Tag Archives: fiction

Beach Boys

9 Jan

This story is a companion to the eleven-part series that began here.

I.

The San Onofre crew is accustomed to week-long interlopers every now and then. Some appear on their little slice of beach every year, others just drift in and out. Some are memorable, but even those are never more than a stray story, a remember when so-and-so and such-and-such that provides a background bass line to the chatter at the Ex-Con-Tiki bar every weekend.

He shows up with a beginner’s surfboard and a wetsuit, and little else. He doesn’t wear any surf shop gear, makes no effort convey any talent or experience. They all agree he is attractive and looks the part of a beach poser: long scraggly hair pulled back beneath a backwards hat, muted tone tank tops and generic board shorts, well-sculpted shoulders and legs that show he’s more than a casual athlete. His wide, brown eyes bear an eternal look of someone peering off into the horizon, someone who gazes toward the light to see what it can reveal. After watching him for four days, Casey decides that this interloper, intentional or not, has become the platonic ideal of the beach. He makes it seem effortless without deploying any effort, a shockingly rare achievement along the California coast.

He has no great talent as a surfer. Not once does he attempt anything bold or inventive, his movements always deliberate and precise. But his form is on point, no wasted effort on his board, and he’s clearly done his homework, knows the nuances of the wave in a way few rookies do. Nor is he one to repeat mistakes, each lesson stored away in a trove of knowledge that Adrian suspects must border on the encyclopedic. Surely he’s been to San Onofre before, Casey asks him, and he shrugs and says yes, years ago, when he was just a kid. Neera suspects this is a lie to enhance his intrigue, but when pressed, the kid pulls up a picture of his preteen self on this very beach, grinning between two parents as he clutches this very surfboard. The memory means something to him, clearly, but what they cannot be sure.

When they break into his cabana to see what else he has, they find no more than a bottle of bourbon, sipped at in moderation; a pile of cheap microwave meals, though of the semi-healthy variety; and a few little notebooks half-filled with unintelligible scrawl. Adrian sees a picture of a girl on his phone background, but Jack, who holes up in the cabin next door, reports only one late night phone conversation, and it with a guy at some East Coast college. He is agreeable enough, shares a few beers with the Samoan proprietor of the Ex-Con-Tiki, can talk about the wave and downplay his own skill with the best of them. But even Neera, the most skilled prosecutor on these sunny shores, fails to fish out any details when she sidles up to him with a drink and her voluminous eyelashes.

Over the boy’s first four days at San Onofre he is tentative, avoids others unless they address him, willingly accepts his position as the rookie on the fringes of the lineup. He simply goes about his wave work within his limits, creates as small of a swell as he can. Neera invites him to a club in San Clemente, but he demurs and spends his night reading some cliched travelogue outside his cabin. His heart isn’t in it.

The interloper is a source of mild interest at the club that night; if Neera weren’t newly single, they wouldn’t have given him much mind. But Alexandra, eager to quash Neera’s intrigue, convenes a meeting of the minds before the boys inevitably disappear to the back alley to toke a bowl. The last thing she needs is to babysit yet another brokenhearted roommate.

“What was the name again?”

“Evan. His bag says Gopher hockey on it.” Frantic googling ensues.

“Sure enough, that’s him. Walk-on. Guess he’s got some talent.” Alexandra shows them his roster profile on his phone.

“He’s got good form for a kid from the middle of bumfuck nowhere,” says Jack, already half out of his seat for his trip to the alley.

“And he’s a cutie,” Neera muses. “Probably real nice. Minnesotans always are.”

“Some midwestern bro living out his fantasy,” says Casey.

“I’ll tell you what he is,” Alexandra says. “He’s a climber. He doesn’t want you to think he’s after anything…but he’s after something.”

“He’ll fit right in in this town,” Casey says, trying to give her a significant look. Alexandra ignores his puppy eyes and instead checks Neera’s reaction: concern, fear that her Minnesota Nice diagnosis may be awry. Yes, that’s exactly what she’d hoped for.

“There’s no fitting in in this town,” she replies. “Either you grab the wave or you end up washed up on the beach.”

II.

“Alright, kids, welcome to Solomon’s Temple,” Mark announces as the procession of cabs pulls up to the beach house.

“Did they add on a new wing since I was here?” asks Matt.

“Yup. New sun room on the side, and another bedroom below it where we can stuff a few more bodies.”

“You’ve been here before?” asks Dante, a newcomer to the group.

“Marky and I go all the way back,” says Matt. “Been dealing with this snob since I was ten, even when he went off to Minnesota and New Haven. Been in the family since way before you, right?”

“That it has. And Matty was one of the few Dirty Jersey friends my parents let me have out here on the island,” Mark says. “No freaking clue what they saw in him.”

“I just remember us out on that beach when we were like twelve, thinking we were hot shit and going after high school girls.”

“Better luck this time, Matty,” Mark teases.

“Why Solomon’s Temple?” Amelia asks from the back seat.

“Parents went through a religious phase. Plus my dad’s gone through almost 700 wives, so it’s fitting.” To Mark’s mild annoyance, the allusion goes over the heads of everyone in the car.

Lost references aside, Mark is proud of his plans for a long Nantucket weekend. He’s made his invites carefully, fifteen in total, six men and nine women, the ratio off-kilter to get the group to the front of bar lines and provide more options for his enjoyment. There are three couples, already paired off, and Leslie, his lesbian work life confidante; to the mix he adds Dante, a Camden-based writer who went to Princeton with Matt, proof this week is more than his own sandbox. No, he’s collected his interesting people, all with some purpose unknown to them. Dante the poet, Leslie the life coach, the couples to provide stability, and Matt, his foil, both a competitor and a partner in the pursuit of the four eligible ladies. They know the unspoken rules of the game they both relish.

The first night goes according to plan. They are all drunk by eight and pile into two cabs Mark has contracted for the week for a venture to a strip of bars in town. Nora, the most attractive and least stable of the four singles, trips on a loose sidewalk brick and goes down in a heap. They are a bit on the drunk side for the finer bars in this outpost, but Mark has curated his guests well enough that he knows no one will go full Jersey Shore on him. They plow through a few fine cocktails before beginning the inevitable push back to the one dive bar on the island, where Mark suspects all their nights will end. The first one has enough novelty that he can ride it through, play his part, head home happily drunk at the end of the night and settle for a few sloppy kisses with Nora. Matt goes to bed empty-handed, and Mark claims pyrrhic sort of victory on night one.

He’s paced himself well. He wakes the next morning with no hint of a hangover and heads out for a ten-mile run along the coastal roads out to Siasconset and back. A handful of his housemates have stirred to life by the time he returns, all in awe of his early morning feat of athleticism. He shrugs off their praise with practiced nonchalance, the borderline arrogance of a man whose achievements require no acknowledgment. He is who he is.

Even so, Mark senses a distance growing between him and the rest of the house as it stirs to life. He has classified himself as a breed apart, and now it is his duty to reclaim his charm. He takes orders for mimosas and coaches Leslie and Dante on the Markian approach to beach life, to dive immediately back in. His disciples laugh and follow his lead. The god has come down from the clouds.

They pass most of the day on the beach. Mark drifts in and out of a few games of volleyball, works his tan, settles under an umbrella to keep his steady buzz and samples the edibles brought by Patrick and Erica, two underlings of his who have managed to hide their romance from everyone else in the office save Mark’s prying eyes. He caught their subtle winks, their well-timed bathroom trips, their aligned vacation schedules. Erica buries herself in the sand and gazes out at the waves in peace, and Patrick nuzzles up against her. Mark nestles near them on his towel, close enough for idle observation but far enough to give them space. They’re a fascinating specimen, this couple that has found love in a desolate office. He’s in a good enough place that he can stave off the wistful thoughts they inspire in him.

Night two involves less pretense, a quick pregame that moves on to a unified beach party with several other homes. This night, Mark expects, will be the most debauched of the week, and he steals a thirty-minute nap beforehand to steel himself for it.

“Game on,” he whispers to Matt as he settles in to bed.

“Remind me how many extra points I get per college girl?”

“Careful, Matty. Can’t talk like that anymore these days. You trying to tell me you aren’t here to find undying love?”

“C’mon, it’s not wrong if they’re in on the game, too.”

By the end of the night they are back in the room they share with two girls who claim they’re headed into their senior years at Dartmouth. In time it comes out that they’re merely Brooklyn baristas, but by this point Mark and Matt are in too deep. Mark thinks Matt wrapped up the proceedings with the slightly cuter one, but his finds just the right level of pleasure to sustain him through the longest finish he can ever remember. He is content to call the night a draw.

Mark wakes to find his new acquaintance wrapped in sheets at his side. Matt’s bedmate, he sees, has slipped off in the night. He deserves extra credit for that. He stays in bed until the girl wakes and politely sees her on her way, though he does not invite her to stay for the brunch Dante has promised to whip up to start day three. She was lovely, but he doesn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression. His prize will be no barista, no random encounter on the beach. He’s already culled his herd.

The group applauds Mark and Matt for their conquests, though Leslie groans as they settle in on the beach with Nora’s foul anti-hangover concoction.

“This isn’t the Mark I like. The one I like is the one who was grilling Amelia on what AI is going to mean for humanity.”

“That Mark does get a little tired of always having to be the know-it-all cynic.”

“Okay then. How about the one who kicked all our asses at volleyball then had some pot brownies with me on the beach yesterday?”

“You know I’d go freaking crazy if I tried to live like that.”

“You don’t make this easy, do you?”

“The world is a complicated place. Just…being one with its waves, you know?”

“Hah. Clever turn, I’ll give you that.”

“I’m good for that, if nothing else.”

“You’re in Sad Mark mode again, aren’t you?”

“Me? Sad? I fucking rule my world.”

“Doesn’t seem to do much for you.”

“Does plenty for me. Just hungry enough to want even more. There you go. There’s a thirst no AI can ever have.” He pours himself another mimosa.

III.

On day five, it all changes. The boy barges in to Adrian’s turf on the wave, commands the inside of the tube, pulls a series of hard turns in succession. The conditions aren’t particularly good, and he still has an erratic streak that nearly creates a few collisions. Yet he surfs with reckless abandon, just hanging on to an edge of control. Even Alexandra rises up from her droll position on the beach to eyeball this display of reckless bravado. Later, when he washes up immediately in front of her, just as composed as when he’d emerged from the waves the two days before, she can’t help but flash him a quick smile.  

Evan ignores her. When Adrian snarls at him over his lack of decorum, he rolls his eyes and doesn’t reply. When Casey asks if he wants the video he’s shot of him, he’s downright scornful: he’s not here to be found, to time it just right for the perfect conditions, to pull off any particular move. He’s here to surf.

That night the interloper shows up at the bar for the first time since the second night. After a survey of the room, he gives the boys an awkward nod of respect. They reciprocate, an invitation to become one of them for the night. Evan accepts, but Casey can tell he’s not after their approval. Instead, his eyes flit toward Alexandra at every opportunity.

Alexandra is the queen bee of the San Onofre crew, a daughter of New Yorker socialites who fled west to try show business, found it vapid, and now lives off a trust fund with some beach bums. She’s convinced her parents she’s still seeking out modeling opportunities, and she staved off her mother’s inquiries at the latest visit with a carefully concocted story of her pursuit of some surf magazine. Her housemates are all complicit, bought off with the promise of Alexandra’s influence, and her willingness to pay the freight for the booze and drugs at the parties they host. The girls of the Ex-Con-Tiki have a reputation to keep.

Over the first few drinks of the evening, Evan pulls this story out of his fellow lustful males. Adrian has no interest in her uppity style, though this doesn’t stop him from telling Evan what he’d like to do to her in lurid detail. Evan pointedly turns to Casey and Jack, where he finds contradictory takes: Casey finds the addition of her tight mini-skirts and bottomless purse an unquestioned perk, while Jack tells anyone around him that she’s attracting the wrong type to San Onofre.

“Super high-maintenance.”

“Bunch of valley girls,” Casey admits.

“Exactly. None of the chill natives who actually know their way around a board.” Casey concedes the point, and Evan nods gravely.

That settles it, Casey thinks: the interloper stands for nothing if not purity, so he’s the last person he would expect to seek out Alexandra. He’s free to set up his own play. But it’s too late: Evan buys them all another round, slams his immediately, and marches across the bar to greet her. The boys watch, enthralled: will she eat this new kid for dinner as she has so many times before, or do those searching eyes know something she doesn’t?

Alexandra isn’t even sure why she’s here tonight. She’s cut back her drinking to a light trickle, and the charm of this beach dive wore off months ago. Her tablemates are all shrill harpies, and the crowd is otherwise sparse, a few aging wannabes in the corner and the tiresome Casey there in the middle with his unremarkable friends, headed for yet another stupor. And now up walks this boy who tries so hard to project some air of confidence.

“Slow night here,” Evan muses. It’s a comment for Alexandra alone, not the other four girls at her table.

“We don’t do much speed here,” she answers. “Unless you mean meth. Ask the bartender and he can hook you up for a decent price.” Evan’s eyes flit to the Samoan, who’d told him a tear-jerking tale of his turn to clean living after his release from prison the night before. They make eye contact, and he seems to know exactly what Alexandra just told him. He closes his eyes and musters up his cool.

“Appreciate the reference. Got a trailer we can take it back to?”

“Not much peace and quiet at my place. I hear you’ve got a little hermit cabin down toward the old nuke plant?”

“Out in the wilderness, just like Saint Onofre himself.”

“You’re a smart little fuck.”

“I try to be versatile. A renaissance man. A soldier-scholar. A philosopher king.”

“A drunk college jock who needs a haircut and wants it bad.”

“All of the above. Can I get you something?”

“You can get me out of here, that’s for sure.”

“Now you’re talking.” Evan steps aside to let her out of her booth and leads the way toward the exit. He doesn’t bother looking to see what sort of reaction he’s inspired, but Alexandra makes sure to give Casey a triumphant leer before she slips out behind him.

They don’t head straight for a bedroom. Freed from the need to perform, Evan sets a contemplative pace up the beach, and Alexandra regales him with the inner dynamics of her house. After five minutes of blather, she gets the sneaking suspicion he isn’t paying attention. Casey would have kept fawning after her the entire time, but no, this kid is subtly showing her he’s bored, that he doesn’t need her, that she should be the one seeking him out, not vice versa.

“Let’s head to my place,” she snaps, and he returns his attention to her.

“Not my wilderness hut?”

“Not sure I should trust men who think that sort of thing is fun. Trust me, a night in my bed will be an upgrade.”

Evan shrugs, nonplussed. Only later does Alexandra realize he already knows where she lives, her backstory, her reputation. She’s not sure if his homework should flatter or disturb her.

She drives him the five miles in to a San Clemente neighborhood near the pier. The house is compact but carries a veneer of refinement, laden with the latest IKEA furniture and a mélange of perfumes that trip Evan’s allergies, an upgrade only when compared to the piggish squalor of Casey’s apartment or the eternal pot smell of Adrian’s. He pours them both lemonades to distract himself from her waterfall of apologies.

“Want to watch something?”

“Not particularly.”

“So who are you, really?”

“Some kid who likes to surf.”

“No shit.”

For the first time since he’d swaggered over to her table, Alexandra suspects some uncertainty in Evan. He blows his nose in a tissue and lets his eyes dart about the apartment, not processing anything they didn’t see the first time. He doesn’t seem like a person eager to get on with easy sex.

“You’re such a loner,” she chances.

“I try to surround myself with the right kind of people.”

“What are those?”

“The people who fuel my fire.”

“And who does that?” she asks as she unbuttons her shirt to reveal a pink polka-dotted bra.

“Not many people.” He tugs off his shirt and lets Alexandra run her hands around his chest in gentle massage circles.

“You’re sunburned.”

“Never can escape that, yeah. I’m not a beach kid.”

“You could play one on TV.”

“I’ll remember that if my business career doesn’t work out.”

“Why are you even here?”

“To surf.”

“No, shit. But out of all the beaches…”

“I could ask you the same question.”

“Quit being smart.”

“Fine, fine.” He gazes at their reflection in a window across the room. “My family used to come here when I was young. My aunt lived out this way for a bit and my parents fell for the place. It’s been ten years now, though. Was curious if it had changed.”

“Huh. Has it?”

“Hard to tell whether I’ve changed or it’s changed.”

“For the better?”

“Well, puberty did enhance one aspect of it. But mostly, no. Everything that seemed big back then seems small now. And people are just as petty here as they are anywhere.”

Alexandra isn’t sure if this is directed at her or not. She casts about for a response that will be on his level.

“You see places better when you don’t see them as a kid. You can see what they actually are. Not what you wish they still were.”

Her would-be lover smiles. “You’d be perfect for my buddy at Yale, saying things like that.”

“I went to high school just up the road from there. Choate. Bunch of self-righteous dicks.”

“My point exactly.”

Alexandra cackles and slides a few fingers in beneath his boxers. He reaches down and clasps his hands over hers, a caress that nonetheless stops her progress.

“You never answered my question,” she says.

“It’s not an interesting story.”

“I’m curious, though!”

“Living out some childhood fantasy, I guess you could say.”

“Oh, forget it, you’re impossible. Let’s fuck.”

He turns back toward her, and Alexandra is once again drawn in to those wide eyes.

“Nah.”

“Seriously? You put in that much effort and then you run away?”

“Got a girl back home. I’m loyal.”

“Loyal. Then what the hell are we even doing here? Loyal. Holy fucking shit. Loyal.”

“You make it sound like a foreign concept.”

“You sound like the clingiest kid ever.”

“When you know what loss is, you become that.” He pulls his shirt back on, cocks his cap back in place, and heads out the door.

IV.

Night three is Mark’s night for excess. After an early win, he can let Matt take the lead in the pursuit and just follow along, let instincts do the rest. He makes a few overtures to Carmina, the shapeliest of the four single girls, but her speech is slurring before they even finish dinner, and after three bars, Mark is little better. Matt paces himself better and takes home an androgynous gender studies major from Barnard. Under normal circumstances Mark would find intrigue in his friend choosing an interesting chat over the easiest lay, but is thankful he is so drunk that he can just pass out, his only lasting memory of the night formed through Dante’s reenactments of the girl’s relentless moaning.

Day four is drizzly and grey. Nora stumbles in with a ballet dancer she’d hooked up with the night before just as the group wraps up brunch, and he has the nerve to whine about the temperature of the leftover eggs. Leslie overhears Patrick criticizing the waitstaff at the dive bar and lectures him on his lack of empathy, leading Mark to edge out of the room in annoyance. He gives Matt a nod, which Dante catches as well, and they both follow him into the kitchen.

“Gotta love the white girl from Westchester lecturing us on privilege,” says Matt.

“You said it, not me,” says Mark, relieved that the two people of color in the party can be his confidantes.

“I give her points for trying,” says Dante. “But doesn’t she work at the same firm as you?”

“That she does,” Mark replies as he contemplates the empty Bloody Mary pitcher with a frown. “We’re all sinners here. Cept you, maybe, Dante.”

“Bro, his parents run a hedge fund,” says Matt. Mark cackles with glee while Dante blushes.

“Not where you come from, but what you do with it, right?”

“Sure. Something like that,” says Matt. “Ugh, the fridge is out of beer. I’ll get more.”

Dante shakes his head as Matt goes. “You and Matt together are a hell of a pair.”

“We’ve been playing the same game our whole lives, Delbarton all the way back.”

“I had you pegged as more of an Exeter kid.”

“Dad was a sleazebag. He fit in better in Jersey.” Mark grabs a tennis ball off a nearby counter and bounces it off the floor.

“Hey now, you know I’m in Camden.”

“Gotta get some good material there.”

“Like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

“I spent a summer in Detroit. Went to an all-black bar most nights. I’ve seen a thing or two.” Mark idly bounces the ball.

“What were you after?”

“Probably the same thing you’re after.”

“Sure, but you ain’t black, dude. Those are my people there.”

“Right. I realize there are things I’ll never understand about that. Why can’t I try as much as I can to make them mine, too?”

Dante looks at him quizzically. “What the hell you doing here, then, getting trashed on this beach?”

“Playing the game, like I told you.”

Dante shakes his head. “Leslie says you should leave Wall Street. Says you need more than an intellectual dead zone.”

“Everywhere seems that way after Yale, really.”

“Let me show you Camden. See if you still think that after. You can get so much more than this.”

Mark’s eyes flit out at the waves through the rain-spackled window. The tempo of the tennis ball accelerates.

“Roots are complicated things. And mine are here.”

Mark’s heart isn’t in night four. He skips most of the day drinking games and plays cribbage in the lounge with Leslie, who knows him well enough to give him space. He halfheartedly coaches Dante as they size up a group of townies at a less popular beach, the best he can do to escape the motions of a tiresome routine, but Dante has no real interest in his game. Matt is back with the Barnard girl, who makes it clear she has no interest in Mark’s droll act; what exactly she sees in Matt, other than perhaps a brown kid with a lower outward privilege score, is unclear. After staying tight for three nights, their group spreads out across three bars in downtown: the couples choose a quieter locale for date night, Dante and Leslie join an edgier crowd at the dive bar, and Mark trails after the single girls intent upon a party, taking no joy in his role as the playboy.

To his relief, Matt slips away from his hook-up from the night before and employs a full court press on Eva. Mark takes his cue that he’s free to do as he pleases and turns his attention to his target for the whole week: Amelia, the prettiest of the bunch in his eyes, less busty than Eva or Nora but eternally poised and prim, an early employee at a start-up who has drifted into its inner ring. This conquest requires no great art, nor any drunken oblivion: merely the two best-credentialed people in the house taking their natural place at each other’s side.

Mark and Amelia cab back to Solomon’s Temple and wander along the dunes. She’s had more than him but is still in control, content to let him drape and arm around her shoulder and let it sneak downward. He can feel the tension draining out of her as they go and lets himself follow suit, a pair of neurotics twinned in escape.

“Isn’t this absurd, getting trashed out here every night?” he asks her.

“It is. How fucked up do we have to be to want this?”

“If this is fucked up, do we want to know normal?”

“Damn. And we’re the successful ones.”

“Just know how to keep up appearances as we play the game.”

“It’s all a game to you, isn’t it?”

“You got a better way to treat this thing we do?”

“Just make sure we don’t always play the game the same way.”

“Oh, I try. Matty and I are in competition all week.”

“I picked up on that. What’s tonight’s challenge?”

“We’re gonna see who can bring a girl home for a night on the beach.”

Amelia stops and glares at him. “I see you’ve won.”

“Always do.”

“Well, tell Matt to get his junk and whatever pussy he’s found to go with it down here with us.”

“The four of us, under the stars?”

“Why not?”

This seems too easy. Mark wants to ask her what exactly it is she’s looking for, but some instinct tells him it isn’t a prudent question. He calls Matt and orders him to the beach, hypes up an impending orgy even though he knows it will be nothing of the sort. He and Amelia pick their way back to Solomon’s Temple and arrive just as Matt and Eva climb out of their cab. The foursome is quiet, and Mark tries to diagnose the mood in the house, some mix of exhaustion and hope for something new; unspoken dreams for transcendence, or merely a release of pent-up drives?

Amelia and Eva collect a few wine bottles from the cellar while Mark and Matt and scope out the dunes for a leeward pocket where they can settle in beneath a few blankets. After the girls arrive, they chug the wine to warm themselves. Amelia is shuddering in the cool night air, and Mark nuzzles up against her. He wants to tell her that he’s been scheming for this moment since he met her two months ago; down the slope, he catches snatches of Matt and Eva’s debate over the most comfortable position with the added variables of sand and dune grass, and is tempted to test their advice.

But he says nothing. Amelia nests her body into his and settles into the rhythmic pulse of sleep, and he can only lie there, wide awake, loath to call it a night but even more reluctant to disturb her peace. He runs his hand gently up and down her side, content drain his plastic cup and meld his body into hers. Something about this feels different, less a conquest and instead a comfortable place to lay his head. He’s not sure he trusts it.

Mark wakes with a start when the first rays of sun creep over the beach, and his shudder stirs Amelia to life. He feels somehow wronged as she peels herself from him, but he musters up a bemused grin that she returns. She lets him kiss her gently.

“I do need to get back to the city today,” she says as she pulls away and climbs to her feet.

“Gotta get outta here before you start feeling something. I get it.”

“You almost sound sad about it, you soulless leech.”

“I can have an emotion every now and then.”

“Cute, kid.”

“Drinks sometime next week?”

“If I’m in the mood.” She swings a blanket over her shoulder and stalks her way back toward the house. Eva yells after her and hurries to follow, sick from how much she drank the night before. Matt sits up on his blanket, rubs his eyes, and looks up at Mark as if he were some heavenly apparition.

“You get all the points. Damn, Marky. She’s such a boss.”

“I guess,” Mark shrugs. “If she were as in control as she pretends she is, she’d say eff the boss and take more of this for herself.”

“She’s got the balls to leave this behind. I give her real credit for that.”

Mark cocks his head. “Dude, you just slept with a Vanity Fair model on a Nantucket beach. You really gonna question all this?”

Matt frowns as he massages his temples with one hand and adjusts his package with the other. “I am. Just too much of the same, day after day.”

“You the last person I thought I’d hear that from.”

“I’m serious, bro. I think you need to start seeing someone.”

“Nah. Not how I operate.”

“You’re allowed to win with help from other people sometimes.”

“You givin up on my game, Matty?”

“Shit, dude, you’re a one-track machine.”

Mark blinks at Matt, shocked to hear his closest comrade abandon the cause. Is he that neurotic, that driven to excess? For all his claims to the contrary, he has to concede the point. His life has taken on a manic pace, its successes more sustained but punctuated by these sporadic crashes when he just loses all self-control and lapses into days of sputtering misery.

Matt is too loyal to leave him alone and march off up the beach after the girls, but even as they collect themselves and their blankets and their empty bottles and begin to walk back toward the house together, he senses a new divide between them. Everyone else has found their stops off this train, but he just plows on toward the end of the line, wherever that might be.

V.

The next day, Evan is back to a life of complete isolation. At first Alexandra just diagnoses cold feet, a retreat from intimacy for a kid who only has a few days left on the beach. She’s seen it before, this fear of commitment. But Jack suspects something different: he looks at all of them the same way, some mixture of intrigue and pity, as if he dreads some great tragedy that he knows will befall them as they party on in their ignorance. Weeks later, when Alexandra looks back on this most bizarre of her summer forays, she will agree: he was a breed apart.

Evan has no knowledge of Jack and Alexandra’s blowout argument at the Ex-Con-Tiki. He is back in his cabin, alone, though alert enough to flash Casey a middle finger when he tries to peek in his window after bar close. As far as Casey can tell, he is only brooding, his notebooks untended, his phone forgotten on the bedside table; those eyes, unable to squint out toward the light, just fixed on the dark void where the nuclear power plant used to be.

Once Evan is sure Casey is gone, he dons all his surf gear again and takes his board down to the beach. He laughs at himself, this necessity of looking the part, even in the wilderness. He’s an actor playing a role, but aren’t they all actors on some great stage?

The waves aren’t right. It’s too calm, too still. He won’t have the final triumph he dreamed of to round out this trip. He turns to leave the ocean; might as well get a full night’s sleep. But he doesn’t get far before another instinct forces him to turn back.

Evan saunters over to where he’d washed up in front of Alexandra the day before. He drives his board into the sand and takes a seat next to it. He holds his knees in his arms and closes his eyes, his sole focus the inward crashes and outward pulls of the surf.

Every step on this beach has stirred up some memory, some past dream. It’s a home of sorts, and it’s tempting to remain in this world, to never leave behind the San Onofre of his youth. Evan could settle into a life here, set up in a little shack and drop his pretense and befriend someone like Jack. He could be happy here. He can just surf.

But this trip has never been about that. He’s passed his test, rode into the jaws of death and tempted himself as he’s never been tempted before. He’s come out triumphant. Back in the cabana a half hour later, Evan jots down a notes for a few calls he’ll make the next day. He’ll go back to Minnesota with no need to linger any further on what this beach means to him, no need to play out a dozen different futures in his mind any longer. He knows how the next chapter in his story will read. Now he just needs to write it.

VI.

Scandal is under way when Matt and Mark return to Solomon’s Temple. Erica, high on cocaine, made drunken passes at Dante in the kitchen the night before. The poet pleads his innocence, but Patrick demands culpability, and the house has separated into Team Patrick and Team Dante. Mark’s natural instinct is to sequester the two of them and order them to find a resolution, but today he feels drained, and for the first time all week, he has no Amelia to perform for. Does he still have time to catch her ferry back to Hyannis?

Mark tells Matt to sort it all out and heads to his room. His hangover, lurking in the backdrop since he woke, roars into full force by late morning, as his worst ones always do. He wants to crawl back into bed, but there is no time, he convinces himself; time, perhaps, is running out. His feelings are too complicated, too cluttered even for a mind attuned to life among shades of grey. He needs to purge any conflicting feelings. He needs to run. Matt can only watch in incredulity as Mark changes into his Yale shorts and a tight athletic top and begins his easy jog out to the beach.

The first mile goes easily enough, but by the time Mark swings inland toward Milestone Road, he knows he’s made a mistake. His stomach churns with the unprocessed concoction of six different types of alcohol, all intent upon making its way out into the world; whether upward or downward he cannot tell. Lightheaded, he slows to a stumble and waits for a slow-moving truck to pass him before he dips into a convenient shrubbery. He squats, wills his digestive tract to act, forces out what he can and wipes his anus with some inadequate sandplain grasses. He is revolted, but he must go on. Perhaps he can cut this short and make a loop down the airport road, though there’s too much traffic there. Maybe this little side lane will do the job?

For a moment he resumes his brisk early pace, seemingly cleansed. But it’s a false reassurance. A quarter mile later, he’s seizing up more than before. He drops his rate to a slow walk, unable to keep a straight line, the world starting to swim before him. A middle-aged woman driving her Prius the other direction gives him a look of concern, but pushes on. Freed from any prying eyes, he returns again to the hedges, this time intent to stay for as long as he needs. He pushes across a grassy plain to another clump of scrub oak, tries to force more out but nothing will come; he fears he’ll vomit, but that too stays down. He breaks out in an intense sweat, feels the color drain from his face, wonders if he’s on the verge of a collapse into the bushes. There’s a house maybe five hundred feet away. Should he call for help? Ask someone to summon an ambulance? Spell out his will and testament in the sand before him?

He’s not quite sure how long his agony lasts, whether it is five minutes or half an hour, but it doesn’t matter. This is more than some stray hangover. He is a piece of trash, a useless scum, a kid with promise who’s pissing it away in a silly performative world of endless nothing. This will be the end of the line, the wake-up call he needs and the liberation of a sickened soul. No more descents into hedonism without purpose, no more sad nights alone in his room. And then there, squatting in a bush, clothing caked in sweat, hands buried deep in his disheveled hair, he turns his gaze upward and his closed eyes perceive the world through those of a child, future or past he cannot be sure, and suddenly he feels the pain easing away, drained out into this sandy Nantucket soil where it can remain.

Mark rises and begins a steady trot back to the beach house, ready to guide his charges out on a tour of the island’s lighthouses and feed them a fresh seafood dinner. His stomach rumbles softly. The wind tugs his hair in and out of his eyes. He smiles a manic smile. He’s found his pace.

90s Boys, Part II

17 Nov

Part One is here.

While The Topeka School aims to render contemporary America in grand moody sweeps, the book I read in conjunction with it, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations, has seemingly more modest expectations. The allegory is more subtle and less grandiose, the language more measured, more matter-of-fact, a believable rendering of characters’ thoughts. Instead, Tilney worms his way into the mind of Ben Weeks, a third-former (high school freshman to the rest of us) at St. James School, a New Hampshire boarding school not-so-loosely based on the prestigious, if sometimes embattled, St. Paul’s. Ben is a sixth-generation SJS student, the son and nephew of prominent school benefactors, younger brother to a freshly minted SJS grad who was something of a campus legend, and an emerging squash star. On paper, he’s the embodiment of the WASP elite.

It would be easy to take a snapshot of Ben as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He is caught up in an anxious, morally dubious world of high school social striving, and the closest friends he develops have few redeeming qualities. For most of the book, he at best offers compromised advice to Ahmed, his Dubaian roommate with no concept of American social norms; at worst, he enables other kids’ torment of him. The nagging voice in his head does nothing to keep him from getting drunk enough to vomit all over the room in his first month at the school or engaging in any number of other improprieties large and small. He frequently lies to get out of trouble, and he gets away with it.

And yet Ben retains a tender core. Tilney wallows deep in Ben’s adolescent brain, an achievement both relatable and exhausting: in any given moment, his actions make sense, always an effort to find his place in a harsh social world and a long family history. His bluster always tentative, and at no point do we feel his heart is in it; he remains sensitive and industriously tries to make his way through an unforgiving environment. He is overwhelmed by forces beyond him, struggling desperately to find his own self beneath the weight of generations of expectations.

Part of the problem is the world in which Ben finds himself. St. James is caught in a moral paradox best embodied by the St. James Companion, a book of expectations it gives to its incoming students, a relic of a different era that still calls students “boys” even though SJS has long been co-ed. It wants to protect its students from the forces of the world and teach them humility while preparing them to rule it. The isolation from the rest of the world it so long enjoyed is beginning to break down amid modern connectivity. Disciplinary hearings are a farce, tied more to the school’s image than any sense of justice, an attempt to keep up appearances in changing times. Ben’s family situation is not what it seems at the outset, and like any family that finds its social situation fragile, he swiftly develops an anxiety that his complex social world turns into outright paranoia.

The Expectations is an elegy of sorts for East Coast old money. That includes its most redeeming qualities: frugality and taste in the face of gauche free-spending from the likes of Ahmed, its dying moral code an effort to tame the privilege the SJS kids enjoy. The WASPs aspired to their virtues, and often those virtues aligned with the best of the American project, but as that old aristocracy collides with new money and mass democratic culture, it finds the world has left it behind. The Companion isn’t relevant for Alice, Ben’s love interest, nor for Ahmed, who irks Ben with his dismissal of SJS tradition until he suddenly does branch out in a way that could destabilize Ben’s place at the school. Ben has few qualms about breaking rules so long as they are in line with the traditions of SJS mischief, but other forms of impropriety become existential threats.

As with Adam in The Topeka Project, Ben has a smart but ultimately tragic father and a pillar-like mother, an arrangement that seems either oedipal or an indictment of a particular era in American fatherhood. Ben’s mother, a budding academic with a keen and sympathetic understanding of her son’s motives, is the novel’s grounding force; his father, meanwhile, is every bit the sorry heir at the end of the line, riding past glory and fully consumed by a need to keep up appearances. The Expectations is a more sympathetic rendering of how elite hunger for wealth and power overrides a veneer of culture than The Topeka School, and for its efforts may prove an even more searing indictment.

I knew approximately nothing about squash before reading this book—another sign of WASP decline, perhaps—but the squash portions of the book are among its most riveting. Squash is both Ben’s escape and a source of stress, especially as the stakes get higher, and anyone familiar with high-stakes high school sports (or any such activity) will relish the tale of his struggle, at once both in search of prestige and cloistered in a narrow world of little interest to anyone beyond the courts. The SJS squash coach, the aptly named Manley Price, is probably a good barometer for readers’ reactions to The Expectations. Readers who relish his efforts to push his students to the brink probably understand the desire to elegize St. James; those who find him an over-the-top manipulator will probably want to grab Ben and order him to head back to his local public school. But if a culture of excellence is to sustain itself, it needs its manly (or womanly) prices; if there is any virtue in higher moral codes, they need to have arbiters and norms to maintain those standards. That tension sits at the core of The Expectations, and the moral questions it raises are some of the most crucial ones a changing society has to ponder.

The Expectations is a debut novel, and as a result has some of the rangy weaknesses of debut novels. Its third-person limited perspective gives us an exacting portrait of Ben but comes at the expense of depth for some of the supporting characters. Its occasional tendency to wander into other brains or offer sudden insights from on high, while sometimes a welcome break from relentless Ben thoughts, usually rings false; the need to name-check every 90s brand also drained me, especially as someone who is a bit too young to find any resonance in many of them. (This may be the point, of course.) But Ben Weeks is a timeless exemplar of the status struggle of teenage boyhood, and in the final chapter, when he has nothing left to lose, he starts to find himself. ‘Let yourself bleed,’ Price tells him, and Ben pays the price to learn the true nature of the world around him.

90s Boys, Part I

16 Nov

My fiction consumption lately has featured novels with 90s high school boys at their centers, a kick driven by some of my own preferences and a product of what some good younger writers have put out in 2019. The first, Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed The Topeka School, operates on a different level from the second, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations; the latter is content to present its characters’ thoughts as-is, but the chapters in The Topeka School often have extended allegories and drift into stream of consciousness to tie the threads together. Its style is one a New York Times review calls “autofiction”: borderline autobiographical, the fourth wall broken as the protagonist, Adam Gordon, writes in 2019 about his teenage self and includes excerpts from his parents.

At its core, The Topeka School is a meditation on the power of language and an argument for its importance in how we understand our world. Adam in his prime contends for a national high school debate championship by mastering a technique known as the spread, an incoherent, rapid-fire style designed to game the rules of the competition that Lerner none too subtly suggests has leeched into American corporate culture and politics. (The causal arrow most likely goes the other direction.) Another chapter delivers a pained portrait of the loss of those faculties in old age, as dementia removes any possibility of comprehension. Whether an intentional debate tactic or a loss of bodily control, the collapse of language upends the world.

Adam’s parents, two psychologists at an institute in Topeka called The Foundation and direct stand-ins for Lerner’s parents, take over the narration for extended stretches of the book. Jonathan, Dr. J, makes for the most lyrical of the narrators, the man himself practically a living Hermann Hesse novel. But Adam’s mother, Jane, is the book’s moral core, a celebrated feminist author who withstands the misogynistic abuse she endures with carefully refined tactics, a pillar even as some of her most vital relationships crumble. The Topeka School has garnered deserved praise for its treatment of toxic masculinity, and at its best, it shows a way out of that hell, a love letter from a son to his mother for what she taught him, even if he often failed to see it.

The Topeka School makes a concerted effort to diagnose the ills of modern America through frequent references to the nation’s imperial decline. One chapter, “The New York School,” lays bare the underbelly of a glamorous life in the diplomatic corps at the apex of American hegemony, an attempt to question the idea that those really were the glory days. The novel checks the “end of history” phrase box several times and pokes at the conceit that filters down from grandstanding politicians to self-important high school debaters. More often, though, it lingers in the mid-90s ennui of well-off white kids in Kansas, following their forays into sex and drugs and gangsta rap. Each chapter begins with an interlude in the story of Darren Eberheart, a childhood acquaintance of Adam’s and a social outcast who becomes one of Jonathan’s “lost boys,” consumed by male rage. If this is the empire, Lerner seems to say, is its demise all that sad?

While Jonathan is the narrator in “The New York School,” Jane takes command of that chapter, which makes an extended metaphor out of guiding an airplane safely to the ground. That great machine up in the sky, so far beyond the imagination of previous generations, incredible until it suddenly becomes a machine barreling along at hundreds of miles per hour, one small mistake all the only thing between its passengers and certain death. While reading this chapter my mind went to the “Flight 93 election” conservative analogy to Trump, the claim that the salvation of the republic require that people of good faith take down the hijacked plane. This, Lerner seems to say, is exactly the wrong way to react when the plane starts to smoke. Jonathan and Jane’s patients’ attempts to talk through their problems are an attempted corrective to the spread, a hope for a halting path out from the incoherence. When crisis strikes Adam, Jane is there to guide him down, and Jonathan is there as our flawed and awed witness to both the heights and recesses of the mind. Here, amid an otherwise fairly dark rendering of modern American life, Lerner finds hope.

I have two great critiques of The Topeka School. One is that, despite growing up in a comfortable Middle American community a decade later with some talent of my own in academic competitions before heading East, I could not relate to Adam at all. This isn’t to say he’s a false character; maybe the world changed drastically in a decade, and maybe there’s a a red state-blue state split or some other cultural divide between Duluth and Topeka at play. I also don’t think relatability should necessarily be the foremost concern in rating a book’s merits. But I never felt Adam come together as a character the way Ben Weeks does in The Expectations, in part because it skipped over the years between innocent ten-year-old Adam and troubled seventeen-year-old Adam that would have described how he became the way he was. Though he is the supposed protagonist, his parents came to life better than he did, more obvious products of their own briefly rendered parents than Adam is of Jonathan and Jane.

Why does Lerner not seem to care about Adam’s progression through life? I’d hazard to say it’s because he sees his world as fundamentally fallen, a product of nature and forces beyond anyone’s control. A pool cue ball, a symbol of Darren Eberheart’s violent rage, “had been there all his life;” Jonathan cannot say how his lost boys of privilege come to be, and his mentor, Klaus, offers up a contradictory claim of both eternal failings and the product of imperial decline. Some combination of male aggression is inherent, and culture (especially in late capitalist America, a land of “adolescence without end”) acts as an accelerant; the best we can hope for is to tame it. In broad terms I’d buy this hypothesis, and Lerner captures many of its contours. But I’m not sure he gives Adam (and, through Adam, his own teenage self) enough credit; while Jane tells us that teenage Adam is really a pretty decent guy, we see him only at particular flash points, and this never really comes through. The portrait just doesn’t feel complete.

My second critique, related and more serious, is of the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that its attempt at a zeitgeisty twist fell completely flat for me. I felt some unease when I read the first chapter of the book when it was excerpted in the New Yorker this year: the subject matter drew me in immediately, but I worried it might be too clean in its vision of suburbia, too exaggerated in its effort to wash away nuance in its quest to set a brooding mood and say Important Things about contemporary American life. Beneath this desire to plunge into a full examination lay a simplistic, rather ideological lens, and in the last chapter, it all came back out again. If Jane’s plane had a gentle landing, Lerner’s skids along the runway.

Perhaps this is the price we pay for having a poet for an autobiographical novelist, a writer more drawn to rendering moods and meditative auras than crisp declarative prose. (Either that, or I wasn’t on enough drugs when I read the thing.) The Times review, trading off a point made in the Zadie Smith essay I quoted on here last month, thinks Lerner’s lack of authorial authority is just what the novel needs now, an admission that this author who is trying to say something about contemporary life (notably, a straight white guy from the Heartland) needs to acknowledge where his own perspective stops. The point, surely, is a valuable one. But the counterpoint, right there before us, is Jane Gordon, a far more interesting character than the autobiographical Adam. If only Jane could’ve had the last word; she wouldn’t have needed to append an account of her wokeness to prove she’s on the right side of history. Her life, as rendered in the book, is testament enough to everything that she and Lerner stand for.

Part Two is here.

Good Writing, 10/30/19

30 Oct

In this edition of my recurring feature, I highlight articles come to me from friends and colleagues who sent me articles thinking I’d like them. They were right, and each of them ties into some piece of my semi-recent writing. Hey, maybe this whole concept can take off.

First, we pay a visit to James Fallows at the Atlantic, who offers up one of the more impressive Karl-baiting articles I can remember: his theme is one I have played with, both subtly and not so subtly, on here before. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, he argues, was not such a horrible thing for humanity. Instead, for most people, life went on. Many of the monasteries and breakaway provinces retained the most valuable pieces of antiquity and formed the foundations of the modern world. If our American moment is indeed analogous to the late Roman Empire, is that really such a horrid thing? Scale makes national politics nothing more than cultural signaling, and the real work of governance happens close to home. Fallows and his wife, Deborah, wrote about Duluth when they traveled the country looking for examples of how this localism could work.

In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik spends some time in my field of urban planning, and gives some nuanced revisionism of the critiques of mid-century urban renewal. Said renewal gave us a lot of ugly, bad buildings with no concept of the cities surrounding them, but it also aspired to grand solutions. Not all of them were elites glibly or malevolently displacing people of color to facilitate commerce; in fact, many had some of the noblest intentions, and at times they did a much better job of creating access for people than the contemporary ethos of preservation, which often has the effect (whether intended or unintended) of privileging people who already live in a place and making it different for others to break in. As with Pruitt-Igoe, maybe the fault is less with the planners and architects than with a political environment that never gave their ideas a chance.

Gopnik points out many of the ironies of urban political alliances–developers with housing-seeking liberals, conservatives and radical leftist preservationists–and nudges toward a conclusion that attractive architecture and design are what really matters. Our urban moment is very different from that of the past half-century, and Gopnik concludes by abolishing rent control (correctly) and urban planning departments (well, that’s awkward). This kid trained as a planner thinks he is on to something when he says that different times should make us consider rescuing the best of the past era of planning, such as its noble grand attempts to confront pressing issues, while doing away with the ugly architecture and the paternalism. Somewhere in this mess lies an answer, and we can yet find it.

Finally, since I’ve been writing some things about different generations lately, I’ll offer up a New York Times piece by Taylor Lorenz that shows how Generation Z is starting to have some snarky fun at the expense of Baby Boomers (or, at least, a subset of baby boomers that seems particularly naive to some of the challenges that now afflict young people). As noted in my June post, this broad-brush generational portrait is fairly narrow and perhaps enjoys some New York Times confirmation bias, but I am nonetheless amused.

I’ll close with two quotes about writing. The first comes from Zadie Smith, my favorite part of a sparkling, complex essay in the New York Review of Books that explains why fiction is still valuable, particularly in an era when intellectual currents challenge writers’ ability to enter into the experiences of others and accurately represent them.

[I]n our justified desire to level or even obliterate the old power structures—to reclaim our agency when it comes to the representation of selves—we can, sometimes, forget the mystery that lies at the heart of all selfhood. Of what a self may contain that is both unseen and ultimately unknowable. Of what invisible griefs we might share, over and above our many manifest and significant differences. We also forget what writers are: people with voices in our heads and a great deal of inappropriate curiosity about the lives of others.

Amen.

The second, in much the same vein, comes from Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which I reviewed earlier this year:

He knows that a lot of literary people in college see books primarily as a way of appearing cultured. When someone mentioned the austerity protests that night in the Stag’s Head, Sadie threw up her hands and said: No politics, please! Connell’s initial assessment of the reading was not disproven. It was culture as class performance, literature fetishized for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterward feel superior to the uneducated whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. Even if the writer himself was a good person, and even if his book really was insightful, all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols, and all writers participated to some degree in this marketing. Presumably this was how the industry made money. Literature, in the way it appeared in these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything. Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story, and he felt that old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

Ouch.

30 Oct

The New Yorker accurately skewers my writing life:

ouch

So excuse me while I stay true to form and go drown my sorrows in a wine bottle.

Anyway, I took the past week off from writing after finishing my marginally autobiographical plot-lite exploration of driven-yet-wandering teens who later become twenty-somethings who express their wants and needs in fits and starts. (See? I’m not totally typecast!) It was strange, and somehow resulted in me having no more free time than I normally do. I couldn’t see it when in the middle of that week, but I was directionless.

I think I can officially declare myself an addict. I write to make sense of the world, but for all of the sense-making I do, I’m not happy unless I continue to write and continue to make more sense of my world. Except in rare spurts of stream of consciousness, or when I write about topics that require less mental exertion like hockey or horse race politics, I’m an exacting writer. My process is slow, choppy, and full of long tunnels of frustration punctuated by very rare spurts of certainty and inspiration. (Somewhere in here is yet another obnoxious metaphor for life.) Rarely would I call myself happy as I write, but one of my characters did have a pretty good quote about happiness in that last installment in my story, so maybe he has some wisdom for me there.

The busier I am in my day-to-day life, the more value I place on finding time to write. I suspect this is because a hectic life gives new value to opportunities for slow thought. The instant reaction, the hot take, the sound bite or Tweet: so many demands of contemporary punditry militate against the slow, careful reasoning necessary to parse through different arguments or reflect on the past. (For a take on why this is important, revisit this Joseph Epstein quote factory on what it takes to be cultured.) Writing, which forces me to put care into thoughts, is the perfect vehicle for working toward that pursuit of understanding.

Fiction is the most satisfying writing I do because it is in many ways the slowest. There was no timeline on any of the posts in that series, and no need to come up with my own quick response in the dialogue. Not once did I slide something into one of those stories in response to some recent development in my life; many of the thoughts had been forming for years, while many dealt with things I have never experienced. It was patient, exacting, and had no need to answer to anyone or anything other than my own curiosity over how certain debates and situations could plausibly play out. Fiction is a playground to explore realities like our own without actually living through them.

None of it happens in a vacuum, of course. This latest installment had handful of guides, including books like Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Peter Matthisen’s The Snow Leopard, and William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, and films like La Grande Bellezza and Y tu mamá también and The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Film weighs heavily here, I suspect, due to the episodic nature of the story; curiously, I can’t name a single novel that directly influenced my efforts, though I suppose there are hints of Gatsby and Wallace Stegner lurking in there.) Deep in my memory, I can probably recollect some stray conversation about Havasu Falls and the tale of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, and while only one of the eleven installments had any direct autobiographical undercurrents, my own life certainly courses through much of it in subtle ways.  Fiction can come to seem like an incoherent hodgepodge of influences, or an author’s attempt to show off a vast knowledge. My previous efforts often came across that way, so this story collection tried to rectify that.

Beginning with that first story about Evan on his surfboard, which still might be my favorite of the bunch, there was a deliberate attempt to strip away all artifice and focus only on the world inhabited by the two characters. “Less is more,” I told myself time and again, purging away useless details and chopping out aimless dialogue. I intentionally avoid most all markers of time; other than establishing their use of cell phones and perhaps some of their slang, there’s very little in the stories that can pin the characters at any point over the past fifty years. I used some descriptive language to set scenes and interrupt long runs of dialogue, but I tried to live in the characters’ minds and in the tasks immediately before them that consume their thoughts. If I haven’t put readers directly into their minds instead of some obvious extension of my own, I haven’t succeeded.

When I was fully invested and writing well, my fiction almost becomes an out of body experience. Mark and Evan have existed in some form since my undergraduate days, but they took on new life over the past year and a half, when they became two influential and sometimes warring factions in my head. As a writer of fiction, I sometimes feel like I’m living four or five parallel lives, and if I ever seem lost in some other world, it may be because I’ve wandered down one of those other paths that I’ve invented, at least for a little while. I tend to reject strict methods of categorizing people or a sense of a “true self” because I can inhabit several different, sometimes conflicting selves, and I don’t see this inherent tension as necessarily problematic. If anything, it expands horizons, and makes the rich variety of the world and human experience possible, if only in a fleeting way, to someone who otherwise can get bogged down in the lurches of emotion of day-to-day life. Fiction, in its ability to transport readers, makes us free.

So, perhaps in that spirit, this blog will now move on to some very different ways of being. I have to offer up some bread and circuses to go along with the invented worlds, so we’ll gear up for elections in my next post, and hockey season is just around the corner, too. Thanks, as always, for bearing with all of this eclectic slow thought.

Amor Mundi

21 Oct

This is the eleventh, and (probably?) final, piece in a fictional series that began here.

Evan always dreads the end of his travels with Mark. It’s not because he’ll miss the places he’s visited, or even the increasingly rare time spent with a friend whose infectious charisma still entrances him after all these years. He’s lived to the fullest, and these brief windows can’t go on. That would defeat the point. Instead, Evan fears his inevitable lapse when he’s back to his humdrum routine. His mind will be elsewhere this week, part the product of exhaustion, part the wistful wonder over other lives that could have been or could yet be. His mind opens to different possibilities, and he will dwell longer than he should.

This time, however, Evan suspects his own comedown has nothing on his friend’s. Mark jabbered most of the way down to Havasu Falls about his ongoing exploits in New York, and they’d bonded with their fellow travelers and Havasupai guides on their night beneath the falls before the two of them escaped for their customary bout of moonlit, bourbon-fueled philosophy. He’d seemed as self-satisfied as ever. But this morning, Mark is a different creature entirely. His moodiness is not in itself a strange development, but Evan’s usual tools to coax him out prove useless.

Frustrated, Evan hangs back with the chatty Mormon couple they’d dined with the day before. He needs human companionship, and stray stories of hiking adventures are ample fodder for fellowship in these circles. He rhapsodizes over their night in a tent deep in Zion eight years earlier, and his fellow hikers nod in delight at this story of friendship sustained over time and distance. But his words belie the growing gap between them as they plod up out of the canyon. When he sees Mark accelerating, he knows he too has to turn on his jets and keep up, and the Mormons know to let him go. Mark may not want to talk, but he clearly wants Evan’s presence, and Evan answers the silent call.

Evan trudges along at Mark’s side in the baking heat, but Mark remains intent upon his feet. Even in a state of melancholy, Mark still pulses with power. He’s barely even perspiring. Despite his lighter complexion he somehow manages to bronze instead of burn, while Evan already knows he has a date with a bottle of aloe upon his return to civilization. If this were a week-long trek, Evan could likely outpace Mark, but on a long weekend with just two ten-mile bursts into and out of a canyon, Mark is in a class of his own. Evan feels strangely inadequate, as if he must bring Mark to heel.

“Quit thinking about Indira,” he says. “It’s done.”

“I’m not on Indira at all. I’m actually thinking back to Jackie.”

“Woah. Back to the start?”

“Sure. Just…let me process for a bit, okay?”

“Of course. Here for you, bro.”

Mark’s nods to show his appreciation of Evan, but his mind is already back in high school. It’s the summer after his junior year, and his erstwhile girlfriend, Jackie, hosts a few friends in her back yard on the day before she heads off to college in Chicago. They’d long since given up any pretension of romance—though they weren’t above servicing one another from time to time—but while their friends bubble over with heartfelt high school farewell clichés, Jackie keeps casting significant glances his way. Finally, Mark retreats to the kitchen and Jackie steals away for one last moment with him. Mark grumbles about another year in Duluth without his graduating friends, but Jackie reminds him it’s worth playing the game, keeping up the illusion. He is the best there is at playing that game, and it would be a shame to waste his skills.

Somewhere along the line, Mark thinks, the illusion became reality. He really is something resembling the boy he’d pretended to be: poised, powerful, an old money heir who’s nonetheless built his own formidable reputation. He’s achieved his dreams as well as anyone he knows. He’s made his world his own, collected its wealth and eaten its best food and gone to some of its most beautiful places with the best friend he has. And yet where has it left him? Still searching, still restless, still unsure what the final destination may be.

In his more brash moments, Mark tells himself this is exactly the point. The pursuit itself is the goal, the wisdom to know he’ll never get there yet continue to push with all he has toward that destiny he’s always known is his. That drive is the secret behind all his success, and he must love it for what it is. Camus had it right. Or did he?

The moments when that mindset takes hold are all too rare, and the sheer effort he needs to sustain it wears down even his nonstop motor. Half the time Mark fails to notice his lapses, and even when he does, no number of canned lines can always break him out again. He’s not sure if he’s bipolar, or if he’s settled on a philosophy of life that is too demanding for any human to reasonably attain; one that will leave him rich, attractive, and utterly broken by the time he turns thirty. He’s in too deep to quit now.

Evan is relieved to see Mark perk back to life when they reach the parking area. Mark volunteers to drive, and throws on a series of underground rap albums as they rocket back to Vegas, educating Evan on the nuances of the New York scene that he samples on his free weekends. They make good time, and still have a few hours before they diverge on separate flights. Evan expects Mark to suggest a detour down the Strip, but Mark assures him he has no interest in crass postmodern pastiche, and heads straight for the rental car return. Evan doubts he would have been so dismissive of the Vegas party with his friends out east, but appreciates the gesture nonetheless.

“Let’s find ourselves an airport bar and get some class into this cesspool,” says Mark. “They gotta have some top shelf shit for all the rich fucks trying to live it up on their way out of town.”

“Eh, I’ve gone through so much money on this trip already.”

“It’s on me.”

“But you pay for too much—”

“Forget about it, Evs.”

Evan follows along in tow as they return the car, shuttle to the airport, and work their way through the security lines. Mark researches their beverage options during the wait and leads the way down the slot-filled concourses without a sideward glance at any distractions. Once they arrive, he pulls himself up into a barstool and reaches down to massage his aching knees, battered from his hike on top of a lifetime of goaltending and trail runs. It’s a price worth paying for what he does, his more vivacious self says as it takes back the helm. He has no choice but to push through the pain.

“What’s the best thing you’ve got?” he asks the bartender.

She laughs at him. “Got a twenty-seven year old bottle of—”

“Younger than me? Sad. We’ll take two anyway.”

The bartender looks Mark over as if to ask if this still boyish-looking kid, scruffy after a few days without a shower, won’t drink and run. Mark levels a stare so scathing that she swiftly delivers the drinks as promised. Evan shakes his head.

“What?” Mark demands.

“I’m just thinking back to that wide-eyed goalie we pulled in from Silver Bay who showed up and needed a home. He’s come a long way.”

“Whatever you say.” For once, Mark resists the urge to disagree, as he knows disagreement won’t paint him in the most flattering light. He’s not sure he’s aged a day since that chat with Jackie in high school. He still operates in the same exact way.

“Wow, this is good.”

“Drink it up, Evs. We’ve earned it. After all these years, we still know how to live.”

“Remember that first time we drank Scotch, when you snuck that bottle into the Boundary Waters for us?”

“How could I not? I’ve still got some mosquito bites on my legs from that trip.”

“Damn, Marky. You did more to get me out of my shell than anyone ever did. Even after all we’ve been through, I’m not sure you know how much I owe you.”

“Eh. I’ve always felt like I’m the one in debt here. You’re my rock, man, and you know it.”

Evan sets down his glass and turns away. He is unworthy of Mark’s praise. Bridget wasn’t thrilled that he’d planned this vacation, and Mark has chastised him repeatedly over the course of the hike for his frequent check-ins with his wife and one-year-old son. This trip has prompted alarm on several fronts: his body aches more than it used to, his upper-body strength isn’t what it was, and when he looked in a mirror in the airport bathroom for the first time in days, he realized he can’t pretend otherwise: his hair is thinning. He’s the one who supposedly lives the more stress-free, slower-paced life, but he’s not sure anything Mark has ever done can possibly approximate the life-and-death immediacy and nonstop demands of parenthood.

It has tested Evan more than he can ever tell anyone. His life over the past year has been a blur of his son’s incessant demands and Bridget’s fraying nerves. The two of them fell into spells of silent brooding, unable to say much beyond the necessary acknowledgment of their son’s needs. He can’t quite remember what inspired him to start swiping, or to propose a date to that girl with a summer job leading canoe trips up north. He hadn’t been drinking, nor was his day particularly bad. Baby Brendan was out cold, Bridget was curled up in front of the TV, and life had come to lack that imperative to treat every second as borrowed time.

He didn’t show up to the date, and erased any trace of his sins. Revolted, Evan declared war on anything in his life that might let him lapse again. First and foremost, his own father’s abandonment loomed over him: he’d strapped his son to his back and gone for a long hike along the shore, complete with long time at prayer. (He didn’t tell Mark that he’d gone up the driveway to cast a skeptical glance at the new owners’ renovations of the Brennans’ old home, and whispered Brendan some tales of Uncle Marky.) He’d started a book club with a smattering of other closet intellectuals he’d found around town. He got a key to one of the local rinks from an old friend who now manages it, and skates at odd hours of the night. And he and Bridget have purposefully started scheduling date nights in stray sections of woods to make sure they can always bring back the fire.

One other event had compelled Evan into action: Indira and Mark, after two years together, had broken up on the steps of St. John the Divine some three weeks prior. Evan had provided immediate therapy while Mark rode the subway home that night, but only on this hike did he get the full story. They’d gone to the opera together and then set out for a late-night drink with some friends at Columbia, but they’d never made it that far, and devolved into a vicious war of words beneath the old church. To hear Mark tell it, the split was mutual, the only sane outcome after repeated collisions of two high-strung egos. But Evan suspects Indira was the one to cut and run, and Mark has spent the past three weeks justifying it to himself. Mark, for all his wanderings, is unflinchingly loyal when he does choose to commit.

“I should do something for Duluth,” Mark muses. “What do you think about me buying a stake in the paper? It’d be small. But I’d be hands-on, at least.”

“Newspapers are dying.”

“Sort of. But we can keep em alive if we work at it. You control the story, you control the world.”

Evan finds himself deep in an unexpected well of derision. “That really true? How much did we put into telling this story about progress for everyone, this dream of a better world we were building? And what’s come of it? People don’t trust anyone anymore. No one controls the story, unless you can buy it with enough money, I guess.”

“Well shit. All the more reason for me to buy it, then.”

Evan rolls his eyes, and Mark sighs and tries a different tack.

“I guess it does kinda feel like the barbarians are at the gates every day these days.”

“At the gates? They’ve been living right next to us for a while now. We’ve sealed our own doom. Didn’t need any help from barbarians to get there.” Evan’s eyes bore into Mark, but Mark gazes back with firm resolve.

“Sure, we may have fucked up. But look what we built before that, though.”

“It was incredible, yeah. But we lost something along the way. I’m scared of the world I’m raising my son in, Marks. That cabin in the woods that Bridget wants is sounding better and better every day.”

“Eh, you’d never be happy there.”

“No, you’re right. I’ve got a job to do. I wish I had more to work with.”

“Well, pretty soon you’ll have an in at the paper, I can tell you that much.”

“I wish you’d just come home. You could be the best weapon in our arsenal.”

“You think Duluth would take back an elitist asshole like me?”

“You’re an asshole, but you’re our asshole. And the two of us together, we could figure out how to play the game.”

“You know how to work my ego, that’s for sure.”

“Marky Mark, I know how to work your soul.”

Mark and Evan stare at one another in mutual fear of the other’s reaction. They both avert their eyes. Evan has penetrated Mark to his core: as he always does, he has found a way to twist in beneath his myriad defenses, perhaps never deeper than this.

“Sorry,” he says.

“Don’t be. It’s true.”

“I mean it, though.”

“I know you do. But I’ve got a good life for myself, girl thing aside, and I’m gonna work that out eventually.”

“Are you sure you’re not…you know…digging your own grave?” Evan chances.

“By being so cynical about love?”

“Not quite. By…sleeping around as much as you do.” Evan gulps. He’s wanted to level this critique for ten years now, so many times has come so close to sharing his fears over his best friend’s excesses. Some combination of envy and a rooting interest has kept him from ever saying a word. He looks up carefully, worried Mark will lash back at him. But Mark is cool and collected, and speaks with icy precision.

“Look at it this way, Evs. Remember Landon? That roommate I had before Indira moved in? Dude’s in tech, loaded family, getting his Columbia MBA so he can keep climbing that ladder. He works full time, he’s in school, he’s got no time to date. Know what he did to put himself to sleep every night? Jerked off. Same old porn every night. You’ve been with the same girl since high school. Not sure you realize how fucked up our generation is, drowning itself in alternate reality. Hour after hour, day after day. Dudes don’t know the first thing about intimacy. I wasn’t gonna let that happen to me.

“So I’m not sorry if I’m a fuck-up in your eyes. I’m damn proud of myself for having the guts to go out and do this, get the real thing again and again. It takes actual skill, gives ya real pleasure. I might not be the easiest to handle all the time, I’ll admit that. But I always ask what they want, I never cheat, and I always make sure we’re on the same page. I’ll never apologize for that.”

“Oh, it’s all noble, I see,” Evan laughs. “Is that really what it’s come to, you twisting yourself like that? Nah, Mark. I’m not saying you’re wrong to be cynical. I’m saying the way you live’s made you a cynic. You don’t need to keep doing things this way. This isn’t healthy.”

“That’s the world I live in now.”

“Come home, man. Just come home.”

“To what? All due respect, Evs, there ain’t much for me there. My dad’s dead, my mom’s running around with her redneck boyfriend and we’re not close. My dad was a dick, but at least he was on my level. She can’t get me at all. You’ve got your mom, your in-laws…don’t get me wrong, Minnesota made me who I am, but there’s nothing left there now. It was always more yours than mine.”

“You’ve got me, dammit. And what’s yours instead now? Chasing the finance life? Really? Thought you didn’t want to turn into your dad.”

“Fuck it. I’ve got friends there, and there are actual marriageable girls…”

“I remember a kid from high school who plotted for half a year to lure in Jackie Donovan. Went after that cute, real smart girl a grade ahead of him. Worked her carefully, got her to let go of her old ex, made her believe love could be real again after she’d been burned. Lived a dream for a few months. Where’d that kid go?”

“Jackie left him for her ex, that’s what.”

“Aw, you still crying over the one that got away junior year? Come on. That wasn’t the point. The point was that I know you know how to make that effort.”

“That was a long time ago. I’ve seen a lot more of the world now. Buried some people, seen those couple happy years we had in high school fade. It’s just a memory now. I can’t be sixteen again, and I never will. I’m not going to try to bring that back. You call my methods spin, okay, it’s all spin. But I’ve gotta find something here.”

“I thought you had something going there with Indira.”

“I did, more than I ever have. But, what’s the best way to put it? I had a sense of loss that she just didn’t. Our lives were motivated by different things.”

Evan’s brown eyes pierce through him, and Mark has the uncanny feeling that his thoughts are no secret.

“More than you ever have? Even with Jackie?”

Mark nods. He’s never told Evan the story, but he knows Evan has pieced enough of it together.

“She was the only girl I ever loved for who she was. The rest? It’s always been chasing something or other.”

“Like what?”

“Status, beauty, some idea of a life I wanted for myself. I’ve never found that.”

“You just sound so…defeated.”

“Me? Defeated? C’mon, man, do you know anyone who’s done more to get what he wants than me?”

“Because it’s all you know how to do!”

“Bullshit.”

“Seriously, where’s the belief in something better?”

“Look at this world, bro. How are you optimistic? You, of all people, should know the darkness around us. You’ve seen it in your own life, you’ve seen it in your travels, you see it in the news every day…”

“And that’s all true! But Marky, I know what I can control. I’ve decided I can settle down with the girl I love in a place I love and we can do it all right out there.”

“Evs, I love you, I get it. But someone like you, who’s taken me places I never would’ve gone otherwise…I think that’s you at your best. You can change this world, Evs. You sure you’re not running from it when you head to the woods like that?”

“I don’t really know where I’m going, Marks, but I do know that this place I’m going is a hell of a lot healthier than the one you’re running toward.”

Mark calls for a second round from the bartender, who has edged her way to the far end of her fiefdom to avoid the bickering men. Evan glowers, unsure if the intended audience for his anguished cries is Mark or himself. He needs to believe it. He searches their fellow travelers in the airport for some humorous hint of Vegas excess to distract him from all this self-important blather. Down the bar, an Irish tourist has made friends with two young women with Southern drawls. Behind them, two parents with five children in varying states of obesity struggle to find an acceptable meal option for their charges. There is nothing particularly Vegas about this scene; just the typical placelessness of a place designed strictly to move people to other places. He’s ready to go home.

“What kills me about you, Evs, is that you could’ve had power, but you don’t. You work a decent job, live a decent life, cool. I just think you were cut out for so much more than handing out a few scholarships here and there. And I know you’ve got that drive somewhere in you to want it.”

“I do! Look at the life I’m living. Everything thought out, lined up in this great big idea of how to live that we’ve been arguing about for a decade.”

Mark closes his eyes and nods slowly. “See, that’s it. I’m the same way, man. I know you think I’m some shitty corporate raider, but I’ve got power and I’ve used it.” He stops, looks around, and lowers his voice. “I sabotaged a merger that would’ve killed a few hundred jobs in Detroit. I spent that summer there—those are my people. I put my job on the line and won. You wanna make this world a better place for your kid, you need some people on the inside. Not even your cabin in the woods is safe these days.”

Evan’s eyes bulge. He takes a drink and taps the counter as if sounding out some answer in Morse code. “I’m impressed. I really am. But can you honestly say that everything you’ve done is right and good?”

Mark stews and Evan nods, knowing the answer.

“This isn’t easy,” says Mark. “I have to make hard choices sometimes. But it comes with the territory. Gotta take the fight to the arena. Do what you can to change that narrative.”

“It’s rotten. Rotten to the core.” Mark has no answer, and Evan is again afraid he’s gone a step too far. Is he losing his filter as he ages? No, not really; they have both become hardened as they go their separate paths, and have always been stubborn in their own ways. Gone are the shared stages of school and growth, and now they are on their own, their freedom to travel their own roads a threat to undermine everything that has gone into their bond. Evan hates his era, and the only way to gain the power to fix it comes through complicity and corruption.

More and more, Evan sounds to Mark like some of the people caught up in the evangelical church he’d attended before his parents’ divorce killed whatever belief he had. Those committed believers had been so earnest, so convinced of the world’s perfidy and their own righteous ability to resist it. Mark wonders if he could find a Biblical way to justify his life to Evan, tap into that last relic of a fading faith to speak a language that makes sense to a believer. He has little memory left of it, not that it wouldn’t come all back to him if he put in a little effort. There are always answers in the wilderness.

“Honest question,” he asks. “Are you really as happy as you sound?”

“Happy, not always. But I’ve always thought happiness is a byproduct of a well-lived life.”

“Are you living your life as well as you want to, then?”

“Yes and no. I love my wife, I love my kid, I love my city, I do good work and like the people…but yet.”

“But yet what?”

“Sometimes I just feel…”

“Shit, this is like pulling teeth.”

“It’s hard to describe.”

“Is it work-related?”

“Yeah. Though it’s more than that. It’s vocational, you might say.”

“Existential Evvy at his finest yet again.”

“What I’m here for.”

Mark stirs his drink with a finger and fixes his lips together to force Evan to go on.

“It’s hard to stay motivated,” Evan chances. “And when I am, too often it’s because of fear, or anger at other things around me. If you’re looking for panache amid the ruins, I’m looking for panache through gratitude.”

“What the hell does that even mean?”

Evan takes a moment to collect his words. “All of the love of life with none of the angst.”

“Even after all this, all your listening to me, all the doom and gloom…you still manage to stay so…pure.”

“Having a kid helps.”

“Sure, but you were like this before that.”

Evan again takes his time to answer. “I waver a lot. I think you know that. But I also remember what it was like to be pure, once. And now I can see that in Brendan, every time I look at him.”

“A faith, sort of?”

“I know you won’t like that, but sure, yeah. That gets there.”

Mark shrugs. “It is what it is.”

“Do you feel it too, then?” Evan asks.

“Not really.”

“Think back to the early days before we were aware of everything. When the whole world and everything in it was sacred, in a way.”

“I’m not sure I ever had that.”

“You did, at least for a moment, somewhere, sometime. Just think.”

Mark opens his mouth, but Evan silences him with a flick of a finger. Mark reaches back into him memory and tries to find some hint of childhood delight that he can’t filter through a lens clouded by everything that has happened since. He fixes on a wedding for one of his father’s associates in his elementary school years, a glamorous affair on a sprawling Westchester estate, lush gardens and terraces galore. But for young Mark, none of those trappings matter: he just runs out and tears up the dance floor with the flower girl, and smile on his mother’s face as she bounces over to join him is forever seared in his mind. Delighted, Mark dares cast a glance at his father, who stands watch from a terrace balcony above. Preston Brennan musters up a thin smile, one of those three or four moments in his life when Mark felt his father’s love. It was possible, if only for a moment, a rare star that Mark can name.

For his part, Evan is back in San Onofre, fresh off his first surfing lesson, drenched but proud that he’s managed to stay upright for a few seconds. He and his parents settle in at a beachside diner for a seafood feast, and Evan boasts of his ride and regurgitates facts from the book on marine life he’s been reading the whole trip. His dad, a few beers deep, pokes fun at Evan’s nerdiness, while his mom grumbles about how she married a philistine. In retrospect Evan will notice how his dad tensed up when his mom tried to make those jokes, and how she would swiftly backpedal as if she’d never meant them. But at that time he’d just laughed along, and soon he has them all laughing along, back in the thralls of happily ever after. He wants nothing more than for Brendan to believe in that possibility.

“What are you thinking of?” Evan asks.

“Hockey,” Mark lies. But it isn’t a falsehood, not really: there he’d been allowed to pour unbridled passion into everything he did. It all feels like child’s play to Mark now, while Evan has the task of convincing his wife that a childhood of checks and tournament road trips is a good pursuit for their one-year-old boy. Evan wants Brendan to have that passion, even if he has to find ways to ease him into the knowledge that it cannot last. Mark simply wishes he could have it back.

“Can you believe what we had there?” Evan asks.

“That’s all over now,” says Mark. “What are we left with, once we can see the world for what it is? Everything that comes after…it’s in the shadow of what we’ve lost.”

“To lose it, someone had to build it in the first place. And me and you, we’ve been part of some great things that we built together.”

“That we have.” Mark drains his glass. “When we were sober enough to remember them.”

Evan laughs. “Left our own legend, in our own little way.”

“Evs, my man, we’ve lived well.”

“And we’ve got a full life of good living ahead of us, if we know where to look for it.”

Mark’s thoughts range far and wide, from Emma to Jackie to Indira to fifteen others in between, from backyard rinks to New Haven to Rome to a gorge high in the Himalayas, from his dying father’s words to Brendan’s fumbling first steps. He smiles up at Evan. “Since the day I met you, I’ve had some idea where. And I know you’ve got it, too. There’s your gratitude.”

Evan and Mark go quiet. Their argument has exhausted itself.

“Well, I’ve got a flight to catch,” says Evan. “Thanks for the drinks. And for everything. Seriously. And think about what I said…just remember if you ever want to come home, you know I’ll move heaven on earth to make it work for you.”

Mark closes his eyes and smiles. “Love ya, Evs. Keep bein you.”

Evan and Mark embrace in silence. Evan hoists up his backpack and makes his way down the concourse without a backward glance. He’s given it his all, and finally said was he’s meant to say to Mark for years. He is at peace with his efforts, at peace with his wanderings, and now he’s headed home to see the loves of his life. He is blessed, here amid strangers in this no-place of a concourse, and while he’ll no doubt lapse again, he has more than enough to carry himself through. He is happy.

Mark watches Evan go until he’s out of sight. “I’ll take one more,” he tells the bartender, and tosses his card on the counter. He takes a sip from the drink, swirls his glass, and raises his eyes to the bottles along the top shelf of the bar. A smile starts to play along the corners of his mouth.

He knows what he must do now, and the rest will follow. He is only beginning.

A Celebration of Literature

20 Sep

PBS is currently running a series that seeks to identify Americans’ most beloved novels. I haven’t watched it, but as the son of a Duluth librarian who is coordinating several panels on the series with local literature professors, I’ve been lured into attending a couple of events. This is the sort of thing I would probably attend anyway: by my count I’ve read 35 of the 100 short-listed novels, and have also seen film or TV adaptations of another 13, and read other works by nine authors who make the list (each could make the list only once). These events, which feature good discussion with (disappointingly) small groups, pose the vital questions that surround any such effort: what does it mean to develop a literary canon, what and who gets left out of a canon, and whether these things should be popularity contests or if some cadre experts can decree what constitutes good fiction and what does not. (While there were some limitations, the PBS series is largely a popularity contest, with works like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight making the short list alongside War and Peace and Great Expectations.) Whatever the masses end up choosing, it’s a good launching point for discussion, and a chance to spill my own thoughts.

I have little trouble naming favorite works or authors of non-fiction, but find it a much greater struggle to do so with fiction. Still, the PBS series compels me to offer up a few. One Hundred Years of Solitude sits near the top of my list for its layers of allegorical power, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World still wows for its ability to recreate a world and the full range of people within it. I reread The Great Gatsby in the past two years, and it resonated far more than I remember it doing in high school, perhaps in part because I’ve lived a slight flavor of the Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby journey, drifting from Minnesota to East Coast money and trying to find my way between those two worlds. As a literary work, though, it is near-perfect: so tightly wound, so well-constructed, and yet still so easy to access eighty years later. If anything can claim the ‘Great American Novel’ title, Gatsby is probably it. If forced to choose one book, though, I still might lurch back to the novel that began all novels, Don Quixote. It does help when one takes an entire class on a book in one’s undergraduate days from an awesome professor to get the full historical context behind a book of brilliant social commentary.

There are other works I would not put on the same pedestal as those few, but have changed how I live my life in one way or another. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was a marvelous blend of people in places I have lived, all trying to make some statement on contemporary American life, and inspired my own fictional attempts. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country came to me as I contemplated a life of foreign service of some sort, while the dry iconoclasm of Graham Greene fit the mood of a more jaded, older kid. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse gave me a metaphor that still informs many of my pursuits, and at a later stage, the criminally undervalued Wallace Stegner came along with Crossing to Safety to shower some wisdom on someone wrestling with both career ambitions and a love of place. I read them all at the right time.

Before we go any further, I’ll confirm my credentials as a literary snob: my list of great novels will all fall somewhere within the realm of realism, or at least magical realism. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed both as a kid, I have some reservations at the appearance of things like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings alongside Dostoevsky and Adichie. My literary tastes have progressed since then. I’ve done little dabbling in science fiction or fantasy as an adult, perhaps because I’m the sort of person who, upon discovering the burdens and frustrations of life, goes running for the most depressing and heavy stuff to try to find out how other insightful people have wrestled with such questions instead of looking for escapes. Some books in those genres do go in this direction: for example, Frank Herbert’s Dune downplays the tech side of science fiction and offers a rich commentary on society (and may yet inspire me to launch a Butlerian jihad), and the study of mythology and imagination behind Tolkien’s world-building has had an overwhelming influence on literature. They build complex plots, and it’s easy to fall into their worlds.

As someone who writes, however, I often find that my fondness for good writing overpowers my identification with the story. While I want to read novels that are both good stories and well-written (duh), if forced to choose, I’ll take good writing about topics that don’t fascinate me over an entertaining story. I’m not a lover of Hemingway, but he has glimmers of some of the most pristine prose I’ve ever read when he takes readers along on a fishing expedition in the Spanish countryside in The Sun Also Rises. A Prayer for Owen Meany is a fun book, but John Irving is capable of making paint drying sound amusing, and that turns a good story into a great novel. The prose of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead perfectly pairs with the heartland Protestant austerity of Reverend John Ames as he writes his letters to his son, and other writers, from Wendell Berry to Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, blur language with a sense of place in our minds. Perhaps this love of well-wrought prose is at the root of my dismissal of science fiction and fantasy as great literature: so often, even when they do manage to be insightful about human nature, those novels fixate on plot over structure and artistry, or devolve into sequels and expanded universes instead of standing on their own very real power. Their worlds fall in on themselves, instead of cycling back out to the one we live in.

I enjoy fiction that inhabits worlds similar to my own, and my world is a very large, rich place. While my defense of a concept of good writing makes me broad-brush defender of some sort of literary canon, I certainly believe in an expansive version of said canon that captures the written tradition of any number of societies. The Great American Read list is fairly thin on books translated from other languages; it is confined to a couple of Russian and French giants, Don Quixote, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. This is a mild source of frustration for someone whose literature consumption, especially in his college days, was driven by Latin American Boom authors, and expanded from there. It started with García Márquez in high school but soon wandered over toward the delightful absurdity of Julio Cortázar, the stunning range of Vargas Llosa, the posthumously beloved Roberto Bolaño, and a number of other lesser-known masters of Spanish prose. I didn’t confine my voracious reading to writers in one language, either: my reading list has often been populated by the likes of Arundhati Roy, Orhan Pamuk, Hiroki Murakami, and Edwidge Danticat. In an era of vogue scorn for the dead white men who traditionally dominated many lists of great literature, my reaction has often just been a shrug: I’ve never had any trouble incorporating a lot of people who are not like me at all into my own expansive idea of a canon. I can learn from all of them.

Despite all of this love for different worlds, the novels that affect me most tend to be coming-of-age stories. I have a deep fondness for angst-ridden teenage boys, and this has not waned even as I move further away from that phase of my own life. Thankfully, one can get a lot of mileage out of Holden Caulfield’s search for authenticity in The Catcher in the Rye, the competitive fire that makes and breaks Finny and Gene in A Separate Peace, and the question of destiny that motivates Owen and John’s friendship in A Prayer for Owen Meany. Even Harry Potter becomes a good bildungsroman when one can look beyond its magical trappings, even if it has diseased an entire generation with an overuse of adverbs.

Perhaps my favorite novel of the past ten years is The Art of Fielding, which falls into the same genre. While it bears many of the telltale signs of a debut novel in Chad Harbach’s attempts to show off his range, that flaw almost made me love it even more. It had so much in common with some of my own stumbling attempts to write fiction, and is exactly the sort of debut novel I would have been satisfied to produce. As long as they can attain some measure of distance in its perspective, youthful writings about youth resonate the best. I have little memory of reading The Outsiders in seventh grade, but suspect it would hold up well upon a second reading. (Fun aside: one of my hockey colleagues turned S.E. Hinton into a diehard St. Cloud Apollo hockey fan when he asked her for permission to play off the book while doing a story on the program’s fight for survival a few years back.) Alas, teenage boys are not a large literature market these days, which is problematic for my own stillborn writing career. If I do ever get around to publishing something, though, it will likely fall somewhere in this genre.

Speaking of which, I had a spurt of fictional inspiration this week, so I’m going to finish this blog post and stay up even later to head back to the nearly-complete story I’ve been spitting out on this blog for the past year. Long live the novel as an art form, and may all of my readers continue to read fiction for fun, even if it is trashy smut not worth the paper it’s printed on. (Actually, that sounds like it might be kinda fun. Pass along your recommendations.)