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)

The Man in the Yellow Shirt

I hit a cafe on the edge of Prospect Heights, a place where I knew I would not be bothered. If another writer who knew me entered through the doors, then he would almost certainly ignore me in this cafe. There are some venues in Brooklyn that possess such an innate social code, one that is ideal for introverts and one that was particularly suited to the misanthropic headspace I had willed myself into.

For a good ninety minutes, I occupied my table with unabated joy, reading and writing in blissful peace. I knocked off the remainder of Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This in one greedy gulp. Then I cracked open my Dell laptop and wrote two pages of the script for a live show I am staging in mid-October. Two pages of moral philosophy cloaked in salacious banter. What fun! This was a first draft that I had nearly finished, but that I was slightly behind on. Still, I wasn’t about to self-flagellate myself. I could leave such lacerations to the online trolls who still pestered me from time to time. And if they got too unruly, I could always block them. I was in a fairly happy place. The script would come from my head and heart, as all scripts inevitably did. The hope was to complete the draft before the end of Labor Day Weekend, a three-day period that most people seemed to agree was the final nail in summer’s coffin. While others would fritter their time away catching the last gasps of the sun, I would be a productive monkey — even if this involved hunkering over like a marsupial while walking up and down Flatbush Avenue and eating an inordinate amount of bananas. There are always madcap methods you can summon to meet your quota.

That’s when the man in the yellow shirt arrived.

Now I know enough about color theory to understand that yellow is considered the color of happiness and the color of jaundice or pestilence. And the man had the aesthetic duality of a coin: cadaverous and gaunt from the back, disheveled and corpulent in the front. One expected some deity to pluck this incongruous man into the air with two giant fingers and flip him over in order to determine which of the two most problematic continents should be decimated first. Would it be the plumper side or the deader side of the man that would seal the deal? This was obviously a question beyond my mortal understanding.

Wispy sideburns crawled down the sides of the man’s face like bushy birthmarks branded by some baleful demon. The man looked somewhere between fifty-five and seventy years old. And he unsettled me. Because he insisted on standing. Standing in a position so that you would never quite see his face, which instinctively escaped all light and disguised his natural and joyless crags within some gentrified penumbra.

There were plentiful tables in the cafe, but he refused to sit. He had the obduracy of a Lovecraftian manservant who was prepared to lead you into some ghastly underworld populated by bestial brutes, who would then proceed to tear your flesh apart with their bare claws. And he stood with his arms constantly behind his back, with his left knuckle clenched in a strange symbol whereby his thumb and forefinger forged a strange circle — almost as if he was part of some secret society responsible for most of the world’s ills.

The man in the yellow shirt stood two feet closer to me than I deemed comfortable. Social distancing has certainly rejiggered the norm of what was acceptably close, but you could usually count on your fellow human beings to intuit what was right. The man in the yellow shirt operated outside of natural instinct and I was forced to conclude that he was a messenger sent by Belphegor.

There was a woman at the table near the window. The woman had spent much of the time sighing stertorously. She resented reading her book and wanted everyone in the cafe to know it. This was, of course, the most passive-aggressive display of narcissism that one sees in cafes.

Meanwhile, the man in the yellow shirt stood in place. He didn’t even sip the coffee that he had ordered. He had placed it on the edge of the cabinet that housed two trash receptacles. He was as frozen and as expressionless as a stone sentinel. As I was to later observe, he had actually ordered three hot beverages. But he only seemed to possess only one beverage at a time. Did he simply order hot beverages as a pretext? He stood as if he was born to wait. A more advanced and rehearsed version of the “fuck my life” look that you see on people over forty who commute to a corporate job that they clearly despise. Perhaps the man in the yellow shirt had arrived as a warning.

The exasperated woman packed up her things. And I seized the table near the window with the legerdemain of a subway commuter snagging the last available subway seat during rush hour. It seemed as if I was in the clear.

But then the man in the yellow shirt adjusted his standing position so that he was exactly two feet too close to me at this new table! And he turned his back to me. The man’s mathematical precision unsettled me further. And I did my best to bury my nose in the next book in my pile.

I wondered if the man in the yellow shirt was some version of me from the future. But he was slightly taller than me. And he had a full head of hair that was a disastrous mop of white. If he had come from the future, I suppose it is possible that scientists fifteen years from now could have corrected my male pattern baldness and extended my height. But I knew myself well enough to know that I would never assent to such cosmetic assaults on my authenticity. I would grow old gracefully, thank you very much.

I considered politely asking the man to back off. But given the way that he seemed to know the exact distance with which to unsettle me, I nixed this option. For all I knew, this was only the beginning of his subtly invasive moves.

I closed my eyes for a second and, when I opened them, the man in the yellow shirt had disappeared without a trace! Had I imagined him? Reader, I had not! As you can see, I did successfully photograph him while sitting at the second table.

I do not know if the man in the yellow shirt is targeting other cafe regulars in Brooklyn. But let my report serve as a warning. Who knows? Perhaps he just wanted to be loved.

Not My Friends

The kid pinged me in the middle of the day — a fan of “The Gray Zone.” Sure, he got the title of my audio drama wrong. We corresponded over social media for about a month. He insisted I made great radio. He told me one of his family members had died. I reached out and I wished him well and I said that he could get in touch with me directly if he needed to. Then he blocked me.

That’s usually the way it happens. It’s been like this for over fifteen years. Some reader stumbles upon an old essay I wrote or an interview I did and thinks I’m brilliant. For about a month, I’m “a genius.” (I am honored by the praise, but I assure you that I am anything but this and have the middling track record to prove this.) I ask about the reader. Because I’m interested in people and I try to be polite. Then the fan backtracks and drops me, sometimes with a curt and nasty goodbye.

I won’t name the person who was inspired to start an entire literary operation from scratch, the person who looked up to me in person and elsewhere, and then declared that he was better than me and stopped talking. He may very well be better than me. That’s not for me to judge. I’m too busy being competitive with myself. But abandonment does hurt. Especially after you go out of your way to help someone.

A few months ago, I had to end a friendship of many years after the friend, who borrowed one of the microphones I used for The Bat Segundo Show to make a podcast, completely disrespected me as a person. When did the disrespect start? You guessed it. The minute that he started making podcasts. I patiently listened to him in a bar as he denigrated my craft and insulted the very art I made. He demeaned my love of genre as “Rick and Morty shit.” I made the mistake of thinking that this was loving derision. Maybe he was going through a stage where he needed to denigrate me in order to live. I try to be patient with people. But I soon saw the truth after many months of this, confronted him about this, received a condescending response back, and then dropped him.

By contrast, I informed another friend how I felt about the way she diminished a painful experience in my life. And she was nothing but kind and apologetic, while still holding her ground and telling me the truth and pointing out how I overreacted. (She was right.) This is what real friends do.

The people who read your work are not your friends. Even when they think you are.

Yesterday, I received twenty-three death threats because of a pugilistic piece I wrote. A new record of hate. Many of these came from journalists. Apparently, my piece had made the rounds in a few private circles. These people have read me for years and continue to keep tabs, despite vowing “never to read Ed again. ” I’ve never met any of them, but they seem to think that they know everything about me when there’s a lot that I do and that I haven’t actually found the stones to write about. They seem to think that the man on the other end of the screen is running around Brooklyn with an axe, shouting obscenities at the top of his lungs. In the past, I’ve telephoned these people and put on a performance so they could leave me alone. The regular version of me is quiet and kind, when he’s not passionate and exuberant. And if they’re going to get me wrong, they may as well get me more wrong.

Besides I’m a novelty act anyway. I’m that man you’re so dazzled with at the party but who you never get to know. I was talking with a friend just the other night about the dreadful phrase “You’re a snack” and how I’ve never liked it because it denigrates people. (I dated a woman who said “You’re a snack.” I replied, “Well, baby, you’re a three-course dinner!” We weren’t dating two weeks later.) The point I’m trying to make here is that most writers are seen as snacks. It never occurs to the reader that there is a soul beyond the words. You write a vituperative essay and you’re declared nothing but vituperative. You sing a song about loneliness and the audience remarks upon how the guitar player is always sad. This superficial impression is, incidentally, what allows so many sociopathic writers to be hailed as nice guys. Some of them have even won the Pulitzer Prize.

But something else happens when a fan starts making art and knows you. It is almost always held in comparison to yours — much in the way, I suppose, that young men used to retype pages of Hemingway — and used as a yardstick. Suddenly, something you spent so much time putting together so that it would read or sound seamless is “easy.” And you end up being denigrated or dumped.

And the illusion still holds with these people.

I’ve had people who went out of their way to spread hate and misinformation about me send me fan letters years later. As if I don’t have a record and a memory of how they hurt me. As if I couldn’t possibly have feelings. As if I couldn’t possibly be human.

I’m not here to argue my case for being human. You’ve already made up your mind. But if you and I aren’t true friends, I can guarantee that you’re very wrong about me. And that’s fine. As the old saying goes, it’s your loss, not mine.

How to Write Audio Drama

Anyone who has ever worked in an office is familiar with the self-styled “expert” who rolls in from London or New York. The grinning expert, who almost never listens to anything other than the hollow sound of his own voice, locks you into a conference room with a condescending four hour PowerPoint presentation. One often looks cautiously at such a mercenary, often paid an obscenely high sum for pablum, to see if he has a pistol concealed under the three piece suit. Why? Because the presenter’s vaguely sinister chest-thumping almost always feel more like a hostage situation rather than a true meeting of the minds.

Ego should never be the driving force when you advise other people. The collective journey must represent the true impetus behind any guiding effort. Unfortunately, the dreadful combination of arrogance and stupidity is an increasing affliction in American culture, which now prides itself on smearing a crowd with the soothing balm of anti-intellectualism, with hubris often serving as the prominent titanium dioxide. This strain was most recently evidenced by Tucker Carlson’s unintentionally hilarious but nevertheless dangerous notion that the metric system represents a conspiracy promulgated by revolutionaries. There are now too many circumstances in which wildly unqualified people — often illiterate and sloppy in their work product — anoint themselves as Napoleonic dictators for how to advance thought and who often do so without the nuts-and-bolts wisdom or attentive awareness that inspires people to conjure up truly incredible offerings.

I mention all this because I recently had the considerable displeasure of reading a typo-laden article written by a misguided audio dramatist who, while possessing a modicum of promising technical chops, remains tone-deaf to human behavior. To offer a charitable opinion, this dramatist is certainly doing the best he can, but his dialogue (which has included such inadvertent howlers as “Now dance with me, asshole,” “I envy your certainty,” and “I would have expected you to bring one of your underlings”) and anemic storytelling represents a form of “expertise” that my own very exacting standards for what constitutes art simply cannot accept.

You see, I really believe that audio drama, like any artistic form, needs to be written and produced at the highest possible level. But to give this guy some credit, we do have to start somewhere! As someone who has written about 1,400 pages of audio drama and who often labors months over a script until it’s right (as opposed to someone who bangs out an entire season in nine weeks), as someone who has gone out into the real world for months to do journalistic research to ensure that I’m portraying groups of people and subcultures realistically and dimensionally rather than subscribing to self-congratulatory, attention-seeking tokenism that cheapens well-intentioned inclusiveness through the creation of shallow stereotypes, and as someone who won a distinguished award for all this, if you’ll pardon my own statement of qualifications here, I think I’m reasonably well-equipped to offer better suggestions. Having said that (and as a free-wheeling anti-authoritarian who despises groupthink, who has never held a gun in his life, and who is writing this in a T-shirt and jeans rather than a three piece suit), I would also like to encourage anyone reading these collected thoughts to poke holes into my views and to challenge anything that I present herein. This is, after all, the only way that all of us truly learn.

Audio drama is a magnificent medium. It shares much in common with literature in its ability to challenge an audience and convey emotional intimacy. And while shows such as The Bright Sessions, Wooden Overcoats, and The Truth intuitively comprehend the emotional connection between audio drama and audience, the medium, on the whole, is populated by too many engineering nerds who are not only incapable of writing quality scripts, but seem reluctant — if not outright hostile — to probe moral questions or explore any difficult ambiguities that lead to human insight.

Here are some better guidelines for how to approach the exciting and often greatly rewarding realm of audio dramatic writing!

1. Before anything else, think of HUMAN BEINGS.

This is the true big one. If you don’t have human beings guiding your audio drama, you are dead on arrival. And you become no different from some engineering nerd who is less interested in narrative possibility and more concerned with being the cleverest guy in the room. Being in touch with human behavior humbles you and opens you up to wonder and empathy and insatiable curiosity that you can not only pass onto your actors and your audience, but that will help you transform into a better and more mindful person. If you want to connect with an audience, then you need to know how to connect with people. And your art needs to reflect this. One of my favorite audio dramas, King Falls AM, has literally confined its setting to a call-in radio show in a small town. But its two main characters, Sammy and Ben, are human enough to warrant our attention. We learn over the series’ run that Sammy is gay and that Ben is smitten with Emily, the local librarian. And the show’s colorful characters and the creative team’s commitment to exploring the human have ensured that the show has never once lost momentum during its eighty-seven episodes. (There’s even a charming musical episode!)

It’s also vital for human behavior to contain paradoxes. Very often, that means taking major artistic risks with your characters — even making them “unlikable” if this is what the story calls for. I recently revisited some episodes of the science fiction TV series Blakes 7 after its star, the incredibly talented Paul Darrow, passed away. Darrow, who appeared in many audio dramas produced by Big Finish near the end of his life, played an antihero named Avon — a man who ended up as the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against a fascist empire known as the Federation. Why was Avon so interesting? Because he contained so many contradictions! He could be smart, intensely charming, paranoid, inclusive, sarcastic, and self-serving. Much like Walter White in Breaking Bad, you never quite knew how far Avon was going to go. And there is no better exemplar of why Avon worked so well than an episode called “Orbit” written by Robert Holmes (who also wrote some of the best episodes of Doctor Who). Avon and his longtime partner Vila have five minutes to rid a spacecraft of excess cargo weight. The two men are seen frantically running around, ejecting bits of plastic through the airlock. It’s clear that they’re not going to dump the cargo in time. Avon desperately asks Orac — the ship’s computer — how much weight the ship must lose in order to achieve escape velocity. Orac replies, “70 kilos.” With great ferocity, Avon shrieks, “Dammit! What weighs 70 kilos?” Orac responds with an alarming calmness, “Vila weighs 73 kilos, Avon.” And it is here that the scene becomes truly thrilling and surprising! Avon now has a solution — one that allows him to survive but that also involves betraying his friend. Darrow instantly transforms, grabs a laser pistol, and the scene is among the best in the entire run of the show. (You can watch the scene here.) As a test, I described this scene to a wide variety of people who were unfamiliar with speculative fiction. One old school guy in my Brooklyn hood who I’m friendly with (and for whom I have been serving as an occasional consultant on his webseries), “Damn! That’s some gangsta shit. I gotta check it out.” Human predicaments like this are universal.

Don’t worry too much about your sound design when you’re conceiving your story. You certainly need to remember that this is a medium driven by sound, but, if you’re doing audio drama right, your characters (and thus your actors) will be sharp and lively enough to conjure up a divergent sound environment. It’s absolutely foolhardy and creatively bankrupt to enslave your actors to a soundscape. This represents tyranny, not creative possibility. Actors need to be free to create in a fun and relaxed environment. (In my case, I cook all of my actors breakfast, compensate everyone instantly after recording, and try not to work them more than three hours per recording session.) As perspicacious as you may be, as certain as you may think you are about the rhythm and the delivery, your actors will always have fresh ideas that you haven’t considered. You need to have a script and a recording environment that is committed to your actors first. If you’re looking to be some petty despot, become some small-time corporate overlord. Don’t toil in art. If your actors are hindered by your dictatorial decisions as writer or director, they won’t be able to use their imagination. At all stages, audio drama is a process of collaborative discovery. When you write the script, it’s about creating memorable and three-dimensional characters. When you’re recording with actors, it’s about listening to how an actor interprets the characters and shaping the scene together with openness, trust, and experimentation. Then, when you’re putting together the rough edit (dialogue only), you have yet another stage of discovery. The actors have given you all that you need. You’ll be able to imagine where they are in a room, what they’re doing, and what else might be with them. From here, you start to form the sound design. Worldbuilding always comes from human investigation. And if you’re fully committed to the human, then your instinctive imagination will be able to devise a unique aural environment.

But to get to this place, you need to have characters who are unusual and who contain subtlety, depth, and detailed background. What kind of family did they have? Are they optimistic or moody? What was their most painful experience? Their happiest? Are they passionate about anything? If you’re stuck, you could always try revisiting some personal experience. For “Brand Awareness,” a Black Mirror-like story about a woman who learns that the beer that she’s fiercely loyal to doesn’t actually exist, the premise was inspired by an incident in which I went to a Williamsburg bar, certain that I had ordered a specific Canadian beer there before. But when I mentioned the beer brand to the bartender, she didn’t know that it existed. (It turned out that I had the wrong bar.) I laughed over how ridiculously loyal I had been to the Canadian beer brand and began asking questions about why I was so stuck on that particular beer at that time. I then came up with the idea of a woman who spent much of her time collecting memorabilia for a beer called Eclipse Ale, one that nobody knew about, and decided, instead of making this character a rabid and obsessive fan, to make her very real. I placed her in a troubled relationship with a man who refused to listen to her, which then gave me an opportunity to explore the harms of patriarchy. I then had to answer the question of why this woman was the only one who knew about the beer and conjured up the idea of a boutique hypnotist who served in lieu of couples therapy. Suddenly I had a weird premise and some sound ideas. What did the memorabilia look like? What were the hypnotist’s methods like? Ultimately, most of my sound design came from my incredible cast. Their interpretations were so vivid that I began to create a soundscape that enhanced and reflected their performances. The process was so fun that our team’s collective imagination took care of everything. I would listen to the rough dialogue assembly on my headphones and physically act out each character as they were talking into my ears. And from here, I was able to see what the space looked like. I went to numerous bars and closed my eyes and listened and used this as the basis for how to shape the scene. These methods allowed me to tell a goofy but ultimately realistic story.

I can’t stress this next point enough. Audio drama should never be about being overly clever or showy. It should be designed with enough depth for the audience to use its imagination. Just as I consider the actors on my production to be my creative equals, I also consider the audience to my interpretive equal. Their takeaways from my show are almost always smarter than my own. It would be colossally arrogant of me to assume that I know better than them.

To return to the gentleman who wrote the article that I am partially responding to here, his advice concerning character tips should be avoided at all costs. Robots can be fun, but, however ephemerally vivid they can be, they are among the most tedious one-note characters you can ever drop into a story. Moreover, a character who appears on only two pages should have as much backstory as one of your principals. When the great Robert Altman made one of his masterpieces, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he instructed all of the extras who were part of the Western town to develop detailed characters. This is one significant reason why that incredible film feels so real and so atmospheric. When in doubt, write vivid human characters with real problems. They always sound cool.

The misguided dramatist also reveals how pedestrian and unambitious he is in his storytelling when he tells you that you shouldn’t have more than four separate voices in a scene. This is only a problem if, like the misguided dramatist, you are too reliant upon seemingly clever ideas and don’t know how to write recognizable characters. If your characters are dimensional, then your audience will be able to follow the story. But you can also have your characters forget the names of the people who they are with so that you have an opportunity to remind your audience who they are. There are, after all, few people who attend a party and who manage to remember everybody’s first names. This expositional move doubles as a touch of realism and a subtle way of helping your audience keep track of a very large cast. Don’t squelch your ambition! If the dialogue is natural and the rhythm reflects real human conversation, then this will also help your audience lock into the narrative.

Also, I don’t know what living rooms the misguided dramatist spends his time in. But every setting is driven by sound. Only the most unimaginative and inattentive dramatist in the world would gainsay the textural possibilities contained in a car or a kitchen. These are seemingly familiar places. But if you spend enough time in various kitchens and simply listen, you’ll discover that each kitchen does have a separate tapestry of distinct sounds.

As for momentum, I have one firm rule: Have at least something on every page that drives the story forward (or, failing that, a good joke). If it’s not there, then cut and revise the page until you get to that ratio. Because you have exactly five minutes from the beginning of your show to grab your audience. If you’re bombarding your audience with over-the-top sound design out of creative desperation but you don’t have anything human to back it up, you’re dead. The audience will tune out very quickly, especially when there are so many other audio drama productions up to the task. However, if you’re concerned with the human first, then you’ll be on firm footing. The misguided dramatist writes, “The specifics don’t matter.” Oh, but they always matter. This is a profoundly ignorant and offensive statement that ignores the lessons contained in centuries of dramatic writing. Having some random kid walking by with a blasting boombox may pump up your hubris enough to approach the editors of Electric Literature and say, “Hey, I’m an expert! Can I write an article and pimp my show?” But if your inclusion doesn’t serve the human needs of the story, it’s gratuitous. It’s flexing your muscle rather than lifting the weights. And as you make more audio drama, it’s vital that you never stop evolving. In an increasingly crowded world of audio drama options, you want to be the dramatist who can bench-press to the best of your ability. And you’re going to want to build yourself up so that you can increase the load you can heave above your shoulders. You don’t stay in shape if you stop hitting the gym. And art rarely works when you phone it in. It involves hard work, great care, and daily discipline.

2. Imagination.

Well, I can mostly agree with the misguided dramatist here. You definitely want to paint a picture in your audience’s minds. But you don’t necessarily have to do this with a melange of bad exposition such as “Teeth, there’s too many teeth.” All you need to do is to imagine how a human being would react to a set of circumstances and then slightly style the dialogue so that it reveals just enough exposition (but not too much). You can then sculpt the sound design accordingly.

3. On “Gross” Sound Design

Once again, the misguided dramatist lacks the ability to comprehend how an audience vicariously relates to an audio drama. You can do kissing in audio drama. I’ve included it in The Gray Area. This doesn’t mean that you drop in a flagrant smooch that’s going to drown out everything else in the mix. You want a dramatic kiss to sound pretty close to how it’s actually experienced. For the first season, I recorded some kissing foley with someone I was dating at the time. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life, perhaps the closest I’ve come to feeling like a pornographic actor. But it had to be done for art! Imagine two people lying in bed, both of them with headphones on, and a condenser microphone mounted just above them. We proceeded to kiss until I got the levels and the mic positioned just right for a very soft sound that is quite close to the sound that you hear when you kiss someone. This was a little difficult. Because I very much enjoyed kissing the person in question. But I was able to find the right balance. And I mixed this into the story quite gently and subtly so that it wouldn’t intrude upon the story. The Amelia Project has a character who very much enjoys cocoa, yet the slurps and stirs of the spoon never sound intrusive. And that is because the producers are smart enough to understand that flagrant foley of natural human sounds is going to sound “gross.” But you do have an obligation to depict the human and that includes sounds that might be categorized as uncomfortable.

4. Be Careful with Foley Description

I learned early on that writing four seemingly simple words (“GIANT RATS SCAMPERING AROUND”) created far more trouble for me in post-production than I anticipated. And while I enjoyed the challenge that I presented myself, I spent a week banging my head against my desk before I finally stumbled on a sound design solution. If you’re working with a sound designer, try to be mindful of the difficulty in coming up with sounds that reflect creatures or concepts that don’t exist in the real world. Even if you add “LIKE HORSES GALLOPING” to the giant rats description, that’s going to offer the sound designer some creative ideas that will make it easier for her to imagine and come up with something. If you’re collaborating with a sound designer, you need to offer a clear blueprint for her to create and imagine. Make no mistake: the sound designer is just as much of an actor as an actor.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

You’re not going to please everyone. So why spend so much time worrying about it? There are incredibly talented and impeccably kind people who produce beloved audio dramas and even they receive hate mail and vicious criticism. Critics, by and large, are far less useful than the honest and experienced people you have in your corner who understand both you and the hard work that goes into making audio drama. You need to be surrounded by beta readers and beta listeners who will not bullshit you. Your duty as an artist is to not give into the often insane demands of rabid fans (much as one very popular audio drama did a few years ago, forcing this truly terrific show to ignobly close its doors) and to concentrate on putting out your best work. The real crowd, your truly loyal listeners and the ones who you actually learn from, will trust you enough to continue with the journey. The same goes with your actors. I took a huge risk on a Season 2 script. And I was incredibly surprised, humbled, and honored when the actors were crazy about it and told me what a thrilling twist it was and brought their A game when we recorded. You have a duty to keep on growing. Keep in mind that critics, especially the small-time character assassins on Twitter driven by acute resentment, reflect a vocal minority. You’re also probably never going to get a TV deal. So why chase that kind of outsize success? Besides, it’s far more rewarding to tell stories entirely on your own terms. If the work is good and you treat people well, you will attract very talented actors. And they in turn will tell their actor friends about how much fun you are to work with. But if you tell the same story over and over again, or you aren’t sufficiently answering the many questions you’ve set up, chances are you’ll be pulling a Damon Lindelof. And everyone will rightfully ding you for writing a lazy and inane climax.

Formulaic writing may win you an audience. There is no shortage of box office successes that are more generic than a supermarket aisle populated by no name yellow boxes. But are you writing for short-term lucre and attention or long-term artistic accomplishment? Are you writing audio drama to grow as a person and as an artist? Always remember that the work is its own reward. And that means taking risks.

6. Be Passionate About Your Story at All Times

Don’t write a script just for the sake of writing a script. If you’re telling a story, it has to be something that you absolutely believe in. Your vision must be large and passionate enough to get other people excited about it. You must also be committed to surprising yourself at all stages. (It also helps that I’m crazy about everyone who works on this show and am naturally quite thrilled to watch them get better as performers.) While I have drafted a four season plan for The Gray Area (and have a “Bible” of twenty prototypical scripts), the plan is just loose enough for me to continually invent with each season. I don’t write scripts from an outline (although I have done so in writing for other people). Because I find that, if I know where a story is heading, then it’s not going to be fun for me. After all, if I’m not surprised, why would I expect my audience to be?

If you’re just phoning it in, then why would you expect your actors to give their all? One audio drama producer recently revealed a horror story about one regular actor leaving midway through the series. But listening to the audio drama, it’s easy to see why. The passion contained in the initial episodes plummeted in later episodes. A friend, who was an initial fan of the show, texted me, asking “What happened? It was so good! Now I can’t listen to it!” Well, I responded, the character in question, despite being played by a lively actor who clearly has much to offer, became one-note and confined to a sterile environment. And why would any actor want to stay involved with a character who remains stagnant? If you don’t feed your actors with true passion, and if you don’t take care of them, then you’re not living up to the possibilities of audio drama.

At all stages of The Gray Area, I talk with my actors and tell them what I have planned for their characters over many seasons. I listen to their passions and interests. I regularly check in on them. I try to attend their shows when they perform on stage. Because it is my duty to remain committed to my talent. All this gives me many opportunities to find out where actors wish to push themselves as performers and to suss out emotional areas that other directors don’t seem to see. I cast comedic actors in dramatic roles. I point out to some of my more emotionally intense actors how funny they are and write stories with this in mind. I have to keep my characters growing so that I can sustain an atmosphere committed to true creative freedom. Because I love and adore and greatly respect the people I work with and I want to make sure that these actors are always having fun and that they feel free to create. I’ve got this down so well that, when the actors find out I’m writing a new slate of scripts, they playfully nag me, wondering when the stories are going to be done.

If you’re doing audio drama right, you’re probably going to be surprised to find yourself exhausted after a long day. The fatigue seems inconceivable because you were having so much fun. But it does mean that you were driven by passion first, buttressed by hard work. And that will ultimately be reflected in the final product.

7. There Are Many Ways to Make Audio Drama

There’s recently been some discussion about establishing a set of critical standards that all producers should agree upon for the “greater good.” I find this to be a bunch of prescriptive malarkey, more of a popularity contest and an ego-stroking exercise rather than a true exchange of viewpoints. Take the advice that you can use and ignore the rest. That includes this article. If you see something here that whiffs untrue, ignore it. Or leave a comment here and challenge me. I’d love to hear your dissenting views! I’m offering one way to make audio drama, but there are dozens of ways to go about it.

8. Be Wide-Ranging in Your Influences

Don’t just listen to audio drama. Listen to nonfiction podcasts. Read books. Take on hobbies and interests that you’ve never tried. Play music. Above all, live life. Existence is always the most important influence. I’ve listened to far too many bad audio dramas trying to offer cut-rate knockoffs of popular shows. This isn’t a recipe for success or artistic growth. You need to find your own voice and be true to who you are as much as you can. Every story has already been told. But it hasn’t been told in the way that you express it.

(I hope that some of what I’ve imparted here has been useful! For anyone who’s interested, I am presently in the final weeks of production on the second season of my audio drama. I’ve been documenting my journey on Instagram, passing along any tips or tricks I discover along the way so that other audio dramatists don’t make the same mistakes that I have! Plus, there are many fun behind-the-scenes videos and photos. Feel free to check out @grayareapod and say hello. We’re all in this journey of making audio drama together! It’s a very exciting time to tell stories for the ear!)

A Farewell to Arms (Modern Library #74)

(This is the twenty-seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Scoop.)

You likely know the basics: An American goes to Italy and enlists as a “tenente.” He drives a battlefield ambulance just before his nation enters World War I. He gets wounded. He meets a nurse at a hospital. He falls in love. He feels free as he recovers. He feels trapped as he returns to the front. He gets disillusioned. He flees. He finds her again. Bad things happen. But A Farewell to Arms is so much more than this. It is a heartbreaking love story. It is a remarkably subtle indictment of war. It shows how people bury their romantic longings behind duty and how there’s a greater bravery in fulfilling what you owe to your heart. It argues for life and love. Its final paragraph is devastating. It zooms along with masterly prose that is buried with treasure. It is one of the greatest novels of the early 20th century. This statement is not hyperbole.

It is now quite fashionable to bash Hemingway rather than praise him, as the flip Paul Levy recently did in his oh so hip and not very bright “hot take”: “The Hemingway corpus is full of artistic failure.” Well, sure it is. I’ve read it all three times at different periods in my life and I don’t think any honest reader would deny that. When I was an obnoxious punk in my twenties, I resisted Hem big time, feeling that he could not teach me to be a man in the way that James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald had, yet I somehow held onto his books, sensing that I could be colossally wrong. (I was.) Even today, I have to acknowledge that To Have and Have Not is an embarrassment. The Garden of Eden is an interesting but unconsummated train wreck. For Whom the Bell Tolls has its moments, but the Old English verbs and the lack of subtlety can be risible. I’ve never quite been able to leap into The Old Man and the Sea, but that says more about me than Hem. The upshot is that there are quite a few clunkers in Hem’s collected works and some of the Nick Adams tales ain’t all that, but one could make this claim about any author. In the end, when you have a masterpiece like A Farewell to Arms that never grows tedious no matter how many times you reread it, who in the hell cares about the misses? There’s no profit in calculating a shallow statement when the crown jewels shine bright in your face.

The other way that people ding Hem these days is by singling out his macho posturing or peering at his pages through the prism of unbridled masculine hubris. The naysayers dismiss Lady Brett Astley in The Sun Also Rises as an archetype without recognizing her enigma or the way she aptly epitomized the Lost Generation. They don’t acknowledge how Hem had to prostrate himself before Beryl Markham in a letter to Maxwell Perkins and that he did get on (for a time) with Martha Gellhorn, who neither suffered fools nor caved to condescension.

Yet there is certainly something to Hemingway’s women problem, especially as seen in the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In June 1929, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hem a letter and observed how, in his early work, “you were really listening to women — here you’re only listening to yourself, to your own mind beating out facily a sort of sense that isn’t really interesting.” (Hemingway’s reply: “Kiss my ass.”)

Scott’s warning remains a very shrewd assessment on what’s so fascinating and frustrating about Hemingway. I’d argue that one of the best ways to ken Hem is to recognize that he was a wildly accomplished giant when he placed his own ego last and that any transgressions that today’s readers detect only emerged when Hem became overly absorbed in his own self. And on this point, one can find a strange sympathy for the man, thanks in part to Andrew Farah’s recent biography, Hemingway’s Brain, which points to Ernest’s many head injuries (which included nine concussions) and concludes that he suffered from CTE, the brain disease seen in professional football players after too many years of violent tackles. This theory, which takes into account the decline of Hemingway’s handwriting in his latter years, would also offer an explanation for the wildly disparate writing quality and thus invalidates Mr. Levy’s foolish pronouncement.

* * *

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

A Farewell to Arms thankfully places us shortly after the rising sun of Hem’s career and, like its predecessor, the book contains razor-sharp prose, keen observations (ranging from Umberto Notani’s infamous The Black Pig, trains packed with soldiers, and the repugnant wartime indignity of a hopped up tyrant fiercely questioning a man who is fated to be shot), and a beautiful epitomization of the famous “iceberg theory” that Hemingway posited in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Much has been spilled over Hemingway’s declarative sentences, which are beautifully honed in this masterpiece. (Hem wrote 47 versions of the ending.) But I’d like to single out “was,” the most frequently used word in this novel. On a surface level, “was” is the most expedient way to hurl us into Frederic’s world: a simple verb of action and hard deets, but one that likewise deflects interior thought. It’s easy to dis Hem as a man’s man summing up life and the earth and the grit and all else that makes us want to ape him even though there can be only one, but the key to seeing the beauty of “was” is knowing that this book is all about pursuing a lost and deeply moving romantic vision, one kept carefully hidden from the beginning. Style advances the perspective and keeps us curious and lets us in and “was” is the way Hem gets us there.

Hemingway uses language with extraordinary command to clue us in on the distinct possibility that this story is in some sense a dream — indeed, a dream involving death based on what Hem was never able to make with the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while holed up in a ward. There’s the makeshift hospital office, with its “many marble busts on painted wooden pillars,” which is further compared to a cemetery. In the novel’s first part, there are very few adverbs — save “winefully” early on and “evidently” and “directly” in the same sentence as guns rupture Frederic’s existence. The first rare simile (“seeing it all ahead like moves in a chess game”) occurs when Frederic first tries to kiss Catherine and is greeted with a slap (which Catherine apologizes for). This is a far cry indeed from what The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra recently claimed, without citing a single example, as “flowery and overwritten.” A Farewell to Arms basks in the same beautiful realm between the real and the ethereal that The Great Gatsby does, albeit in a different landscape altogether, but it offers enough ambiguity to speculate about the characters while encouraging numerous rereads.

Language also carries the deep resonances of what people mean to each other. Catherine cannot stand a triple-wounded vet named Ettore and repeats “dreadful” twice and “bore” four times when she vents to Frederic. The words “She won’t die” are also repeated in one harrowing paragraph near the end. (Indeed, if you see a word or a phrase repeated in Hemingway’s fiction, there’s a good chance that something bad will happen.) Shortly after Frederic is moved to the freshly built hospital in Milan (itself a marvelous metaphor for the fresh start of Frederic’s blossoming love for Catherine), he takes to Dr. Valentini, who speaks in a series of short sentences over the course of a paragraph (a small sample: “A fine blonde like she is. That’s fine. That’s all right. What a lovely girl.”) and who Frederic later calls “grand.” The syntax, chopped and sheared and housed within manageable units, represents a telegraph from the human heart like no other.

Frederic acknowledges that he lies to Catherine when he tells her that she’s the first woman he’s loved. Now it’s tempting to roll your eyes over the “I’ll be a good girl” business that often comes from Catherine, but it’s also a safe bet to speculate that Frederic is likewise lying about what Catherine has actually told him, much as Hem himself has fudged the full extent of his “affair” with Agnes von Kurowsky through fiction. (“Now, Ernest Hemingway has a case on me, or thinks he has,” wrote von Kurowsky in her diary on August 25, 1918. “He is a dear boy & so cute about it.”)

An enduring romance is often built on a pack of lies. We often fail to recognize the full totality of who a lover was until we are well outside of the relationship. As for friendship, I’d like to argue that Miss Gage is a fascinating side character who stands up for this. She’s someone who ribs Frederic about not fully understanding what friendship is. Later, when Frederic returns to the front lines, Rinaldi tells him, “I don’t want to be your friend. I am your friend.” And if Frederic can’t recognize friendship, does he really know how to read the room when Cupid shows up with a puckish smile? Hem’s subtle acknowledgment of these basic truths allows us to trust and become invested in Frederic’s voice. And I’d like to think that even Hem’s opponents could get behind such idyllic imagery as Frederic and Catherine “putting thoughts in the other one’s head while we were in different rooms” or agreeing to sneak off to Switzerland together or even the funny “winter sport” business with customs. These are endearing and beautiful romantic moments that certainly show that Hem is far more than a repugnant hulk.

Love is a high stakes game, but it’s always a game worth playing. If you beat the odds, the payout is incalculable. Small wonder that the happy couple ends up throwing their lire into a rigged horse race. Indeed, Frederic’s early days with Catherine are a game like bridge where “you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes.” For all of Frederic’s apparent confidence in not knowing the stakes, he does not reveal his name for a while — on its first mention, Frederic only partially spills his name as he is drinking. He is also more taken with the allure of being alone — as seen later in a Donnean nod when he says that “[w]hat made [Ireland] pretty was that it sounded like Island.” His loneliness is further cemented when Miss Ferguson says that Catherine cannot see him.

Is this the loneliness of war? We learn later that Frederic came to Rome to be an architect, although this is likely a lie, given that it is repeated a second time to a customs officer. But it does suggest that Frederic cannot build his own life without another. Perhaps this is the solitude that comes from the relentless pursuit of manly vigor (boxing, bullfighting, hunting) that Hemingway was to explore throughout his life? There is one clue late in the book when Hemingway writes, “The war seemed as far away as the football game of someone else’s college,” and another midway through when Frederic wonders if major league baseball will be shut down if America entered the war. (Fun fact: There was indeed a World War I deadline put into place, but the two leagues squeezed in numerous doubleheaders to ensure that the season could play out.) If the First World War arose in part because humanity was involved in a vicious game, then Hemingway seems to be suggesting that further games rooted in play and peace must be promulgated to restore the human condition. Frederic cynically quips to the 94-year-old Count Greffi, “No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” But if being careful is the true measure of existence, why then do we celebrate valor that often emerges from reckless circumstances? Indeed, Hemingway sends up the very nature of heroism up when Frederic wakes up in the hospital and is greeted by Rinaldi, who presses him to confess the specific act he committed to earn his medal. “No,” replies Frederic. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

In an age where razor blade ads are urging us to question what manhood should represent, there’s something to be said about studying what’s contained within masculinity’s ostensible ur-texts and with how careful men are in saying nothing but everything. A Farewell to Arms is a far more sophisticated and deeply beautiful novel when you start examining its sentences and questioning its motivations. Caught in a mire between love and war, Frederic opts for the laconic rather than the prolix. And in doing so, he tells us far more about what it means to love and lose than most authors can convey in a lifetime.

Next Up: Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust!

Okey Ndibe (The Bat Segundo Show #532)

Okey Ndibe is most recently the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Author: Okey Ndibe

Subjects Discussed: The tendency of authors to gravitate to specific locations to find a city’s identity, Ndibe’s fictitious village of Utonki, Barclay Center’s encroachment upon Brooklyn, how eating fish can help you to better understand Nigeria, whether or not people who live close to water are more equipped to deal with life, conjuring up a novel from a 1,000 page draft, writing “the Great Nigerian Novel,” the Nigerian census problem, Festus Odiemegwu’s controversial remarks about Nigeria not having a reliable census since 1816, Nigeria as the third most populous nation in the world by the end of the 21st century, what the inability to track a population does to a national identity and a fictional identity, Nigeria as a country where absurdity makes sense, the disastrous Yar-Adua-Goodluck government, Nigeria ascribing honesty to criminals and criminal enterprises that masquerade as governments, Nigeria’s “honest criminals,” Gov. James Ibori’s 13 year sentence, bribery, American vs. Nigerian corruption, why it’s so difficult to end corrupt Nigerian politicians to jail, Ndibe’s arrest at the Lagos Airport, Nigeria’s Enemies of the State list vs. America’s No Fly list, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and the do-or-die affair, Yar’Adua’s attempts to reach Ndibe after Ndibe refused to address him as President, anonymous messages sent to Ndibe in 2009 threatening arrest, decrying corruption and crime, the state of dissident writing in Nigeria, public and private media distinctions in Nigeria, the influence of journalism upon fiction, the lengthy italicized chapter in Foreign Gods, Inc., the impact of colonialism and religiosity on Nigeria, how certain events can encroach upon a reader’s experience comparable to imperialism, how past relationships between Europe and Nigeria affects current relationships, African artifacts, fuel and oil prices, spiritual implication, religious origins for a fictitious war god, settling on the right types of allegorical men to represent Nigeria, gourmands, poetic talkers, reformed Marxists, religion and performance artists, Igbo religious innovations compared against Christianity, the human qualities of gods in Igbo culture, why orthodoxy is incompatible with Igbo sensibilities, sectarian extremism in Nigeria, jihads against western values, rogue pastors, Nigeria’s 400 to 500 languages, Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, The Complete Review‘s pedantic review of Foreign Gods, Inc., Africans with considerable educational credentials who can’t get jobs in the United States, the common experience of educated immigrants shut out of the American job market (and trying to pinpoint why contemporary narratives don’t always consider Africans), American exclusion, the role of taste and experience in the editing process, the current renaissance of African fiction, how market conditions affect translated fiction, names and cultural differences, why Nigerian immigrants do better in the States than in England, Ndibe’s debt to Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, how Soyinka saved Ndibe’s Christmas, malfunctioning tape recorders, how Achebe brought Ndibe to the United States,


Correspondent: I wanted to start off from a very odd angle. James Joyce had Eccles Street. James Baldwin had, of course, areas of Paris and southern France. I couldn’t help but notice that in Foreign Gods, Inc., in concentrating on both Nigeria and Brooklyn, you look to very specific regions. In the case of southeastern Nigeria — that’s where you’re looking at — you have this fictitious village named Utonki.

Ndibe: Yes.

Correspondent: Which was also featured in Arrows of Rain, your previous book. And then for the Brooklyn stretch, you have 99 Flatbush Avenue, this second-story flat that Ike — I hope I don’t have the ass pronunciation.

Ndibe: It’s actually Eekeh. Ike [correct] is strength. ị́kẹ̀ [incorrect] is the buttocks.

Correspondent: Okay. I’ve got that right. So Ike, he lives in this second-story flat at 99 Flatbush Avenue. And I know that because my book drop is actually not far from there. What’s interesting about that is that if you go there now, you’ve got Barclay Center there. And it’s completely different from whatever regional inspiration you had when you first decided upon it. So I wanted to talk about Utonki and 99 Flatbush Ave as the representative area for which to draw a larger idea about what Nigeria is and what Brooklyn is, and why these particular places were draws for you and why it needed to start there.

Ndibe: Well, for Utonki, I wanted to set a location in Nigeria that is close to my hometown, which is Adamawa. Now in writing my first novel, I am drawn to water, to rivers and so on. And my hometown doesn’t have much by way of the river. We have a few streams. So there is a stream called Benue, which figures in this novel. So Utonki is actually based on a part of Nigeria that I had visited to see a friend of mine from years ago. And I was drawn there because this friend told me that the village is surrounded by this river and they ate a lot of fish. And I’ve always been a sucker for fish. So I went to his village and spent a whole week eating a lot of fish. So this becomes my hommage to this village where I ate fish and which is surrounded by water.

Correspondent: Where did you eat fish in Brooklyn then? (laughs) There’s a fish market downtown.

Ndibe: So in Brooklyn, I actually happened to have a cousin who lives in Brooklyn. And so the apartment and my description of it is my cousin’s apartment. But the address is different. My cousin lives on Lafayette, but I decided to name it a different address in the novel. So again, aware of having something, an image in my mind, but also inventing, as it were.

Correspondent: I’m still drawn to this idea of you in this Nigerian village eating fish and using this to zero in on what the country is about. What does fish eating allow you — and fish eating, of course, is a euphemism for something else as well (laughs) — but what does that do to get you to fixate your geographical energies in fiction? Or your sense of place on what it is to be a Nigerian?

Ndibe: Yes. Well, again, I’m intrigued by bodies of water. I’m intrigued by the ocean, by rivers, by lakes and so on. And so Utonki was, if you like — my mother in Nigeria is from Jimeta, which is on the banks of the river Niger, which is the grand river of Nigeria. And so I’ve always been intrigued by bodies of water, partly because I don’t swim a lake. I can’t swim to save my life. My wife actually was going to represent Nigeria in swimming at the Olympic Games. But I tell people that our winning record is for the fastest to sink to the bottom to any body of water. So in a lot of ways when I see water, or when I see a community with water, there is a part of me that wants to pay hommage to it. And so Utonki, which has a river but also brings me to that fish that I’ve always loved all my life. So if I have an ideal community, if I was going to make myself come from someplace, it would be a place like Utonki. So I invented it. So I would inhabit it, as it were.

Correspondent: This may seem a bizarre question, but it comes to mind in hearing you talk about being near bodies of water. Do you think that people who have a tendency to live near water tend to be more interesting than the people who live inland or who are landlocked?

Ndibe: I believe so. At least those who live close to water. Just like, for me, anybody who can swim becomes exceedingly interesting for me. Which is part of why perhaps I found my wife, Sheri, extraordinarily interesting. Just the fact that she can move with such ease, with such comfort, and with such gusto in water. So, yes, I do believe that those who inhabit the river, who live near bodies of water, are more resourceful. I don’t know if this can hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Correspondent: No.

Ndibe: But in my imaginative world, I think that this is true. Very much so.

Correspondent: It totally makes sense. I mean, I’ve lived pretty much near water in my adult life. I was in San Francisco, then New York. So I think we’re on the same level — even though I also recognize that this is a completely bizarre, tendentious principle. (laughs)

Ndibe: Yes. (laughs)

Correspondent: Speaking of location, I wanted to get into the contrast between Ike’s apartment at 99 Flatbush Ave, which you describe often very specifically. And near the end, we really know the geography of that place. Because some things happen, which I won’t give away, involving furniture. But after Ike’s first trip through the Lagos Airport, you almost avoid describing the look of Nigeria. I mean, we have a better sense also, for example, of the art dealer’s layout than the house late in the book where there’s all this basketball boasting. All these guys saying, “Hey, if you pay me that kind of money, I can go ahead and play like Michael Jordan.” I wanted to ask why that was. Do you think that Nigeria is marked more by this kind of general approach to existence? That, whether consciously or subconsciously, you’re going to just describe the country that way because there just are no specifics. I have a followup in relation to this, but I wanted to get your thoughts as to the level of self-awareness here and what it is to live and describe something that is often abstract.

Ndibe: Yes. Well, first of all, when I finished this novel, it actually came to more than a thousand pages.

Correspondent: Wow!

Ndibe: So there was a lot of editing. A lot of sloughing off huge swaths of the novel. And so when Ike’s plane is hovering over Lagos, there’s a long scene in the original draft of the novel where I describe how he sees Nigeria.

Correspondent: That’s fascinating.

Ndibe: In the original draft, he actually spends a week in Lagos with a friend of his who’s become very wealthy from doing all kinds of underhanded deals with the politicians and so on. And so we get to see Lagos, through Ike’s eyes, as his friend takes him to various parties of the rich and famous in Nigeria. All of those scenes became a casualty, if you like, of this huge cutting process. But that’s going to be worked into a different novel. Because I actually cut about 300 pages from the middle of the novel. And so I had Ike stay that night in a stop-off motel when, in the original draft of the novel, he spends a week in Lagos with this classmate of his who has a lot of money. So that’s one. But once he goes to his village, I guess there’s the sense of familiarity, the sense that he’s returning to a place where he was born. And so I allowed the novel to achieve, if you like, a sense of the unstated. So again, because this is filtered constantly through Ike’s consciousness, the village changes a lot when he returns to it. And there’s this classmate of his, Tony Iba, who has become a very wealthy, local politician and who has a sense that he’s giving back to poor people by building a small room where they can watch television and daydream about American life and so forth. So that kind of absence, if you like, of this particularity in the way that Nigeria is described owes to the process of editing that entailed a lot of cutting of details. And also the fact that Ike wants this in his village, the descriptions become physical locations muted, except in areas where he notes the dramatic changes in that landscape.

The Bat Segundo Show #532: Okey Ndibe (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Kiese Laymon (The Bat Segundo Show #513)

Kiese Laymon is most recently the author of the novel Long Division and the essay collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. This show is the first of two related programs devoted to the American epidemic of gravitating to mainstream culture in an age of limitless choice. (You can also listen to the second part: Show #514 with Alissa Quart.)

Author: Kiese Laymon

Subjects Discussed: Meeting people under bridges, Percival Everett’s Erasure, Mississippi teens who run away from narratives, throwaway culture, the importance of stories carrying you through the day, critiquing storytelling skills as a way of understanding the truth, alternative narrative identities as methods of accounting for unspoken national problems, how New York rappers spoke to Mississippi black boys, black Southerners as the generators and architects of American culture, active listening vs. culture as background noise, lyrics and storytelling, native Mississippians who aren’t familiar with the blues, the acceptable level of American cultural engagement, sorrow songs vs. the Ku Klux Klan, standing up for Mississippian culture, people who don’t care about the origin to the soundtracks of their lives, national cultural awareness through regional cultural awareness, tourist notions of regions through culture, New Jersey’s history of serial killers and crime, blind engagement with the South, the refusal to hear what people are literally saying to us, dying as a backbone for Mississippi music, interrogating death, Bessie Smith and the 1927 flood, Big K.R.I.T., running away from the gospel tradition, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, whether time travel stories require a moral equilibrium, America as a crazy-making narration that doesn’t want to accept how crazy it really is, grandmother roles, “How to Kill Yourself and Others in America,” being kicked out of college for not checking out Stephen Crane, how the act of committing everything to memory guides you through life, the desire to hold on to innocence, how Laymon’s early writing was denied and disapproved and disparaged, why all 19-year-olds are lunatics to some degree, satire and observation, the important of implicating yourself, Teju Cole, frat culture, sexism and classism, living with druggie roommates, when certain college kids aren’t incriminated and imprisoned (while others are), how bravery helps you make better decisions, individual guilt and societal guilt, the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, sanitizing the truth about racial inequality, the capitalist-commercial nexus and its impact upon airbrushing culture and narrative, why Obama cannot tell the truth, getting the President we deserve, “The Lost Presidential Debate of 2012,” “The Worst of White Folks,” how the state is trying to convince that we are good people (while the community tells the truth), Black Power and nostalgia, Stokely Carmichael, egomaniacal misogynists and ideological commitment, Martin Luther King and token Google Doodles, white folks who don’t share power, why we aren’t able to look at the sentences, interrogating mythology, superficial dissections of pop culture from white people (e.g., Slate Culture Gabfest), Miley Cyrus and the politics of twerking, white appropriation at the MTV Video Music Awards, Brooklyn gentrification, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake taking the Michael Jackson Award, society’s failure to implicate itself, how Bernie Mac, Michael Jackson, and Tupac were eaten alive by American culture, recklessness as spectacle, how Michael Jackson projected what we didn’t want to talk about, Tupac’s hologram at Coachella, living in a world surrounded by digital ghosts of sanitized cultural figures, Tupac’s music before Death Row and the downside of selling tickets, the label “Black Twitter,” white people on Twitter, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, important work that goes on without white people, the slipshod involvement of mainstream feminists, how race changes the moral focus, slavery and the Holocaust, and making deals with evil terms.


Correspondent: So let’s start with Long Division, which is truly a tale of two Cities. You have this kid named City. He’s in 1985. He’s in 2013. There’s a book called Long Division within Long Division. And this reminded me very much of Stagg R. Leigh’s My Pafology in Percival Everett’s Erasure. I’m wondering — just because we have to ask you how this book got started — to what degree were you responding, like Percival Everett, to limited literary representation of the African American experience? And how was this a way for you to explore versions of City in 1985 that you couldn’t pursue in the present day?

Laymon: That’s a great question. I think I had to make it a metafictive book, particularly because I wanted the characters to consciously and unconsciously be exploring not just the lit that came before them, but the literature that they read that came before them. So there’s a literary mechanism in place that I’m critiquing as an author. But I wanted to create two different Cities who are also dudes who are 14 and very aware of the lit that they read. And they’re really aware of canonical lit. So there are important scenes. There’s a scene in a principal’s office. There’s a scene in the library where I think that, with these two Cities, we can see them actually trying to become runaway characters. But if they’re going to be runaway characters, I had to position them as characters in some way fully aware of the lit that they’ve read, but not fully aware of the narratives that they’re running away from. So the narratives that they’re running away from are different from the books that they’ve read. And part of the book is that they’re trying to figure out what constitutes this narrative that they’re running away from. And as a writer, obviously, I’m thinking about a lot of African American/black Southern lit. Black Boy particularly. But I wanted them to be running away from literature that they read. Which is really important for me.

Correspondent: Well, I’m glad you mentioned that. Because at one point, City has to stay with his grandmother in Melahatchie, Mississippi. His reading library there is largely this kind of throwaway culture.

Laymon: Right.

Correspondent: Centered around classical books with a capital C and the Bible. And as you write, “I didn’t hate on spinach, fake sunsets, or white dudes named Spencer, but you could just tell whoever wrote the sentences in those books never imagined that they’d be read by Grandma, Uncle Relle, LaVander Peeler…” — his frenemy — “…my cousins, or anyone I’d ever met.” So this leads me to ask. I mean, why do you think that in the South, for these characters especially, that their notion of what it is to be alive is so rooted around books? To what extent were you limited in these areas? You and City? Why is that such an important definition?

Laymon: Well, you know, a lot of people have called Mississippi and particularly the South generally the home of American storytelling going way back to Twain and what not. And so story telling and story listening are part and parcel of our culture. Particularly if you grew up in a really religious gospel kind of household. I grew up in stories, but they were stories that were carried through music or language or stories you had to read in the Bible, and stories that my grandmother told me when she came home from work. Stories just carried the day. So I wanted to create two characters that were hyperaware of stories, of storytelling, and really critical of storytelling. The book starts with City critiquing LaVander’s storytelling ability. And LaVander is critiquing City’s storytelling ability. But by the time City gets to that library, what he’s trying to say is “I’m not being completely reactionary. I get that there’s some great cynicism in these books. But I don’t know what to do with the fact that these people never imagined anybody like me reading these texts.” And so for him, at this point, he really believes that audiences are the bedrock of sentence creation. Like to whom are you writing a sentence to? And so when he gets in that library — and it is throwaway culture in a way. So much happens in there. He sees himself for the first time on the Internet, right? He sees the way that he’s presented to other people. And I just wanted to create characters who were not too precocious, too smart, too witty, but in some way wholly aware that stories carry everything.

Correspondent: So what they read is almost an alternative identity that the United States as a whole can’t actually accommodate because of the many interesting questions of race that are in this book.

Laymon: Absolutely. And this is where literature is particularly important. Because with the references to hip-hop early on, hip-hop has been critiqued. I’ve critiqued it. Will continue to critique it. One of the things that hip-hop did, I think, early on for young black boys is that it was an art form that was made popular, that was talking directly to you as a fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen year old. At least you thought that. When you get geographically specific, you start to see that a lot of these rappers from New York weren’t talking to Mississippi black boys. But you felt that you were being talked to anyway. So one of the things that these characters are really trying to deal with is what happens to the characterization of a real person and a character who is so often not written to people who look just like them. And as we see early on in the book, we get this narrative imposed on them. And they’re trying to break out. And LaVander sort of does break out. But there’s a price to pay for that breakage. But it’s all about narrative creation.

Correspondent: Yes. I’m glad you brought up hip-hop. Because I wanted to talk about “Hip Hop Stole My Southern Black Boy” — one of the essays. You point to how black Southerners are “the generators and architects of American music, narrative, language, capital, and morality.” You point out that the South not only has something to say to New York, but it has something to say to the world. And I’m wondering why you think the world is so unwilling to listen. How much of this resistance to Southern innovation has to do with people who remain too caught up in some of these B-boy routines?

Laymon: I think the world is listening. But I don’t think the world knows what it’s listening to. You know what I mean? There’s no doubt the world is listening to really rock, R&B, and I would even argue funk that has its root in the Deep South. The world is listening to gospel music. The world is listening to blues right now that has its roots not just in Mississippi, but that Deep Southern, South Central culture. They’re listening. They’re dancing to it. They’re making love to it. They’re talking to it. It’s the music that scores our movies. But I don’t really think we know or, I should say, I don’t know if I fully know. I don’t think we’ve taken enough time to think about where that music actually comes. Like what people created, originated, innovated that music and why. Do you know what I mean? So I think to me that they’re listening. They have to listen. Because it’s everywhere. There’s no question.

Correspondent: But are they actively listening? I think that what you’re suggesting is that it’s music that plays in the background without people actually comprehending that there’s a lot of years and blood and tears that’s put into that music.

Laymon: No question.

Correspondent: And people are just not really curious enough to investigate that. I mean, I’m wondering if that’s a larger societal problem.

Laymon: Yeah, I think it is. I mean, this is what I’m saying. I don’t think we take the time to question the ingredients in art generally.

Correspondent: Sure.

Laymon: I haven’t been in many parts of the world. But as an American, I know that we don’t really take the time to consider what we’re consuming. And we definitely don’t take the time to consider the lives of the people who created the music. So even if we think about hip-hop, people who think they love hip-hop have no idea who Kool Herc is. People who think they love hip-hop have no idea who the people who helped create the culture actually were, what they did, and why they did it. So in some ways, it’s not specific to black American/Mississippi culture. But I do think that these particular stories that come out of Mississippi culture — it’s just ironic that the blues, rock, and gospel all come out of this really small part of our country.

Correspondent: I agree. But I’m wondering who to impugn here. (laughs)

Laymon: Well, I think we impugn everyone.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Laymon: And that’s a loose answer. But I was just in Mississippi for nine or ten days giving readings and stuff. There are people in Greenwood, Mississippi and Greenville, Mississippi — black people — who have no clue what the blues is. You know what I’m saying? And what I’m trying to say is that I don’t know what it is. But it is expiration that, because of my parents and because of my grandparents, we’ve had to go on. I’m saying that we don’t even want to go that road. Because when you go down that road, you don’t just find sound. But as you said, you find the experience. And you find complicity.

Correspondent: And if you listen very closely to the lyrics, you have all these amazing stories. Listen multiple times. There’s some cadence that you didn’t get.

Laymon: And also what’s important about the lyrics is that I think it’s really important to transcribe, to see the lyrics on the page. But what’s important about those lyrics are being spat or sung or, in some instances even before hip-hop, rapped. This kind of rhythmic hip-hopesque way of approaching music, I think, predates what we call hip-hop. I know New York people hate for me to say it. But what I’m saying is that it’s not just the lyrics. It’s how the lyrics are said and what irony has to do with the way those lyrics are being spat And I think it has so much to do with community. And these books, particularly Long Division, are, among other things, about community storytelling. And so what I’m trying to say is that I really think we need to think about the communities. The people, the stories, and the communities that are at the heart of all the music we listen to.

Correspondent: Well, I agree with you Kiese. But I’m wondering what is the acceptable level of cultural engagement that would actually allow the South to be understood and to be properly respected versus the reality of people wanting to have something in the background. I mean, is it reasonable to expect people to have that level of engagement? Much as I would also love to see that!

Laymon: I mean, it’s not reasonable to expect. It’s reasonable to encourage. And it’s reasonable to ask people to think more about from whence the music they listen to comes.

(Loops for this program provided by Kristijann, 40A, kristijann, Reed1415, and ShortBusMusic.)

The Bat Segundo Show #513: Kiese Laymon (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Mark Slouka (The Bat Segundo Show #509)

Mark Slouka is most recently the author of Brewster.

Author: Mark Slouka

Subjects Discussed: Gandhi’s pacifist maxims, Wilifred Owen, World War I poets, Vietnam, violence in fiction, Brewster in relation to Woodstock, people who still listened to Perry Como in 1968, memory and sex, listening as research, auctorial instinct, the poetry of real world vernacular, having a father as a storyteller, why Slouka’s characters are often defined by outside towns, viewing a life in relation to the next place you’ll settle, Slouka’s Czech background, Nazi memorabilia, Slouka’s reluctance in exploring the grounded, being a child of Czech refugees, lives lived on a borderline, geographically fraught characters, the bright bulb of heritage, broken lamps, crossing America 22 times, the wandering instinct, stories to tell at a bar, the Motel 6 as a gathering spot, developing a photograph of America through travel, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobil with the Memphis Blues Again,” towns that people pass through on the way to somewhere nicer, the benefits of sharp elbows, why small towns get a bad rap in American literature, the influence of Sherwood Anderson, Richard Russo, metropolitan types who condescend to small towns, David Lynch, avoiding dark cartoonish material to write truthfully about bigotry, courting complexity, the terror of familiarity, when you know another person’s parents more than your own, finding approval in another family, mothers who mourn the sons that they lose, the revelations of characters who touch surfaces, being a “physical writer,” the physical as a door to memory, sudden transitions from violence to casual conversation, being a victim of belief culture, when the real enters the domain of fiction, knowing ourselves through the telling of stories, Slouka affixing misspellings of his name to the refrigerator, fridge magnet poetry, how Brewster deals with race, desegregation busing, racism and locked doors, Obama’s Trayvon Martin speech, the myth of other worlds, the 168th Street Armory, lingering racism in Brewster, “Quitting the Paint Factory,” how Slouka’s notion of leisure have adjusted in 2013, leisure vs. consumer capitalism, why humans are being colonized by machines, assaults on the inner life, Twitter and the Arab Spring, attention deficit, why the human population has turned into addicts, acceptable forms of leisure, the inevitability of multitasking, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, why four hour podcasts exist in a medium that eats away our time, being shaped in ways you don’t understand, Slouka’s declaration of war against the perpetually busy, the conditions that determine whether someone’s soul has been eaten, the church of work, why people work like dogs to consume more, being derided for sleeping eight hours a night, and Slouka’s elevator pitch for Brewster.


Correspondent: The book oscillates between one of Gandhi’s most famous maxims (“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”) and references to war, whether it be Vietnam or the World War I poet Wilfred Owen. And I’m wondering, just to get started here, how did this backdrop of war and peace help you to zero in on these characters and this landscape? Was this your way of tipping your hat to a socially charged time without hitting the obvious touchstones?

Slouka: Yeah, I think so. It’s a matter of “all politics are personal” and vice versa. I was interested in writing about war. Because war’s in the background, of course. It takes place in the late 1960s. And the drums of Vietnam were going through the whole thing. But what I’m really writing about is the lives of these two young guys — seventeen or eighteen years old — who are fighting a very different private war: each in their own way, each with their own family, each with their own life. So the interplay — the back-and-forth between War writ large and war, lowercase, is something that interested me.

Correspondent: This is a very violent book. There’s a lot of smacking, slapping, and, of course, the revelation near the end. I mean, it’s pretty brutal. It’s almost as violent as being in any kind of battlefield. And I’m wondering if the larger social canvas of Vietnam almost forced your hand, when thinking about these characters, to really consider this domestic abuse and all of this terrible pugilism that’s going on underneath the surface.

Slouka: I think so. I think it’s probably unavoidable. I mean, I also grew up with guys like — let’s say Ray Cappicciano, the Ray Cap character who’s fighting a very real war at home. His dad is an ex-cop, a prison guard. He’s not a good guy. But one of my favorite scenes is actually in the book. It’s a scene in the cafeteria where Jon, the narrator, is reading Wilfred Owen’s poem about the trenches in World War I and the experience of watching someone die in a gas attack. And Ray Cap, who’s sitting across the table, basically goads him into reading it out loud. “I’m not going to read the poem.” “Read the poem.” He eventually reads the poem and Ray responds to it in a way that’s completely unexpected, even for him. And he responds to it probably because he understands on some deep visceral level what it’s like to be in battle. What it’s like to be drawn to battle and not be able to get away from it. I mean, Owen was wounded. He recovered. And then he reenlisted and then eventually died in the war. And Ray Cap is haunted by that. Because it’s like, “He went back?” He went back to this thing and eventually killed him? That’s his biggest fear. Because he keeps going back to the house where he has a hard life.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s something that foreshadows his particular existence. He needs to have almost a poetic guide to understand the predicament that he’s in.

Slouka: That’s right.

Correspondent: And he just can’t understand why Owen would go back to serve after he’s written this poem.

Slouka: Exactly.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask about how you depict this late 1960s in Brewster as a different place from Woodstock across the river. A place where people really don’t matter. I mean, they’re expected to fall into line. What kind of research did you do into Brewster of the late 1960s to develop this sense of what life is like? Where you can be an individual all you want, but if you don’t fall into line, you’re going to have trouble living here.

Slouka: Oh yeah. Well, research for a writer often entails just talking with people, listening to people. There’s this gorgeous New York area vernacular that I just fell in love with while writing this book. That Italian American/Irish thing that I never wrote about. I grew up listening to it and I never wrote about it. So this book was a homecoming for me. The research I did was just sort of sticking my nose out the door and listening to how people spoke. But I also had to remember a lot. And the truth is that the ’60s didn’t happen in the same way at the same time for all people. You know, one of the guys that plays a role in this book is an Irish Catholic kid named Frank who’s still listening to Perry Como in 1968 because he is. Because some people were. Brewster in 1968 was still in 1957 in a lot of ways. And it was happening. Watts was happening. Woodstock was across the river. But the day that Woodstock happens, my heroes end up going down to Yonkers. Because they don’t want to sit around listening to everything that they’re missing across the river and also because they’re poor. They’re working class kids. And a lot of working class kids didn’t make it to Brewster. Because they didn’t know that they opened the fences and it was twenty-three movie tickets to get into Woodstock. So they couldn’t go. So they’re fighting against a conservative, repressive, frightened culture that’s all around them. You know, some guy was hitching up his office pants saying, “Yeah, I got a dream. You know, I’ll pay the goddam mortgage.”

Correspondent: But it is interesting that Jon, in telling this tale, doesn’t really hit those touchstones. He says, well, “We were more aware of the Tet Offensive than a girl’s nipples.”

Slouka: (laughs)

Correspondent: But he doesn’t really announce what they talked about. In fact, there’s one point in the Tina episode where he has a perfect memory of what he talks about with the hippies. But then, when they leave, he can’t remember a single subject of what he’s talking about with Tina. And I find that really interesting. It’s almost like, despite the fact that he was well-steeped in the subject, he can’t remember that. It’s almost as if that doesn’t matter, you know?

Slouka: Well, that’s part of it. But he’s also having sex. (laughs)

Correspondent: Well, of course! That does have a way of…

Slouka: …erase the memory for a little while. But yeah, you remember certain things. You don’t for others. I mean, I personally think that the ’60s didn’t really become the ’60s until 1980. You know what I mean? Then when look back and we say, “Well, that was the ’60s.” But when you were in it, you didn’t think things were happening. Personally, I think the ’60s were in some ways, despite all the bullshit around the edges (and they’ve been reduced to a fashion statement), the fact is that they were probably the last time that we really considered altering on a mass scale what our priorities are in this country and how we would proceed. It didn’t work. It didn’t happen. But some things happened. It was an exciting time. So these guys knew that things were happening. They could hear it happening. But it wasn’t happening in Brewster. And that’s part of the tension in the book.

Correspondent: Going back to what you were saying earlier about how you made Brewster come alive. You say that you stuck your nose out the door. But you’re also competing with memory. And you’re dealing with who is still alive, who lived through that time, versus what you remember. I mean, at what point do you have to throw that aside and just rely on your own instinct and imagination for what you feel Brewster is or should be? I mean, how do you wrestle with all this?

Slouka: I think you have to throw it out very early. You just have to go by instinct. You just walk in. You know, you create a place that feels right on the page. That feels like a place that you can inhabit as a writer and believe in as a writer. And if you get that right, then eerily enough I think you get close to something that’s actually believable for other people. And it’s a kind of counterintuitive sort of thing. You’re following your own instinct. Because why would someone else understand that? And sometimes they don’t. But in my experience, if you trust yourself, you know, you make mistakes. You try to correct them and so on. But by the time you’re done, if you’ve trusted yourself and if you followed those instincts, then there’s a really good chance that other people will sense that there’s a sort of organic quality to that imaginative thing that you brought and they’ll buy into it hopefully.

Correspondent: I’m curious about this. I mean, how many people did you talk with? And if you’re hearing another perspective of that particular time, how does this mesh with you trusting yourself as a writer? You trusting that truth, that perspective, that world that you are planting and growing in the book?

Slouka: For me, when I talk about listening to people, it’s not about listening to their stories necessarily, though people will tell you their stories and I love to hear them. It’s about listening to how they talk. It’s about listening to — you know, I love the way people talk there. I was getting some beer at the A&P recently and I asked this kid. I said, “Where’s the beer at?” And he said, “Well, okay, you go to the back and you look right.” And I was walking away. I said thanks. I’m walking away. And he said, “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store.” Well, if you write that down on paper — “It’s the only thing I know where it is in the store” — it’s a mess. The sentence is a disaster. But it’s beautiful too. There’s a kind of poetry to it. And that can be expanded infinitely. So for me, it was a matter of imagining this place. I had certain bones I needed to pick with my own past, with the memories of people that I knew back then. You’re trying to resolve certain things that aren’t completely clear to you even as you’re writing them, except that you know that you have to write them. But the research involves just opening your ears, which I did for the first time in this. I never wrote an American book before. This is my first truly American book. It was just a question of giving myself permission to set a particular — to say, “Look, you were born and raised in this country. You’ve listened to these people for fifty years. Just shut up and write.” And I’ve tried to do that and hopefully it worked out.

Correspondent: It seems to me — I’m just going to infer here. Maybe you can clear this up. If you had a bone to pick with yourself, maybe some of these interesting sentences that you hear at the A&P or that you hear from people telling you about the period, maybe it’s a way to get outside of yourself or to plant what might almost be called a more objective voice. Because you have something more concrete to work with. Is that safe to say?

Slouka: I think that makes perfect sense. I think that’s exactly what it was really. And this book is a homecoming. I lost my father the day after this book was finished. Literally. And he was the storyteller in my life. We had our hard times. You know, he drank when I was a kid. The last fifteen years were great. But I spent most of my writing life writing stories that were set elsewhere. They were from my parents’ time. They were the Resistance in Prague during the Second World War. It was ancient Siam. The Siamese Twins. Da da da. You know, it’s time to write my own story. Not that those weren’t, but this one’s my own in a different way. I think there’s something about listening, about coming home to Brewster, which is a difficult place to explain though I’m fond of it…

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Because in The Visible World, your narrator is a child of Czech refugees from World War II. Not unlike yourself. In Brewster, Jon’s family is Jewish. They have escaped from Germany. You have Frank, who we just talked about earlier. He comes from Poland. You have Karen even, from Hartford on a more limited scale. You have Ray talking with the women behind the cafeteria. So there is very much a quality to your fictitious characters in which they always come from somewhere else. Or they’re not defined by the place they live right now. And I was wondering why that’s your affinity.

Slouka: Where that comes from.

Correspondent: Not necessarily where that comes from, but do you feel that it’s truer to write about someone or that you’re going to get a more dimensional character if they have some kind of additional background? That no one is really from anywhere?

Slouka: Oh god, you’re good at this. The problem is that it’s me. I’m the one who’s not really from one place or another. You know what I mean? I grew up on the fault line between two cultures. Two languages. Two histories. I grew up in a Czech ghetto in Queens, New York, for Christ’s sake, right? My first language was Czech. I didn’t speak English until I was five and I went out on the playground and had to figure out what the hell was going on and why these kids weren’t speaking Czech. My problem — and that’s just my life — is that with the possible exception of a little cabin that we have in a place called Lost Lake, I’ve never really had a home. And whenever I was in one place, I was always looking for the next good place. The next place and the next place. That’s one of the problems for me in getting older. You’re running out of time to look for the next place and the next place and the next place. I think I’ve transferred a lot of that kind of restlessness, which I think is very American actually. Americans are always looking for the next great place. I’ve transferred that restlessness into my characters, who are usually from everywhere but here. I mean, it’s possible that actually Brewster is the most grounded of my books. Because these kids are from there. Though it’s also kind of ironic that they’re also the most trapped. I mean, they’re from Brewster and they want to get the hell out. Again, not unlike me. It’s like: I’m here. How soon can I leave?

Photo: Maya Slouka

(Loops for this program provided by Nightingale, KBRPROD, ferryterry, 40A, DeepKode, and ProducerH.)

The Bat Segundo Show #509: Mark Slouka (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Gabriel Roth (The Bat Segundo Show #508)

Gabriel Roth is most recently the author of The Unknowns.

Author: Gabriel Roth

Subjects Discussed: Leaving San Francisco for Brooklyn, observing the two dot com booms, how moving away from a city often makes you more aware of its dynamics, the benefits of isolation, National Novel Writing Month, descriptive restaurant cues, the delicate balance between invention and specific representation of a place, writing a character who is “a life support system for feelings of anxiety,” not fronting before other programmers, attempted parallels between programming code and writing prose, anxiety as literary ambiguity, My Little Pony used in flashback, brony culture, how the origins of geekdom become twisted over the course of dissemination, Maya Marcom as a loaded name, vacillating between a Bildungsroman and a social novel in the act of writing, capturing the spirit of being alive during a particular time and place, tips learned from being in an MFA program, the one-time advantages of in-state universities, reading books without understanding the mechanics behind the writing, the amount of work that a writer must do to create a vivid sensory world, systems-thinking reporting vs. the descriptive needs of fiction, the abstract nature of news writing, Bay Guardian philosophy, Bruce B. Brugmann’s “Write while you’re drunk, revise when you’re hungover” catchphrase, alt-weekly professionalism, exploring material that you are already steeped in, writing what you know vs. writing what you don’t know, what your subconscious knows, automatic writing, the revising process, ingesting drugs as a character trait, accounting for the sudden expository twist near the end of The Unknowns, repressed memory, the problems that occur after you’ve fallen in love with someone, maintaining a good-natured feel in a novel after a sexual abuse revelation, humor applied to a broader emotional spectrum, “lad lit,” Benjamin Kunkel, Nick Hornby, the glut of novels about twentysomething white males, whether style is enough to escape white male fiction trappings, judging a book by its flap copy, taking on other voices, The Orphan Master’s Son, why Roth zeroed in on Denver privilege, coming from an educated family, the help that comes from background, Eric’s lack of ideological background, selling personal data to evil corporations, characters who espouse pro-corporate values, the diminishing of principle in San Francisco, the difficulties of combining politics and fiction, the homogeneity of America’s two political cultures, the Iraq War, when people always agree, whether the idea of the overstuffed Great American Novel still applies in 2013, The Adventures of Augie March, Infinite Jest, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, critics obliged to fight over Kushner, minituarist vs. maximist fiction, and how to get a TV-obsessed culture hooked on fiction.


Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off with you leaving San Francisco in 2006. I left in 2007. We both ended up in Brooklyn. And this is one of those interviews. Why didn’t we actually know each other during that decade that we were there? I’m wondering how aware you were that the City was falling apart, was being taken by the Google People, by the private buses. What caused you to flee to Brooklyn? And was this novel in some way a way of reckoning with that?

Roth: Well, I left mostly for personal reasons. I was living with a woman who is now my wife and who was starting a graduate program at Columbia.

Correspondent: Yes.

Roth: And so that was the immediate impetus for me to leave, although I had been in San Francisco for ten years. And as you probably know, ten years is a long time to spend in San Francisco.

Correspondent: I was there for thirteen.

Roth: Yeah. You start to feel that time passing under your feet a little bit. It was not yet clear in 2006 — or at least it wasn’t yet clear to me — what was going to happen with the second Internet boom and what was going to happen with the City as a result of that. I had been there since 1996. And so I had seen the first Internet boom which had sort of effloresced in the late part of the millennium and then died out very quickly in the first years of the oughts. And so I probably would have thought that any new economic activity was going to follow a similar boom and bust pattern. And now it’s not clear that that’s actually what’s going to happen. Or if there is a bust, then the City will have been pretty permanently changed and marked by the boom, it seems like.

Correspondent: Well, it is interesting. Because with the present boom underway, I remember the first one and that seemed brutal at the time. And I was very fortunate to have an apartment in which the rent had not gone up, as were many of my friends. And we somehow managed to secure apartments. Now I’m hearing reports from friends who are basically cleaving to their apartments, hoping that their building won’t be taken over and so forth. And I guess my tangent here was, if you weren’t entirely aware, does moving away from San Francisco and writing a novel actually allow you to think “Wow! All this was going on and, as shred as I was, I really wasn’t paying attention”?

Roth: Yeah. There is a certain amount of that obviously. I began the novel and I had gotten a good two thirds of the way into a draft by the time I left San Francisco. So a lot of the scenarios and the physical environment that I was describing was what was immediately around me as I was doing that first stage of writing. And then moving away — and I think this is probably true in general for writers — the act of writing is often, I think, an act of recapturing and of preserving your memories. Sort of freezing them in sentences. And I think it worked that way for me partly about the City of San Francisco and the environment around the first dot com boom, but then also about a time in my life. And of course, it’s very difficult to separate the place that you were in your early twenties from the experience of being in your early twenties.

Correspondent: Well, how so? Can you elaborate on that? It almost seems like you’re kind of mining through your own data and trying to separate it into emotion and tangible information.

Roth: Yeah. That’s absolutely right. I mean, the book is in part about San Francisco and about people working in technology and about collecting data. But then it’s also about a young man who’s preoccupied with looking for love and finding someone to be intimate with and close to. And it’s not an autobiographical book and the characters aren’t the same person as me. But that experience of being in my early twenties and really wanting to figure out how to love somebody and be loved by somebody — I was preoccupied with that for a long time. And those experiences, along with the experiences of the social world of San Francisco, are what went into the book and what got filtered through the fiction writing process and into the novel. And so there’s no way that I can say, “Oh yes. This is just a sort of satirical or an observational portrait of a little microcosm of the world.” Because it’s all wrapped up with my own subjective experience.

Correspondent: So you had two thirds of a draft before you moved here to Brooklyn. What did moving to Brooklyn produce in terms of clarity for both Eric [protagonist of The Unknowns] and for the view of San Francisco that you had?

Roth: Well, let’s see. Around the time that I moved out here, you know, I finished the MFA program at San Francisco State. I had a bunch of chapters. I was trying to figure out — I knew where the book was going to go, but I was trying to stick the landing, which is not straightforward and I think is not usually straightforward when writing a novel. And then we moved out here. And we were in our early thirties — mid-thirties even — and it was no longer a time when I would have moved to Brooklyn and gone out drinking every night or made a whole bunch of new friends. Or I wasn’t going to go out on dates. Because I was living with my girlfriend. And so moving to New York, which for many people is like stepping onto the big stage — for me, that was the time where I was a bit more isolated and I was going to work every day and getting my pages done and then coming home and eating dinner with my wife. And I think that was important in terms of finishing the thing.

Correspondent: So the isolation allowed you to finish the book.

Roth: Yeah.

Correspondent: It allowed you to come to terms with and put aside this particular part of yourself in your twenties.

Roth: Yeah. I think that’s right. It was putting a clean break on what I had been doing and what I was going to be starting to do from now on.

Correspondent: Did you have any other novels before this? I was curious.

Roth: Not that you would actually call a novel. I had like a pile of pages that I had written during National Novel Writing Month in 2003. Or something like that. That added to nothing but a pile of pages.

Correspondent: I think I remember reading one of your Bay Guardian columns. I think you wrote about it in the Bay Guardian, writing for the National Novel Writing Month.

Roth: I probably did.

Correspondent: Yeah, I remember that. I was a loyal Bay Guardian reader when I lived there. So that was you. You describe “a medium-expensive neo-Cuban restaurant with the kind of deserts that have names evocative of Catholicism” near Lazarus, your invented Valencia Street bar, which clearly evokes Cha Cha Cha. You have the photographs of tailfinned cars, which are sort of like Mel’s Drive-In, but not quite. Fiction — this is not reality. Imagination should be encouraged. But this does lead me to ask you about creating a believable San Francisco for this book. Obviously, you have to rely on things that actually exist. But are there any dangers in being too specific when you’re creating a sense of place like this? I mean, it seems that you want to alert people like me who have in fact passed and entered into Cha Cha Cha that this is indeed the San Francisco of that era. But I was curious about that fine line between telegraphing exactly what it is and just making shit up.

Roth: Yeah. I mean, I think the main issue you’re talking about is with the restaurants. Frankly, there’s a lot of restaurants. And most of the restaurants, as you point out, if you were going out to eat in the Mission in the early part of the 21st century, you’ve probably eaten in some of those restaurants. I didn’t worry about that. And I guess I think that’s fine. And if you’re reading it and you’re in the small subset of people who are going to recognize those restaurants, then hopefully that’s a sort of pleasant moment of recognition for you. Maybe it’s distracting, in which case my bad. But most people are not going to fall in that category. And I think without some amount of specificity, whether its based on real life’s specificity or completely fantastic specificity, without that, then it just becomes a generic restaurant. And the whole thing sort of looks flat. Putting in detail — in this case, often detail borrowed from actual restaurants where I ate most of my meals during the ten years I lived in San Francisco — putting in that detail hopefully gives the feeling of something that takes place in a real world that’s fully stocked with all the stuff of the real world.

Correspondent: But it is your world. It is Eric’s world. And I guess my question is not so much, “Ah! I’m going to go through The Unknowns and cut and paste all those phrases and put them on Yelp.” That’s not what I’m talking about.

Roth: (laughs)

Correspondent: What I am talking about is the idea that this is fiction. It does require invention. It is not going to be a pure 100% depiction of San Francisco. So where do you deviate between that specificity and just inventing something that doesn’t exist but is real enough for the reader to believe, whether the reader be from San Francisco or the reader be from somewhere else?

Roth: Yeah. I mean, really, it depends on the needs of the particular paragraph. You know what I mean? And what comes to my mind as I’m writing it. If, let’s say again, there’s a restaurant where I’m sending the two characters and I need to envision it, you know how sometimes in your dreams or your fantasies, sometimes there will be a place that doesn’t really exist. And sometimes all of the events will transpire in a place that does exist, but those things never happen there. Or it’s a place that does exist, only now they’re serving vegetarian food instead of Mexican food. And writing a novel seems to me exactly the same process. That you borrow these elements from the real world, but unless you’re writing a novel that’s just a direct transposition of real life — which this certainly isn’t — the filtering process is going to transform it to whatever degree is necessary.

Correspondent: So Eric describes himself to Maya as “a life support system for feelings of anxiety. The anxiety is the organism and I am the habitat.” Yet he tells his story in this book much like a programmer, almost as if he’s writing clean lines of code. The habitat of this book may indeed describe anxieties, but it seems like it’s reliant more upon nouns and adjectives rather than verbs. And I was curious about this. Did you impose any kind of stylistic ordinance upon your character to push his anxieties beneath the text? I mean, verbs are certainly the way that we absolutely spill out our emotion. And yet he seems to not use them as such. I’m wondering if this was something you were conscious of or whether it was designed or emerged through revision or what not.

Roth: That’s interesting. I certainly don’t, when I’m writing, think in terms of parts of speech like that. I’m not a sufficiently programmatic writer to be able to do that. I don’t think it would help me. I’m sure there’s some people for whom that would be a useful way to think about things. I do think — and the sentence that you quote is a good example of this — you know, he’s out on a date with this girl and she says to him — he says something that seems uptight or anxious and she says, “Do you consider yourself an anxious person?” And he says, “I consider myself a life support system for anxieties. The anxiety is the organism and I’m the habitat.” And on one hand, to some extent, that’s an accurate description. But on the other hand, hopefully on a date, that’s the clever thing to say. That’s sort of witty and self-deprecating, but also a self-revealing thing to say to a girl who you’re trying to make fall in love with you. And rather than imposing a restriction on Eric’s speech, I think of that character as being both messed up in all of these ways and having these real psychological difficulties, making life really difficult for him, and at the same time being to some useful degree self-aware about that and able to talk about and, as in that example, able to present it and able to sublimate it into a self-presentation that hopefully is a little charming and a little attractive and that Maya at least responds to. And hopefully, to some extent, the reader will respond to it in that way as well. He is an anxious person and he is a self-conscious person and yet his self-awareness about those things enables him to defuse their effects a little bit.

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, chefboydee, and hamood.)

The Bat Segundo Show #508: Gabriel Roth (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Anchee Min (The Bat Segundo Show #507)

Anchee Min is most recently the author of The Cooked Seed.

Author: Anchee Min

Subjects Discussed: Visiting Houston, Mary McCarthy, being the heroes of our own stories, writing Red Azalea as a way to learn English, owning your own material, repeatedly renting a pornographic tape, sex and loneliness, Love Story in Chinese translation, Western imports after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese idea of Miss America, Caligula in Madame Mao’s film library, how Chinese restaurants operate during Thanksgiving and Christmas, Anchee Min’s incredible work ethic, living paycheck to paycheck, working multiple jobs, judging the homeless, how ideas of being “down and out” shift from nation to nation, having your daughter hold up sheets of drywall, managing a fixer-upper, deprived children, personal propaganda, Dr. Phil, results-oriented thinking, Americans taking their nation for granted, entitlement, the bare minimum to what people are entitled to, basic needs and health care, parallels between America and the Roman Empire, theoretical humanity, the fragile existence of living in America with a conditional visa, Min’s efforts to read English, the line between hard work and exhaustion, the eight hour day, whether Min ever has downtime, the first time in Min’s life when she felt hope, having the will to make it in America, coughing blood and passing out from overwork, feeling safe for the first time in your life, being swindled and taken advantage of by employers, being overly trustful towards the wrong people, perceptions of fast food, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the influence of television, Edward Snowden, associating music with Chicago buildings, Chinese opera, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Loved You,” working in a record store, Pearl Buck, what’s left of Min’s Chinese roots, Min’s love for Broadway, Phantom of the Opera, why it’s important to write about 95% of China (rather than the 5% elite), Kanye West, learning how to moonwalk like Michael Jackson, envying women with big butts, salsa queens, how memory defines life, memory as a mode of survival, the smartphone generation, acting in propaganda films at the Shanghai Film Studio, pretend tears, the importance of being well-fed and staying humble, Min writing about her first husband, when people forgive unflattering depictions of themselves in books, how people who immigrate to America from China have different perspectives, respecting differing approaches to the American Dream, gratitude for other perspectives, divorce proceedings and child custody, becoming a property owner because there were no job options, landlord-tenant relationships and equitable laws, Min’s views on deadbeats, the excuses of tenants, avoiding generalizations amidst hardships, notions of American childhood, China and the U.S. spying on each other, and how the future of Sino-American relations will play out.


Correspondent: Mary McCarthy once famously remarked, “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour.” And this makes us the hero of our own story. So when you wrote both Red Azalea and The Cooked Seed, my question to you is: What did you take to downplay your own heroine status? Is the judgment of whether you are a good person or not left up to the reader? Or is including such moments — such as the way you portray Lauryann, your daughter, or act as a landlord — open enough for the readers to judge for themselves?

Min: I guess I will leave them to judge for themselves. For me, writing Red Azalea was a way to learn English. And I believe that only when I write it and I have other people correct me and I correct it in the copy of the text, I learn English in a solid effective way. And I did not think about anything else. Because I had nothing. Actually, what I wanted was the opposite. I wanted to write like American classmates. But I didn’t have — I did not grow up with hamburgers. So it was amazing. I did not understand what McDonald’s meant. So it was fascinating when they took me to a Chicago Avenue McDonald’s for the first time and put on makeup for the first time. And I think I was just off the boat. Nothing else. It was just survival. Try not to be deported. With this one, The Cooked Seed, I was on the other end. Because I had been making a living as an author for twenty-five years. So I knew what I possessed. It was just how far I wanted to take the material. It’s the issue of honesty. And also bringing my daughter into the picture and my divorce and everything — I felt that as an American writer, I realize I did not own my own material. I had no right to own that. But it’s a conflict. How far did I want to go? It was my daughter who said, “Mom, if you want to leave me anything, I want you to leave me your story. But not the sugarcoated version.”

Correspondent: So here’s a question for you. If you don’t own your own material, do you feel that the more English you know, the less you actually own it? The less private it may very well be in the act of writing? If Red Azalea came from this moment of almost purity, where there was no expectation of audience and there was no expectation that it would be published, how do things change when you are sharing your story? Both from an English standpoint and also from an audience standpoint?

Min: I feel that it’s the guilt I was aware of. I know my material. I know how to write by now. And I knew one thing. That if I don’t tell the story, the second generation, like my daughter — if she decides to write a story about me, she will never get to the real life I live. Because there’s so much. An immigrant mother would not want to leave behind that kind of story. For example, my relationship with a pornography tape. Because that was my only comfort. And that was the most difficult part to review. And I knew that no immigrant woman would have wanted to reveal that. But for me, what I see is the cruelty of the loneliness that impaired me as a person. If you live ten years in storage, like mice, a city rat, and you’re busy with how to make a living, you have no relationship with anyone whatsoever. But you are human. And this material would get lost. And I felt like I had a platform for the voiceless.

Correspondent: Yeah. The bravery of revealing that masturbation sex video. And you also reveal how the video store owner wanted to sell you the tape for $25 and you talked him down to $20. It was the least rented tape in that video store. But it also reminded me of how you conveyed affection and sex in Red Azalea with Yan. How you were both each other’s imaginary boyfriends. And with that, it leads me to ask you. When you write about sex, it’s interesting to me how it comes from this place of loneliness. Almost as if that’s the truest place to write about sex. You don’t really write about sex in a pleasurable way or even a romantic way. And I wanted to ask why that is. Is it possible that the way you write about sex is the truest way on the page? To be honest about the fact that a lot of people get into this because of loneliness, because of need, and things like that.

Min: Actually, you put it very well. Yes, in real life, it is almost dispassionate. It is very cruel and matter of fact. Survival mode. But as literary material, it’s the most romantic, the most sensuous way. Because that’s the moment that you’re dealing with yourself. The innermost. And also you avoid. Even with my relationship in the labor camp, it was almost — you see each other and then you meet each other like ghosts. And nothing was said. It was just under the blankets. It was inside a mosquito net. And she was love with a boy. And I was craving for boys. And we knew the price to date a man was execution and punishment and imprisonment. And we realized that we were in touch with our humanity. But the guilt of it. Yeah, you have to move on as humans. Human animals. So by accident, we discovered the poetry of God.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, it’s also interesting because I was going to mention, on a less austere note, that you did read Love Story in Chinese translation. And I was wondering if that had any kind of impact upon your notion of romance or love or even sex. How did that notion change when you came to Chicago? I mean, was this one of the things that you had to adjust your own internal feelings for?

Min: It’s quite bizarre. I did not read any Chinese romantic — anything that had that element — before the Cultural Revolution, which means before 1978. Mao died in ’76. And then that was two years later. The Western translations of first Western literature. Like Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind started to pour into Chinese translations. But before that, the only book about relationship between a man and a woman was this medical book. The title is called From Head to Toe Looking from a Monkey’s Eye. And I was reading it when I was sixteen. And the only sentence in the book that intrigued me — I still remember — is this: “The highest form of a revolution comradeship was intercourse between a man and a woman.” And I thought, “What does it mean?” Highest form of revolution comradeship. And then the bizarre thing was, after I was picked by Madame Mao’s people and taken to be featured in a propaganda film, portraying Madame Mao’s ideal proletarian beauty, I mean, it was very much — the selection was like Miss America or Miss Universe. It’s just that the measurement’s the opposite. We have to have calluses on our shoulders and hands to prove we were real peasants and the weather-beaten face. And carry 300 pounds of manure. But I picked it up and did the screen test, and I had never learned acting before. And there were all these things. Imitating Madame Mao as a cartoonish opera. And Madame Mao decided that the test was awful. We needed to be educated. So we were cultivating in Madame Mao’s private screening room and viewed her favorite movies. Which featured — I remember one was like a battle of Rome sort of thing — like Caligula.

Correspondent: Caligula!

Min: Yeah.

Correspondent: The Bob Guccione film. (laughs)

Min: Yeah. Something like that. But I can’t recall exactly. Because the translator there was Mandarin. So mostly it was images. So for the first time, from that forbidden time, that primitive time, without any men, all of a sudden over that, you see the blue-eyed people turning your insides out. Even before that, we had sections of meetings on making sure we don’t get mentally poisoned by watching this movie. But in coming to America, I all of a sudden realize that I’m not unfamiliar with these brown-eyed, blue-eyed people, who are having orgies. And it’s really weird. And in Chicago, in my storage basement, where I lived alone and with a porno film, and then all these things stringed together. It makes pretty interesting material.

Correspondent: And the name of the video was Sex Education, which also makes it quite interesting in light of this idea of education in China as well. (laughs)

Min: (laughs) Right.

Correspondent: This is the gateway in. (laughs)

Min: Because the first time I was in a porno store, it was — Christmas and Thanksgiving, especially Thanksgiving evening, the restaurants. Nobody goes into Chinese restaurants. So I was let off early. And it’s the longest night. I couldn’t go home. Because if I’d gone back to China, I may not get a visa back. That was the terror. So I want to treat myself with a movie. And I did not know. Inside the movie store, I stepped into the porno section and that title, Sex Education, was the least threatening.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Min: But now I know it’s a cover. Because of that title, nobody borrowed that movie. That’s why the owner, after a few times, he tried to sell it to me.

Correspondent: He was lucky he had you as a customer, I guess. (laughs) You brought up the Chinese restaurant and nobody being in there during Thanksgiving. Much of your early life in America is very much concerned with living the cheapest possible existence, calculating how much money you lose when you take the train to and from work. I mean, there’s one chapter — I don’t want to give it away — in which you go straight to work after something extraordinarily terrible happens. I was reading a story this morning about how 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. This leads me to ask, well, this notion of saving. Obviously family was a big part of it and wanting to make sure that they had money and also the guilt of trying to get them over to America. But how did you develop this very no nonsense approach to using money and saving it and wanting to accrue more of it? It’s almost becoming less American, especially with our economy in the toilet right now.

Min: Well, I guess it’s survival if you are in that situation. First of all, I think it has to do with my sense of gratitude. I mean, it is hard to work five jobs at the same time. But when you own your life, that’s a different perspective. I think that, bizarre as it is, in my life back in China, I was eliminated basically by the society. And in coming here, given a chance, I remember. I still — it just, what I said back to the immigrant officer who tried to deport me and who called me on the spot for not speaking English when entering America, I said, “My feet are on American soil.” And that, I really meant it. And that means a whole world to me. From then on, every time I go, this is what’s ruling me. When I see the homeless, I think I wasn’t being nice. Because the homeless was begging for my quarters. And I said, “You English! You job!” Because I was thinking, if only I had known English, I would have been given job. And I was actually happy with my Taiwanese boss at the restaurant. When I walked faster, she came behind me. She says, “The house is not on fire.” Meaning: Why are you walking so fast? If I sat down, she’d come down, walk on my back, and say, “I did not hire you to be a lazy bone.” But I was happy. Because she let me know I could improve. Which was to find the balance. But if I were in China, I would not know why I was punished.

(Loops for this program provided by Jorge Daniel Ramirez, danke, MaMaGBeats, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, djmfl, and R01D.)

The Bat Segundo Show #507: Anchee Min (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Matt Bell (The Bat Segundo Show #506)

Matt Bell is most recently the author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

Author: Matt Bell

Subjects Discussed: Attempts to abridge a rather lengthy book title, House Party, Kate Bernheimer, finding the balance between open and closed stories, inclusive novelists vs. exclusive novelists, Raymond Friedman’s Critifiction, self-built and self-contained worlds, the constraints of pragmatics, how fabulism creates solutions to fiction problems, singing and karaoke, depictions of singing in fiction, James Joyce’s “The Dead,” the links between music and emotion, William Blake’s distinction between Fable and Vision in “A Vision of the Last Judgment,” Brian Evenson, how the fantastic can be the new religion, incorporating liminal space into fiction, Denis Johnson, Jesus’s Son, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, how a fiction moment can shift from gritty realism to the mythic, the futility of rigid fact-based interactions with the world, vicarious imagination and liminal space, removing logic and explanation to find clarity, James Joyce lookalikes attempting to set a world record, how hard specifics encourage the imagination, Santa Claus parades and Santa subway rides, finding moments in the real world that trigger the imagination, the importance of daily writing, hiking, when life happens in books, Norman Lock, the futility of finding biographical origin points in an author’s fiction, fingerling potatoes, Dick Laan, foundlings and nouns that rhyme with thing, not always knowing how fictitious bears work, individual sentences that contain mysteries, unintended allegory, George Romero’s zombie movies, how codas can re-open a novel, when characters serve as an instrument to push forward a story, when some elements of traditional fiction become necessary, mansplaining, the original massive version of In the House, finding the trajectory within a first novel, “I am a writer!” bloat destroyed in revision, holding only forty pages in your head at one time, dealing with an underpopulated world, “Control F Squid,” finding ways to control specific words, when notes become a constraint, the head as an ancient 40 MB hard drive, not being able to work on an entire novel all at once, Gary Lutz’s “The Sentence is a Lonely Place,” Christine Schutt’s “The Blood Jet,” projecting sentences before students, teaching, Lishean poetics vs. intuition, the advantages of working on fiction at the sentence level, why it’s vital to be blind during the act of creation, Robert Boswell’s notion of the half-known world, video games, Bioshock Infinite, video games as a way to steer young people into fiction through the labyrinth, Nethack, Choose Your Own Adventure, malleable narrative, Mike Meginnis’s Exits Are, Infocom text adventure games, Robert Coover’s views on hypertext, how fiction can combat the entitlement of today’s audiences, being trained to be on the side of the protagonist, galvanizing the reader to be emotionally engaged, ambiguity, the outdoors gap in contemporary fiction, Jack London, how much of 21st century life is defined by being indoors, the Laird Hunt/Roxane Gay interview from January, writing a book about Detroit, the problems with depicting the minutiae of everyday life, Girls, Nicholson Baker, the knowing the names of quotidian things moment in Underworld, hard edicts laid down as a young writer, the benefits of imitating prose in early days, and giving certain approaches up.


Correspondent: When I finished this book, I was especially intrigued by how you kept the world of this book open enough for the reader to fill in the blanks, while the husband’s emotions are fairly open. But it’s also fairly closed in the way that he’s cut off from the world and the rest of society. He’s confined to this life that’s pretty much his wife, the fingerling, and the foundling. I’m actually going to reference a quote you Tumbled only ninety minutes ago.

Bell: (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. That’s how current we are here. Ironically, this will air many weeks later. But anyway…

Bell: Right, right, right.

Correspondent: So you had quoted Kate Bernheimer.

Bell: Yes, absolutely.

Correspondent: “From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other. Just as, outside the pages there is no reality.” So you know, I’m wondering. Do you feel that the best fairy tales or the best stories involve finding the right balance along the lines of this open and closed notion and all that? How did you arrive at the balance for this book?

Bell: Well, one of the ways I think about I guess is that there’s lots of kinds of writers. But there’s two kinds of writers for this model, right? There’s people who are includers and people who are excluders, right? As soon as you’re writing the Great American Novel, then you’re jamming everything from your decade into the book, right? I’m going to get it all in here. I’m going to capture the entire American experience. And that’s one way to make a book. To capture the world and put it into a book. I think the other is to try and like make a world and to push back. To write from the center out and define your boundaries. So that what you’re creating becomes the world of the book and it doesn’t have these outside things. And I think in the end there was a balance act to that in the book. As you know, there are these allusions to the outside world and where they’re from. And I wanted it to be there. I didn’t want this to be completely abstract or separate. But for the most part, the only things that can happen are things that are already in this world. Within the first thirty pages, the world is built fairly quickly. And then the only way they can solve their problems or to progress the story is using these elements. Using these things. And I found that really interesting. That’s one of the reasons, I think, for the long title. It’s like that setting is part of the book’s constraint in a certain way. And knowing that was really helpful.

Correspondent: Well, it offers a maximal precision with minimal revelation.

Bell: Right! That’s a really nice way to say it. Yeah, I really enjoy that kind of writing where the world of the book is self-built and self-contained. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the other kind either. But I think that those modes are really different. And Bernheimer speaks to that for me. Raymond Federman talks about that in Critifiction. He talks about a similar thing. That the book is the world. I’m paraphrasing badly from a couple of years ago. But the book itself is a world really no matter what you’re writing about. If you’re writing in a very realist mode, that’s still the case. The language the book is, is all you have to work with. And the outside world doesn’t necessarily enter it in the same way.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering as a writer, do you feel what I felt as a reader? Because I kept saying, well, okay, there’s a lot of fishing and hunting going on. But how do they develop the skills to make things? Aside from, of course, the magic you have in the book. I’m thinking pragmatics. Even though I’m also involved with the imagination and I’m involved with the world that you’re creating, I’m thinking to myself, well, how did they get here? Why this particular location? How did the fingerling get into this? And we don’t actually have the answers to those questions. So I’m wondering how much they aggravate you as an author. Or do you know the answers to these questions and you just don’t want to impart certain things to the reader?

Bell: No. I mean, I think a lot of it works. It’s a fairy tale or mythic mode. So they can do it because they have to for the story. Which you can’t get away with in a different mode. There were some things that were funnier, that I was wrong about or I was too specific about them with early readers. The lake, of course, is salty. Which causes them a drinking water problem. And in the early versions of the book, they were always boiling water for drinking water. But when you boil salt water, you don’t end up with clean water. You end up with salt, right? (laughs) So when I was trying to explain the pragmatics, it was actually getting in the way a lot. Or it was causing problems. He’s a fisherman who becomes a trapper because that’s what’s necessary for his family. You know, that’s the next thing. And some of that works with the wife singing stuff into being. It’s like the next object that was necessary is this. And so here it is. Which in fairy tales would just happen in a sentence. It would just appear. And there’s sort of this device that does some of that. But I agree. Like he becomes a taxidermist at a point just because that’s what he needs to do. The wife is able to — she doesn’t study maze making before she sings the maze. He can get away with that, I hope in this mode. But in other kinds of books, that would….yeah, we’d have to watch the guy study it for years or something.

Correspondent: This leads me to ask to what degree fabulism served as a method for you to deal with the hurdles of “Oh, he can’t actually boil salt water. Let’s just go ahead and have her sing something into existence.” Did that come as a — I don’t want to say, crutch, but was that a method for you to maximize the world here? I mean, how did that happen?

Bell: I mean, I think it preexisted it. It ends up helping with some of that stuff. But that’s not the reasoning for it. The very first image I had for the book — the first thing I wrote — isn’t actually in the book. But it was this husband watching his wife singing and having this vision of all these shape-shifting she had within her that she could one day bring into the world, right? And being intoxicated and tranced by this. And that was why he had married her. He had seen this world she was singing into being. And of course, the book ended up going — it didn’t work exactly like that. But that singing was the foundational aspect of this world in a certain way. I don’t know. I never thought about this when I was writing it. But looking back, I think it’s interesting that I had to discover this whole world through his voice and his very limited egomaniacal point of view when she’s the creating aspect of the world in a weird way, right? The person I had to create it through is now the person who is like the creator of most of the world they spend their time in.

Correspondent: Are you a singer at all? I’m curious.

Bell: No! Terrible. Awful.

Correspondent: You don’t do karaoke or anything? (laughs)

Bell: You know, weirdly, we had a Soho Press karaoke thing.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Bell: No, I grew up a Midwest Catholic. I just mumbled through songs a lot. (laughs) Music, I love music. Music’s really a big part of my life. But, no, not a singer in any way. Thankfully yes. No samples for you today.

Correspondent: Why do you think music serves as the act of creation for the wife in this? To create rooms, to create objects, and all that. I’m wondering why you associate that with music. I mean, I know you’re big on sentences. And we’ll get into that in a little bit. And you’re big on language. It’s interesting that you have language tangoing with music here. And I’m wondering how that came into being or possibly why, at the risk of delving into ambiguity involving the text.

Bell: Sure. And the first answer always sounds so weak. Because partly I don’t know. It was right. It was what instinctually happened. You know, I think it’s interesting. Music has those deep links to emotion. I mean, it’s weird to describe someone’s singing a lot in a book. Especially because you never get to hear it. But there’s something very abstract about that. Because the husband talks and talks and talks. I mean, you can just imagine them together. He’d be that husband that never stops talking to the wife. Never stops speaking. Right? But then when she does open her mouth, she’s able to do this thing, you know? And in the early parts of the book, there’s only a few times where she has the upper hand in the conversation. And she’s often explaining to him the way the world could be. And he’s missing it totally, right? He’s missing this world he could have. And it’s something that she can give him by doing this. There’s so much where he comes to this place in this possessor way. He’s building the house. I’m going to get the food. I’m going to build the house. I’m going to do all these things. And she’s completely self-sufficient. Because she can do this in a way that he can’t. He can’t sing. He can’t do this. His mouth is always open. He’s always talking. He can do all these things by taking from the world, but she can make it herself. And those differences were important to me, the way that those things balanced or offset each other.

Correspondent: Is it difficult to describe the magic of singing in fiction? I mean, the first thing that comes to mind — largely because it’s Bloomsday* as we’re talking. Of course, the wonderful description of singing in “The Dead.”**

Bell: Right, right.

Correspondent: You absolutely feel the power of that. But in this, the singing brings things into creation. Is that easier for you to wrap your head around as a writer? How do you get into that? Being a creative person who describes the act of creation, it gets pretty difficult.

Bell: Absolutely.

Correspondent: How do you work around that?

Bell: I mean, I feel like there’s less actual description of it now than there was in early versions. I think I tried more directly to describe what those things were like or something. But that’s almost impossible, right? But I think that everybody’s probably hearing it differently as they’re reading. A little blinker, there’s a little more room for the reader to fill that in. I think at one point it was very specific. And it was in the way. And now there’s sort of, again, that fairy tale mode where you can just say she was singing and she was doing this and there’s an image that goes along with that and a song that goes along with that. Everybody’s a little different. And that’s totally fine. Because it doesn’t need to be — I don’t even known what the terms are. In the key of C or whatever it is. Who cares? Right? I think that’s just not important. The importance is more the outcome and the feeling of it. So sometimes by flattening that a little bit, I think you actually get more out of it.

Correspondent: I wanted to bring up William Blake and his “Vision of the Last Judgment.”

Bell: Okay! (laughs)

Correspondent: He was careful to distinguish between Fable and Vision. Fable, of course, being this cheap allegory that was an inferior kind of poetry. What he described as “formed by the daughters of memory.”

Bell: Nice! (laughs)

Correspondent: Now Vision, which is what he preferred, or Imagination — this represented what actually exists. There are portions of your novel, especially with the material involving the squid, which was reshaping into the husband’s body, that seems to have these two Blake distinctions in mind. The words “fable” and “vision,” however, never actually appear in the book. I looked for them. Because I got obsessed with this. But when you were writing this book, to what extent were you wrestling with distinctions along these lines? I’m curious. Were you writing in any kind of broader mythological distinction at all? I mean, I know you reference a number of fairy tales.

Bell: I mean myth was the term I thought of a lot when I think of it that way. But I’ve changed the way I think about it. I called my work “non-realist” for a long time. That was a term I felt comfortable with, when asked. And I sort of feel like I’m moving away from it a little bit — in part because of other people’s helpful thinking on the subject. Brian Evenson — his work is a big influence on mine, thankfully. I saw him give a talk a couple of years ago. And he was talking about growing up Mormon and growing up in a culture in which religion and day-to-day life aren’t separate. Like he literally grew up thinking that angels would come to earth and interact with people. And I grew up Catholic, but in a very literal sort of family. People interact with angels. And we talked about the burning bush — that’s not a myth. That’s not a symbol. That’s like a thing that happened in the past. And I’m not religious anymore. And I’ve moved away from that direction. But I think that writing something like this and letting these magical or fabulist elements ride alongside like something really grounded — it’s less non-realist and more like where I’m from. Like there’s a way into my backstory as much as the geography I’m from. So it’s weird. I feel like I want more and more for them to be able to co-exist. These people live in a world in which the fantastical is real. And so did I once.

Correspondent: So the fantastic is a kind of religiosity for you that has replaced your previous religiosity?

Bell: Yeah. A little bit. It’s another way to access those feelings or to get to some of those places. And it’s a way to write about where my imagination comes from. Some of these things are seeded in me and I have trouble getting to them sometimes in a more strictly realist story.

* — June 16, 2013, Bloomsday — the morning we recorded this conversation.

** — A sample from Joyce: “Her voice, strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit the runs which embellish the air and though she sang very rapidly she did not miss even the smallest of the grace notes. To follow the voice, without looking at the singer’s face, was to feel and share the excitement of swift and secure flight.”

(Loops for this program provided by Dj4Real, danke, SpadeOfficial, kristijann, and MaMaGBeats.)

The Bat Segundo Show #506: Matt Bell (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced

Lauren Beukes II (The Bat Segundo Show #501)

Lauren Beukes is most recently the author of The Shining Girls. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #409.

Author: Lauren Beukes

Subjects Discussed: Predicting the future, whether 2013 is more of an apocalyptic year than 2012, killer bunnies, laughing rats, H.P. Lovecraft, the best zombie dramatizations, explanation in narrative, trusting the reader with interesting definitions of how the world works, the Greek tragedy of time travel, killing Hitler, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, criss-crossing timelines, Looper, finding spontaneity in a careful foundation, E.L. Doctorow’s description of writing, developing the close third person perspective, working against the sophisticated predator stereotype, the catharsis of hurting mean characters, T.C. Boyle, fictitious injuries, time periods that are defined by pop cultural references, Studs Terkel, Forrest Gump, women’s rights, McCarthyism, connections between American and South African history, spies and informants, surveillance society, Todd Akin, Candyman, Spencer Tracy explaining baseball to Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, interviewing real people, not understanding sports, the difficulty of forgiving people for political atrocities, Sarah Lotz, objecting to fictitious murders, living in Chicago, why the Midwest is an ideal setting for an American novel, the tendency to invoke Detroit with symbolism, parallels between Hillbrow and Detroit, Mark Binelli’s Detroit City is the Place to Be, Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy, the U.S. Radium Corporation’s exploitation of women, paying researchers, Radium Girls, quoting directly from a 1936 story in the Milwaukee Sentinel, Mad Dog Maddux, naming your company after an employer’s fictitious creation to secure a job, the annoyance of getting minor details right, John Banville, the invention/research spectrum, location scouting, women who are objectified by her scars, Murderball, the sex lives of the injured, characters defined by the interior, physical description, how visual photos serve as emotional reference, why fictitious sociopaths drink Canadian Club, Amity Gaige’s Schroeder, A Clockwork Oraange, Al Capone, Velázquez’s Las Meninas, and rabid eating.


Correspondent: The thing about this conversation is that we’re doing this months before it actually airs. So what do you think’s going to happen in May or June when this actually goes up? Will the world even exist? What will happen?

Beukes: Well, you know, I think the Mayans were off by a couple of months.

Correspondent: I’d say that 2013 is more the apocalyptic year than 2012.

Beukes: Definitely. Way more apocalyptic. And I think actually we’re going to be overrun by killer bunnies that are taking revenge for the deaths of all the bees. And we’ll all be wiped out.

Correspondent: I learned recently that rats laugh. Did you know this?

Beukes: No, I did not.

Correspondent: Yeah. Rats actually laugh. If you tickle them, they emit this supersonic, high-pitched laughter that humans can’t hear. I’m not sure if this factors into your prediction or not, but I bring it up just for the hell of it.

Beukes: Well, we can use the rat laughter death ray. It’s kind of a sonic death ray which will explode all our cell phone devices and we’ll be cut open. I know I certainly will die without my cell phone.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, Lovecraft probably predicted this too. “The Rats in the Walls.”

Beukes: Absolutely.

Correspondent: Anyway, to your book. It is my view that the best zombie dramatizations do not involve an explanation. The zombies merely rise from the grave. And that’s it. It could be allegory. It could be gripping suspense. I bring this up because I think about the time travel in your book, which for the most part, except for the end, we don’t actually have an explanation for why this man Harper can jump from time to time. And when the explanation does come, I read it and said, “Oh, okay, that makes complete sense.” But I was so wiling to believe that he somehow willed himself into various times. So I have to ask you, Lauren Beukes the author, did you have an explanation from the start? Why did you feel the need to give the reader the explanation for the time travel? And is narrative hampered sometimes when you explain too much to the reader? What of this?

Beukes: I don’t like to explain too much to the reader. I like readers to bring their depth and experience into a text, and I think that makes it just way more interesting and exciting and personal. Overexplaining is boring. And I think you have to trust your reader. And I think you have to trust them with interesting definitions of how the world works. So I specifically went with the Greek tragedy model of time travel. You can’t kill Hitler. The more you try to kill Hitler, the more you’re just going to reinforce the events which will absolutely play out it always has been intended to play out. Which is not to say that there aren’t loops and paradoxes or that the ending doesn’t explain why everything has been happening.

Correspondent: Sounds like you’ve read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

Beukes: Uh, yeah, maybe.

Correspondent: Gotcha.

Beukes: So I really wanted to just play with that. And the time travel is almost secondary to a lot of everything else. But everything has been immaculately plotted out. You know, I had this crazy murder wall with all these diagrams and strings and three different criss-crossing timelines, linking them and triple-checking that everything made sense. And for that one moment which they keep looking back to, everything is very carefully coordinated. There’s no Looper moment where Bruce Willis says, “Well, I could explain time travel. But we’d be here all day doing diagrams with straws.” No, I really did plot it out and make sure everything worked.

Correspondent: How does spontaneity work for you? If you have a foundation that you’ve set — with strings. I’m very curious about the strings. I mean, Will Self has his Post-It notes. You have the strings. How do you digress from that? How do you account for spontaneity? And does explanation sometimes get in the way of spontaneity?

Beukes: I think explanation can. The way I write, and I’m going to paraphrase E.L. Doctorow, is that it’s like taking a road trip at night. I know where I’m leaving from and I know where I’m going to. I always know my beginnings and my endings. And I know some of the major way points along the way. But the rest of the time you’re driving. It’s pitch black. You can see twenty feet ahead of you in the headlights. And you’ve just got to stay on the road and figure it out. And so the spontaneity and the play and the subconscious diversions, which is my favorite part of the writing process, happens in between.

Correspondent: So Harper, you knew how he did it.

Beukes: I knew how Harper did it. I knew why it happens that way. That ending was in there from the beginning.

Correspondent: Sure. Which leads me to ask you about the strange perspective. I mean, here is a close third person. And as we read more and as we start to understand how he views his victims, it’s very hallucinatory. Especially with Etta the nurse. We start to really know that he’s probably making this up and furthermore he doesn’t quite understand sometimes that he’s murdering these victims. This is interesting because you’re almost asking the reader here to share this blindness by making it third person. How did this stylistic tic develop out of curiosity?

Beukes: My previous two books were first person. And I really felt like I needed a break from that, that I needed to be able to step back a little bit. Especially because Harper was such a loathsome, vile person. Which doesn’t make us any less complicit, even though it’s third-person. It just felt natural for the book. I would love to give you an in-depth analysis, but a lot of it is relying on intuition. And I wanted Harper to struggle with it and I wanted you to see his struggle. I also did a lot of research into what real serial killers are like. And I wanted to avoid the sexy predatorial Hannibal Lector model. You know, the sophisticate who drinks Chianti. And most serial killers are awful, vile, pathetic human beings who have major sexual dysfunctions. And I wanted to get at that and the kind of real horror of like what that kind of monster is. It’s actually quite sad and pathetic and no less horrible. But not the sophisticated predator.

Correspondent: But it’s also an interesting way of possibly avoiding full immersion into this guy’s mind as both author and reader. I mean, if you during the course of your research are growing increasingly queasy about what human beings do, well you have a perfect safeguard here. Was that another aspect of doing that? Another advantage here?

Beukes: That could well have been a subconscious aspect. You know, the way I dealt with writing Harper was that I just messed him up at every opportunity. You know, if I could damage him in a scene, I absolutely would. I was like, “Okay, he’s in a fight with someone. I’m going to break his jaw. Awesome.” But then I had to keep track of the broken jaw and figure out how it was healing. Was it healed in 1984? Or was it still wired up in 1951? And that just added a whole another layer of complexity. So it was very cathartic to hurt him. But it didn’t help me with my planning.

Correspondent: So you were able to deal with this monster by beating the shit out of him.

Beukes: Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #501: Lauren Beukes (Download MP3)

This text will be replaced