If he heard a scrape in the walls at 2 AM, he would call his super. And the phone would ring and ring. And the super soon avoided him in the halls. And who could blame him? Every apartment had rats. David Leich was nobody special.

You couldn’t hire a private exterminator because they were now charging $500/hour and they all had a nine month appointment backlog. And even when he had tapped one of the rare contacts who would still talk with him to get an exterminator in his apartment inside of a week, the rats had returned two months after all the crevices and points of entry had been packed with steel wool.

So he placed a concatenation of traps at every corner of his apartment. Snap traps. Glue traps. Electric traps. He liked the electric traps best because he wanted the rats to suffer. There was also a helpful little green light, not unlike the hue of the Samsung Surrounder, that appeared any time one of the rats became trapped inside the lengthy carriage, attracted to the peanut butter bait and instantly electrified.

But despite the fact that his apartment had become a veritable minefield for rodents, one goddamned rat had somehow figured out how to tip-toe around the traps. And the rat emerged from beneath his couch and stared at him. Was the little fucker smiling? He couldn’t know for sure. But he took a big lunge with his bat as the rat sprinted away from him and he somehow stumbled and the trajectory of his swing destroyed the glass case containing the autographed Mets baseball on his coffee table.

“Motherfucker! Come here!”

The carnal groans of the couple outside grew louder.

The rat darted to one of his bookcases and squeezed itself between two volumes of his Graham Greene collection. He pulled out The Power and the Glory and pushed the bat into the crevice almost as if he was pumping butter.

No sign of the rat.

“Come on!”

Then he heard a snap and a painful squeak. And he walked over to the trap, towering over the invasive little beast and began to laugh with the cruelty of a feudal lord who had just watched two of the peasants beat each other to death.

“That’s what I thought,” said David Leich, who grew tranquil with this triumph.

Then he remembered the fucking couple outside.

He returned to the open window. And they were gone.

He pulled out his toolbox from the closet and took out a ball-peen hammer and began to smash the rat’s skull in, laughing with each monomaniacal swing. The blood from the rat shot up upward in parabolic geysers. And this made Leich laugh even harder. It had been years since he had felt this way. Five years, in fact. When he had received the happy news that Paul Van Kleason had died. Van Kleason. That hopeless sci-fi hack who was merely one of his many nemeses, but whom he hated the most. He summoned the glee of a man who had kept a dark secret that he could not share, a man who would rise to the top again because of what he knew — that is, if he could get the vast illiterate throngs to care.

He slid open the file cabinet — kept neat and tidy like all of his wildly obsessive records of his numerous enemies — and he found the safety deposit box and unlocked it, still laughing heartily. And he took out the photos that the man in the fedora and the bland burgundy tie had given him. And he laughed again as he read the autopsy report, the one that had been carefully buried, the one that Bill Flogaast had given to him as a holiday gift.

Did anybody even care about Van Kleason anymore? He didn’t know. But he had this. And as the rat in the other room twitched its final and quite painful spasm, David Leich started to make rand plans about how he could rewrite the narrative so that the literary people (including the Norwegians) would never laugh at him again. He would have his revenge. And no rat, no rainstorm, and no public copulator was going to stop him.

(Next: The Italian Restaurant)

(Word count: 24,434/50,000)

Dolly Parton is Not Dead (NaNoWriMo 2022 #11)

(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Junior Senator from South Carolina)

“Are we rolling?”

Sven, always the silent type, offered the thumbs up.

Ezmerelda Gibbons raised the Rode. There was a Rycote square flag clipped just beneath the diaphragm: a marijuana leaf logo printed against a bright emerald green expanse.

“Welcome back to Toking with Elders!” said Ezmerelda in the purr she had perfected during her two year stint on OnlyFans. Funny how the same sexy trill that galvanized lonely men to choke their chickens was indistinguishable from that of a roving reporter who had to appear “friendly” and “accessible” to her viewers.

“Jake, my man, has it kicked in yet?”

“I’m feeling good,” said Jake, the eighty-two year old smiling man who held the joint in his shaky arthritic hand. “Real good.”

“And I should remind our viewers that this is a new strain of Humboldt Kush that you can order online from our sponsor, Toking and Joking. And for our viewers in Tennessee, we can help you get around the law. Don’t worry.” Sven moved in with the camera. Ezmerelda winked. “It’s all perfectly legal!”

Then Sven ran backwards. A Steadicam move pilfered from Kubrick with a Raimiesque tilt to a Dutch angle.

“Say what’s with the big fella? He’s running all over the place like a man dodging an alimony payment.”

“You mean Sven?”

Sven waved hello.

“He don’t talk much.”

“We only communicate by text.”

Jake took another tug on his joint.

“Is he a mute or something?”

“No, he just doesn’t like to talk.”

“Yeah,” he croaked after breathing in the smoke. “This is real good shit. Back in the old days…”


“You know the Free Love movement?”

“You were in Haight-Ashbury?”

“Yeah, I even knew Manson for a little bit. Before he started moving in on those teenagers and making a mess of his life. Nobody liked him, you know. And honestly I didn’t like the scene. So I moved back to Tennessee.”

“You know, Sven’s from Tennessee too.”

“Tennessee?” said Jake. “Well, holy Jehoshaphat, I lived in Knoxville for a good stretch.”


“There used to be this big bar with a giant photo of Cormac McCarthy. You know who Cormac McCarthy was?”


“Best goddamned writer I ever read. I read Suttree three times. There was a bar named after that book, you know. Because the book takes place in Knoxville. But that ain’t the bar I’m talking about. I knew ’em all, but this bar had fireball shots you could get for two dollars a piece. And that would spice up your insides and get you shaking in the knees. You didn’t want to cut the rug after a few Fireballs because you’d topple over. I saw one fellow fall a-plunder into the biggest pair you ever saw. And she slapped him. Guy never showed his face in the place again.”

“Did you dance?”

“No, but I drank. And I was good at it. Talk to any old timer and they too will teach you the moves. God, I miss it. Never had a bad night there. Well, wait a minute, that ain’t exactly true.”


“One night, there was this guy named Fitzjoy — some big shot writer who came in from New York.”

“Fitzjoy? The writer? You mean, David Fitzjoy”

“That’s the one.”

“The duck-feeding bestselling author of The Rectifications who killed himself when he stopped getting press?”

“Well, I don’t know if he fed ducks or not. But if he did, he didn’t have the hands for it. Soft short hands that hadn’t seen a tomato slicing machine or a gas pump. He was all high and mighty and he made several trips to the bathroom. And every time he came back, his hands were wet and smelled like someone’s asshole. We didn’t know what he was doing in there, but we let our imagination sit silent. We asked him about it, of course. Some idea he had about a wedding ring. A big scene for his novel. You say that the fellow killed himself?”

“He was one of two Daves who committed suicide, though he was the Dave who was better known. This was his third attempt. But he got it right on the third try.”

“Yeah, that’s often the case with city slickers. You ain’t a city slicker, are you?”

“I grew up in Canarsie.”

“Oh, Brooklyn? Well, that’s a little different.”

“Did you bounce around New York?”

“I never had the stomach for the place. And any time I see Manhattan on the teevee, I say to myself, ‘Jake Johnson, sometimes you made the right choices in life.'”

“I wish I could say the same.”

“You see, back in Tennessee, we knew how to do the job right the first time. But this Fitzjoy fellow? Stickier than a bowl of molasses. A big-talking fellow. Not very bright though of course he thought he was. He scolded Good Ol’ Jack Barron for reading B.C. in the funny pages. Imagine that. You’re sitting by yourself trying to have a little moment and then some big-talking out-of-town stranger who thinks he’s got swagger but really don’t — well, he’s the one who tells you how to live and how to think.”

“If it’s any consolation, only two people attended his funeral in Santa Cruz.”

“Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised. This Fitzroy guy was insufferable. His mind was all soiled up like a possum eating a persimmon. He felt that he was the ultimate authority on the Dookie Bird.”

“Yes, I read that essay he wrote on Johnny Hart.”

“Oh, he wrote an essay now, did he?”

Jake loosened a hearty chortle.

“It ended with him describing how he sobbed into a blanket each night after reading the newspaper with a flashlight.”

“Yeah, well, you could tell straight up that he wasn’t much of a man. But that was the only trouble we ever had at that place — oh, shitsters, what was the name of it? Well, a man could find all the pussy he’d ever need.”

Ezmerelda laughed with convincing nervousness. She’d seen so many horrific things on OnlyFans — so much so that she truly knew what men were capable of and she was hardly surprised anymore. But she had to keep up appearances. For that was the draw of her show. And that was the problem with old people. They were still set in their throwback ways and refused to adapt to the new ones. They’d be dead in a few years. What the hell did they care? Even so, it was good for the views whenever her guests grew crotchety or deranged. The episode in which she was toking up with a man who revealed himself to be a grand wizard went ridiculously viral and Toking and Joking swooped in with an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“Now, Jake, we don’t speak that way about women anymore.”

“What way?”

“Pussy. It’s disrespectful.”

Jake began to laugh long and hard. The phlegmatic laugh of a man who had smoked for at least twenty years. He nearly fell over in his chair.

“Honey, have you seen the trash they now show on the teevee? Disgraceful!”

“I don’t disagree, Jake. Tell us more about your life.”

“Well, I was born and raised in Pigeon Forge. That’s where Dollywood is, see? And everybody loved Dolly, may she rest in peace.”

“Dolly’s not dead.”

“What? But I saw it on the news.”

“You’re thinking of Amy Lee.”

“Amy who?”

“Amy Lee? Also had, uh, ample anatomy.:

Jake look baffled.

“Evanescence?” continued Ezmerelda. “‘Bring Me to Live.’ I’d sing it for you, but we’d have to pay royalties.”

“Well, I don’t know nothin’ bout any Amy Lee. What were her tatas like?”

“Jake. Remember. Respect.”

“Oh yeah. Right. Can I call you honey at least? Don’t worry, dearie, it’s a Southern form of endearment.”

“I know. I lived in Myrtle Beach for a while. I’ll tolerate that.”

“You’re a decent girl, you know. And not just because of the weed. Anyhow, Dolly was — is the most beautiful woman who graced this planet. She made Pigeon Forge proud, see. The women dressed like Dolly. And they were all gorgeous, just like you.”

“Awww. Thanks!”

“And when I came back to Tennessee again in the 1980s, I noticed that all the fellahs were marrying women who looked like Dolly.”


“Oh yeah. If you wanted to find yourself a man and you didn’t look like Dolly, then you’d be an old maid. And they sure wouldn’t hire you at Dollywood.”

“Old maid?” asked Ezmerelda.

“A spinster.

“Why did you go out west?”

“I was twenty years old and heard that all the girls had moved out there.”

“The Summer of Love.”

“Well, it was a bust for me. I had better luck smooth-talking the ladies when I came back home.”

Sven was frantically waving his arms.

“Not now, Sven.”

Sven reached for his phone and began typing something. Ezmerelda’s phone pinged. She read Sven’s text and looked back at him. He nodded.

“Jake, you’ve been a pleasure to chat with. But we have to wrap this up.”

“So soon? I was just getting started.”

“But we’d like to offer you a complimentary bag of Humboldt Kush from our good friends Toking and Joking.”

“Aw thanks.”

“And offer a shoutout to our other sponsor, the AARP, for making this webseries possible.”

“Say, can I get a Blu-Ray of this?”

“You can stream it online. We’ll send you the link.”

“That won’t do. I can’t seem to remember the wi-fi password.”

Sven had packed his gear in record time and was now snapping, pointing to his wrist to signal a watch.

“We’ll sort it out later, Jake.”

“Okay. And if you’re going to bring shit like this, you’re welcome back anytime!”

But by that time, Ezmerelda and Sven had rushed for the door. Jake was so happily stoned that he kept talking for a good five minutes before realizing that the duo had departed.

“Wait,” he said to himself, “when did they leave?”

Then he passed out and took a long nap.

(Next: The Last Literary Dave)

(Word count: 22,439/50,000)

The Junior Senator from South Carolina (NaNoWriMo 2022 #10)

(Start Reading from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: Soldiers with Broken Arms)

Debbie Ballard had not expected to stay with the Rollins campaign, much less move to Washington. Her mother had succumbed to cancer three years before. Her student loans had been paid off. She now owned a second home in Georgetown, which she closed on just before the housing crisis and which had somehow appreciated in value despite all the economic volatility. There were certain Beltway bars occupied by politicos in which she was actually feared. She had fallen in love and married Gabrielle Jenkins and hadn’t expected that to happen. Gabrielle, in addition to atoning for the directionally impaired tongue lashings of mediocre men with her exquisite scissoring (Debbie would never go back, even if Gabrielle left her), also understood her in ways that so many others had not. Gabrielle commended the qualities that others had deemed risible. The way that Debbie would hold half of a bagel above her neckline just before spreading cream cheese, which the people she had dated before Gabrielle had ridiculed, was evidence of an instinctive divinity, a quirk that only confirmed Gabrielle’s faith in Debbie’s alacrity. Gabrielle helped her pick out the right sleeveless sheath to wear to a summer soiree and even coached her on ladyboss body language that would always put a dull man trying to challenge her in his rightfully undistinguished place. In many ways, Debbie felt as if she was still pretending, but she did have a knack for sheltering the endless flow of campaign contributions from Rollins’s many fans. She did know how to manipulate sleazy lobbyists. She did have a way of fielding calls from desperate Democrats trying to cut a deal with Rollins. And while Rollins was stupider than anyone truly knew — including the Slate reporter who had tried to take him out after uncovering secret recordings of his bimonthly seminars, along with the quietly settled lawsuits — Debbie knew how to make him seem as if he knew more than he let on. Never mind that she had closely studied Jared Kushner back when the media people had hilariously suggested that he was a calming force who would assuage the unpredictable jerks of the orange menace and had simply pilfered the best bits and ensured that there was no financial trail that deep-dive document searchers would find. If it hadn’t been for Debbie Ballard, Rob Rollins would not now, during the most apocalyptic time in American history, be the junior senator from South Carolina.

The thinktanks all knew that Debbie was the force behind Rollins’s rapid rise. Herschel Walker had tried to hire her. Mitch McConnell. Lady G. She had turned them all down. If only they knew how liberal she’d once been, though not liberal in the ways that countless heathens were now unleashing in public places. She’d truly been shocked by the rise of rampant exhibitionism. Even now, as she jogged on G Street waiting for the blocks of hideous buildings to recede for the promising vista of the Capitol dome, she was still astonished to find a woman going down on a man just outside of Burger King. He was actually shouting “I’m having it my way! I’m having it my way!” And that was the weirdest thing about it. If the new fad of public sex could be compared to an act of revolution, it was decidedly incoherent. On one hand, these anarchist fornicators were desecrating what remained of the franchises by carrying on with their copulation. On the other hand, they adopted the very corporate mantras that were anathema to their professed cause. So you could ascribe a certain passive aggression to the two feral protesters who she saw 69ing in the perfume aisle at Nordstrom Rack. The security guards were too underpaid to remove them. The police were too busy with all the murders to be bothered. And so everyone grew to tolerate all the public sex, much as they turned the other way when some new maniac shot up a school.

She knew she was taking a risk jogging out in the open like this. As the streets became more dangerous and crime hit an unprecedented high, the President had urged women to walk in groups for their own safety. But Debbie Ballard was not someone who wanted to be a victim. She was still in shape. She had to be if she wanted to stay on as the chief of staff for a prominent physical fitness instructor who was now serving on four Senate Committees. She’d taken kickboxing classes and had dabbled in mixed martial arts. Besides, she had one of the new Samsung Surrounders that had become a big hit for the flailing tech giant once the data experts had run the numbers and concluded that one out of every four Americans was likely to commit rape or murder in this new nightmarish epoch. You put contact lenses equipped with an AR interface into your eyes. And you were always aware of the red and green dots of people who surrounded you. The green dots were people without a criminal record. The red dots were those who had some trouble attached — whether it be a reckless tweet from their college days or a scandalous video they had posted to Some people actually used the Surrounder to score dates. Because with the Surrounder, you could call up a drop-down menu in the chilly air and check out the social media profiles for every walking and talking dot of ape-descended meat who you might ran into. The Surrounder had been a hit with introverts, although the introverts were more inclined to stay home. It was also useful for those parties in which you forgot the name of someone who you had run into six months before. Debbie and Gabrielle had tried going bareback without the Surrounder one night in which they had to attend a party, but it became clear within ten minutes that their organic brains were no match for the advantages of the overlay. The transhumanists had been right all along. Humans were fated to be enslaved to technology. And maybe you could hole up in the country and allow this state of affairs to pass you by. But you couldn’t stop people from gossiping about each other and looking for any dirt to believe that they were superior.

Debbie had frowned upon the way that some of the Surrounder power users had employed the new tech to geocache the worst people in the world. People who had served long prison terms and who were trying to build new lives were shocked when these public shaming cultists knocked on their door and filmed them with their phones for all the Internet to see. So people weren’t as free to live their lives as they had before. Samsung lobbyists had flooded the Senate with money (even Rollins had taken some of it) to ensure that there would be no legislation outlawing the use of the Surrounder.

Unemployed nobodies who styled themselves “journalists” had once doxxed criminals on Reddit threads, but the Surrounder had turned the game into a hunt. Years before, they had spent long afternoons hunting avatars with Pokémon Go. But finding human lowlifes out in the real world was far more fun, although the suicide rate had quadrupled in the last five years because some of the victims didn’t have a sense of humor.

This was one of the reasons why the masonry business had taken off and why gated communities were now more ubiquitous. The idyllic suburban rows with open front laws had been replaced with ugly brick walls fortified with barbed wire and motion-sensitive machine guns. And when Debbie jogged through a residential area, she still winced at the sinister whirs of 50 caliber HMGs, the barrels that followed her along the sidewalk. Her old friend Sophie had been paralyzed from the waist down because one of the surveillance weapons had malfunctioning when she went for a run. And even Gabrielle had urged Debbie to jog in Montrose Park rather than the downtown sprawl. The park did, after all, have its own set of rules and was only open to Georgetown residents and was regularly patroled by men who didn’t think twice about mowing down a troublemaker. And nobody fucked there.

But Debbie had always been a people person. And her jogs and wanderings in DC, however sketchy, was what helped her to understand human psychology. And with the constituents who regularly pestered Rollins, she needed to be able to anticipate what they might say or do. Admittedly, this was becoming easier. Because everyone was more scared. The repertoire of social moves had drastically attenuated, particularly since the green dots feared that they would turn into red dots. The Surrounder algorithm was, like all algorithms, driven by machine learning so that the tech moguls wouldn’t have to pay human eyes to correct the mistakes. Even the Supreme Court — with its seven staunch conservatives and the two open slots that needed to be filled after the recent assassinations — sided with Samsung, pointing out that the Constitution contained no express right to privacy. Sure, you could still watch porn and you could still fuck out in the open. (In a move that caused a veteran SCOTUSblog reporter to lose his gasket, the Court had used the Fourteenth Amendment to point out that prohibiting people from fucking in public deprived them of their constitutionally protected liberty.) But decency was more of a theoretical idea rather than the accepted practice.

“WARNING!” said the Surrounder’s overfriendly voice, “TWO REDS APPROACHING FROM THE SOUTH!”

Maybe she was being overly cautious with her warning settings, but she recalled how three yahoos — one of them was the father of one of his teenage victims — had murdered Matt Gaetz on a live stream back in 2025.

She spun around and adopted an orthodox stance. Two men, both gaunt and dressed in threadbare coats, approached her.

“Whoa, lady!” said the first man.

“Stand back!” boomed Debbie.

“Can’t we even say hello?” asked the second man.

“If you try anything, I will fuck you up. Surrounder, display profiles.”


“Hey, man, I was innocent,” said Ronald.


“Wow,” said Debbie. “How do you get banned from Doordash? They deliver to everyone.”

“Dude,” said Ronald. “I didn’t know you were banned from Doordash.”

“Shut up!” said Gary. “So I can’t get a pizza delivery. Who cares? It’s not like anyone can afford takeout these days.”

“What do you two creeps want?”

“We want to help,” said Gary.

“You stalked me?”

“We know you work for Rollins,” said Ronald. “Is it okay if I grab something under my coat?”

“Surrounder,” said Debbie, “are these men armed?”


“Psychological manipulation index?” asked Gary. “Wow, they track that too?”

“Apparently you didn’t get the latest update,” said Debbie.

“You know,” said Ronald, who moved in a slow and belabored way, “I miss the old days. Before the Surrounder. You didn’t have to second-guess people.”

“It’s a dangerous time to live,” said Debbie. “What do you want?”

“Hang on,” said Ronald. He extracted a book and tossed it to Debbie. Debbie’s reflexes were heightened. So she caught it.

“You’re going to want to read this,” said Gary. “Particularly the two chapters on Rollins.”

Debbie looked at the cover. There was a picture of Paul Van Kleason on the cover. His fingers were steepled as he surveyed two pairs of bare legs that had been swiftly Photoshopped in by some underpaid book designer. Paul Van Kleason. The writer who had died five years ago, The book’s author was Ali Breslin. Ali Breslin? That crazy chick who wrote for The Myrtleist way back when? She was still bouncing around.

Debbie laughed.

“This looks like sensationalistic trash.”

“It’s not,” said Ronald.

“Ali Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago.”


“Google it if you don’t believe us.”

She did. And, well, holy shit, these two dudes were right. She also conducted a provenance scan on the book. And, yes, it too was legit.

“Why would anyone care about a dead writer?”

“Trust me,” said Gary. “They’re going to care.”

“Why? Have you noticed the world around you? More sex and violence. More depravity. America is a joke. Most people have given up.”

“No, they haven’t,” said Ronald. “They’re just waiting for a savior to get us back to normal.”

“And the junior Senator fro South Carolina is well-positioned to be that savior.”

“This book hasn’t been published.”

“It hits bookstores next Tuesday.”

“And how did you get a copy?”

“Well, I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy…”

“What do you want?”

“We haven’t eaten in three days.”

“So you want me to buy you two creeps a meal.”

“Well, a little more than that.”

“I’m not going to fuck you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” said Debbie. She held up her hand and flashed her ring. “You see? Happily married.”

“That hasn’t stopped people before,” laughed Gary.

“We don’t want to fuck you,” said Ronald.

“I’m confidently asexual,” said Gary.

“And so am I.”

The Surrounder confirmed that neither Ronald nor Gary had fucked anyone in the last three years. Dating history was still a little buggy, but the algorithm was getting better on the sexual partner flowcharts with each new update.

“Okay,” said Debbie, “but we have to meet somewhere where we can’t be tracked by Surrounders.”

“You’d willingly take us to a frozen zone?” asked Gary, who was incredulous.

“It seems I have no choice.”

(Next: Dolly Parton is Not Dead)

(Word count: 20,764/50,000)

Shepherd’s Pie (NaNoWriMo 2022 #6)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: The Physical Trainer)

It was nine o’clock on a Tuesday and the regular crowd shuffled in. Bill Flogaast hadn’t eaten a single thing all day and there was an old man sitting next to him, stabbing his fork into a plate of bangers and mash. He said, “Bill, I believe this is killing me,” but he ate the grub anyway as the smile ran away from his face. There was, unfortunately, no piano for him to play on. The proprietor of Joel’s Place — who was not Joel (1946-2003) — had removed the small upright shortly after a few hipsters from Bushwick had pulled a post-flash mob viral stunt for Improv Everywhere and tortured the tired cortege of old timers. Why couldn’t these obnoxious kids just ride the fucking subway without pants and let the Joel’s mainstays settle their sorrows in peace?

The old man wiped the crumbs that had settled like clueless gentrifiers into his mustache and he bid his allies adieu, leaving Bill Flogaast to await his long-delayed dinner.

The day had been long and grueling, not unlike the Battle of Bataan if you took away the weapons and the casualties and the history-changing geopolitical stakes. And he still hadn’t put out all the fires. He had anticipated several of them. The calls from Hollywood. His nimble parries against the press. The shocking news that one million copies of Van Kleason’s new novel were now sitting in a Detroit warehouse ahead of pub date. The guarantee that 98% of these would be remaindered if the truth of Van Kleason’s death became public.

But they had made the announcement and it had been received with reliably shallow thoughts and prayers, along with the usual hangers-on who claimed to be Van Kleason’s friends once they spotted a potential meme to win likes and comments (and, of course, the predictable sympathy from those who hadn’t investigated the truth of the “friendship,” which was pretty much everyone on social media).

Henry — the gaunt septuagenarian who tended bar and who was somehow slimmer than an Auschwitz survivor — deposited the white fish-shaped deep dish onto the thin green placemat and reinforced the meal’s arrival with a second pint of Guinness.

“On the house,” said Henry. “You look like you need it.”

“I probably do,” said Bill, “but I’m not finished with the first pint.”

And he wouldn’t be for a while.

“But she’s here.”


“Do I really have to tell you?”

He was too hungry and exhausted to consider who this might be. She could be any number of people. Publishing people often spilled into Joel’s at unanticipated hours, but Joel’s was hardly Max’s Kansas City. It was a bar that was waiting to die, as so many others had during the pandemic. There were no live bands. Just a bunch of old men sitting on fraying barstools. The men were so sad that the prorpietor had removed the mirror behind the bottles after one regular had left his car running in his garage and never returned. Sure, the place was kept tidy, but it had not been remodeled for a good twenty years out of “respect for Joel’s vision.” But Bill Flogaast was one of the only ones still alive who could recall talking regularly to that tight-fisted tyrant, who used to kick people out of his bar if they ordered a martini with vodka instead of gin. Joel believed that he was running a classy place, but Joel’s was really no different from any other West Village dive Which was why it was so appealing. You wouldn’t be hassled by young louts, although they sometimes rolled into this funereal venue out of curiosity.

Bill picked up the spoon that had arrived with his shepherd’s pie and, as the waft of mashed potato crust whirled into his nostrils, he angled the utensil against the feeble amber light to see who she was.

Bill Flogaast had long ago mastered the art of peripheral hearing and peripheral seeing. This wasn’t just a technique used by private investigators. It was invaluable in publicity. He always had one eye scanning a mirror or a reflective surface so that he would notice if an unruly author with a grudge arrived at a book party. He’d swoop in and usher any nemesis to the other side of the room.

Dev Rawman, who always took offense whenever anyone pronounced his name like a package of noodles, was one such author. Five vitriolic outbursts at the last seven literary soirees he’d attended and all of these because he was a grownass man who was still angered and embarrassed by his debut novel, which was very bad and elided from his credits in future volumes. Never mind that his novels were still very bad and that his sentences were so awful that not even a very patient junior editor who diagrammed his sentences could get Dev to clean up his potboiler prose. Never mind that Dev had somehow found a ride on the cash cow with a lucrative TV deal from three of those novels (all of these books had the word “fantastic” in their titles and, after a while, people simply assumed that the work was fantastic because people weren’t reading as much anymore). Dev didn’t have a sense of humor. In fact, Dev was so humorless that he had once written an entire column about a blogger who had scorched him. Dev hadn’t counted on his readers siding with the blogger rather than him. And this infuriated him further. Then Dev got obsessed with this blogger and Googled around and found a YouTube video in which the blogger’s grandmother said that she was so proud of him, giving the blogger a huge hug over the triumph of embarrassing a talentless blowhard and being named in a major magazine. And because Dev had no one in his family who loved him (even Dev’s twin brother, whose shirt was stuffed tighter than Dev’s, had cut ties), he longed to know why some online troll in San Francisco would receive the kind of love that he, as a Successful AuthorTM was rightly entitled to.

Bill knew that this was the case with most authors. They were largely children who longed for attention and who spent more time bullshitting on Twitter than honing their latest novel.

Henry, eyeing Bill’s surveillance from behind the bar, nudged his head to the left to give him a hint. Bill flattened a piece of the pie into a manageable matchbox and shoveled it into his mouth — Jesus Christ, no rosemary or thyme with the beef broth? — before delicately dropping the yellowy mass from maw into his napkin. Then he turned his head and saw her.

Gingrich Moore. Ginny if you hadn’t pissed her off in a while. But Moore was easily offended and fiercely protective of her authors, whom she often risibly compared with the 1920s modernists. She was particularly keen on Butch Wheel and his literary debut many years ago, which had been written in pretentious first person plural. Nobody read that book anymore, much less Wheel’s followups, and the gaps between Wheel’s books had stretched from three to seven years. Even Dev Rawman had raved about Wheel, perhaps secretly longing to fuck him as much as the KGB Bar groupies did. But if you were some sad bastard who suggested to Moore that Wheel wasn’t all that, Moore would disinvite you from parties and make your life difficult. Fortunately Flogaast had won over Moore through scandalous serendipity. He had spotted Moore and Wheel leaving a hotel, both looking surprisingly disheveled. Moore saw Flogaast and sprinted away and, based on the way that she had really gone out of her way to accommodate Flogaast after that, you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the two were boning each other and that this was the real reason for Moore’s feverish advocacy. Wheel was hardly the first author to use his dick as much as his pen when it came to “negotiating” contracts. But Moore had never struck Flogaast as the kind of editor who would fuck her authors. People were full of surprises.

“Hello, Bill,” said Moore, who was now towering over Flogaast’s table. “I saw you looking at me.”

“Howdy Ginny.”

“I heard about Paul Van Kleason.”

“Yeah, he was only 48. I’ve been working the phones all day.”

“You must be exhausted. And it’s Gingrich, not Ginny.”

Moore’s mouth contorted into a cruel smile.


“Gin-grich. That’s how you will refer to me.”

Flogaast laughed. “Did I do something to piss you off?”

“No,” said Moore. “Of course not.”

“Then why the sudden formality?”

“Because I know what really happened to Paul Van Kleason.”

“Alright, you tell me, hotshot. What really happened to Paul Van Kleason?”

“You don’t need to be coy with me, Bill. I also know about Sophie. This is really going to be quite embarrassing for you. Once everything comes out.”

Moore slid the chair from its resting place beneath the wobbly table and sat down.

“Gingrich, you and I have never had an issue with each other. Never. I respect you. I’ve never said a word about your…your extracurricular activities. What you do is your own business.”

“And I appreciate that. But Butch isn’t one of my authors anymore.”

“What? He went to another house?”

“He’s filed for divorce.”

“That’s too bad.”

“It is too bad, Bill,” said Gingrich. There was a luster in her eyes that made Flogaast uneasy. Flogaast downed the rest of his first pint and wrapped his hand around the second pint.

“He stopped seeing you?”

“You have averred correctly.”

“Gingrich, come on. I haven’t had a bite to eat all day and this hopeless shepherd’s pie is the only thing keeping me going. Why does Paul Van Kleason even matter to you?”

“Oh, he doesn’t. He was a terrible writer. An asshole really. At least that’s what I hear from one of your defectors.”

His former associate Ginny Romano. A tireless ebooks booster who had a knack for finding influencers before they even knew they were influencers. She used every trick in the book to keep them close. Including an aggressive booty call or three. She and Moore were well-matched, given that they shared a common rage directed at any man who had spurned their advances.

“Ginny is a good publicist, but she wasn’t privy to everything.”

“She was privy to enough. Van Kleason sells and he’s been a big hit on several Comic-Con panels. But it’s this image of woke purity that he’s cultivated — that’s what interests me. All of it could collapse like a delicate house of cards. And you, Bill, would be the one they’d blame for it.”

Flogaast nearly choked on a half-eaten pea that had nestled in his throat.

“What do you want, Gingrich?”

“Your resignation.”

“You’re not my boss.”

“You’re right. I’m not. But I knew you would be here. You’re getting more predictable in your old age.”

Moore pulled a thumb drive from her purse and gave it to him.

“What’s this?”

“Just watch the videos, Bill. Nothing’s on the Internet yet, but it will be. Probably by early next week.”

Flogaast looked ashen. He knew what she had found, what he had taken great liberties to cover up. The leak had to come from Romano. She was still friendly with a lot of her former coworkers.

“Who else knows about this?”

“Oh, Bill, come on! I’ve always been a professional.”

“Except with Wheel.”

“Don’t be vulgar, Bill. Just admit that you’ve lost the upper hand and that there was an angle here that you couldn’t anticipate.”

“Who else knows about this?”

“Let’s just say that a small group of people at the top, people who are your competitors, are apprised of what I have.”

“I’m going to need some time.”

“You have a week, Bill. That’s it.”

“That’s not enough time.”

“Well, I guess you’ll have to face the music then.”

“What did I ever do to you, Gingrich?”

“It’s not personal. It’s just business. You’ve covered up smaller things than this.”

“Yeah, but it’s really bad.”

“Well, tell you what, Bill. I’ll give you two weeks.”

“That’s still not enough time.”

“Then get back to me once you understand just what kind of ladyboss you’re dealing with.” She leaned in. “Because, you see, Bill, I’ve always played hardball. You just haven’t seen it. How do you think we keep so many authors? But you? You’re just a softie from another time.”

She stood up and Henry, oblivious to the finer details of this sinister exchange, offered a hearty wave to both of them.

“Choose wisely, Bill. I know the Germans are counting on you.”

(Next: The War Room)

(Word count: 12,576/50,000)

The Physical Trainer (NaNoWriMo 2022 #5)

(Start Reading the Novel from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)

(Previously: All the Ugly Horses)

Like many who had the misfortune of working the Pallof press under Rob Rollins’s despotic watch, Debbie Ballard resembled a marionette getting scuffed up during a Punch and Judy show.

“Again!” screamed Rollins.

Debbie pushed and pulled the resistance band with all her might, stretching her glutes and testing her torso and feeling the fatigue that would require an double Americano to elude an afternoon nap.

“One more!”

She had always given Rollins two more when he asked for one. If you gave him just one flex of the pecs, he would grunt and then surprise you hours later with predawn text shaming. Rollins was a man who didn’t seem to sleep. Or, at least, nobody could pin down the exact hours he slept. But that was his brand. Professional tyrant. Heartless dictator. Merciless Messiah for better bodies. You always felt as if Rollins was standing behind your neck, even when he was standing right in front of you. Rollins somehow exuded the presence of six men slowly pacing around you as you sweated during a set. And the Myrtle Beach gym rats, at a far higher proportion than fitness nuts in other cities, tended to need an extra smidgen of fear to sustain their discipline. Rollins, as he liked to remind his many clients, was their salvation, their ticket to a healthy heaven. And the mandatory bimonthly seminars at the Carolina Opry (all two thousand seats filled by present and former clients, an additional $400 charge) would bring anyone who doubted his credentials on stage and order the hecklers to strip off their clothes and reveal the fatty deficiencies of their bodies. Or he would single out a client who didn’t live up to his exacting standards and humiliate the poor grunt by taking four Franklins out of his wallet (“Here’s your refund. I can’t teach you anything. So get the fuck out of here!”) and, after the vicious verbal beatdown, stretch his arms like Christ on a cross while the audience showered the failure with caterwauls and applause.

There was at least one support group for those who had flunked out of Rollins’s program, where quavering innocents described their PTSD. Three people had tried to sue Rollins for intentional inflection of emotional distress. And that’s when Rollins pulled out the redwell in his gym bag and reminded that you had signed an NDA. You had to commit to a yearly contract if you wanted to work with Rollins, but Rollins reserved the right to dismiss you. He didn’t accept no shows. He’d find you if you skipped an appointment or moved out of Myrtle Beach. And everyone tolerated this tyranny because nobody could quibble with the physical results.

Debbie’s body buckled from the tension.

“Oh, you’re only going to give me one more?”

Ninety-six minutes of this. Would she survive the last fifteen minutes of her session? Rollins prescribed exercise regimens punctuated by his trademark berating. He was fond of screaming words like “loser” and “disappointment.” And he earned two hundred dollars an hour for doing this. As he liked to remind his clients, it was Rollins who chose you, not the other way around.

When Sophie had slipped Rollins’ contact info to Debbie, she had been dubious. “Really?” she said to her best friend. “This guy?”

“Well, you can’t argue with this,” said Sophie, who slipped off her robe to reveal her sculpted curves protruding from a ravishing leopard skin bikini.

And Debbie couldn’t. She felt a surprising desire to fuck her friend, but she didn’t. She knew Sophie had something going on with a few of the locals, as did everybody else in Myrtle Beach. It was a city small enough for people to talk. But you kept your judgments to yourself. Everyone has their own reasons for living the way they do.

Debbie collapsed on the mat.

“Ballard, what are you doing?”

“I’m exhausted.”

“‘I’m exhausted, sir!’ You are supposed to address me as ‘Sir!'”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Don’t be sorry. Get back on the Pallof!”

“I can’t, sir.”

“Do you want your core to turn to flab?”

“No, sir.”

“Do you want to be like all the other sad assholes who stuff McDonald’s into their faces and hate themselves?”

“No, sir.”

He clapped his hands and flourished his arms much like a conductor hitting the trickiest part of Mahler.

“Then get at it! Chop chop!”

And although she was sore, Rollins had been right. She did have a little still left in the tank. But she didn’t know how much. Finally, as she was about to collapse, Rollins said, “Session’s over. Nice work, Ballard. You’ve come a long way in six weeks.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“We’re done. You can call me Rob.”


She grabbed a towel to wipe off the sweat that had poured down her neck. Rollins, for all of his running around, hadn’t revealed so much as a bead.

“You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?”


“Well, Debbie…”

Debbie? Rollins had never referred to her by her first name before.

“Is it all right if I call you Debbie?”

“Of course.”

“Do you know anything about politics?”

“Why are you asking?”

“You may have noticed the billboards and the TV ads.”

Who hadn’t? There had even been an article in the Myrtleist by that Ali Breslin woman about it. WHAT IS ROLLINS’S NEXT MOVE?

“I have.”

Rollins flashed Debbie a bright smile. Immaculate teeth. Whiter than the output from a soap factory.

“Can I let you in on a little secret?”

“I couldn’t talk even if I wanted to. I did read the NDA before signing it.”

“You were the only one who asked for revisions.”

“And I appreciate you making them.”

“I rarely make concessions for anyone. But you, Debbie?” He put his hand on her shoulder and she couldn’t deny that it felt good. “You’re different. You seemed like someone I could make an exception for.”


“Because I need you.”

“For what? Politics?”

“I’ll be holding a press conference this afternoon and I want you to be there.”

“But my work. I have to get back.”

“To Dixon, Joyce and Markson? What do they have you doing over there?”

“Real estate law.”

“That doesn’t sound sexy.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“What do they have you do?”

“Construction financing, zoning disputes.”

“Well, what if I were to retain you?”

“You’d have to speak with Mr. Dixon. He’s the partner who supervises me.”

“No. I want to retain you independently.”

“I have a noncompete.”

“Oh, I think Mr. Dixon will budge. He’s an old friend. And I’m a frog who can leap across any interstate.”

“I don’t think it’s possible.”

“Impossible?” screamed Rollins. He had shifted so fast from gentle confidante to aggressive megalomaniac. “What is the second rule of The Rollins Way?”

“‘Impossibility is an illusion perpetuated by the weak.'”


He was so proud to have his words quoted back to him. Never mind that this tenet had been devised by a ghost writer. But he had paid for it. So the words were now his!

“Mr. Dixon isn’t weak. What about the Collier case? A $225 million verdict!”

“Every man has his weak spot.” He stepped closer. “Every woman too.”

“Mr. Rollins, is this your way of asking me on a date?”

“I never date my clients. No, Debbie. It’s your services I want.”

“Well, I’m flattered, but I really need to hit the shower and get back to work.”

“What if I were to offer you $30,000 for one month of work?”

Thirty thousand dollars. It wasn’t fuck you money, but it was still quite a lot. She thought of her crushing student loan debt, the mortgage payments, the money she needed to keep her mother alive in the cancer ward.

“What kind of work do you want me to do?”

“I want you to manage a campaign.”

“A campaign for what?”

“For the House of Representatives.”

“You’re running for Congress?”

“I’ve thought about it for a while. It’s about time. And that’s s why I’m calling the press conference.”

“And what political experience do you have?”

“None! That’s the beauty of it! I’m an outsider.”

“And, uh, what party are you running with?”

“Republican! Of course!”

Republicans. God, she hated them. Reptilian, devoid of empathy, stripping away her rights as a woman.

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Oh, I’m not a Trumper. If that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Well, you’re going to have to align yourself with the MAGA crowd and the Christians if you want to do this. If you’re really serious.”

“You see, that’s exactly why I need you to run my campaign.”

“Where do you stand on Israel?”

“I’m for them.”

“And Palestine?”

“I’m for them.”

“Rob, you can’t support Israel and Palestine at the same time.”

“Why not?”

Was he fucking serious? Did he not pay even the most cursory attention to foreign affairs in the last three decades?

“You like it when we parrot back your words to you, don’t you?”

“Of course I do! It means you’re learning something!”

“Well, I’ll reiterate what you say to the flunkees. Rob, I can’t teach you anything.”

She walked away, trying to get as much of the sweat off her neck as she could. Rollins followed her.

“Come on, Debbie.”


“Okay, what if I made it sixty thousand?”

She stopped in her tracks. Sixty thousand. Well, that would kill the debt interest alone. And since the Fed couldn’t refrain from raising interest rates, she was very keen on pecking away at the principal.

She turned to Rollins.

“Sixty thousand for one month’s work?”

“A preliminary phase. And we could keep this in place on an ongoing basis.”

Nine months away from the next election. If she stuck around, that would be $540,000. A lot more than the $140K she made each year at Dixon, Joyce and Markson.

“You’re really that loaded?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a guy who helps me with my investments. And there have been quiet fundraisers.”

She’d have to closely examine the books to make sure that none of this was dirty money. If Rollins didn’t know about Arafat, there was a good chance he didn’t know about

“You realize I’m a Democrat.”

“I don’t care. It’s your mind I want.”

Blood money for a temporary stint. But she supposed she could arrange for a leave of absence. Dixon knew about her mother. And while he was a tough man, he was also fair. And she knew that he didn’t want to lose one of his top associates.

She held out her hand to Rollins.

“Okay, Mr. Rollins. You’ve got yourself a handshake deal.”

(Next: Shepherd’s Pie)

(Word count: 10,462/50,000)

The Coat Basket (NaNoWriMo 2022 #2)

(Previously: The Dead Writer)

Seven hundred miles away, in an inexact north by northeast line that can be reached by jumbo jet in about one hour and forty-two minutes, there was a man who was decidedly more alive, far more important, more physically fit, much smarter, and somehow more anonymous in his business dealings than Paul Van Kleason.

His name was Bill Flogaast and he had far more power that any of the neighing infants who feigned “publishing insider” status could ever imagine.

In his thirty-four years in the biz, Flogaast was one of the last men still standing. He had survived numerous mergers and downsizing campaigns. He had inveigled tempestuous authors and bribed humorless book editors. He had methodically turned one book critic with a sizable Beanie Babies collection into his personal stenographer, persuading a bestselling horror writer to declare her his “friend” on pre-Elon Twitter, and this lonely and pathetic and heavily Botoxed woman had the sad naivete to believe that she still formed her own opinions about books. He had personally ensured that a Tory vulgarian who taught creative writing at Bath Spa University would never get his novels published in America. He sent fruit baskets and slipped Franklins to the right people. He silenced attention-seeking troublemakers by having his publicity army of ten send thick packages in the mail stuffed with galleys that were perfectly tailored to their sensibilities. Give these dumb and obnoxious kids all the books they could ever want and they would usually shut the fuck up. They would even photograph themselves on Instagram holding the galleys above their heads, as if these volumes were elephant skulls sawed off after a six month African safari. And it was he who had managed to persuade six media outlets to adopt a “No haters” policy for their review coverage, bringing an end to the literary takedowns that had caused several authors to sob for hours on the phone to him. It wasn’t that he was against tough criticism. He just wanted to spend more time in the Hamptons and this was strictly a time-saving measure.

He had covered up nine physical assaults, twenty-two incidents of sexual harassment, one fatal stabbing, and he had even managed to get some Nobel-obsessed jackanape who freelanced for The New Republic to spin an author’s ugly heroin overdose as a quiet death from natural causes. He kept an Excel spreadsheet tracking bad behavior from eighty-two authors (half of them had been on the Shitty Media Men list) who still had ongoing deals. Under Flogaast’s watch, their notorious deportment had never reached the newspapers. He had outsmarted the whisper network and orchestrated omertàs to ensure that any gadfly who could make a significant dent in sales with some lengthy online jeremiad would never be taken seriously. You could never get them on the work, but you could shred their character into confetti that was finer than anything you could ever buy at a party supplies store. Bill Flogaast knew that these gullible rubes were more interested in yukking it up about personality rather than discussing the merits of an award-winning backlist title. Before his career had been cruelly destroyed, Oscar Wilde had declared that great minds discuss ideas and small minds discuss people. And Bill Flogaast knew that the publishing world was no different from any other microcosm: a collection of small minds. Just look at the way these insects got stirred up on social media over a Slate hot take or the way they wasted time trying to dissect flash-in-the-pan “movements” such as Dimes Square. Sure, they held up Cormac McCarthy, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Thomas Pynchon as rightful geniuses, but these literary people clearly preferred to discuss who was fucking whom rather than what the S-Gerät symbolized in Gravity’s Rainbow.

And the best thing about all this was that he could persuade these media people that they were the ones who landed the stories. What they didn’t seem to understand, even when he provided flagrant clues, was that Flogaast had been pulling the strings all along.

Flogaast had stared down cutthroat German capitalists who were fully prepared to sodomize his livelihood for the greatest possible financial gain, winning them over with plentiful whiskey poured at predawn hours in East Village speakeasies. He spilled juicy dirt on famous writers as the Germans became increasingly inebriated while he nursed his drink, leaving a tiny tumbler half-full over the course of several hours. The Germans were too busy singing Marlene Dietrich songs at the most loutish and deafening levels to notice Flogaast’s modest alcohol intake.

Flogaast was the only man in publishing who remained on a first-name basis with the many Daves of the literary world. Every other publicist who had attempted the ambitious goal of Dave unification had either developed a $200/day coke habit or had gone nuts and checked into Bellevue. The literary Daves were truly that toxic, that insalubrious, that soul-destroying. One publicist had tried to warm up to the notoriously difficult David Rosemary Bier — author of a manifesto that made an undeniably hypnotic argument for eating red meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. This sad bastard, who had started off so optimistic, had leaped over the guardrails of a Midtown rooftop bar to his death shortly after Bier had vowed to “destroy” him with the help of his Hollywood friends.

But Bill Flogaast was made of sterner stuff. David Fitzjoy, author of the bestselling novel The Rectifications, was widely known to be an insufferable pain in the ass. A chronic mansplainer who scoffed over having his large and vastly overrated novels edited and who wasn’t nearly as perspicacious as he thought he was and who didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut and who wrote a self-serving New Yorker profile about the late Jonathan Coaster Wells, the long-suffering, long-haired, beanie cap-wearing author who had frequently used water as a metaphor in his viral commencement speeches and who had deforested 70% of the world’s trees with his 2,400 page epic, Inexhaustible Laughs. But it had been Flogaast who had coached Fitzjoy over many months to be more palatable and who had secured the splashy Sunday profile in the New York Times that caused everyone to give Fitzroy another chance. Just as he had reinvented David Lithium as a neglected treasure who was far more than the forgotten MacArthur Fellowship-winning author of Fatherless Manhattan. Dozens of publicists has unsuccessfully tried to persuade Lithium to stop name searching himself on Twitter and sending deranged emails to total strangers who didn’t care for his books, but only Bill Flogaast had the finesse to convince this admittedly aggravating author to find the inner peace he needed.

This nimble éclat bought him additional years in the industry. Flogaast had perfected the art of sleeping no more than four hours every night and only sleeping with his wife. Unlike the vast majority of men in the publishing industry, Flogaast understood that dick discipline was a significant factor in securing your career longevity. He had seen so many promising talents self-destruct over the years because they didn’t have the control that he had. He had politely declined all scandalous rendezvouses and enticing afternoon delights. Let weaker men get their rocks off and pay the hard price of alimony for a reckless tryst.

Besides, he did love his wife. Well, mostly. It had been some years since he last felt the full frisson that had first drawn them together at a Newport News barbeque festival, although she would probably say the same thing if you could somehow persuade her to spill a small morsel about her life. And she never did. Only three people in the building knew her first name and the only thing that this dull trio had in common was that they were the ones the shareholders listened to during quarterly earnings calls.

He would tell any author going through a divorce that most marriages are little more than economic partnerships — good for reducing taxes, buying homes, keeping down costs, and having a dedicated plus one for social soirees to insulate yourself from relentless speculation over what kind of unbearable asshole you had to be to never find someone who could tolerate your close company longer than six months. The sooner you understood this, the more successful you would be in work and life. He hadn’t sold his soul exactly, although nobody at the publishing house really knew about his private life. And because Flogaast exercised such exquisite self-control while speaking his mind, several skeptics came to understand that he could be trusted, even though he revealed nothing about himself at all and sat back and smiled while others flapped their traps. It was difficult to know who Flogaast’s closest friends were. Because they never factored into his public image. Yes, he had confidantes. But he never advertised who they were. Bill Flogaast one of the rare people in the early 21st century who never posted daily pictures of his lunch on Instagram. If you asked all the tech companies to share their collected data and assemble a dossier on Bill Flogaast, they wouldn’t be able to tell you a goddamned thing.

And when he wasn’t doing all this, he was fond of pickling vegetables in the four homes he owned in various parts of the Northeast. A suitable metaphor for the PR racket. Take those slimy cucumbers and contain the problem before the motherfuckers on social media used a third-hand rumor to cancel some wildly intoxicated bestselling author who had merely made the mistake of believing he was still twenty-five, sliding his liverspotted hand onto the wrong ass.

In his early sixties, Flogaast had more energy than most of the unpaid interns and a formidable understanding of human psychology. He had learned early on that, if you knew where the bodies were buried, you would get very far and stay very high. (In Flogaast’s case, he was sitting twenty-three stories above the growing throngs of homeless people berating random strangers at subway stations, knowing that he had the capital and the privilege to never waltz with the Midtown minions, thus decreasing the likelihood of getting randomly stabbed by some unmedicated basket case that the disastrous mayoral administration of Eric Adams has never once considered helping.)

On Tuesday morning, Bill Flogaast sat in a Herman Miller chair listening to the soothing clacks of a Newton’s cradle perched on the rightward corner of his massive executive desk. The desk had once belonged to Ronny Monson and was gifted to Flogaast after this energetic executive editor had dropped dead of pneumonia at the age of seventy-six. He knew that Jimmy Compton, the mediocre soyboy from the California Central Valley who had replaced Monson, had it in for him. That hopeless fuck couldn’t write to save his life. He’d actually attended the same high school as that disgraced podcasting jackass in Brooklyn who had made a big stir in the literary world ten years before and who didn’t even have the guts to go through with his suicide attempt. Nobody paid attention to that loser anymore. And maybe that was Compton’s fate too — that is, if he didn’t fail upward. It was a small world. People were connected in ways they didn’t realize. And maybe this was what fueled all the Sun Tzu hijinks in publishing. But that’s the way it was in business. You had your time. Some Machiavellian careerist would eventually get you in the end. And he knew Jimmy Compton would strike. He just didn’t know when. Maybe Flogaast could branch out on his own and start an indie publicity firm. He had the contacts. He had the moves. He’d make more cash.

The phone rang.

“Bill,” said the quavering voice.


“I think we have a problem in Myrtle Beach.”

Flogaast smoothed the fine strands of his graying auburn Van Dyke and steepled his fingers.

“Tell me everything you know.”

Next: The Atlantis Hotel

(Word count: 4,451/50,000)

I Read the Charlie Kaufman Novel

I read the Charlie Kaufman novel after I had seen the latest Charlie Kaufman movie. I loved the Charlie Kaufman movie, feeling that I had understood it more than most people. By “most people,” I am referring to analytical types who were too keen on getting caught up in the film’s many references, which was, of course, Charlie Kaufman’s great trap. His greatest analytical victim was Richard Brody. Richard Brody is often an analytical victim when he writes his reviews for the New Yorker and everybody who follows film criticism knows this.

I did not feel that I was an analytical victim. I felt that I had understood the Charlie Kaufman movie because I had decided to feel it rather than understand it, to simply accept it for what it was, which was basically this: the entire film is the projection of a failed man and his ambitions, his life passing before his eyes. It is also a critique of privilege and patriarchy. Of course, there are other interpretations. But that is how it spoke to me. I could be right. I could be wrong. The fact that the Charlie Kaufman movie could be so many things says to me that it is a masterpiece. And I am not terribly concerned whether I am right or wrong about it. The point is that the Charlie Kaufman movie contained enough fascinating ambiguities to sustain my passion and interest.

I then started having many conversations with friends about what the film meant. I probably spent about seven hours of my life talking with friends about the Charlie Kaufman movie. And if you make a movie that someone ends up talking with other people about for seven hours, whether they love it or hate it, then you have very likely succeeded in making meaningful art.

Before seeing the Charlie Kaufman movie, I had no intention of reading the Charlie Kaufman novel. I have long been suspicious of filmmakers and screenwriters, especially clever ones like Charlie Kaufman, who decide to become novelists after the age of fifty. And that was most certainly what Charlie Kaufman had done. The man is now sixty-one years old, well over that high watermark of fifty. Now I had liked or loved all of Charlie Kaufman’s movies. I had seen them all. I even made a case for the sketches that Charlie Kaufman wrote for The Dana Carvey Show, although my argument was reliant upon a memory I had of watching The Dana Carvey Show when it originally aired and not based on any recent revisiting of the material. Some twenty-four years have passed since The Dana Carvey Show aired on national television. I did, in fact, revisit the material after I had cavalierly praised it during the seven hours of time I had devoted to discussing the Charlie Kaufman movie and I am not sure if I would defend The Dana Carvey Show as much as I did before revisiting The Dana Carvey Show. But every artist — including a clever artist like Charlie Kaufman — has to start somewhere. I am certain that my friends understood that this was the case and, after they had seen the material and reacted with some dubiety, I mentioned the twenty-four year gap and all was forgiven.

Back in the days when I was inexplicably invited to interview prominent people for my old podcast, I had the good fortune of interviewing Charlie Kaufman twelve years before 2020 had become The Year of Charlie Kaufman — a year that I am styling that way because it’s more hopeful than calling it The Year of the Pandemic or The Year of Living in a Hellscape or The Year In Which I Could Be Evicted From My Apartment Because Everybody is Unemployed and Nobody Can Pay Rent or The Year In Which We Started Taking Racism and Police Brutality More Seriously or The Year In Which We Waited to See Who Would Be in the White House Next Year and God It’s So Fucking Agonizing to Wait Please Put Us Out of Our Misery Already and because, unlike many artists, Charlie Kaufman had a new movie and a new book out that year. When I interviewed Charlie Kaufman twelve years before The Year of Charlie Kaufman, I got the sense that he didn’t like me very much.

I don’t think he likes critics or interviewers or journalists very much. He seems to have an antagonistic relationship with all of them. He often references them in his work. In the Charlie Kaufman movie, he had a character recite a Pauline Kael review of a Cassavettes movie verbatim. At one point during my interview with Charlie Kaufman, I had called Charlie Kaufman “an idea man.” He said that he wasn’t sure that he agreed with this. Perhaps he took umbrage because this seemed to be a generalization of what made a Charlie Kaufman movie a Charlie Kaufman movie. I meant no offense by the question. I only wanted to get a sense of what Charlie Kaufman’s brain was like and how he came up with ideas. He then proceeded to suggest that I didn’t know the premise of my question — that is, the premise that Charlie Kaufman was an idea man. He heckled me. So I decided to heckle him back, suggesting that he came up with a fresh idea every 2.2 days. I knew at the time that this probably annoyed Charlie Kaufman. Because you can’t really tell an artist that there’s a specific mathematical metric to the manner in which he comes up with ideas. I am also not sure why I felt compelled to annoy a man whose work I had admired like that. I was more egotistical and annoying back then and, for many years, I have had self-destructive tendencies. On the other hand, Charlie Kaufman seems to be annoyed by everything, especially analytical people telling him how he goes about making his art. Great artists are often annoyed and sometimes grumble, often for legitimate reasons. I suspect Charlie Kaufman had a legitimate reason to grumble at me. Even so, I viewed the “idea” thrust of our conversation as a way to see if Charlie Kaufman would be interested in having a bit of metafictional fun, much as many of his own movies were metafictional. I figured that the “metafictional fun” might be a different kind of interview than the usual ones, that it might take him out of the doldrums of sitting in the same room all day for twenty minute increments to talk to ostensible film journalists, answering the same questions and possibly entertaining the thought of blowing his brains out. Goodness me, if I had to spend weeks of my life doing that, I’d probably be as annoyed as Charlie Kaufman was with me and many other people. Maybe even more annoyed. So I don’t take Charlie Kaufman’s annoyance with me twelve years ago personally.

The fact that Charlie Kaufman was annoyed with me twelve years ago did not deter me from reading his book, nor did it have any influence upon my reaction. Again, my reluctance to read the Charlie Kaufman book had more to do with the temerity of the late-life artist jumping horses midstream. Perhaps this isn’t fair to Charlie Kaufman, but it reminded me of a man in a midlife crisis deciding to buy a sports car to prove to himself that he still had virility. While Charlie Kaufman was a clever screenwriter and filmmaker, it did not necessarily follow that he would be a novelist of the same skill. And, no, now that I’m going over the reasons, my immediate assumptions about Charlie Kaufman the Novelist weren’t entirely fair to Charlie Kaufman. Who the hell was I to make a snap judgment about one of the best screenwriters in the movie business? Maybe Charlie Kaufman wasn’t just a great novelist, but perhaps a great Scrabble player. Maybe he played the accordion when nobody was around and he was one of the top five accordion players in the world. I’ve only spent thirty minutes with Charlie Kaufman. That’s not enough time to know the man. The fact of the matter is that it was truly unfair for me to assume that Charlie Kaufman was little more than one of the best screenwriters in the movie business. Although I’m sure Charlie Kaufman would understand why I came to the conclusion that I did — that is, if he even cares. I suspect he doesn’t.

Despite all this, I read the Charlie Kaufman novel and I very much enjoyed it and I can strongly recommend it. If you enjoyed this essay, you will probably enjoy the Charlie Kaufman novel.

This has been a review.

Merritt Tierce (The Bat Segundo Show #551)

Merritt Tierce is most recently the author of Love Me Back, a lively and fierce debut novel about a young single mother who works as a waitress and disguises her pain and humiliation behind a smile. Love Me Back was published by Doubleday.

This book is one of those rare works of art possessed with the boldness and the decency to tell the complicated truth about how women are doomed to second-class treatment in our precarious economy. It is a welcome and candid corrective to such loathsome television shows as 2 Broke Girls that prefer to prop up a sexist fantasy and outright myths rather than contend with blue-collar life. The distinction between Love Me Back‘s art and 2 Broke Girls‘s awfulness worked our production team up so much that this episode’s introduction contains a strong critique of 2 Broke Girls‘s sexist treatment of its characters and how it has influenced the perception of waitresses in American culture.

Our conversation with Ms. Tierce begins at the 4:57 mark. In our conversation with Ms. Tierce, there is also a remarkable gaffe, indeed one of the most notable flubs in our program’s long history, that involves a mangled pronoun. Apparently, Our Correspondent was so won over by Tierce’s narrative that he made the mistake of believing that the character Danny said something worse than he did in the text.

Author: Merritt Tierce

Subjects Discussed: The American novel and people who work in restaurants, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, working in a high-end steakhouse, how restaurants distort the physical form, cutting, self-harm, comparing the early version of “Suck It” to the book’s version, keeping text the same over a seven year period, the first full story that Tierce ever wrote, knowing that Love Me Back was a book, Alexander Maksik’s input into Love Me Back, approaching a book without knowing it was a novel or a short story collections, the commercial stigma against short story collections, interstitial pieces linking the stories, creating sentences that are more final than final, stripping italics and punctuation from the original stories, the fictionalized essay Tierce wrote for Pank, style and plummeting attention spans in the digital age, circumstances in which we see punctuation marks in life, why Tierce can’t add anything artificial to her writing, the sense of time related to life waiting tables, Tierce being accused of “petty rebellion” by a professor, women being defined exclusively in roles of pain, Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” women as second-class beings, the difficulty of writing happiness, what happens when you read too much Thomas Hardy, Edward P. Jones, Marie’s small size and her epicene identity, the ostensible fluidity of gender, vulnerability, Victoria Patterson’s LARB essay on Love Me Back, the ineluctably damaging qualities of the male gaze, when rebellion and degradation align, personal responsibility in being exploited, Tierce sharing biographical details with Marie, Tierce’s short story “Solitaire,” “This is What an Abortion Looks Like,” imagination and personal experience, the conversational stigma about abortion as a very regular part in American life, Wendy Davis, Obvious Child, and acceptance of same-sex marriage vs. acceptance of abortion.


Correspondent: Before we get into what this novel has to say about class, about self-abuse, and about being a woman, I’d like to get into the American novel’s often neglected history about people who work in restaurants. I think of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and I figured you were familiar with that given the cognates in your name. And I also think about Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I think about Mimi Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, which is somewhere between a memoir and fiction. To what extent was your novel a response to this often neglected form of novel? And given that there are an estimated 2.4 million* waiters and waitresses in this country, why do you think that this very real life has been so underrepresented in literature?

Tierce: That’s a great question and I’m really impressed at that list that you just provided. Because a lot of people have asked me, “Why haven’t I read anything about restaurant life?” And I am familiar with Mildred Pierce only because of the HBO miniseries.

mildredpiercewaitressCorrespondent: Oh, the Todd Haynes.

Tierce: With Kate Winslet. And it’s fantastic.

Correspondent: And has a great dramatization of restaurant life as well.

Tierce: Yes! It does. And there’s some similar themes at work, I think, in Mildred Pierce and in my book. And I’m also glad to hear that number. 2.4 million. Because it seems like so many people have worked in restaurants or even in some other form of retail or customer service.

Correspondent: That’s just waiters and waitresses. I pulled that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because I really wanted to know that number too.

Tierce: Okay. Cool. Yeah. It’s something that so many people are familiar with and I’m surprised there’s not more writing about it. But one of my theories is that it’s really hard work. And a lot of times it’s just a means to whatever real end you’re going for in your life. And I say “real” because I don’t want to diminish anyone’s work in restaurants. I worked in restaurants for fifteen years. And it was very much my real life.

Correspondent: When did you stop working at restaurants? I know that the New Stories from the South bio says that you were working in a high-end steakhouse at that time. And I was curious about when that tapered off.

Tierce: Yeah, I was. And it tapered off about two and a half years ago. So it’s fairly recent. I mean, it’s so recent that I still frequently wake up and have a moment where I’m grateful that I don’t have to go work in a restaurant tonight.

Correspondent: Wow. What kept you in that? And it seems to me there’s an almost addictive impulse to it that you tap into very well with this novel.

Tierce: I mean, I couldn’t make more money doing anything else. So there was that reality. And I have two kids. And I’ve had them since I was Marie’s age myself. So it was hard for me to simultaneously make a living and try to get advanced in any other arena of life. And I think that is why a lot of artists especially keep working in restaurants. Because you have some flexibility and you have a steady cash income usually, which is enough to keep you going. But then you do get caught in it. And it’s hard to get out. And that goes back to what I think about why it’s not written about. It’s because when you do break out of it, it’s such a relief. You don’t want to think about it one more second of your life. Especially not to write.

Correspondent: Well, I think what it is — and I had a stint working in restaurants a long time ago — but it’s this kind of illusion that you’re free. Because I can always drop the job if I get a gig. And then you get caught up in a similar cycle that has no job security whatsoever. And I guess there’s so much shame attached that we don’t want to analyze it — whether it be in literature or even in life or even in regular conversation.

Tierce: Right. Yeah. You know, that’s an unfortunate reality of life — in particular, in America. The service industry is so condescended to and looked down on. You know, it’s not thought of as worthwhile work.

Correspondent: Or if it is, it’s some kind of vibrant, effervescent comedy or something.

Tierce: Right.

Correspondent: As opposed to the realities, the darkness. The physicality, which you get into very well in this book. Well, we don’t actually learn Marie’s name until a few chapters in. And this seems to reflect this regrettable cultural tendency in which customers, even the most progressive-minded ones, will often go into a restaurant and not even remember the name or not even see anything of the waiter or the waitress other than a physical blur And that opening section where it’s just this extraordinary sense of physical seizure is astonishing. But throughout the book, there’s a lot of physicality. And we become very aware of the physical presence of the waitstaff in this book through much of the sexualized scenes and so forth. I think also however of Tayna’s thumb resembling soggy bread. You have the “warm buttery smell” of Carl’s neck. These characters all seem to physically blend into the restaurants. And not even the seemingly protective plush leather of the check presenter is safe. There’s that credit card scene, where it actually gets lodged into the restaurant. And I’m wondering. What is it about the physical allure or the pull of a restaurant? I mean, this seems to me just as much of a part of it in both your novel and in life. It’s almost this vortex to a certain degree. And I’m wondering how you arrived at that or if you arrived at that or what physicality really means when both waitress and customer go to a restaurant.

Tierce: Right. Well, it is such a basic act. Eating and bringing someone food. And it is the most basic maintenance of the physical. So there’s that kind of level to it. But as a writer, I’m most interested in the sensual. Whatever details there are to be observed in a situation, the sensate ones are the most important to me. And a restaurant is, I think, a more fertile territory for that than a lot of settings because of the food and the smells and the sounds and the people and the touching, the everything of it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that much of the sex in this book — where did this come from? Did this come out of an investigation of the restaurant as physical consumptive space? Not just from experience. I mean, it just seems to become more of this great pull on all the characters. Not just Marie. Although in Marie’s case, it becomes just utterly painful to read and to see what she’s going through. Was sense of space one of the ways that you were able to triangulate her pain and the way that she dealt with it in her life as she get dragged further into this trajectory?

Tierce: Well, I wish I was smart enough to have been that deliberate about it.

Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?

Tierce: Yeah. Instinctively, it just was an element of restaurant culture that I do know from experience to be ubiquitous and to be just a part of the after hours life of a restaurant and the people who work there. I honestly don’t have a great answer for why that is or what the connection is. But I think it has partly to do with just appetites, with trying to satisfy other people’s appetites and putting yourself completely at the service of other people and then needing to get that back in some way. To convince yourself that you still exist by satisfying some of your own appetites after it’s over.

Correspondent: Being in service to other appetites creates a voracity of your own that is impossible to appease.

Tierce: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: There are a few moments throughout Love Me Back where Marie subjects herself to self-harm, to cutting. The fondue skewer while her daughter is watching The Cosby Show. Cutting is typically associated with high school girls — at least, that’s how we look at it in society. But as we come to know more of Marie’s backstory in the short and long alternating chapters, we become very aware that Marie’s life has been thrown into this degrading trajectory because, well, she’s been thrown into the wilderness without a handbook. And I think you get at very well how, when we abandon kids or teenagers and throw them into the world, there are these lingering things. I mean, Marie has to learn much of this at the behest of men. And I’m wondering. Do restaurants contribute in any way to being in denial about throwing our kids into really terrible lives like this? And can fiction provide an adequate response to getting people to understand these gruesome but important truths?

Tierce: Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I don’t want my daughter to work in a restaurant anytime soon.

Correspondent: Did she ever actually say, when you were working at a restaurant, that she wanted to work in a restaurant just like Marie at all? Just out of curiosity.

Tierce: Yeah. Both my kids have said that when they were little. And it made my heart sink. But at the same time, I have to say that working in restaurants has given me some values and basic skills in life that I need and really treasure. And I wouldn’t give them back for anything.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Tierce: Such as being aware of other people. I mean, when you’re forced to put other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own, no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to kick that habit. And I’m not saying it makes you an altruistic person. I’m just saying that even on a physical level, when you’re walking down the street you have a different way of moving. You’re not oblivious to people. Because of working in restaurants. And you learn to, as Marie says, anticipate and to consolidate. And those are useful skills for life. And you learn to work really hard. And that alone is useful, I think. And now I’ve forgotten what your question was.

Correspondent: Well, we had a magical massive question of mine.

Tierce: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m implying magic when it was probably just prolixness on my part. But essentially I was asking, “What is it about restaurants that could cause our kids to be subjected into this vortex?” We were talking about the notion of basically throwing our kids into situations that they’re ill-prepared for. And restaurants almost pick them up where colleges or institutions or libraries or other things, which could in fact help them and prepare them more adequately. I mean, it’s almost like having soldiers go into war to a certain degree.

Tierce: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s sort of inevitable, especially now. It seems harder and harder for young people to get meaningful work, to get any job at all. And people will always need to eat. So restaurant work will always be available. And if that’s the only place you can launch yourself from, that’s, I think, our fault for not making more meaningful work more available and not making college, for example, more affordable. And I say that as someone who’s still paying down student loans myself and has basically no money saved for college for any of the three children who live in my house. And I value education more than almost anything. But there are some real factors at work as to whether or not any given person can get a higher education.

Correspondent: How does writing help you to come to grips with these particular realities that, I think, all of us face to a certain degree?

Tierce: Well, writing helps me come to grips with all of reality. Just because I don’t really know what I think or how I’ve gotten to what I think until I start writing about it, which I’m borrowing straight from Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s something that she said, but it makes so much sense to me. That’s just how my mind works. I reveal myself to myself through writing.

(Loops for this program provided by nosleeves, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, danke, doudei, 40A, leoSMG, ebaby8119, and gutmo.)

The Bat Segundo Show #551: Merritt Tierce (Download MP3)

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* — Please note that, on air, our correspondent stated that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.5 million waiters and waitresses in America. The correct number is 2.4 million and the excerpt text has been corrected to reflect the correct number, which is also stated correctly in this episode’s introduction.

Elissa Wald (The Bat Segundo Show #528)

Elissa Wald is most recently the author of The Secret Lives of Married Women.

[PROGRAM NOTE: Halfway through this conversation, Our Correspondent, frustrated at getting minor details wrong about Elissa Wald’s novel and not establishing a sufficient rapport with Wald, packed up his gear and was prepared to leave, due to his incredibly high standards and his tendency to implicate and incriminate himself when these standards drop. Wald, to her great credit, persuaded Our Correspondent to stay. So in the second half, we describe what went wrong and we talk through it, finding a new area to chat without any notes or prerigged questions. We have aired the conversation in its entirety because it is important to be transparent about flaws as well as strengths.]

Author: Elissa Wald

Subjects Discussed: Returning to New York after living here for eighteen years, Portland, having an accidental noir subconscious sense, expanding a 96 page story into a viable book without padding it out, meeting Charles Ardai, being influenced by Alice Munro, how Munro works a lifetime of material into a short piece, defying the “literary vs. genre” war, authors who use twists to advance narrative, Stephen King, why erotic fiction isn’t taken seriously, Meeting the Master, being beholden to the category whims of bookstore chains, the erotic qualities of reading something aloud, Hysterical Literature, Beautiful Agony, the mind and body relationship and implicating the reader, sexual intimacy at a distance of six feet, literal vs. enhanced intimacy, differing perceptions of soft porn, feelings of class affinity, an unanticipated two part interview format, how Wald first started writing, not being a good singer, passing notes in class as a storytelling medium, early BDSM fantasies, differing notions of slavery, Roots, addressing transgression, noir as a natural vehicle, growing up with non-mainstream longings, the Society for Creative Anachronism, having a radar for BDSM types, mental blue screens of death, the instinct to be drawn to libertine types, first becoming aware of your provocative nature, becoming aware of morality through being provocative, the 7 Most Controversial Erotic Novels, the importance of candor and giving something up, the many different ways to be married, accepting another person’s transgressions, exploring marital truths in fiction, when readers trust novelists on dangerous subjects, and sheer invention vs. fictitious moments that are closer to home.


Correspondent: I wanted to bring up Norman Mailer’s review of American Psycho in Vanity Fair in 1991. He was one of the first figures to defend that book. And he wrote, “Nowhere in American literature can one point to an inhumanity of the monied upon the afflicted equal to the following description.” And he proceeded to describe Patrick Bateman’s assault on the bum. Mailer also tied this in with Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil. But this is all very much in line with the first novella in your book, “Man Under the House,” because the treatment that Stas offers this laborer Jack hits many of the same notes. And it got me thinking, “Wow, we really don’t have this idea in fiction these days.” And I wanted to ask. In the last twenty-two years, why do you think American literature has not been especially concerned with this notion of class violence? To what degree were you aware of it? And did you hope to respond to it in any way?

Wald: Well, before we get to that, could you clarify what you mean by Stas’s treatment of the…

Correspondent: Of Jack?

Wald: Yes.

Correspondent: Well, in the sense that there seems to be this strange resentment. Not just in relation to obviously his wife, Leda, but also in relation to how he kind of resents the guy. There’s this moment where he is humiliated in Home Depot. So I picked up on this kind of class resentment that dictates Stas. And we can talk about how also it informs his past in Russia. Because he was indeed a handyman in his early days, as we learn in New York. But that notion of violence with this kind of class-to-class idea attached to it was something that was different and what I don’t usually see in fiction, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to talk with you. One of the reasons I wanted to get your answer on the subject.

Wald: That’s a fascinating question and I actually would not have thought about it that way at all. I don’t think Stas is drawing a distinction between himself and the workman on a class level. I think he just felt like this man is overly interested in my wife. I think he noticed that before the wife did, and that was what he was reacting to.

Correspondent: Even though we have this move from New York to Portland suburbia, where there’s the grand announcement, “Hey! I have a backyard.” And all this. I mean, none of that was really a concern of yours? Were you playing with some of the ideas of middle-class strivings or anything like that? Were you thinking about any of this?

Wald: Not consciously. No. I mean I can’t. People bring all kinds of interpretations to your work. And I never will say, “Oh, that’s not what it’s about.” Because I don’t know, you know? I can only say it’s not consciously what it’s about. It was nowhere in my mind.

Correspondent: Class was never a factor at all?

Wald: It wasn’t.

Correspondent: Wow.

Wald: It never crossed my mind.

Correspondent: What do you think — now that I’ve rambled quite a bit about it, why do you think that I got this particular reaction from it? I mean, were you ever concerned with any socioeconomics at all?

Wald: Well, I guess the one place where I can see what you’re saying maybe is that there’s a moment when Jack is literally under the house. He’s looking at the pipes. And she flashes on this picture of this proletariat wrestling. And so, yeah, I did say a member of the underworld bent on mutiny. So, yeah, this is what I mean. I’m not dismissing your interpretation. Just saying that I wasn’t consciously aware of it for much of the book.

Correspondent: So what interested you about exploring this dynamic with Jack and with Stas? What kept the conflict brewing as you were writing this?

Wald: Well, so interestingly, my husband and I decided to buy a house. There was a very attentive worker next door. And I spun the story into something so much more dramatic and involved than anything that really happened. But something that did happen early on was that my husband really didn’t like this guy right away. And I thought he was overreacting at first. And by the time I started to feel like this guy was overbearing, I didn’t want to tell my husband. And there were a few reasons for that. But one of them was that I thought that if I tell him, then there’s going to be a war. There’s going to be a war on some level. We just moved into this house. This guy is right next door. He’s essentially a neighbor for the time being. I don’t want an open war with this person. We just moved in. I don’t want this around my home. So I think most writers are to an extent a participant/observer in life. So they’re living their lives and they’re very much a participant. But there’s also, I think, a part of the writer’s mind that’s always observing. And so I thought, “Isn’t this interesting? I’m not only becoming nervous about this man. But I feel like he’s driving an emotional wedge between my husband and myself.” And that was fascinating. Even while it was wildly uncomfortable to experience it, it was still fascinating to the writer in me. And so I just took it from there and spun it.

Correspondent: Your husband isn’t Russian by chance?

Wald: He is.

Correspondent: He is! My goodness. So you were really drawing from reality.

Wald: So like a lot of writers — you know I know a lot of writers even give their protagonists their own names. But it’s still fiction. Like Philip Roth does that a lot. So I really do draw honestly from life a lot of the time and yet it’s unequivocally fiction. I make all kinds of stuff up. So it’s really a blur.

Correspondent: Do you have any legal background at all?

Wald: No. I did work for an attorney as an assistant.

Correspondent: Was he blind?

Wald: No. I did work for a blind man.

Correspondent: Oh, okay.

Wald: But he wasn’t a lawyer.

Correspondent: So the first part, interestingly enough, is truer to your life than the second part.

Wald: You know, I think everything’s true to my life on some level. I mean, I identify with all the characters on some level. All the female characters.

Correspondent: In the New York Times Book Review, I wanted to bring up Megan Abbott’s review. She wrote about your book. She brought up James M. Cain’s notion of the “love rack,” which involves finding a way to manipulate the readers into caring for criminal figures. The way into that, she said, is often through lust or desire. That’s how you get that vicarious solicitude for a scumbag. I’m wondering to what degree the idea of planting Leda in this suburban splendor or Lillian in this seemingly stable world, vocationally as an attorney, was kind of your 21st century answer to the love rack. I mean, was one of your goals to reach these vanilla middle-class readers or anything?

Wald: You know, interestingly, we talked a moment ago about how people bring their own interpretations. It was very amusing to me — I mean, Megan Abbott is a phenomenal writer. I appreciated her review deeply. But she imagined that it was a deep, deliberate bow to legendary noir author James M. Cain and I’ve never read a word of Cain in my life.

Correspondent: You have not!

Wald: Never. Not once. Never seen a film based on any of his books. Never given him a moment’s thought.

Correspondent: My goodness.

Wald: So that was interesting to me that she decided that.

Correspondent: Well, and I apparently have done the same thing. My goodness. I mean, have you read any books? (laughs)

Wald: Actually, I think it’s great that people bring their own interpretations. To me, that means it’s speaking directly to a reader’s experience and their frame of reference. So I don’t mind that people do that.

Correspondent: But actually I agree with Megan to a large degree. Because it does fulfill some of the relationship that books have to noir, while simultaneously also breaking from them. And this leads me to ask you. I mean, what kind of criminal fiction or noir have you soaked up? Or are you just basically living a noir life and that’s where it comes from?

Wald: I’ve read almost no noir in my entire life.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow.

Wald: This is a new genre for me. I didn’t set out to write a crime novel. What happened was that Charles Ardai is a long-time friend of mine. Charles Ardai, the publisher of Hard Case Crime.

Correspondent: He’s great.

Wald: And I have sent him everything I’ve written for the last twenty-five years. Because he’s a great reader. He’s a great editor.

Correspondent: Yes.

Wald: And it never occurred to me ever that I would ever be a Hard Case author. Because I don’t write crime fiction.

Correspondent: Well you do now. (laughs)

Wald: And it’s been wonderful. So I sent him the manuscript, “Man Under the House.” It was just a long story. And I was aware that I was trying my hand at a psychological thriller. But it honestly hadn’t crossed my mind that it was also a crime story. I just hadn’t thought of it that way. So I was astonished when he said, “I want this for Hard Case.” But, no, this isn’t my genre. It’s never been my genre. I’ve read no crime writers. Scott Turow is the one thriller writer that I’ve read and loved.

(Loops for this program provided by mingote and ebaby8119.)

The Bat Segundo Show #528: Elissa Wald (Download MP3)

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Claire Messud II (The Bat Segundo Show #504)

Claire Messud is most recently the author of The Woman Upstairs. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #86.

Author: Claire Messud

Subjects Discussed: How living in a surveillance state will affect contemporary fiction, the disappearing interior life, Sabbath’s Theater, proper norms and sentences that are alive, transgressions in fiction, girls who get up early to put on makeup, This American Life‘s climate change program, climatologists vs. novelists, the downside of promoting individual agency, why social novels are associated with “big books” and how “small books” can be just as big, James Joyce, reading Finnegans Wake, Ulysses references in The Woman Upstairs, A Doll’s House, how literary and ontological snippets float within your head throughout your life, Nora’s evolution, having to contend with the narrative in your head, people who are against universal health care, when interior selves set themselves up for disappointment, the fury guiding the first chapter, cultural osmosis, the glibness of assigning invisibility to a class of people, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” (Dr. Hook version and Marianne Faithfull version) Shel Silverstein’s songwriting career, not looking for original points or antecedents with family and culture, the “being wrong” speech in American Pastoral, Teju Cole’s Open City, always being a hero in your own story, peregrinations of memory, Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” why investigation into the mind inevitably leads to the corporeal, interpretive liberation, being profoundly disembodied, Nora and foreign voices, multiculturalism and inverted xenophobia, Pierre Nora’s interpretation of the Pieds-Noirs, living a life somewhere between desperation and wanting to count, fakery and personas, giving other people what they want, how the semi-autistic genius myth has become defined by gender roles, Temple Grandin, the Google People in San Francisco, the Publishers Weekly controversy, Enlightened, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta, the unlikable character debate, why America is presently frightened by unlikable characters in art, why likability is uninteresting, +1 culture, how authors are held hostage by Goodreads reviews, the limitations of literature as escapism, how social media is regulated in the Wood-Messud household, and attempts to find a verb which adequately appreciates a difficult work of art.


Correspondent: I don’t want to get into the ending of The Woman Upstairs, but it would appear that recent events — certain reports by Glenn Greenwald — would have the rare notion of reinforcing your ending in terms of what privacy means. And I wanted to start off this conversation because I have to address it in some way. Now that we are aware that we are living in a surveillance state, do you think this is going to do anything for contemporary fiction? Is America going to produce its share of Kunderas and Dostoevskys? I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this.

Messud: That’s an interesting question and I don’t necessarily have an answer. But one of the things that I was thinking about when writing this book — well, I was setting out to write somebody’s interior life. And the interior life is fast disappearing. The interior life was always invisible. But now, in the highly mediated world that we live in, nothing exists unless it is manifest. My daughter photographs her breakfast and puts it on Instagram. And by the same token, maybe there’s something satisfying. I mean, where’s the line between our own willful destruction of privacy and the intrusion of government agencies or whatever into our privacy? They meet somewhere in the middle, right?

Correspondent: You’ve just given me a very terrible idea. That PRISM exists to reproduce the interior monologue. That there will be some new version of Ulysses that is generated entirely by NSA wiretapping. I mean, it could happen! It seems crazy.

Messud: One of the things I’ve been thinking too — you know, we were talking earlier about the somewhat parlous state of literary life. I think it is both a great thing and a terrible thing, but literature may just become samizdat. It may become the underground form of communication. That one’s beneath the other forms of mediated communication.

Correspondent: Aha! So in other words, by going ahead and focusing on the interior through ornate, detailed, subtle sentences that convey several meanings, we are in some way revolting against this.

Messud: Yes. I believe it.

Correspondent: Okay. Well, you know, with that in mind, I’m going to have to bring up your epigraph. “Fuck the laudable ideologies,” from Sabbath’s Theater. I do know that in your husband’s book, How Fiction Works, he singles out this sentence as “utterly alive, alive by virtue of the way it scandalizes proper norms.” So this leads me to ask. How much did you hope to scandalize proper norms with the writing of this book? I mean, what transgressions do you think are left in our oversharing age? How do novelists answer to this?

Messud: You know, it’s interesting. I think I did see in my mind Nora and the story she has to tell as transgressive. In part because she is not lovely, glamorous, fascinating. A model in New York City. She’s a schoolteacher. Part of her transgression is the fact that she’s leading a completely ordinary life in which officially nobody has any interest whatsoever. And I do think in this increasingly mediated culture where we all want to be represented, she is somebody who is completely unrepresented. So it felt like a transgression to give her a voice.

Correspondent: So today’s fiction transgressions are giving voice to those types of characters who normally don’t get on the page? I don’t know. Do you think literature is now that limited? That we can’t have anything other than a certain kind of perspective? Where is this coming from?

Messud: No, no. There’s room for everybody.

Correspondent: Absolutely.

Messud: But I wouldn’t set any limits on what can be said. But one thing that felt liberating to me was to be writing her interior life, which she was accused of being dislikable, to which you want to say, “No, no. If you met her, she would be totally charming.” Because that’s who she is on the surface. He or she is showing you what nobody gets to see. And because I have some feeling — apprehension; some of it personal, but also observed — that that is to a greater extent the lot of women than it is the lot of men. Which is not to say it isn’t in part the lot of men. But we’re all expected to put on a game face. So I felt in writing somebody where the point was precisely to express and articulate unseemly and unacceptable emotions and reactions, that felt like a great liberation. And my hope would be that for people reading it, who might have shared even one of her thoughts at some point along the way, that it would be a liberation for them too. To say, “You know, actually, nobody ever talks about it. But this is life too.”

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I mean I want to get into the unlikable situation later. And I will do so through not just having you reiterate your points. But I want to talk about the proper norms thing and why you think perhaps people are reacting hostilely to Nora in this. Because as you say, any solipsist you meet in life is, of course, yes, going to have this wonderful epidermal layer. That once you peer and get to talking with them a little more, oh dear. There’s actually a lot of fury. There’s something else going on. And we’re living in a society now where you’re supposed to tough it up, bucko. So as a result, it would seem to me that writing about these perspectives would be increasingly necessary. Why do you think there’s this reluctance to explore the interior of something that is seemingly roseate?

Messud: Well, I think there are lots of answers to that. One is that we live now — she says it. We do live in a time that is particularly preoccupied with the surface. And the surface is what counts. I went to boarding school. I went back — this was already some years ago — to my old high school. And one of the very lovely teachers who was a dorm mother said to me, “Did you know that all the girls get up at six in the morning to blow dry their hair and put on makeup?” Which in the early 1980s, you wouldn’t have been caught dead doing. And her point was they have an hour less sleep than the boys do. Because the boys don’t have to blow dry their hair. I guess in the ’70s maybe the boys blow dried their hair too. Anyway, you realize that how you present yourself to the world counts significantly more than at one time it did. That’s a subset or a function of this mediated world. If everything’s going to be represented, then you don’t want to be represented with dirty hair on your dressing gown. Now I’m forgetting the rest of the question. But that was only part of what I was going to answer. But I can’t remember.

Correspondent: Oh, no, no, no. Free form is great on this program. I guess I was trying to tie this all into proper norms and the fact that, well, we all live lives in which we’re putting on masks. And there’s this reluctance to really penetrate further and actually wrestle with this problem. I mean, it’s not just with characters. I heard this This American Life program recently where they were talking about how people who talk about climate change are now incapable of actually being honest about it. Climatologists cannot actually mention climate change until after they have delivered two hours of lectures and a Powerpoint presentation. And this is increasingly getting in the way of having an honest look at what our world is.

Messud: Why can’t they? Why? What’s the obstacle?

Correspondent: They fear their jobs. They are afraid of losing their income. They may piss off people who may actually take away their income.

Messud: Right.

Correspondent: Obviously being a novelist is not quite on that level. Although in the likable/unlikable debate, there is nevertheless that particular reluctance. Don’t rock the boat. Maybe you can tell me what you think about this. Because I grew up and you grew up in an age where we could actually talk about things like adults and disagree and get into really shocking topics. And we wouldn’t be mortal enemies. It wouldn’t involve, “Well, how dare you say that. You’re not going to get work.” Or something like that. And now it seems like it’s moving more towards that. So it’s a reluctance to address issues in combination possibly with some aspects of the 2008 crash. What are your thoughts on this? And how do we bring this back to fiction? And that’s a very elaborate longueur! (laughs)

Messud: Well, I think — certainly there’s the sound byte problem. Jokingly, you said earlier that maybe writing complex-compound sentences that have multiple possible interpretations is an act of rebellion. Increasingly, it is. Because along with the interior life, certain modes of reflection are, if not disappearing, certainly not to the fore. So I think that’s a problem. If you want to say something complicated, but only half of it is going to be shrunk down to some supposed essence, it could easily be a misapprehension of what you were trying to say. So I think that makes people leery of saying unseemly things. But I also think — and it’s linked, it’s another conversation but it is linked — we are a nation always championing the individual, but now has put human agency, individual agency, to the fore to a ludicrous point where, if you get cancer, that would be your fault. You made bad choices. If you have negative thoughts, that can make you ill. Right? In which context everybody wants to become their mask. Everybody wants to be the cheerful, bright, upbeat, healthy, fun-loving self. That’s who you want to be. You don’t want to be the depressive, negative, whiny, anxious naysayer. Nobody wants to be the person who just says, “Climate change has reached a point where we are doomed.” Nobody wants to be that person.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, actually, I’m going to tie this in directly to your book. Because Nora does in fact say something along those lines. [searching through notes] I had a quote here. It appears to have disappeared. I’m going to have to use my damn memory.

Messud: (laughs) The incredible disappearing quote!

Correspondent: I actually had it all here. It somehow disappeared. Well, the quote is — at one point, she’s talking about Sirena and about what her allure is in terms of how the art world is drawn to her. And she basically says that Sirena is, in fact, living a persona. Or something to that effect. And it’s a shame I somehow didn’t actually type up my quote. I meant to type it up. I meant to include it. But anyway, I think this draws on the predicament. Clearly, if we are going to explore the interior, we’re going to have to explore the persona. Do you think that fiction that does this is the way to address this problem we’re talking about? That we can only look at the self as reflective of a larger ill of society through the interior, through how other people are looked at, through a persona. Issues like that. Does that make sense?

Messud: I feel as though — that’s a really complicated question!

Correspondent: It is.

Messud: And I’m not sure I can properly address it. But obviously different types of fiction address these things in different ways. I do think — and this will seem perhaps a tangent — but I think…you know, somebody asked me, “The Emperor’s Children was a big book. Is this a small book?” And I said, “Absolutely not for me.” I can’t say what it is for other people. But absolutely not for me. I do actually feel that the only way to address the biggest issues is through the smallest mouse hole, if you will. That that is the way forward. But on the other hand, it’s true that big social novels in which characters may appear largely in their personas rather than unmasked, if you will, are able to articulate a different part of the dynamic and a different relationship that then extends that to the larger systems of society and government, if you will. And I would maintain that you could follow Nora through to a commentary about broader American society, if you so chose.

Correspondent: The novel is open enough for you to find another road to somewhere else. This is where the reader comes in.

Messud: That would be my hope. Certainly I liked that you used the word “open.” Because my hope with this book is that, in a funny way, it’s more open than almost anything I’ve written before. That that was part of the enterprise: it was to write something that each person would have their own reaction to rather than there being a template of how the novel should be read.

Correspondent: Sure. I had a very geeky question for you concerning James Joyce. There’s an obvious Ulysses connection with Nora, the name of the character. But I wanted to get into a number of Ulysses connections I found in the book. Because I am presently attempting to read Finnegans Wake and I will make it to the end.

Messud: Oh my goodness. I’m impressed.

Correspondent: It’s not easy. And that has actually necessitated going back to Ulysses as well. So I’m in a James Joyce fugue state probably for the next year or two. Anyway. Sirena, of course, referencing the Sirens. There is one “Yes Yes Yes” moment…

Messud: Yes.

Correspondent: …which mimics Molly Bloom. There’s one point where Nora says that she’s “oblivious like a lotus eater.” Which is interesting. Because “The Lotus Eaters” is the first chapter in Ulysses where we suddenly start to understand, “Oh, well! It goes back to Homer.” And then with Wonderland, Sirena’s project, it’s almost kind of a response to James Joyce’s famous remark where he said you could construct all of Dublin from the brickstones that are laid down in Ulysses. And it is interesting that Sirena’s project is very much a schematic recreation. And she has also done, oddly enough, an installation of Elsinore. Which also takes us backs to Ulysses. Because that’s Hamlet and all that. And the subject of art and photos reminded me very much of “Scylla and Charybdis” and Stephen Dedalus’s speech on Hamlet. I have to ask. It’s clear to me that Ulysses was your muse in some sense. And I was wondering if you could talk about this for these references and more.

Messud: Well, I thought…you’ve done a better reading. Some were conscious and some not! I mean, certainly the photography: well, that was not on purpose. Some of them were definitely not on purpose. Others were more deliberate. This is the sort of shaming admission though. As I say, some of those are very deliberate. But the other reference that people have said. Nora. Ibsen. A Doll’s House. And the terrible truth is was when I first sent the manuscript to my editor, she said, “You refer here to Nora’s ‘doll-housed labor.’ That seems a little heavy-handed.” And that was the first moment where I thought, “Oh God, it’s true!” I had forgotten that Ibsen’s Nora was Nora. I had read the play more than once. I had seen the play maybe twelve years ago on stage. I did not reread Ulysses in the planning of this book. My father always would say, “Civilization is what’s left when you’ve forgotten everything.”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Messud: So we can say it’s a relief to know that even in my midlife Alzheimer’s state, I have still some collective memory of what I read in my youth.

Correspondent: Yeah. But I think also with Ulysses, it’s a book that’s very difficult to shake. Because you’re doing a lot of heavy lifting with all of Joyce, pretty much from Ulysses onward and Portrait to some degree. So it seems to me that in exploring Nora’s past and in flashing back, you were going to perhaps certain literary highlights, which may have included Ulysses, which may have been A Doll’s House. Numerous other references as well. This leads me to wonder how your own reading serves as, I suppose, beacon points in trying to really pinpoint who Nora is. Which we haven’t really talked about! (laughs)

Messud: Well, you know, I think there’s no question. There are little snippets that you have in your head as you go through life. Literary snippets. I mean, there are other snippets. But the number of times in my life — this sounds crazy, but the number of times in my life I have had occasion just sitting there to say, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each; I do not think they will sing to me.” You know? Which also — it’s not quoted in the book, but in some way it’s in the book. There’s your mermaid. And there she is.

(Loops for this program provided by JorgeDanielRamirez, MaMaGBeats, and KristiJann.)

The Bat Segundo Show #504: Claire Messud (Download MP3)

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BEA 2013: Neil Gaiman

There aren’t many authors who can make a largely female crowd gasp and swoon with every dulcet word, but Neil Gaiman is definitely one of them. Ostensibly at BEA to deliver an address on why storytelling is dangerous, Gaiman’s Saturday morning talk was more about toeing the line and promoting the Gaiman brand. He tossed off e-cards into the crowd like a guitar god cheerfully throwing picks. And he did manage to win over a few skeptics (including this reporter).

“So this morning I got here and I signed 1000 books,” said Gaiman at the start, which was followed by ribald applause. “Each of you gets two books.” One of the books was Make Good Art, which will be published in December.

He was dressed all in black and settled into his chair with a confident and carefully rehearsed ease.

“There isn’t really a Writing Author Lessons 101,” said Gaiman. “But if there was, there would be a list of dos and don’ts. I know that in the don’t column, ‘Don’t have a major novel for adults coming out in June followed by a book for kids in December’ would be high on the list.”

The YA book, which tells the tale of what happened to a father who leaves the house to get milk for the family cereal (among his adventures: being kidnapped by aliens who want to replace the Earth’s mountains with throw cushions and turn Australia into a huge decorative plate), is Fortunately, the Milk, which is illustrated by Skottie Young. Gaiman revealed that the connection came through Twitter, when Young had expressed interest in working with him. “If you need a time-traveling stegosaurus in a hot air balloon,” said Gaiman, “Skottie Young is your man.”

The adult book is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was partially inspired by a friend down on his luck who stole Gaiman’s famiily Mini, drove it down to the end of the lane, and committed suicide. It involves the Hempstocks, who have figured in Stardust and The Graveyard Book, but was a long time in coming.

“The problem with writing a story about the Hempstocks is that they lived at the end of my lane.”

Ocean started off as a short story, which Gaiman wrote because he missed his wife, who was in Melbourne for four months recording an album. “I wanted to write a story that’s not about my family,” said Gaiman, “but that’s very much about what it was to see the world through my eyes when I was seven.”

“I’ve heard people point to writing and say that it can be like driving by night. Writing this for me was like driving by night with one headlight out in the thick fog. You can just see far enough ahead not to drive off the road.”

Halfway through the appearance, Gaiman copped, “This has nothing to do with why fiction is dangerous.” He carried on by describing how he got into trouble as a boy by reading books and learning from them. He learned how to dye his father’s white shirts a deep purply red using a common beet root and got into trouble. He learned how to make toffee and became aware of its natural properties. “It will shatter like glass and completely cover the floor of the classroom.”

After offering these biographical exemplars, Gaiman shifted to his views about fiction.

“Fiction is dangerous, of course, because it lets you into other people’s heads. Fiction is dangerous because it gives you empathy. Fiction is dangerous because it shows you that the world doesn’t have to be like the one you live in.”

Gaiman described going to various companies (Google, where one of his sons works, Apple, and Microsoft) and asking the people who invented what they read as children. “They all said, we read science fiction. We read fantasy.”

“Getting into other people’s heads is dangerous,” continued Gaiman, “incredibly dangerous.”

At this point, the floor was open to questions and the talk about “dangerous fiction” was regrettably tabled. Gaiman was asked about the worst sentences he has ever written. He pointed to the story “Night of the Crabs.” One of the offending sentences: “He wasn’t going to leave Pat Benson alone that night, crabs or no crabs.”

He harbored fantasies as a young writer that he would be rewarded for his stories by a limo showing up at his house. “People would get out of it and say this is yours. We love your stories so much.”

As Gaiman described his early writing development, there was a curious pecuniary fixation. He had taped an inspirational Muddy Waters quote next to his typewriter: “Don’t let your mouth write no checks that your tail can’t cash.” He talked of an early teacher who had offered him ten shillings to read the entirety of Gone with the Wind.

He said that he was proudest of his kids, which caused the crowd to loosen an “Ahhhhhh!” that could have found a home on an episode of Community. When one audience member’s phone went off, followed by a cry of “Shit,” Gaiman responded, “Isn’t it embarrassing when that happens? If it’s any consolation, it’s usually up here.”

In other words, Gaiman is well-practiced at working the room.

Gaiman mentioned that the Ameican Gods TV show is still in development at HBO. He has finished a script and he’s waiting to hear back for notes. He compared the relationship to “a game of tennis,” leading this reporter to wonder if there was a dependable racket that didn’t involve thrones. Gaiman talked about introducing material that had never appeared in the book.

“The process has been more HBO going, ‘Can you make it more like the book?'”

Gaiman said he still feels doubt. “I’m a weird mixture of appalling arrogance and absolute self-doubt and humility. Like a nightmarish layer cake.”

He doesn’t write for any specific age. “There’s no such thing as a book just for kids. Because every book is going to have to be read aloud by someone your age.” Every novel is different for Gaiman. After writing American Gods, Gaiman told Gene Wolfe that he had figured out how to write a novel. “He looked at me with infinite pity and said, ‘Neil, you never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel you’re on.'”

He did talk about his affinity for Jack Benny’s old radio program. “They get good around 1942,” after Benny had gone through three sets of writers. He mentioned starting a story about Jack Benny, but, tellingly, he did not mention Fred Allen.

There wasn’t much elaboration on Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech. This was an appearance to please the crowds. But the very minute that his hour expired, he was led out the door by his handlers, walking with the pace of a rock star with a hectic schedule.

Cycles (FYE #3)

This week, we examine cycles. Are our lives and our culture locked within cycles? Are we aware of it? Should we be aware of it? Or is there a certain folly in paying too much attention? Our quest for answers has us talking with bike shop owners and a Finnegans Wake reading group. We reveal how Raiders of the Lost Ark caused two teenage boys to become consumed by a relentless cycle of remaking the movie they loved with limited cinematic resources. We also talk with Scottish novelist Ian Rankin about how he returned to Inspector Rebus and got caught up in cycles he couldn’t quite describe and Lesley Alderman, the author of The Book of Times, who shows us how being aware of time doesn’t necessarily preclude you from finding enticing new cycles of existence.


Like Riding a Life

We begin our investigation into cycles by wandering around Brooklyn on a cold Saturday afternoon talking with various bike shop owners about how the cycles of life relate to their passion for bicycles. Our gratitude to Fulton Bikes, R&A Cycles, and Brooklyn Cycle Works for sharing their thoughts and feelings, which range from calmness to restrained anger. (Beginning to 4:11)


Commodius Vicus of Recirculation

Every month, the Finnegans Wake Society of New York gets together in a Spring Street apartment and reads aloud a page of James Joyce’s cyclical masterpiece. And then they discuss the page, whatever theories they can find, for about two hours. Organizer Murray Gross tells us why it’s important to slow down. Other members tell us how they became unexpectedly married to the book. (4:11 to 10:09)


Standing in Another Man’s Cycle

Are cycles a red herring? I spoke with the novelist Ian Rankin to get more answers. Rankin’s latest book, Standing in Another Man’s Grave, marks a surprise return to the Inspector Rebus series, which Rankin had closed out in 2007 with his 17th Rebus novel, Exit Music. Somehow Rebus eluded retirement and manged to cajole Malcolm Fox, the protagonist of Rankin’s new series, into the mix. This seemed as good a time as any to press Rankin on whether he’s caught in a pleasant cycle. Our side trips in this conversation include consideration of Anthony Powell, the A9 Motorway and its homicidal possibilities, Skyfall, 20th century policing instinct, and how men in their sixties get into fistfights. (10:09 to 40:15)


Pardon Me, Do You Have the Time?

We meet Lesley Alderman, author of The Book of Times, a collection of time-related data that will make your more conscious of the clock than Christian Marclay. But we learn how being aware of the time doesn’t mean you can’t find enticing new cycles hiding behind the corners of your complex existence. (40:15 to 45:51)


Raiders of the Lost Remake

It was 1982 and three twelve-year-olds in Mississippi decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was before the Internet, before the movie had been released on VHS. These kids had to hustle. What they did not know was that their ambitious project would take up their next seven summers. They would grow up making this movie. We talk with Chris Strompolos, who starred as Indiana Jones in the remake, and Alan Eisenstock, author of Raiders, a new book documenting the remake. Was all the fun and youthful ingenuity a mask? Can a cycle of remaking beget a new cycle of remaking? (45:51 to end)

Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Loops for this program were provided by Psychotropic Circle, DextDee, and HMNN.

Follow Your Ears #3: Cycles (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Annalena McAfee

Annalena McAfee appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #453. Ms. McAfee is most recently the author of The Spoiler.

[PROGRAM NOTE: In the first few minutes of the conversation, one of the microphones decided to blow out. And while Our Correspondent was equipped with two microphones, the microphone that blew out wasn’t the one on Our Correspondent’s voice, but the one that was on the author’s voice. Ms. McAffee’s words can be detected during this program, but if her voice sounds like it’s coming out of a small radiator, well, you now know why. Many apologies for the low quality to Ms. McAfee and to our listeners. We have done our best in post-production to preserve this conversation despite this setback.]

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Selling his scandalous tales to the highest bidder.

Author: Annalena McAfee

Subjects Discussed: The journalism novel’s long tradition, Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, P.G. Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, Guy de Maupassant, the number of women working as journalists, Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, the lack of women journalists in Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Nellie Bly, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, using phrases as “nasal plainchant,” how style and language allows one to escape tropes, plucky newsboys, formality, balancing characters, botching an interview, Tamara Sim’s entitlement, finding redeeming value in characters who don’t comprehend basic journalism, how to counter your own biases when writing fiction, providing what the newspapers want, narcissistic protagonists, 1997 as a cusp moment in journalism, journalistic ethics, the desperate scramble to be first with a story, cash for stories, single-source Fleet Street exposés, prostitutes and TV presenters, Tory MPs and tabloid scandals, the impulse to tear people down as a journalist, including a virtuous side character, the Conservative Monday Club vs. a fictitious Monday Club, Sherman Duffy’s idea of a journalist being “somewhere between a whore and a bartender,” the differences between US and UK journalism, whether or not cultural journalism is a slightly higher form of tabloid journalism, David Simon’s Q&A comments being needlessly dissected by short-sighted journalists, the problems with celebrity journalism, Ian McEwan as in-house editor, Amsterdam, Enduring Love, being grilled on television through personal connection, Marguerite Higgins, women war journalists, the infamous hostile showdown between Gloria Emerson and John Lennon, how Higgins inspired two novels, what journalism has lost because of the Internet, needless length caps applied to present-day journalism, Kindle Singles, the influence of Maxim in the early noughts, aggregate sites, The Browser, Twitter and the move to individual curators, obsession, and internal pressure for journalists.


McAfee: In terms of tearing people down, I did not work in that world really. I worked on The Financial Times. It’s a fantastic paper and the probity is unimpeachable. I worked on The Guardian on the culture. I founded and edited The Guardian Review. Again, that’s a paper that’s on the side of angels. I was very, very lucky. I had a spell on the Evening Standard. But I was arts editor and theater critic. And I suppose in my capacity as theater critic, sometimes I might have been less than kind. But it certainly wasn’t the kind of sustained bullying. Or I didn’t have that opportunity. And I hope that if I did, I would be able to resist it.

Correspondent: So you were really perhaps comparable to the Monitor‘s books editor the morning after the party.

McAfee: Yes.

Correspondent: Where everybody else was completely trashed and their heads were throbbing and they were incapable of any conversation. And meanwhile, those who chose not to imbibe in this debauchery, they were able to seize the reins here, so to speak. (laughs)

McAfee: Well, books editor do debauchery too.

Correspondent: Of course. Most people do. We all know this.

McAfee: There’s no character assassinations or kiss-and-tells on my particular beat, thankfully.

Correspondent: Sure. I wanted to go back to the question of character balance. Because you have this confident young woman named Tania. She’s dutifully reading books. She’s researching her subjects.

McAfee: She’s called Tamara. But the old woman gets her name wrong and calls her Tania sometimes.

Correspondent: I’m sorry. I’m talking about — anyway, she even is very nice to respond to the quip.

McAfee: Oh, Tania.

Correspondent: Tania. That’s who I’m saying. Tania.

McAfee: You know my book better than I do.

Correspondent: I know that Honor, in a joke, actually calls her Tania. And that’s the clue that there is actually something askew because she completely insists on Tania. You have that email joke. Okay. Now that we’re on the same page, so you’ve got Tania.

McAfee: Yeah.

Correspondent: She’s this erudite person who’s incredibly capable and she’s even kind enough to offer this tinselly chime that you describe when Tamara says, “Oh, well, the future is unisex jumpsuits and time travel.” But this does not exactly help us in warming to Tamara. I was reading this book and I’m saying to myself, “You know, Tania, this woman’s got her stuff together.” But I’m wondering how you worked out your method of parceling out Tania’s appearances throughout the book. Because they tend to be somewhat sparse near the beginning. And I almost got the sense that, as you were working on this, you wanted to have not so much of Tania. Because then all of a sudden, we’ll really not like Tamara. I’m wondering how you balanced the Ts here.

McAfee: Well, I did kind of concede Tania as the future. The only capable young woman journalist. Brilliant and completely ahead of the game as far as technology. And, of course, as I say, that was a time — 1997 — it was still possible to believe that the Internet was a passing fad. And indeed some of our great commentators said so. “It will be over soon. It’s like Citizens Band radio. It’s like Esperanto. It’s a craze. It will pass.” I use a quote from one of our great commentators saying exactly that in January 1997. So that’s what Tamara and all her colleagues are thinking. But gradually I hope that as a young woman who runs a website, as the future makes itself plain, as we see what direction it’s going in, that was the aim. That ultimately the future belongs to Tania and she claims it.

Correspondent: But did you worry that she might, in fact, be too virtuous? I mean, you’ve got two characters who have issues with Tamara and Honor. You’ve got Tania, who has not a single bad bone as far as I know. So how do you deal with this balance? Because if you have too much of Tania, then it gets away from the two central characters here. And so I’m wondering if there was more of Tania in an earlier draft perhaps or you had to say to yourself, “Well, I have to wait twenty or thirty pages before she appears again.”

McAfee: Well, no, there wasn’t more of Tania. And actually, again, I’m trying for complexity. And to be perfectly honest, I find Tania’s virtuousness and her capabilities slightly irritating. She’s the person who does one’s own job better than one can ever do and is always the last to leave the office. And she doesn’t laugh much. Her tinselly chimes are part of a game rather than a sense of humor.

Correspondent: No, it’s more of a polite gesture, I thought. I mean, here, she has been just totally insulted and instead of actually allowing herself to be steamrolled, she decides to respond with some grace. The tinselly chimes.

McAfee: Grace? Well, the tear of the victor.

Correspondent: Here’s the other thing about Tania. I mean, I know people like this. They go ahead and they work very hard, but they have a dark side. So I was reading this book thinking, “You know, Tania’s probably doing something we don’t know.” But we never actually get there. So I’m wondering: why? (laughs)

McAfee: Well, that’s true. That is probably true. And, in fact, she does move in on people.

Correspondent: That’s true.

McAfee: She’s incredibly attractive. That’s another of her irritating virtues.

Correspondent: (laughs)

McAfee: But she uses it and is jockeying for position and is not afraid to use her sexuality.

Correspondent: Nevertheless, you find her irritating.

McAfee: Well…

Correspondent: The successful woman is irritating. Wait a minute here. (laughs)

McAfee: She doesn’t have warmth, I suppose. And that’s really it. She’s hard to read and she doesn’t seem generous to her colleagues.

Correspondent: I see.

McAfee: She lacks generosity.

Correspondent: She moves in on the territory and she does so without really seeing what the pecking order is.

McAFee: As I say, she’s got the ambition of a young person.

Correspondent: That’s an annoying quality. I’ll give you that. So it’s interesting that you have the Monday Club in this book. Because it’s far more liberal than the conservative Monday Club. Because you have the Twisk Foundation fighting child exploitation wherever it is to be found. You have the war correspondent. And I’m saying to myself, “You know, this is almost a Bizarro World Monday Club.” And so I’m wondering why you decided to go for a more progressive form of something that is a conservative institution in the UK.

McAFee: Well, they meet on a Monday. But I chose…

Correspondent: It could have been the Tuesday Club. (laughs)

McAfee: But I quite liked it. And I think I do say an ironic reference to the conservative, right-wing thinktank of the same name. Or whatever. So I quite liked playing with that. I mean, these are bien-pensant liberals and they’ve taken the name of the arch factory of Thatcherism.

Correspondent: Do you have any personal experience with the real Monday Club at all?

McAfee: No.

Correspondent: Any efforts to peek in there?

McAfee: No. Not at all. I can’t think of any.

Correspondent: So Sherman Duffy — he was a reporter friend of Ben Hecht’s — and he has this very famous maxim. He said, “Socially a journalist fits somewhere between a whore and a bartender.” Wonderful, wonderful line. Now in the Monday Club chapter, you not only have Tamara serving canapes to these affluent types. But you also have Ruth, Honor’s publisher — she’s actually engaged in this service sector activity as well. She’s unpacking the pastries on the plate and so forth. So I’m wondering if you were thinking of the Duffy maxim when you were considering this. This is a natural extension. Is there any way that fiction can help us and assist us in rehabilitating a journalist’s social status from somewhere between the whore and the bartender?

McAfee: Well, I mean, journalists are happy to see themselves as mavericks. Aren’t they? Certainly British journalists. I know that American journalism is a more honorable tradition.

Correspondent: Really? (laughs)

McAfee: I was talking to a friend about this the other night. And she said that there’s more of a public service attitude. And it can make for more solemn journalism. But in the UK, it’s well, you know, anything can go.

Correspondent: So you would say that journalism in the UK has declined considerably in the last ten years.

McAFee: Oh no.

Correspondent: Or twenty years.

McAfee: I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t. I mean, I think there’s marvelous stuff going on. Absolutely marvelous. In fact, all that’s changed is the medium really. My war correspondent is not — she’s a bit of a dragon. And she resents the fact that the world has turned and she is not the top of the pile anymore. In fact, if she’d looked around, she would have much to celebrate. Particularly women in journalism. Women like Marie Colvin, the late Marie Colvin. In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, as she died in the cause of her work. There’s marvelous reporting going on. But there’s also a lot of dross. That’s all mainstream. I don’t get celebrity journalism. I just can’t understand the appeal.

Correspondent: But some would argue that cultural journalism is, I suppose, a classier version of celebrity journalism. What do you think?

McAfee: Yeah.

Correspondent: I ask myself this question too. I mean, look, I’ve read the book and I’m trying to tie it into a culture here. And I don’t want it to be about gossip. But at the same time, is this conversation also part of the problem? Even though it’s slightly higher on the brow? (laughs)

McAfee: Somebody said that novels were higher gossip.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

McAfee: That’s the level of celebrity journalism that appeals to me. But yeah, TV stars. Reality TV shows. I mean, I don’t want to go on to that. But that seems to be cheap television and cheap journalism. And I don’t think there’s anything edifying that one gets from it.

Correspondent: Well, the problem we have here too — and this is really frustrating. David Simon, for example, recently said some things in an interview. He didn’t quite express himself very well. But he basically implied that people who didn’t watch The Wire from beginning to middle to end were not watching it according to his vision. And I can totally understand his sentiment. But from my standpoint, I was saying, “Well, this is really nothing to get all that worked up about.” But, of course, television journalists completely flipped out over this and said, “David Simon is being an ass.” And Simon then has to spend an hour of his life talking to this TV critic named Sepinwall, basically clarifying what he was saying, where he was coming from. And this, to my mind, is the epitome. This says nothing about The Wire. It says absolutely nothing about the actual relationship to art. And there were several people — including a New Yorker TV critic on Twitter — who were going off about this. And I was saying to myself, “You know, why are you devoting so much of your energy to try and systematically dismantle and deconstruct a quote that really has no bearing on what David Simon is doing as an artist?” The suggestion I’m making here — and I’m going off on a total tangent and we will get back to your book — is that, well, do you think that cultural journalism might be suffering from the same problems that reality TV, this sensationalistic journalism, is?

McAfee: Oh yes. I do. I find that a lot of interviews — and I know we’re having an interview.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. It’s very meta here. (laughs)

McAfee: They concentrate on rehashing old stuff. Rehashing cuttings basically. Inquiring, as Tamara does, about affairs, about the personal life and not about the work. And when I was on the Guardian, we started a profile which was an essential interview about a writer or an artist. And the one rule was it was about the work. We don’t care about the personal life. If anyone cares about the personal life, they can read it. They can look it up. They can read it elsewhere. But what’s really interesting is the work. And I find that so much more enriching.

Correspondent: There is one question I have about your husband [Ian McEwan] and you, and it has nothing to do really with the personal. Although it may have something to do with the personal. But we’re talking about purely artistic terms. Okay. One, you’ve got an in-house editor. I’m really curious about how you two work as in-house editors. And, two, I noticed that this book had quite a bit in common with Amsterdam. You have a photo that is released. You have editors who are sacked. And so I wondered first of all if Amsterdam was hovering over you as you were writing this and, second, how do you guys edit each other’s work? That’s all I care about.

McAfee: Well…

Correspondent: Or do you? Or do you leave each other alone?

McAfee: Yes. We do read. I read his work. I’m his first reader with a pencil. And he returned the compliment. In terms of Amsterdam, which I love — it’s a great newspaper novel actually, though it’s guys again. I hadn’t reread it for a while. But I guess any newspaper novel about modern journalism is going to have this scandal element to it. And, in fact, what you ask me is a fairer question, less compromising. When I was on the FT, I was editing the arts and books page. I was invited to the BBC. And it was around the time of the Booker Prize, when the Booker Prize was just going to be announced. The shortlist was going to be announced. And I was asked to come on as a literary editor of the Financial Times. So I turned up. And I’m very nervous on television. And I’m in absolute agony. And I turn up in this bright lit studio. And the guy turns to me and says, “So did you help hubby write the book?” Oh, what do you say? I said, “He’s perfectly capable of writing it himself. Thanks very much. But, nope, he wrote Amsterdam by himself. Unassisted.” As I wrote The Spoiler.

Correspondent: I would have said, “Did your wife help you with that question?”

McAfee: You know, that’s good.

Correspondent: So you guys edit each other’s work. Is there a point where you say, “Hey, hands off, Ian, I’ve got this”? I mean, does he become too vigorous with the pen? Or do you become in turn too vigorous with the pen? How do you keep each other’s hands off? What’s the deal with you guys?

McAfee: Well, it’s very companionable and decent. We both make suggestions and we both know that we’re at liberty to ignore them. Which is what happens. But when I read his first — the first book when we were together was Enduring Love. And I read that. And he asked me. “Be as free as you like and put pencil marks wherever there’s any kind of doubt.” And I was very tentative about it. I mean, I was used to editing for a living. But I was very tentative about hurting things. And I’ve written children’s books.

Correspondent: Yes, I know.

McAfee: I had a children’s book that was just coming out. And so he said, “Oh, I’d like to see that.” And he went through it. And there were pencil marks and suggestions.

Correspondent: (laughs)

McAfee: I thought, “Right. That’s how it’s done. No holds barred.” I went back to Enduring Love and pulled no punches.

Correspondent: (laughs) Wow. Did you pull no punches on the opening scene? I’m curious. No one can…

McAfee: There was no work required. Absolutely. It’s superb.

(Photo: Richard Saker)

The Bat Segundo Show #453: Annalena McAfee (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #438. He is most recently the author of The Orphan Master’s Son.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revising his own narrative.

Author: Adam Johnson

Subjects Discussed: Growing up in Arizona, reading a novel as an act of faith and how style reflects that, narrative which mimics Casablanca, storytelling as the North Korean identity, being the center of your own story, state-sponsored storytelling, DPRK aptittude tests, being trapped in a world of North Koreaness, the American idea of taking on new personae, populating a book with secondary characters from limited information, getting a sufficient Tolstoyian cross-section, knowing very little about Pyongyang, defecting to South Korea, Hanawon, underground societies in Pyongyang, North Korean testimonials, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, how fiction fills in missing factual gaps, the kwan-li-so labor camps, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, how to eat a newt, being unable to verify Yodok, Kenji Fujimoto, whether imagination is truthful enough to fill in the gaps, mining the Stanford libraries for North Korean books, Rikidozan and North Korean wrestling, approaching North Korea from the comic mode, interrogators who give prisoners “alone time,” playing a guitar for Kim Jong-Il, finding propaganda funny, feeling a responsibility to gulag prisoners, balancing absurdity and believability, Kim Jong-Il and the state cinema agency, Pulgasari (the North Korean answer to Godzilla), kidnapping cast and crew to make Pulgasari, the pros and cons of being an American outsider, moral responsibility in narrative, South Park, Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea, referring to the dead Kim Jong-Il in the present tense, getting bested by the human heart, North Korea’s attempt at an air defense system, Johnson being unable to find photographic evidence of apartment loudspeakers, the Japanese obsession with the KCNA, reading the Rodong Sinmun daily for eight years, Pork Chop Hill, trying to get a sense of how North Koreans live, North Korean humor, actresses kidnapped from South Korea, Bill Clinton’s efforts with Euna Lee and Laura Ling, Casablanca, resistance to black-and-white movies, Titanic, how the advent of DVD affected how North Koreans watched movies, relying on a stunted version of North Korea from four years, what Johnson saw in North Korea, whether photography can atone for the lack of the written word, the alleged nutritious value of dubious seaweed, scavenging extra calories, the legality of harvesting chestnuts, memory as a conduit between photography and the written word, how writing nonfiction gets in the way of advancing fiction, maintaining hundreds of pages of notes, forming unexpected narratives, being a journalism major and fabricating perfect quotes, capturing the essence of nuts, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Kim Jong-Il vs. Nixon, Kim Jong-Il Looking at Things, humanizing a dictator, being drawn to survivor narratives, how physicality and geographic location allowed Johnson’s North Korea to evolve, Soviet refrigerator factories in North Korea, goats on the building roof, turning on the power for the foreigners, how North Korea decides which floor you live on, avoiding exposition while writing The Orphan Master’s Son, Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, Shin Dong-hyuk’s expense, making a choice at the expense of something else, how Texas served as a narrative mechanism to see North Korea from several vantage points, being one of the first American novels about North Korea out of the gate, Hyejin Kim’s Jia, James Church’s police procedurals, and how facets of the thriller genre helps get at the truth.


Correspondent: Stylistically, the first part of this book requires a great leap of faith for the reader. I mean, we’re asked to believe that Jun Do, despite the fact that his story does not check out, gets released by the interrogator. That he would also go to Texas with Dr. Sung. I don’t think I’m giving anything away.

Johnson: Sure.

Correspondent: But then you have this twist at the end of the first part. Then we are given this surprise and we say, “Oh ho! Maybe the narrative itself doesn’t exactly match up.” Then you have the second part. And the last part almost mimics Casablanca, which of course is a DVD of the world’s best movie that is circulated as well through the text. You have all these references to storytelling. You have Sarge saying, “You think the guys at top don’t know the real story?” You have Commander Ga wondering “if he couldn’t tell a story that seemed natural enough to them now, but upon later consideration might contain the message he was looking for.” So we’re led to believe that storytelling, or perhaps this dim awareness of narrative, is very much the North Korean identity. And I’m curious how you arrived at this involuted solution to North Korea. In terms of why this, of all things, would be their identity.

Johnson: Well, storytelling is my obsession. I love stories. I love to write them and to read them. And I’m really fascinated with how they come out. Especially troubling stories. You know, happy, funny stories are very easy to tell. Stories of success and achievement. And they’re a little boring. But, you know, I’ve studied for some time now how people tell traumatic or painful stories. And the different shapes that they take. And when I started studying North Korea, it made me reconsider how I tell my own stories, the stories I tell myself to feel good. In America, I think, in our literature and in our real lives, everyone is the center of her own story. And our job as humans and as characters is to follow our motivations toward what we want and need to overcome obstacles by looking inward and growing and changing and making discovery towards becoming our best possible selves. But, you know, as I studied the stories about North Korea, because the story there is state-sponsored, I realized that it was a national narrative written by a regime, enforced by a regime, controlled by censors, without another version. And in that, the very few people at top were the central characters. Really, the main character was Kim Il-Sung, Kim-Jong Il, and Kim Jong-un now.

And everyone else in that country was like a secondary character. And this is really borne out by my research and by the testimonials of defectors that, when you’re a child in the DPRK, early on you’re assessed for your aptitudes or certain qualities for the needs of the state. And you’re sent down paths that lead toward becoming a fisherman or a sailor or an accordionist. And in that world, having your own desires and yearnings could run counter to the role that you might fulfill to survive. So I think I started with a character who’s more trapped in a world of North Koreaness, where he must do what he’s told, go where he’s told. He does grim things. And it doesn’t really matter who he is or what he does. It’s just that the role will be fulfilled. Whereas in America, you know, we change our stories all the time. They grow and evolve. And when you go off to a new school or a new job, you just take on a new persona. You change. And I think over the course of the book, because the character meets Americans — he listens to foreign transmissions because he has some encounters; even though he doesn’t defect; even though he keeps maintaining his role — a growing sense of possibility rises in him that he could finally write his own story rather than being conscripted into the state. And in the second part of the book, he does this daring act to try and become his own person. Though there he has to impersonate somebody else even.

Correspondent: Well, secondary characters. I mean, this book is filled with them. And I’m wondering if, from the limited resources you had at your disposal — I mean, you did in fact go to North Korea; we can talk about that in a little bit; I suppose it’s an ineluctable subject — but I’m curious if you could truly, from your vantage point, get a suitable Tolstoyian cross-section when the information you had at your disposal is so thin. I mean, do you feel that there were certain secondary characters you didn’t quite include in the book? That may have actually been included in the previous draft and you would have liked to flesh out further? How do you go about creating a fictive population when the information at your disposal is so thin?

Johnson: Well, I did kind of revel in the secondary characters in my book. I’m glad you point that out. Because I had a lot of fun with them. You know, just in terms of North Korea, what we know and what we don’t know. We know very little about what happens in the secret power in Pyongyang. That the people who are ruling and who are inflicting the power upon others — we don’t know that much. For the lives of normal citizens and the rest of the country — in Wonsan, Nampho, Chongjin, etcetera, we know a great deal actually. Over 6,000 people defected last year. When they make it to South Korea, and that’s a whole journey in itself, they go to a facility called Hanawon, where they’re debriefed. And a real narrative is written about each one of them. And then they go through a kind of school that helps them reintegrate into a vastly different society. But from the information that’s gathered about normal citizens, we know how much they eat. How many hours they work. How their families live. About their housing blocks. About their group criticism sessions. We know how much volunteer labor they have to give to the squads. Etcetera. The mysterious people are in Pyongyang. They don’t tend to defect. They’re all underground. When you go to there, there’s no White House or Blue House. There’s no residence with Kim Jong-Il. He lives in an unseen place in the city. A lot of the big structures are underground. Probably because we bombed them so mercilessly during the Korean War. And there’s an underground society that exists. And we don’t know much about them at all. I saw cell phone towers when I was there, but not a single person on a phone. We have to assume they have the Internet, that they understand about the world, that they watch movies. They probably make international calls, even travel internationally. But because they don’t leave, because they don’t leave any trail, we just don’t know who they are. And what I tried to do in my book was maybe fulfill the human dimension of the normal people outside the city. And, by that I mean, in a place with such self-censorship, in a place where even being perceived to do something against your role in the state could cost you dearly, I wondered how normal people chose to share their inner thoughts. This was the imaginative part. A lot of the factual basis of the book is really accurate. But would a parent tell a child that he thought it was all a lie? Would he transmit that essential knowledge that he accumulated over a life?

The Bat Segundo Show #438: Adam Johnson (Download MP3)

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Novel 2.0

Reports of the Web’s harmful effects upon reading habits have been greatly overstated. Two recent online projects sufficiently demonstrate that we’re only just beginning to understand what the Web can do. The first is Power Moby Dick, an online depiction of Melville’s classic novel with often very helpful annotations on the side. (The annotations resemble the colored box version of David Foster Wallace’s “Host.”) The second is The Golden Notebook Project (via), in which Doris Lessing’s novel is online and searchable. Over five to six weeks, seven critics are providing side comments for the respective pages: a form somewhere between Power Moby Dick and the many roundtable literary discussions that can be found around the Web. There is also a forum, although it appears that nobody aside from the Magnificent Seven has left comments.

I’m wondering, however, if we can’t see these dynamic experiments go further. I would be very interested in seeing the Golden project provide a place for every published thought on every particular line in that novel. Perhaps there might be a way to track words and references used by earlier writers and carried on by later writers. There could be a better implementation of the forum through a wiki, in which various readers could offer additional questions in a separate accessible area. With RSS feeds, perhaps someone with a Kindle or a Sony Reader might download the latest central version with annotations.

As I observed a few days ago, it’s fantastic that nearly all the books of yesteryear are available in some form online. But I don’t think we’re being ambitious enough. If text is scannable and searchable, then the door needs to be opened for how the reader, both common and academic, can access and annotate the text. Perhaps government funding might be put into place to hire literary experts around the nation to preserve specific literary works, perform research, and annotate them for the public. (I observe that the MacArthur Foundation has provided pivotal funding for The Golden Notebook.) What amazes me in particular about these two online projects is how neither detracts from the author-reader relationship. They respect that exclusive relationship, while accounting for the additional relationships which spring up between other readers. What we have here is an opportunity to reinvigorate the novel, to expand the audience, and to live up to the helpful hypertextual ideas advocated by Robert Coover.

Chapter One

On Sunday night, I stepped into the chilly cold and ventured off to see two fabulous pals — Matt Cheney and Tayari Jones — read at the Sunday Salon series with the ebullient Frances Madeson and the somewhat intense Tony D’Souza. All four readers were compelling, but the biggest surprise came when Tayari, who had assured me early on that she would be reading a “rerun,” inveigled the crowd with a chapter from her forthcoming novel, citing, to my surprise, me specifically as the guy who had seen the act before. As Tayari came down to retrieve her manuscript pages, there was only one thing to do. Express my gratitude and hug her profusely. I am known to do this from time to time. Writers sometimes need to be encouraged.

In any event, since this was an uncommon reading of material that was still being worked out, it seemed only fair to return the favor. So I’ve prepared an audio file of the first chapter of my novel-in-progress, Humanity Unlimited, which can be sampled below. It involves balding, neuroses, a stern receptionist, false accusation, and an overly exuberant photographer. This is slightly different from another version I performed once at Writers With Drinks, and will likely be different still in six months.

(Of course, if this doesn’t tickle your fancy, I should note that four new installments of The Bat Segundo Show have just been released.)