As I am writing these words before the election, I do not know if the United States has elected a madman who has the potential to scorch all life from our planet. What possible value can art and story and poetry have in the face of such pending insanity? Everything.
Jo Ann Beard’s harrowing story “The Tomb of Wrestling,” brutal and beautiful, about a woman facing an intruder in her rural home, contains enough life and heart to power us through the next ten elections. Jim Shepard takes our nation’s crumbling infrastructure, specifically our decaying rails, and makes art from the raw material. Thank you Jim and Jo Ann and all of the storytellers. And thank you to the poets at this time, at all times. Walt Whitman, in Song of Myself, wrote, “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” Thank you, Rae Armantrout, Chaim ben Avram, Shayla Lawson, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Miller Oberman, Tommy Pico, Christopher Soto, Gerald Stern for your untamableness, your irreducibility, your mysteries.
We hope that the barbaric yawps contained within these pages reflect our times and are also timeless, that they capture what it is to be alive now, and, for those of you reading in the future, that the words resonate with you as well.
—Rob Spillman, Editor
Current Issue #70
Fiction:Jo Ann Beard, Antonya Nelson, Jim Shepard, Michael Andreasen, Rebecca Makkai
The town was Lake Roma, but the lake was Roma Lake. Mel had mastered this much the week they arrived, though three years later she still couldn’t fathom why anyone would compare this part of Wisconsin to Italy. There wasn’t so much as an Italian restaurant, unless you counted Mack’s Pizzeria, which you most certainly should not.
The other thing she’d figured out right away—on her first dash to Home Depot—was that this was a football town. Painted signs, maroon and gold, lined the road for miles past the high school: “Hustle and Heart Set Us Apart!” “It’s Good, Uh-Huh, to Be, Uh-Huh, a Trojan!”
But no way was she was putting TJ in football. Mostly she didn’t want to stand in sleet on game days, slush seeping through her boots. Thank God all those reports on concussions gave her fuel, made her stance more principled than selfish.
Rick said, “Then hockey.” And when he saw her look: “They don’t let the kids fight.”
So Mel started driving her son to the ice arena once a week, then twice a week, and finally—because now, at ten, he was the youngest kid on the top twelve-and-under travel team—every day. Five AM practices, dry-land clinics, skills on Thursday nights, tournaments. Rick often handled the tournaments. Because they were on the weekends, but also because a game was something he could get into with a sincerity Mel lacked.
TJ’s teacher pointed out that he now walked pitched forward, as if he were skating down the linoleum. “And,” Mrs. Shilts continued, “he bumps into other children, like he’s—is it called checking? Bump-checking?—and I don’t think he’s even aware. But they do get upset.”
Mel wasn’t sure this was caused by the hockey as much it was the reason TJ had taken to the sport. She herself was the kind of person who ducked Frisbees, but TJ had inherited Rick’s willingness to dive into the fray, to break his own nose for the game.
Once upon a time, Mel would drop TJ off and go for a run. The other parents stayed to watch practice, to comb out a sleepy little sister’s hair, or—she’d seen it more than once—do their kid’s homework, filling worksheets with deliberately sloppy print while the boys ran drills. But unless it was pouring, Mel would run. She wore Rick’s FitBit as a favor. He had a competition going with a guy at work and thought he was hilarious, counting Mel’s steps. Last October, though, she pulled a hamstring and was out of commission a while. Afterward, it was hard to get going again. Easier to sit in the crisp artificial frost, coffee in gloved hands, staring at the action as if she cared.
And it gave her something to talk to Rick about. If she told him about her own day, he never responded much. But if she told him about the scrimmages, he’d turn and ask TJ about them. That was something.
In summer, the schedule changed. No games till September, and the U12 skills camp met at a civilized 10:00 AM on just half the rink. A toddler class (snow pants and mittens!) finished on the other half as TJ’s group warmed up. Not ideal, but ice time was a precious commodity, and this was just skills—stick work, dribble, dodges. Open hockey was every weeknight at eight, and that’s when they slammed into walls, skidded around with that knife sound. Mornings, Mel was terrified a puck would fly down the rink, hit a little kid below the bike helmet. But the toddlers were soon done, and then—this was fascinating enough that Mel made a point of sitting near the middle of the rink so she could watch—Evan Adler took over that half of the ice.
There’d been an article about Evan in the Lake Roma Gazette that spring, and she’d shown it to TJ. “Do you know this boy? He’s in your grade.”
TJ said, “Mom. He’s not, like, my friend or anything.”
“Sheesh,” she said. “I didn’t say that.”
“He brought a briefcase to school once.”
“Your dad carries a briefcase.”
Evan Adler was spectacular. He wore a red sweatshirt and black . . . were they leggings? She could picture him in one of those billowing blouses men wore in the Olympics. He glided backward, spreading his arms as if he’d just done a magic trick. Again and again he jumped, spun, landed. When he fell, he rolled out of it. He’d give a thumbs-up, and Evan Adler’s father—the only person on that end of the bleachers—would clap and call, “All right! All right!” Two coaches, a man and a woman, hovered constantly. Mel assumed these were the ones interviewed in the Gazette, the ones who’d said things like “world-class.”
She was glad he wasn’t her son. What would you do with a kid like that? But she was impressed. With his parents, too. With a father who wouldn’t forbid this. She imagined what Rick would do if she announced TJ was going to figure skate. He’d bark out a laugh. He’d say, “Mel. You want him murdered?” She might try it as an April Fool’s joke. A sad one.
Mel avoided the other parents as much as possible, talked to them mostly about schedules and uniforms, nodded politely as they debated whether Coach Brendan was pushing the kids enough. (What did they think these boys were training for? Fourth-best player on a high school team that would include these same exact kids?) But she found she wanted to talk to Evan Adler’s father.
One morning, she didn’t sit, just paced behind the Plexiglas. She held her coffee tight, a useful prop. After Evan landed a complicated jump—his coaches seemed thrilled, so Mel assumed it was new—she strolled to where Evan’s father sat.
“You have to tell me what that was!”
The man laughed and didn’t take his eyes from the rink. “I can’t believe I know this, but it’s a double axel, double-toe combo. He’s been working on it a while.”
“I think our boys are in school together.” She sat beside him. “At Crest Ridge. Going into fifth?”
He held out a hand, ungloved and red. His name was Sean. Sean Adler had curly black hair cut close and was, in Mel’s estimation, gorgeous. His whole profile changed when he swallowed, when his jaw muscles tightened under dark stubble.
She said, “I shouldn’t say so, but I find this much more interesting than hockey.”
She heard her choice of words—confessional, intimate—and recognized that she was flirting. Well, good. She could use the practice.
A stand in the lobby sold coffee, candy, breakfast bars. Differently abled teenagers worked the register, counted change with slow, careful fingers. Perfect, because Mel had nothing but time.
Isla Lambert and Jennifer Frank were in line. Mel said, “I can’t stop watching that kid figure skate!”
“The poor thing,” Jennifer said.
And Isla said, “Really? I think he’s got it made. If he’s straight, imagine the fun in a few years. Lifting those girls up? Pig in mud.”
Jennifer snorted. “What’s the likelihood that kid’s straight?”
Mel had never cared for Jennifer Frank. She said, “Do you know the family?” Jennifer shook her head, but Isla nodded.
Isla said, “I don’t imagine they pay a thing for lessons anymore,” which wasn’t at all what Mel had asked.
Last summer, Mel and TJ had gone to Cleveland for three days to visit her parents. A month later she opened a credit card bill that showed Rick had spent two of those nights at the Lake Roma Hampton Inn. She should have tricked him, caught him in a trap, but instead she held the watering can so her hands wouldn’t shake and said, “You spent some time at a hotel.”
“Oh.” Rick recovered immediately, riding his embarrassment into a confession of sorts: The house had felt so empty, and he hadn’t been able to sleep. He hadn’t been sleeping well since his mother died, didn’t Mel know? It was easier to go to a hotel, to pretend he was the one out of town, on another business trip. “I should’ve told you. I know it looks weird. I know—”
She stretched up to kiss his cheek. “It’s just expensive, is all.” She never brought it up again.
Was it possible he was telling the truth? She put the odds at five percent. But that wasn’t even the point. The point was she refused to be the idiot in this scenario.
Maybe she wanted him to be cheating. Because maybe it was a gift, a free pass, a tool to be saved for future use.
Or maybe it was validation of something she’d known a long time: that she was alone in a cold, still place.
Mel had taken TJ to a child psychologist when he started fourth grade, a woman who Mel hoped might help with the aggression, the attention problems at school.
The woman said, “My recommendation is you find TJ a physical outlet for all that energy.”
When she told Rick, he didn’t laugh with her. He looked up from his phone and said, “So we’re already doing the right thing.”
Evan Adler was happy. When he arrived at the rink with a Starbucks breakfast sandwich, when he landed a jump, when he came off the ice and slid on his guards—he was smiling. Despite his small bones, his squeaky voice, his changing at home rather than in the locker room with its un-chaperoned aggressions, he was content. In a way TJ was not.
Mel observed this over the next couple of weeks, as she and Sean sought each other out, found excuses to chat. Sean taught earth science at the high school, so he had summer duty at the rink. His wife carried the brunt the rest of the year.
Sean got Mel’s number once, when he ran out to fill his van with gas. He told her he’d call if he couldn’t get back by the end of practice—although certainly he’d have the coaches’ numbers, wouldn’t he? The next morning, he texted to ask if she wanted a Jamba Juice. And the next, she messaged him from down the rink to say hockey was killing her brain cells, and why didn’t she have a daughter who could ice-dance with Evan? Mostly, they sat on the bleachers together by the middle of the rink, at what would be called the fifty-yard line if this were football. Although Mel had been to a hundred games, she couldn’t say what it was called in hockey to save her life.
On the Fourth of July, TJ’s team was in the Lake Roma parade. They dug up Rollerblades from various basements, quickly learned to glide on asphalt, and on the day itself they wore jerseys with shorts, helmets but no mouth guards, and took off down the street behind Coach Brendan’s green pickup, hitting tennis balls with their sticks.
Mel and Rick watched from the Lamberts’ front yard. Isla had invited them, and Mel felt she should say yes, make an effort for once. The Lamberts had set up beer buckets and flags and chairs, little tables with cheese and fruit. TJ would rollerblade back here with Jeremy Lambert from the end of the parade route.
The Lady Trojans volleyball team (regional champs!) rolled by, and later came a flatbed carrying the football players, dressed in Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts—the parade had a theme, which was, inexplicably, “Island Life”—shaking their hips to something that was definitely not hula music.
Joe Lambert said, “Team’ll be defunct in ten years. No one’s even doing Pop Warner.”
It sounded like a complaint.
Cecile, the Lamberts’ neighbor, said, “You could change that, couldn’t you? With Jeremy and his friends?”
Cecile’s husband said, “Just as many concussions in hockey, let’s be honest.”
Joe lowered his voice as if the people out by the curb were listening. “You think a white boy from Wisconsin’s gonna land a football scholarship?”
But good God, Mel wanted to say, none of these boys was headed for a hockey scholarship either. Every town in America had a best player. Did these people not understand how many towns that was? And then there was Canada!
Isla Lambert touched Mel’s shoulder. “Your hubby told me your secret, that you’re a wine expert.”
“Oh,” Mel said, “not like that. I got my sommelier license before we moved here, but it was—”
“Well, I can’t serve wine without your approval!”
So Mel followed Isla’s black ponytail into the house, the word “hubby” still grating.
Isla had three different rosés chilled, all probably fine. “I have six more bottles of each in the basement fridge. Miss Overprepared!”
Mel could tell nothing from the labels. “Let’s open this,” she said, tapping a grenache, “and we’ll taste.”
A herd of boys tore through the kitchen, TJ among them. They dropped their Rollerblades at the top of the basement stairs, then disappeared. Mel heard a voice from halfway down: “Lick my balls, Lambert!”
Isla laughed apologetically, even though it clearly hadn’t been her son. “TJ’s so young. I hope they aren’t corrupting him.”
“Oh Isla, I think that was him, just now. He was born corrupted.”
Really, it was true only with things like language and roughhousing. What would happen if he made the U16 team before high school? Would they show him porn? Get him drunk? At that point, she couldn’t pull him out. She couldn’t do it even now. Last September, she and Rick had sat him down and asked if he was sure about another year of travel. “It’s so many hours,” Mel said. But how would TJ ever choose anything else? His teammates counted on him. He was closer to Coach Brendan than to his own father. TJ had said, “Mom, it’s my life.” And then he’d started crying, as though she’d asked if he still wanted a Christmas this year. “Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
Isla poured them each way more than a taste. “This is to go with the burgers. I don’t know if that makes a difference.”
Mel smelled the wine, swirled it. Putting on a show. It wasn’t bad—light and fruity—but Isla insisted on opening a second bottle, and soon they were at the table with two glasses each. Mel didn’t mind. She could hear the boys from here, and she didn’t have to fry in the sun. Outside, fire trucks brought up the rear, blasting sirens.
Isla wanted to know about sommelier training, so Mel told her about their time in upstate New York, and her decision, when TJ was six, to get into something more flexible, more fun, than the HR work she’d done before she got pregnant. “We had great restaurants,” she said. “I thought I could work evenings. Not that there aren’t good places here, but now we have hockey.” There weren’t great restaurants here, was the thing. The sushi place was surprisingly decent, but hardly needed a sommelier.
“Tell me about it,” Isla said. “And times two for us, with gymnastics!” The Lamberts’ youngest daughter, a tiny eight-year-old who’d been running around the lawn during the parade, was a fierce competitor on the beam. Isla said, “You could still do it, couldn’t you? Make Rick bring TJ once in a while. We’d love to see him more anyway.”
“Well,” Mel said, “his job, though.”
She wondered, suddenly, if Rick had gone to that hotel with Isla or another hockey mom. She’d always imagined it was someone from work, someone he’d met at a convention. Come to town, I’ll put you up. But maybe it was one of these bored local women who’d admired his height, his New York accent. Plenty of women simply melted for anyone over six foot two.
Mel and Isla were both a little sloshed by the time they rejoined the party. They’d drained their glasses quickly, and Mel had been sharing Rick’s beer all morning. Isla refilled them both on the way out, so at least Mel had something in her hands when they stepped onto the front porch and there, on the lawn, were the Adlers.
Joe Lambert bellowed, “Look who we found! From the rink!”
They must have been part of the mass flowing west down the street: families with dogs and strollers and wheelchairs and balloons.
Mel wished she could tell Evan Adler not to hold the edge of his mother’s shirt, that he was too old for that. But meanwhile she was scoping out this mother, a small woman whom she might’ve seen at school functions. Laura Adler was blonde, or at least had the complexion to pull off a convincing dye job. So this was where Evan got his size, his pallor. But Laura was leaving—Laura had a migraine brought on by the fire trucks—and Joe Lambert had convinced Sean and Evan to stay. “The boys are in the basement!” he said.
No one but Mel seemed concerned at the prospect of throwing Evan to the wolves. “I can take you down,” she said to Evan. “You know TJ, don’t you?”
The boys were gathered around a TV, reenacting the moves they’d just seen on their video. The DVD case lay on top of the set: Stick Work III: Stick Handling Beyond Belief!
“TJ,” she said, and motioned him over. TJ spotted Evan behind her and froze. “Evan, go ahead and sit.” She pulled TJ to the bottom of the stairs. “I need you to be nice,” she said.
TJ said, “Did you invite him?”
“No. Will you please look out for him?”
TJ whispered, barely moving his mouth. “Mom, they’re gonna think he’s my friend.”
“What’s so bad about that?” She sounded like a clueless mom, like her own mom. “Maybe he will be your friend.” It was a mistake, she saw, as TJ slid back to the couch in his socks. If anything, TJ would go out of his way now to make Evan miserable, to show these twelve-year-olds that he was not responsible for the presence of the figure skater. The other boys were still wrapped up in the video, but that wouldn’t last. TJ flopped onto the floor, far from Evan, and scratched his stomach.
Mel sat on the edge of the pool table and texted Sean Adler: Not sure I should leave boys alone. Bring me a refill!
It was a while, but then there he was, as the boys started the video over and dragged Jeremy’s foosball game to the middle of the floor. Evan, still perched on the arm of the couch, gave his father a small wave. Such delicate pink fingers! Like a ballerina’s.
Sean leaned against the pool table. Once again he and Mel were side by side, looking at boys. They never managed to face each other.
He’d brought a bottle of rosé and two glasses, though she still had her empty one. He said, “Thanks for keeping an eye.”
Lord, he smelled nice. She hadn’t noticed at the rink, because the rink smelled so strongly of itself, of chemicals and sweat, but there was a warm, clean, sweet scent to Sean Adler.
She said, “I just don’t know about kids alone in a basement.”
“You’d be surprised about Evan.” She was embarrassed that he’d caught her meaning so directly. “He can be a charmer.”
Mel wasn’t sure TJ responded to charm, but she trusted Sean’s judgment. He wasn’t one of those awkward parents who didn’t recognize his child’s own awkwardness. He dressed well, smiled easily, had a face that would have guaranteed entry to any circle back in school. That still would.
She said, “He’s so talented.”
Sean shrugged. “It’s something to focus on, for now. Who knows.”
“Whose idea was it?”
“Oh. Laura’s.” He laughed as if this should have been obvious.
The boys were offering Evan a turn at foosball, smirking, telling TJ to play against him. TJ took this as the slight it truly was. They felt he’d brought Evan down here, that his mom was what kept them from shoving this kid into the window well.
“Evan,” Jeremy Lambert said, “are you going to the Olympics?” It sounded like bait. But Sean didn’t react, and so Mel didn’t either.
Evan shrugged. “I hope to when I’m older.” And the boys—maybe it was Evan’s openness, or maybe it was the presence of adults—dropped it.
Sean leaned back. “You want to see something weird?” He held both his fists, closed, in front of Mel. “Look at the veins.”
“What letters do they make?”
She took the opportunity to trace the blue lines with her finger. “This one’s an H,” she said.
“No, an R. See?”
“Okay. And an L?”
“Yeah. Right and left.”
“Oh. Wow, that’s weird.” It was, really.
“Let’s see yours,” he said.
A week later, TJ got into a fight off the ice with a boy named Howard, a kid on the U12 “Gold” team, which was, ironically, the lowest level. Fighting on the ice wasn’t even allowed at this age, and twisting someone’s ear halfway off in the locker room was especially problematic. Howard went to the hospital; TJ had to sit out a week of camp, and would miss the first game when the season started. Mel was both relieved and horrified. She didn’t have to drive to the rink all week, but she had nothing else to do with him, either. Usually, he slept like a teenager—as late as she’d let him, crashing on the sofa midday—but now he had nothing but energy. So she took him to the mall and bought him clothes for September, a size too big. She made gazpacho in the blender while TJ rode his bike around the neighborhood. When was the last time he’d ridden his bike?
Mel texted Sean: Tell me I’m not missing the greatest hockey drills of the century.
He wrote back, Stick handling beyond belief!!!
She wrote, Ah, a special talent of mine. And then she thought better and wanted to delete it, but there was no way to delete a sent text. So she added, At least that’s what all the Phi Delts said in college. Turn it into a joke, instead of a proposition. He hadn’t responded, so she wrote, I mean, I think they were Phi Delts. Might have been fire hydrants. I was drunk.
He responded with a smiley face and a hockey stick emoji. Good enough.
Rick had fortunately recognized TJ’s suspension as a parenting moment, one of those father things he’d seen in movies. Kid Gets in Fight was a big one, along with Kid Gets Girl Pregnant.
But apparently TJ had received the script, too. Mel stood outside his bedroom listening. He said, “I was sticking up for myself.”
“What did Howard do to you?”
“It’s too hard to explain.” Mel knew from TJ’s voice that he wasn’t hiding some soul-crushing insult; there was simply nothing to report. “Dad, I said. I was sticking up for myself!”
“That’s not how we do it, son.” Like he was auditioning for community theater.
“Dad. I was sticking up for someone else. Someone that was, like, being bullied.”
“This kid named Evan Adler. They were bullying him in the locker room. Howard was.”
Evan Adler had never set foot in that locker room.
“Is that the, uh, the skater? The one that does the twirls?”
“Yeah. They were bullying him. They stole his skates.”
The next week, TJ, under duress, wrote the coaches and Howard feeble apology notes (I’m sorry I acted that way. I won’t do it again.) and things went back to normal. She brought Sean a donut on Monday, sat beside him while Evan waited for the Zamboni to finish smoothing out his half of the ice. It was Mel’s favorite thing at the rink, watching a machine so ugly and heavy shine things up, leave a glossy trail like a slug.
“She said, “That never came up as a career option in school. Zamboni driver.”
“What would you have to answer on the aptitude test?”
“Maybe if you went to the guidance office and smooshed stuff.”
It wasn’t even funny—and the Zamboni didn’t smoosh a thing, just brushed water onto the scuffed ice—but Sean laughed and looked at her out of the corners of his eyes as if she’d said something miraculous, as if he’d been waiting for someone like her to come along and say something like that.
He asked when she’d graduated, and they found they were the same age, that they’d both turn forty next summer. “We’ll have to celebrate,” he said. “Because we’ll both spend it on the bleachers.”
“I’ll bring champagne. I know how to open it silently! It was part of the sommelier exam.”
“I thought the whole point was the noise,” he said.
“Oh, no. Every year people are killed in champagne accidents. True story.” He was laughing. “No, it’s true!”
And there was, then, unmistakably lingering eye contact. The kind in which several complicated things were conveyed and acknowledged in a second.
“Um,” she said.
And he said, “Yeah. So.”
From then on, she would wait till halfway through TJ’s practice to walk over—so that he’d be wondering if she’d come—and sit next to him and say, “They’re talking about colleges down there. For their eleven-year-olds. I couldn’t take it.” Or, “I’m going to invest in a heated cushion.”
Because, although she was certain she wanted to sleep with him, would spend her one affair voucher on this particular man and his jaw muscles, his eye crinkles, she wanted to prolong this part. It was exquisite, and it was easier, really, than whatever would follow. She loved the idea of driving him crazy, of his jacking off in the shower, driving too fast at night, pressing his forehead against the refrigerator. It mattered not one iota what Sean’s wife looked like or how amazing she was—the point wasn’t that Mel was better, the point was she was different. Mel might’ve been out of practice, but she still knew human nature. She knew she was getting to him.
In August, Rick got a promotion and started spending three days and nights a week—just for now—in Chicago. TJ was mad that his father would miss so many of his games. Or at least he claimed to be. Sometimes Mel wondered if TJ was just looking for excuses to act up, to storm away from the table and drop his whole plate of spaghetti in the sink. Rick said, “I’ll bring back some Chicago stuff. Who do you like on the Blackhawks?”
Also in August, Evan Adler qualified for a regional competition, or maybe it was the qualifying thing itself that he was off to, but in any case, he and Laura were gone for the weekend. Sean’s school year hadn’t started up yet, but he had meetings, lesson planning, a classroom to prepare.
He asked if Mel would like to come for dinner on Saturday. “On the deck,” he said, as if it made a difference, and really it did—the fact that they wouldn’t be inside the house.
And so she got TJ invited to sleep over at the Lamberts’, and she showed up at Sean’s house, set back on a twisting road with trees that met overhead, carrying a bottle of pinot noir.
Sean received it in both hands, gazed down at it as if it were a baby.
“It’s nothing special,” she said. “Just a kind I like.” In fact, she’d picked it because it wouldn’t stain their teeth as much as the malbec she’d have actually preferred.
“I’m sure it’s amazing.”
They didn’t set foot inside, though Mel imagined she’d need to, later, to pee. Sean led her around back, where a tiered deck descended halfway into the ravine.
“Don’t tell me you built this,” Mel said.
There was salad, and Sean grilled salmon and tomatoes and chunks of buttered Italian bread, and they lounged on padded deck furniture to eat. They drank Mel’s wine—she taught him to hold it in his mouth and breathe out through out his nose—and started another bottle from the house. It got dark. Mel did dash inside once, but the bathroom was close enough to the back door that she didn’t see much—just the kitchen. Papers on the table, dishes on the counter.
When she returned, Sean was standing, looking out into the ravine, and so Mel stood next to him.
He said, “I’m a little drunk,” and she said, “Me too,” and she scratched his back.
He turned and grabbed her arm, and she was worried it was to stop her, but no, it was to kiss her. And unlike the tentative kiss of a careful first date, this was a pent-up kiss, a kiss that went instantly to a hundred miles an hour. His mouth was strange and his breath was strange, but wasn’t that good?
Soon they were on the reclining deck chair, its back laid all the way flat, and—because the fences were high and the neighbors far away—their clothes were off.
Mel was grateful for the dark. The last time she’d been with someone new, it was Rick, and she’d been twenty-six, with ab muscles and unstretched skin. But Sean was beautiful enough that she didn’t care; it wasn’t about her own enjoyment, her own body, the way it was with Rick, when she closed her eyes and concentrated on the series of sensations. This was about Sean and his arms and legs and neck and the way he moaned when she ran her thumb across his nipple.
And then he dove between her legs, and she was too self-conscious to enjoy it. Weren’t most women completely hairless these days, like Manx cats? Like ten-year-olds? She just couldn’t do that, besides which Rick had never asked her to. But maybe Laura was like that.
Never mind, because Sean didn’t seem to care, and now he was back on top, and she said, “If you’re clean we don’t need a condom.” Words she’d never uttered in her dating years. She had an IUD now, a uterus-lodged bit of plastic that she was always on the verge, at doctor’s appointments, of calling an IED. As if her womb might explode at any moment, might take the doctor’s limbs with it.
Sean bit her neck and pushed himself inside. She wrapped a leg around his back and buried her face in the smell of his shoulder.
“This is good,” Sean said. “I want this.”
The thing that almost came out was “I love you,” which of course wasn’t true. It was just what she was used to saying. She said, “Yes, this is good.”
He rocked above her a long time, gazing down, leaning once to lick her lips, all the way around, and finally he groaned—not in release, as she first thought, but in frustration. “I’m too drunk,” he said. “I don’t think I can finish.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not sure I could either.”
“It’s really good, though.”
“Yes, it’s good.”
He said, “I’m sorry,” and she said, “We’ll have other chances.”
They dressed, and he brought them each a glass of water. Mel knew she ought to pee again, but maybe he wouldn’t want that right now, wouldn’t want her wiping herself off in a bathroom Laura had decorated.
They looked out over the ravine, leaning into each other. Mel said, “Do your students ever fall in love with you?”
He laughed. “Not that I’m aware.”
“I bet you’re wrong. I bet they do.”
When they said good night, he kissed her and said he’d see her Monday.
By Sunday night, though, Mel had a urinary tract infection. She took the pills that turned her urine fluorescent orange, but even so, she spent the night in the bathroom whimpering, clutching her shins. Of course it was the alcohol, and the fact that she hadn’t peed right after, but still, Mel could see how ancient people felt there were vindictive gods punishing transgression.
Monday morning, she sent TJ to the rink with the Lamberts and texted Sean: Sick. Sad not to see you.
He wrote back late that afternoon, when Mel, thanks to antibiotics, was loading the dishwasher. It’s okay, needed to clear my head. Missed you.
For a long time, she’d been able to smell his hair on her fingers. The scent was wearing off now, from all the handwashing after all the bathroom trips. Rick got home that evening and found her in bed with a hot-water bottle. TJ was in the basement with a video game. Rick said, “Should we just order pizza?”
She imagined that Sean, in contrast, would have brought her cranberry juice and curled up beside her. Of course that was pure fantasy. Maybe Sean was terrible to his wife. In fact, didn’t she have proof that Sean was terrible to his wife?
Mel got up. She wore sweats and didn’t feel self-conscious about it, as she normally would. The wife in sweats: Wasn’t it what every man feared? But it mattered less now if Rick found her attractive. Maybe she was daring him not to.
She’d realized that afternoon that TJ hadn’t done his summer reading—had in fact lost the reading list he was supposed to have pinned above his desk. “Has he read a book all summer?” she asked Rick.
Rick looked as if she’d just asked him to locate her second-favorite nail polish. He leaned through the basement door and called, “Hey, buddy! No tryouts till you’ve started those books!”
But tryouts (a formality for TJ) were next weekend, and the kid wasn’t going to find the books on his own. It would mean Mel calling other parents, maybe even the school, for the list, ordering next-day from Amazon, sitting him down and forcing him to start. And TJ would do that thing where he stared at a single page for an hour, wiggling his tooth.
After TJ was in bed, they sat in front of a movie and watched Julia Roberts’s fiancé cheat on her with the wedding planner. For once, Mel wasn’t trying to read Rick’s face. And of course he wasn’t watching hers. After all, it was a man cheating in the movie. Wasn’t it always?
She felt strangely powerful. She was not the dupe. Rick was the dupe. And if he didn’t love her, it didn’t matter. Did she even love him? It was a relief that she didn’t care. That was the part that surprised her. She’d expected to feel nervous, guilty, panicked. But all she felt was relief. And lust for Sean. She missed him more than she’d expected.
No matter how long this affair lasted—and how long could it, really? A year?—she’d always have it, a secret place only she could go. Maybe all women had something like that. Maybe she was the last to figure it out.
The next morning, Sean was huddled with Evan and his coaches on the bleachers, conferring over a clipboard. Mel waited halfway into practice, then walked down, sat a couple of feet away.
She said, “I didn’t want to rush over.” God, that face. And it was hers, or at least partly hers. Hers enough. Hers to kiss, later.
But he let out a breath that was somehow both exhaustion and statement and apology.
“What,” she said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
It seemed, though, that he did.
The rink smell filled her sinus, her tear ducts. “Look, it’s fine.”
He didn’t say anything, and when she stood to leave, he said, “I’ll be in meetings. Starting tomorrow. Laura will bring him.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I mean, the schedule changes anyway. TJ has team practice next week.”
“We can have coffee sometime.”
Suddenly she remembered the boy she’d slept with one summer home from college, how he’d insisted on taking her to Wendy’s afterward and buying her a shake. The boy had said, “It would feel weird not to buy you something.”
Once her infection cleared, she started running again. Around Roma Lake, past the high school with its “Welcome Back Trojans!” signs (Sean’s van wasn’t out front, but maybe the teachers had a different lot), past the houses displaying signboards for city council elections. She even took Rick’s FitBit. She ran so much that if he still had that bet going with the guy at work, his lie would be obvious. Well, good.
Mel thought, those first days, about her body, the possibility that Sean had been disgusted by her body. More likely, he just had a conscience. He had a marriage. (And wasn’t she supposed to have those same things?)
On Friday she ran all the way to Terrebonne, and when she checked the time, she saw that practice ended in twelve minutes. She was half an hour out. It was the last day of camp, and she’d wanted to remind TJ to thank his coaches, to check the locker room again for the skate guards he’d lost in June. If Sean had been there—if it hadn’t been Laura sipping coffee on the bleachers—she might have texted. Instead, she stopped, panting, and called the rink. No answer, just a message about fall registration. She called Coach Brendan, but it went to voice mail; he didn’t skate with his phone. She texted Isla Lambert: Can you gather up TJ? Isla wouldn’t mind.
She ran as fast as was reasonable. Sprinting would only do her in. If she told Rick about this later, he might ask if she’d worn his FitBit, or he might say, “Huh. But it turned out.” He wouldn’t berate her, she had to give him that. But there would never be a conversation, a sharing of similar stories.
She hadn’t realized till now all the things she’d been looking for with Sean. Sex, sure, but also, apparently, acceptance. Friendship, adoration, an adult life. All the things he’d just yanked out from under her. Otherwise, why was she so lonely?
When she arrived at the rink, twenty minutes after practice ended, TJ was on a bench by the snack bar. Coach Brendan smiled thinly. “I’m so sorry,” Mel said. “I texted Isla.” And she pulled out her phone, as if she needed to prove this. But there were words on the screen: Your message could not be delivered. Try again? She attempted to close the bubble. “Oh God.” She jabbed at the screen. The phone said, Try again?
TJ groaned and knocked his head against the wall. He said, “Mom, I’m starving.”
TJ made the top travel team again, the “Majors” level, but narrowly; there were new kids, and kids who’d grown faster. Mel found she almost wanted him to miss the mark, to taste failure. Would it have made him a better person in the long run?
It was back to 5:00 AM practices, 8:00 PM clinics. Most nights, they got home at ten. TJ slept from eleven to four. These were not things she confessed to his pediatrician.
But there was no way to slow this train down. You were either on the train or you jumped off completely.
Rick needed to spend an additional day in Chicago each week. Four nights in the city, three nights back. All she really knew about his time there was that he ate well; his gut had expanded. On a lanky man, it looked like early pregnancy. Either he’d found the good restaurants or some woman was cooking him her special lasagna. One day, Rick attached his FitBit to the collar of the neighbor’s Labrador as it roamed the yard. When he got it off again an hour later, Kingsley had taken over six thousand steps.
Evan Adler’s schedule no longer overlapped with TJ’s. Evan must have been awarded prime afternoon time. Or maybe they let him out of school to practice.
One morning, she took a photo of the Zamboni as it smoothed the ice. She sent it to Sean, the only text in the past ten days. She wrote, We need one of these for our lives. Just wipe the ice clean. She didn’t mean it—she’d gladly take a time machine back to his deck—but it was how she was supposed to feel. It was how Sean felt.
He wrote back three hours later: Yeah.
A week into the school year, the Zarins, who had a big house right on Roma Lake, hosted a party for the fifth-grade parents. Purely social, a chance to bond before the head lice e-mails started. The Zarins’ son, Nick, held the door open, showed guests the basket of name tags on the hall table. Rick was in Chicago, and Mel had almost stayed home, but she was hoping to see Sean, hoping for some kind of closure. If nothing else, it would be the best she’d ever looked in front of him: red sundress, fresh highlights, smoky eyeliner.
She chatted with the Lamberts, whose middle child, a daughter with no special athletic skill, was in TJ’s class. She chatted with a woman whose Pilates studio she’d visited.
Someone said, “You have to go out back and see the lake,” and when she did, Sean and Laura were on the lawn.
Sean looked at Mel like a man electrocuted. And he wasn’t scoping out her dress; it was his eyes on hers. A sudden, visible stopping of breath.
There were only a few people outside, and it wasn’t long till Mel was shaking his hand, saying “Good to see you,” reintroducing herself to Laura. “From the rink,” she said.
She could smell Laura. Maybe it was the thickness of the summer air. And Laura smelled exactly like Sean.
Had Mel, all this time, been attracted to their fabric softener? Their shower soap? Laura’s perfume, lingering on Sean after she hugged him goodbye?
It helped her relax, oddly. Maybe she had no feelings for Sean Adler. Maybe she had feelings for color-safe Tide. While Sean stood silent, she gabbed to Laura about teachers, asked about Evan’s skating, learned he’d be at the Upper Great Lakes Regionals in St. Paul in October.
“He won’t make nationals,” Laura said. “We have no delusions. It’s practice for next time.”
Mel said, “I wish I were that talented at anything.”
Isla Lambert had joined their group. “Wine tasting! That’s your talent!”
So that Laura wouldn’t think she was an alcoholic, Mel explained. And then she said, “There’s a wine store in Terrebonne.” And—it was true as soon as she said it—“I’ve been meaning to see if they’re hiring.”
The party rolled on till midnight, by which point Sean was sloshed. So was everyone else, except the few patient spouses who’d driven, who’d soon be cramming partners and two extra couples into minivans. Mel ate grapes and bread, trying to sober up enough to drive home responsibly.
Huge spotlights hung from the trees, illuminating the Zarins’ dock, the lily pads to the left, the black water to the right, the occasional bat. Sean hadn’t spoken much, had just stared more the drunker he got. Mel soaked it up.
Only twelve people were left out here, maybe more in the house. The Zarins must have been wishing good night by the front door.
“Did you see their kid?” she said to no one, to everyone. “I couldn’t get TJ to open the door unless it was the pizza guy.”
“TJ’s a piece of work.” Mel looked to see who’d said it. The guy in the Hawaiian shirt, whose name she didn’t even know? What the hell.
“Hey,” Sean said. “He’s a good kid.” His voice was thick, and Mel wondered why Laura hadn’t dragged him home. Probably they had a sitter who could stay, and why go home if you didn’t have to? That was how Mel always felt. TJ was sleeping over at the Lamberts’ again tonight, under the watch of their new German au pair.
To change the subject, Mel said, “What do lily pads feel like? Are they smooth?”
The guy in the shirt laughed. “You grow up in a city?”
“It’s true. No lily pads in Cleveland.”
Sean said, “Wait here.” And—was he taking off his shirt? The women all squealed with laughter, and Joe Lambert said, “Don’t do it!” But Sean was already down the lawn and on the dock, flat on his stomach, reaching over the water.
“Oh God,” Laura said, laughing and covering her eyes.
He couldn’t reach the lily pads, apparently, because he scooted himself farther and father toward the side of the dock, till he hung with his waist right on the edge. “Hold on!” he called, and there came the women’s screeches again. Mel couldn’t stand the way some women laughed. But she loved this, the absurdity of it.
And then Sean went in, in a sort of sideways flip that did not look intentional, and Joe Lambert and another man ran to the water, shouting. Mel couldn’t see. There was a lot of splashing. Was this dangerous? These other men weren’t sober, either.
But here they came, holding Sean by the armpits as if he were under arrest. They were drenched, and people whipped out their phones for pictures that would never turn out.
Laura said, “I am so embarrassed.”
“It’s hilarious,” Mel said. “Don’t worry.” She inhaled Laura’s scent again, to be sure. Yes. The smell of Sean, depowered.
The men clapped his back as if he’d drunk half the lake and was coughing it up, although really he seemed fine. He held a lily pad, its stem trailing to his shoe.
“For you.” He knelt in front of Mel like a knight. Like he was proposing.
“You shouldn’t have,” Mel said, because it seemed the best punch line, and oh good, people laughed, still thought the whole thing was a joke. She felt the lily pad: slimy, and not nearly as thick as she’d always imagined. How did frogs land on them? Was that really something they did? To Laura, she said, “You should get Prince Valiant home.”
Early the next morning, she went to pick TJ up. Isla came to meet her when she was only halfway out of the car.
“He’s getting packed,” she said. And then, “Mel, you know I grew up here.”
Mel felt she’d been caught doing something terrible. This sounded like a scolding. It couldn’t be, could it? “Right,” she said.
“I just want to say, this is a small town.”
“I . . . understand that.”
“It’s a small community.”
“There are eyes and ears everywhere.”
Mel’s hands grew hot. “If you’re talking about last night, I’m not the one who did anything.”
Isla said, “Well.”
At the end of October, the rink posted videos of Evan Adler’s regionals skate on Facebook. While he didn’t quite make nationals, he did us proud! Click “like” to show Evan your support!
Mel had run into Sean a few times in the past weeks—twice at the rink, once at Walgreens, once at Parents Night, where she’d hung on to Rick’s arm in a way she never did. She wanted Sean to remember how tall Rick was, to see how little she cared about men who fucked her and then rejected her and then got all emotional over it in public.
Or rather, if she was thinking more maturely: she wanted to show him everything was fine. She had Rick, flawed as he was. Sean had his wife and champion son. And had he forgotten, as she briefly had, that the reason you got married was so you didn’t have to deal with all the shit? The rejection? That you got married so you could just numb out for the rest of your life?
At least that’s what she wanted to project. She feared it wasn’t true. She worried she’d knocked down a wall to reveal an empty little room, one she’d never known was in her house. And now that it was there, she’d always want to fill it. If not with Sean, with someone else. She worried that room was a vacuum.
Mel watched the video. Evan wore a bolero tie, a white shirt, skinny black pants. He skated to Mexican cowboy music, was how she’d describe it. Guitars. He reeled in circles; he grabbed his skate blade and extended his leg; he jumped and landed. He never fell, but he must’ve done something wrong if he hadn’t made nationals. Maybe he didn’t complete the required moves.
She called TJ into the kitchen. He’d been doing homework on the living room floor.
“Sit down,” she said. She restarted the video. “I know you don’t understand what he does, but this is hard. He probably trains harder than you, don’t you think?” She tapped her finger on the screen when Evan landed a spinning jump. “Do you know how difficult that is?”
TJ pushed his chair back and said, “Mom, I get it. I know you like that kid more than me.”
“TJ, that’s not true!”
“You always sit there and watch him!”
She tried to grab TJ’s hand as he skated in his socks to the door.
She said, “You won’t know how much I love you till you have your own kid.” But he was gone.
Next Sunday, since TJ didn’t have a game, she told him they were skipping the dry-land clinic and took him to Milwaukee on the train. They went to the art museum, where he didn’t last long, then out to lunch.
“You need a haircut.” She brushed a lock out of his eyes. He was still so little, really. Just a baby.
She asked if he was sure he wanted to keep going with hockey, and he said, “Why do you keep asking that?”
On the train home, she composed a text: Saw Evan’s video from regionals. Spectacular.
But what good would it possibly do to send that?
So she deleted the unsent words, letter by letter. She watched the text field wash white and clean and smooth. And when the letters were gone, her phone—it did this all the time—popped up with a little bubble: Nothing to undo, it said.
She thought, Okay then.
And she thought, Well, that’s true.
Poetry:Rae Armantrout, Ruth Madievsky, David Tomas Martinez, Shayla Lawson, Tommy Pico, Gerald Stern, Christopher Soto, Miller Oberman, Chaim Ben Avram
Is there a funnier, stranger, more unparaphrasable/nonmimetic/irreducible American writer than Mark Leyner? Born in Hudson County, New Jersey, in 1956, educated at Brandeis University, Leyner has been delighting readers with his aggressively enigmatic vocabulary, hyper-self-referential metafictions, and proto-Midrashic mind-love making for over three decades.
Leyner’s first book, the short story collection I Smell Esther Williams, was published in 1983. This was followed by a second collection, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990), and his first novel, Et Tu, Babe (1992). By the time his book of essays Tooth Imprints on a Corndog was published in 1995 Leyner was a celebrity, appearing regularly on television shows such as Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Leyner’s second novel, the fictional-autobiographical The Tetherballs of Bougainville (1997), would be the last “Mark Leyner” fiction to appear for fourteen years. During this period Leyner cowrote Why Do Men Have Nipples? (2005), a humor/medical book that unseated J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as the #1 best-selling book on Amazon.com. Two sequels—Why Do Men Fall Asleep after Sex? (2006) and Let’s Play Doctor (2008)—followed. His coscripted film, War, Inc., starring John Cusack, was released in 2008.
Leyner’s absence from literary publishing was palpable. One of America’s most truly unique voices had chosen, for whatever reason, to go silent. Was it that the ’90s were over, and the particular cultural pitch, which he himself had helped create, had passed, making it impossible for him to, as it were, breathe? Had David Foster Wallace’s searing critique of his work in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” and Wallace’s subsequent literary ascendance, taken a toll? Had that burning bush just, like, totally consumed itself, or whatever? These were the questions that seemed—from the outside, at least—worth asking.
And then, in 2012, Leyner’s confounding, brilliant, and totally original novel The Sugar Frosted Nutsack was published, confirmation not only that his face still shone with the light of the Word but also that he’d somehow managed to incorporate and transcend all of his previous work, simultaneously. This impressive feat was followed, in early 2016, by the even-yet-still-more-inspired and inspiring quasi-memoir Gone with the Mind.
I met Leyner several blocks from his home in old town Hoboken, at Elysian Café, in the spring of 2016. I found him to be immediately warm, kind, and friendly, ready and willing to answer any and all of my questions. Our conversation was not unlike reading one of his books: choke-on-your-food funny, hyperdiscursive, ranging in topic from Heidegger’s Black Notebooks to elephantiasis to artificial intelligence and then, more often than not, back to elephantiasis.
The bulk of this interview took place over a three-hour period in a corner booth in the rear of Elysian Café, interrupted only once because I had to go to the bathroom. And then when I got back from the bathroom Leyner got up and said, “You’ve inspired me!” And then he went to the bathroom too. Our conversation concluded several weeks later in a barrage of ecstatic e-mails.
Shawn Vandor: To begin I wanted to say that I’ve been reading you for twenty years.
Mark Leyner: How old are you?
SV: I just turned forty.
ML: So do you think—I’m going to interview you . . .
ML: Now that I’m doing readings around town, it’s invariable someone at one of the readings will say, “Oh, it’s [Gone with the Mind] such a departure from your other books!” Did you feel that way?
SV: In some ways yes, some ways no. For this interview I went back and read stuff I hadn’t read in a while—Et Tu, Babe, stories from the early books—and my first reaction reading the new book is that it’s more emotional, emotive. I almost cried in parts. It’s very sweet with you and your mother. That felt new.
ML: I agree.
SV: But then I saw traces of it in—you have a story called “Gone with the Mind” . . .
ML: Do you realize you’re the first person to mention that? That the title comes from a piece in My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist?
SV: And so you have all this cool stuff in the new book about how it’s all Twizzlers, how everything is made out of one thing.
ML: Yes, yes.
SV: And so, going back, retroactively, after reading the new book, I’m seeing stuff everywhere . . .
ML: I agree. I think it’s a departure in that I, unabashedly, rummage around in quote-unquote autobiographical material.
SV: Which you’ve done before.
ML: Which I’ve done before. But I’ve never done it before in a kind of unmediated way.
SV: It’s still mediated, the new thing.
ML: Of course it is! It’s impossible to use language . . . First of all, there’s no such thing as unmediated mimetic representation. Of anything. And especially, well, there’s no especially. You can’t. One can’t. It’s a great fallacy that you can, which I’ve been sort of talking about from the beginning. So this is completely consistent with that idea. Especially when you begin to use things that are autobiographical. Then you realize, quickly, how confabulated all of that is. And, you know, the kind of construction process and the editorial process is another form of artifice in writing—what you choose to include, etc., etc.
So but I do think that when I use the words Mark Leyner in other books, there’s been such a hyperbolic version of that, to the degree that it’s antipodal to me. It’s the antithesis of me. Which is why I think it was interesting to me to do that. This is, as I said, a kind of plain version of me that bares more—I hate to use these words, and they’re not awful words—it’s a more honest portrayal of me, I suppose. It accords more, as I say in the book, to the empirically verifiable version of me.
SV: Yeah, that hypermasculine thing that we saw in I Smell Esther Williams and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, for instance, is . . .
ML: All gone.
SV: Is it going to come back?
ML: No, it’s gone.
SV: Are you at a point in your life where you’re just not as interested in magnifying and playing around with notions of persona, masculinity, and self?
ML: Yes, and I think this book goes as far from that as you can get. It’s about a sixty-year-old man who depends on his mother to drive him to a reading that no one comes to. So this is no grand, heroic man.
SV: I haven’t spent much time in Hoboken, but just walking down the street, listening to the men’s conversation at the bar, waiting for you—the masculinity here is intense. It’s not like Portland.
ML: No. Even though this is what it is—a hypergentrified place, as various places in Brooklyn are, and all over—there’s still vestigial macho undercurrents to the working-class neighborhoods that this once was. And that’s what I grew up with. Partly from the milieu I grew up in, which was in Jersey City—the period of my life that the book deals with, I think, most of any—I admired all the sorts of things that boys did, like a father who got dressed up in the morning and went out and did some kind of inscrutable thing. Most sons don’t know quite what their dad does. That’s why I think most men can get away with just getting dressed and going out, keeping their family in the dark for years, when actually . . .
SV: Right, they have three families out there.
ML: They either have three families or they were fired ten years ago and they just go and ride the subway. But the people at home never ask. They just say, “Bye, Dad!” And then Dad comes home. “Dad, hi!”
SV: It confers a lot of legitimacy to get out of the house in the morning.
ML: Completely. So that, first and foremost, problematized my life. Because I chose to do something where I don’t really leave, which I thought of as an enormous capitulation to, sort of, feminine weakness. When I was sick I remember now and then my dad coming home and saying, “You’ve been in bed all day?” And he’d give me this look like please, on his face. “What? Why? You look fine.”
SV: So this was a struggle in your family?
ML: No, it was mixed. I chose something that was valorized enormously in my family—to be a writer. My grandparents were all from Europe so it was a fairly new Jewish European family here.
SV: Where in Europe?
ML: Russia, Poland, Estonia. I chose something that was valued very highly. On the other hand, the younger men—my dad and my uncles—were very aspirational in a more American way. They wanted to be like Sandy Koufax and Dick Van Dyke—you know, handsome, hip, affluent guys. So those were two conflicting models for what you did, and, you know, one was probably stronger than the other, one being the macho, successful man in the suit, bringing home increasing income and moving the family into more and more palatial homes that probably ultimately outweighed the other. So that, growing up, people would say, “Why don’t you go to law school and you can write?” Or “You can be this and you can write.”
SV: They didn’t know what writing’s all about or what it takes.
ML: They didn’t know what it’s about and in my life it’s taken everything. It’s killed me. It’s martyred me. To a degree. And I figured early on that it was going to be like that. I took it to an extreme in that I didn’t want to be an academic, and I really wanted to just do this. Now, how you just do this is . . . that later becomes a big, enormous thing.
SV: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
ML: I had been writing quote-unquote seriously or thinking of myself as a writer since I was like fourteen, fifteen, something like that.
SV: Why writing?
ML: Well, I wanted at some point, from just responding really powerfully to things in my own life. I’ll give you an example. Certain kinds of music. The Beatles, for example. There were certain cartoons that I really loved—I was just thinking about this in the shower today—that were really instrumental to my working out some kind of aesthetic. Chuck Jones cartoons like Bugs Bunny. There’s a lot of really interesting, sophisticated stuff in there. Like the breaking-of-the-fourth-wall stuff, when Bugs would just turn to the camera and say, “Can they give me a break?” and things like that that I just thought were so cool, that began to map out the horizons, imaginatively, of what could be. So, early on, I just thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make something and make someone feel as vibrantly alive as I felt when I felt those things. It was very nonspecific. I thought, I want to make something that can do this. And I was thinking about this. This is why—see, you can eat! You don’t even have to ask me a question!
ML: See? This is the ur-question. It will encompass everything.
ML: I’ve always had this funny model in my head, the way I wanted to make work. It’s like the odd lonely boy in his bedroom who emerges with something. No one knows quite what he’s doing up there. And I’ve always been very interested in people whose creative lives seemed to me to abide by that kind of model. Not only artists. Like this myth of Bobby Fischer—teaching himself to play in his room, listening to the transistor radio, and then coming out and slaying the great centuries-old Russian edifices, the grand masters. And he’s just cooped up in there listening to shitty music, and playing every game from history.
SV: Are you a chess player?
ML: No, but I love it. I have every book about Bobby Fischer, books about Raúl Capablanca. Nabokov wrote some great books about chess. I was following very closely the human versus computer Go match recently.
SV: I thought about you when I saw that.
ML: That was the last bastion of human superiority. Supposedly. It’s just too complicated. There’s too much possible intuition for the machine to do it. There’s a book I love. Kawabata’s The Master of Go.
ML: So I was kind of rooting for the guy, the human.
SV: Would you say, in general, you’re rooting for the human?
ML: No, because I think the machine is a human creation. God made everything! No, but in a way.
SV: That’s my impression from reading you for a long time—the way you unabashedly conjoin, conflate, and hybridize the natural with the artificial. I would have guessed that you would say that.
ML: I’m completely pantheistic, I would say. And that includes the machine. Really. I’m interested in posthumanity more and more as I get older, in links between cyborg-like technology in humans and between humans and animals, etc.
SV: I went back and rewatched the Charlie Rose segment with you and [Jonathan] Franzen and [David Foster] Wallace in preparation for this conversation where he asks the three of you about the oncoming of the so-called digital revolution. It was 1996 and we could see the tidal wave approaching but didn’t know quite what it meant, what it would mean for reading and writing. And you gave, I thought, a kind of boring, unsexy answer.
You said: “I don’t think additional media supplant other media. I think they crowd it. I think they impact on the kinds of readers we have. But I’m not certain that there are less readers or less enthusiastic readers.”
Twenty years later it seems that you’ve been proven largely right. And what I thought when I rewatched that interview is that you seemed relatively unthreatened, existentially, as a writer, by the oncoming technologies—less so, certainly, than the other two dudes at the table—and this confidence, or grounding, gave you the space, it seems to me, to have the relationship with language that you do. Which is playful. Inventive. Not that Wallace was not a playful writer. Obviously, he was. But you seemed really at peace with the whole thing. You didn’t seem to have an adversarial relationship to it.
ML: No, I never have. I’ve always been at peace with it. But it has effects, obviously. In ways that have not always been very good to me. The stature of the writer, when I started doing this, was greater than it is now. But you can’t whine about that. In a way, it’s what I always advocated from the beginning. I’m good. You can’t—I’m never dogmatic or polemical about this, but there’s an aspect of my work that called, from the beginning, for a breaking down of hierarchies, high and low, and all that stuff from early on. Introducing scientific language and discourse into more lyrical worlds of literature and all these things, and a certain democratization of bringing more kinds of voices in.
SV: Which poetry had been doing for a while.
ML: Certainly, I was not the first person doing this stuff, by any means.
SV: Doing it as a prose writer, though, that was more of a new thing, wouldn’t you say?
ML: Yeah, and the science stuff. It was pretty rare when I started doing it. These things seem so de rigueur now, so common. Like mentioning products. The first time I did that a writing teacher at Brandeis, where I went to school, said, “You can’t do that! It detracts from the gravitas of the work.”
ML: To say “Snickers,” or “a Snickers bar.”
SV: It’s crazy that was controversial.
ML: It was brought up to me. I remember as if you’re the teacher. “Can I see you after class?” And you think, what did I do? And that’s what I had done.
SV: For you it was realism. It was reality.
ML: Look, I wasn’t naïve. I knew it wasn’t done that much, but I didn’t see why it was okay for Tolstoy, in the beginning of Hadji Murad—a really beautiful book, maybe his last book—that involves the Caucasus and Chechens and Russians and whatnot. In the beginning there’s a very beautiful description of a certain kind of thistle, a very hearty kind of thistle. That survives. People keep tearing it out, but it keeps growing. It’s very specific. Botanically specific. So, forty-four years ago, sitting in this class thinking, I don’t see why the specificity of that is okay. It doesn’t detract from the gravitas of the writing. But using that kind of specificity about, say, a candy bar, which is meaningful. There’s a big difference between a Godiva and a Kit Kat bar. They’re not the same! So, being careful about the language you use and trying to see what values are inherent to certain kinds of words and certain contexts. If you’re being scientific about that you have to.
But I want to get back to something. We were talking about the little kid, cooking something up in his bedroom.
ML: It was always about an artist who went somewhere to a kind of mysterious cave of his own and came back with something. It’s not so different from Moses, who went up to the mountain and was there for a while, came back, and said, “Look at this!”
I’ve always had this little scenario in my head: Your parents are having some kind of party, maybe a dinner party. And it’s late and you’re in your room. You know, this is where kids were usually stashed. “Don’t come down!” they’d say. “Unless you have to.” And then there’s always this idea that you will come down, you know, this little eight-year-old, and do something. Like, you’ll play the piano and blow everyone away. Do magic tricks in your pajamas. Like, you’ll come down and do some extraordinary thing. And all the adults will be aghast. That’s still what I think I’m doing. Like I’m holing up somewhere for the years it takes me to write any book and then coming down the stairs in my pajamas and saying, “See? Look what I did!”
SV: Do you work at home or do you have an office?
ML: I’ve done both. I had a place in Manhattan recently that I really loved. And then I stopped going because I realized I mainly liked the process. That’s what we were talking about. I liked going. It’s really like a throwback. I feel ashamed to admit to succumbing to this cultural enforcement of this, just so I could say to my wife, “Bye, honey,” so that I could go and come back.
But I realized that I didn’t particularly like the place itself. It was in a great neighborhood, and I loved going there, and I would do most of the writing, most of the ideas, would come to me on the way, invariably. I would sit there and think of things. It was good for synthesizing, but I’d get ideas either drinking coffee before I went, or on the PATH, or on the subway, or walking. Almost never in that studio.
SV: How do you “capture” your thoughts?
ML: I’ll write things on napkins or on my phone if I don’t have a pad. But I always have a pad. When I’m working on something the two hours or so between waking up and the first couple of hours of the day when I’m drinking coffee, really, that’s the heart. And I’m scrawling things and I’ll have more than enough to feel like I’ve written enough. I won’t necessarily know what its utilitarian value will be, but that’s when I’m thinking and generating material.
SV: I can’t imagine any of your books are too laid out in advance. Or are they? Most of your books have these high concepts about them.
ML: I would say there’ve been a couple of books—well, let’s just talk about the two last ones.
ML: I had several overarching ideas for The Sugar Frosted Nutsack; one being that it would be an endless explication of the title. Sometimes I think my books are just an attempt to explain the title of my book.
SV: [Laughs] Great.
ML: ’Cause I’m always saying, even in Gone with the Mind: “And this is what my mom and I mean by Gone with the Mind,” triumphantly, finally, as if I hadn’t already made an attempt at that before.
SV: I have to say, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is probably the funniest book title I’ve ever heard. Every time I say it I laugh.
ML: I was driving somewhere with my wife and I was on the phone texting or e-mailing with Michael Pietsch, who was, at that time, my editor, and who is now the head of Hachette Books.
SV: He was your first editor?
ML: Yes. And he’s been an enormously important supporter and enormously important friend to me. Anyway, at this time Michael was editing the book and I think it might have been his own anxieties. Or he might have been communicating with sales people and marketing people, and he said, “Maybe you should think of another title.” Because I guess sometimes there are fears that, although I guess this is becoming antiquated since bookstores are less important, that the title might not be put in front.
SV: Because it’s too much fun.
ML: Or maybe there are places that wouldn’t review a book with that title. But then Michael said, as we’re talking that day, going back and forth, “We have to use that title.”
SV: You have to!
ML: Come on!
SV: And so when it came out was it an issue?
ML: Yes, I think there was a place that didn’t run a review because they couldn’t use the title. [Laughs] And I said, “Well, what word is it? Is it sugar?”
ML: “Is it frosted? Nutsack? I mean, what is it?”
ML: [Laughs] You know what’s funny with that book is that people rarely use the whole title.
SV: They’ll say Sugar?
ML: No, they’ll say Nutsack! And sometimes I think, you don’t know me well enough. It’s like someone calling you a nickname and they’ve just met you. The other day, in Brooklyn, this guy was saying something about Nutsack, and I said, “We don’t know each other well enough. Use the whole title.” [Laughs] But with that book I had the idea that the narrative voice would be a kind of historian of religion or a scholar of mythology talking about his study of this text.
SV: Probably like the kind of book you read a lot of. Because you like far-out nonfiction, right?
ML: Yes, especially about those kinds of things. I love anthropology. I love mythology, all those things.
SV: I’ve heard you talk about The Sugar Frosted Nutsack as a totally closed system, so much so that you weren’t even showing it to people as you were writing it. I don’t know if you do anyway.
ML: I try not to. Heidegger translated some line of Sophocles as man being the strangest of the strange. I just loved that. It’s a quality that I hope my writing has. And in order for that to be, for most of the time I’m working on something, it’s better not to show it to anyone. It’s not that I’m worried that someone’s going to say, “I don’t like it.” I’m worried the other way. If you’re working on something and you decide, I love these four pages and I’m going to show it to my buddy or my guy who I trust. Now what if that person says, “I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything as much as this”? Then you think, I gotta make the rest of the book like that. Because that’s the reaction you want. That’s a weakness that I’ve noticed about myself. It’s hard to ignore that. It all has an effect, good and bad. At some point with The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, I showed a bunch of it to Michael Pietsch, pretty well into it, let’s say, like seventy-five percent into it.
SV: What did he say?
ML: If I had my druthers I would write a book completely and then show it to people when it’s done. To keep my legs shut, as it were, as long as possible to allow that monstrous “stranger than strange” energy to build inside. But he needed to see it. It had been a long time. I think we were getting close to the third or fourth revised deadline. And, not to belie everything I just said, but I wanted him to look at it. Because The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is a particularly aggressive book. Purposely so. As opposed to Gone with the Mind, which is a seductive book. Nutsack shimmies along that line of being totally intolerable.
So I sent it to him and waited. Michael was very busy at that time. He was editing Wallace’s book [The Pale King], which was put out posthumously, of course. I think he was also working on Keith Richards’s memoir at the time. He read The Sugar Frosted Nutsack and loved it. He said really nice things about it.
And then he wrote a beautiful e-mail after I sent him a final draft. The only thing he said editorially about anything was, “I think the book would benefit from one more aria, one more cadenza at the end of the book.” Which led to the image of the little nub at the top of the baseball cap in which the epic is inscribed. I don’t think that image, which is so useful, would have existed without showing it to Michael. And in Michael’s great collaborative spirit, having a great understanding of all of my work, of everything I’d ever done, he knew how to suggest in just the right way so that we ended up with this image of the entirety of the epic embroidered in the button of a baseball cap.
SV: I’ve never read a book like The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. Have you?
ML: No. And Gone with the Mind and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack are so different. And I can tell you exactly why. Let me just . . . there was something else I was going to say . . . Anyway, two things happened with The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. Probably the most significant is I hadn’t written a piece of fiction like that in a very long time. It turned out to be have been twelve or thirteen years.
SV: It was your big hiatus.
ML: My big hiatus.
SV: You weren’t writing any “Mark Leyner” fiction during that time that we don’t know about?
ML: No, I wish. Someone told me the other day in an interview that the end of Gone with the Mind is very valedictory, like I’m saying goodbye, like I’m not going to do this anymore.
SV: It does, yeah.
ML: She asked, “Is this your last book?” And I said, “If I was going to have a last book this would be it.” But then she said, “Then what would you do?” And I said, “I would work, secretly, on another one.”
So I decided this is such a pat kind of history, and I’m so suspicious of it, but it’s my own. So I’m going to tell you about it. I was in—and I think I mentioned this in Gone with the Mind—I was in Culver City, in LA, giving my advice in postproduction for a movie I had written, War, Inc. It was the day I’m about to go home, and I’m walking with my bag, and I got hit by a car and thrown up in the air. I hobbled back to the desk of the hotel to ask the guy to call an ambulance because my leg was pretty messed up. He said—he was such a California guy—he said, “Dude, I thought you were skateboarding because I saw you up in the air.” And I said, “Nooo.”
ML: And I remember thinking, in the air, I don’t want to land on my head, so let’s try to land on something else; and thinking, I hope this means that I can still work out at the gym; and that I’m not killed so that I can see my daughter.
SV: So that was the end of your LA screenwriting years?
ML: Yes. I decided I’m not going back.
SV: Because you came back to New York to heal?
ML: There were a lot of reasons for that. But in my emblematizing of experience, my mythologizing of my own autobiography, I said, “Yes, I’m done.” But, more practically, I came home, couldn’t really walk comfortably for a little while, and kind of lay in bed and started reading again in a way that I hadn’t in a while.
SV: Like for that whole twelve-year hiatus period?
ML: No, I always read a lot of poetry and nonfiction. But here I read Moby-Dick. I read Jude the Obscure. I read like an undergraduate taking a lit course. I’d forgotten how mind-blowing this idea was that through these little symbols on a page—and that’s all that’s there, you’re not hearing anything, you’re not seeing anything like in the movies—just that can be this fucking extraordinary experience. So somewhere around that time I decided I wanted to write a book again. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack was that book—which I approached with, like, crushing, paralyzing trepidation.
SV: You were afraid to write?
ML: Yeah, because I just hadn’t done it. I would look back at my other stuff and think, whoa that’s kind of neat, you know?
SV: I wanted to ask you about that. Do you ever reread your old books?
ML: No, I would look. Like peek. Like looking at some naked cousin in the bathroom, you know?
ML: Like just through some crack in the door.
SV: And you’d think, cool stuff?
ML: I would think, yes, that’s some cool stuff and how do you come up with that? And I thought, I don’t know if I can. Maybe that was just something at a certain time in my life that I had access to, a certain procedure or something. And, yes, it was enormously intimidating to me. I don’t know how I surmounted that. By just beginning, I guess. And then the other thing that happened to explain the kind of tenors and textures of that book, which is different from the new one, was that I got diagnosed with prostate cancer.
SV: Before or after the car accident?
ML: After. It made me realize that one shitty thing that happens to you does not immunize you against another shitty thing from happening. Because you kind of think, okay, I’m good for a while, because I got hit by a car. So in the distribution of shitty things that happen to people I’m good for five years. [Laughs] Or whatever the term is. I don’t know. Because of these two things, because it had been so long, I really wanted to make that book as aggressive as possible.
SV: I think you succeeded.
ML: [Laughs] Yeah, that was always in my mind if I’m still doing this. It was like I’d come back and I had another chance to fight for the title or something.
ML: I’m working out and I’m going to come back in the best shape of my life. I said the other night to someone that I wanted to come back like one of these multiarmed Hindu statues, bristling with weaponry and limbs. And so that book’s got an almost repellently abstruse vocabulary. It’s repetitive. Where I would say, “Can I say this again? It’s so obnoxious. People are just going to throw the book across the room.” And I’d say, “Yeah, do it three more times,” you know? Everything was truculent in all those ways. And, again, I’m probably the least naturalistic writer I know . . .
SV: Maybe you’re more of a naturalistic writer in some weird way.
ML: Well, I think that’s true. And I think that’s a great thing to talk about. Maybe I shared some of these qualities with Ike, that character in the book. Or Ike represented this. Gone with the Mind is very deliberately nothing like that. It’s very inviting.
ML: And poignant at times. People cry at the readings.
SV: It’s a very tender book. I imagine your tribulations made you a little more interested or available to that?
ML: I had always decided to place an embargo on using things that actually happened to me—feelings, experiences. I just said I’m not doing that. I’m using anything and everything else, but, for some reason, that was embargoed. Maybe out of a fear of being sentimental or less rigorous in putting things together the way I wanted to. But then I realized it’s the same. It’s the same.
SV: How did you realize that?
ML: There is no interior world that is separate, as you were talking about before. There is no unmediated interior. There are things that people read and experience in a very different way when it feels to them as a kind of reportage of, to use that phrase, empirically verifiable life. Like, “Oh, he really had prostate cancer,” or “He had this incredible time with his wife,” and that’s experience that’s read in a different way. It’s a fascinating thing that it is.
SV: When I read Gone with the Mind I kept thinking of the term omnidirectional. It just kept popping into my head. It’s one of the most omnidirectional texts I think I’ve ever read. Your early work is like that too but in a much different way. I read Et Tu, Babe again last week. It’s very different though. Scenes will cut in a certain way not unlike, say, Mr. Show or Monty Python. Scenes cut to all over the place.
ML: Yeah, right.
SV: Now, Gone with the Mind is going all over the place, but it’s you, it’s pure voice, it’s thought. That’s an incredible achievement to pull off. You don’t see it that often. And to have it be meaningful like it is in this book, where it’s funny, wise, and sweet all at once.
ML: Well, thank you. It’s what I was trying to do. And you asked about how preconceived some of these books are. This, in an interesting way, is the most and the least preconceived. I wanted to see if that could be.
SV: In what sense?
ML: It’s the most preconceived in that I knew from the beginning that it would have the structure of a reading with an introduction and a reading and a Q and A, that it would take place in the food court of a mall, and no one would be there except these two guys. At some point I realized what the ending would be like, and what the Q and A would be. Which is a kind of unexpected, almost dramaturgical movement into another space. I had never thought in that way before.
ML: Such that at the end I, the Mark Leyner character, comes out as if he’s addressing an audience, as if having done the performance, and sort of addresses the audience. And I took that. The idea of audiences in this book is crucial. The way my mother and I used each other as an audience in an intimate way, the ways that we do this to each other is, I think, one of the underlying themes of the books. So, in that way it’s the most calculated, preconceived book.
But in terms of what is actually said, I sort of have these three containers that are very legible for what they are: the introduction, the reading, and the Q and A. What’s bubbling up and floating around within those containers can be almost anything.
SV: A free-for-all.
ML: When you’re working things you see there are all kinds of through lines and all kinds of things that are happening. And I think I say this in the book, to avoid some kind of narrative continuity, even if you wanted to, it’s almost impossible. You can put three words on a page and the way we try to cope with that is that we try to make some story out of it, somehow. So as I’m doing this and I’m very much in this book working with those expectations and that inevitability, even in what I wanted to feel like a completely extemporaneous thing. Like my mother tells a story and it’s fairly linear, although in my mom’s way, which is very tangential. And I think you can almost see, one of the cool things about this book is that I can see the importance of my mother’s locution as an influence on how I write. Which I’d never thought of before. And it was when I was transcribing some of what she said to me that I started seeing that.
SV: So you’re learning the book as you’re drafting it?
ML: I’m learning as I’m drafting and then I’m beginning to see, aha! It’s like building anything. You begin to see patterns. You begin to see patterns developing that you thankfully hadn’t intended because they’re much more interesting when you don’t.
SV: How many pages are you writing to get Gone with the Mind? Are you writing twice the number of finished pages? More?
ML: There’s one draft. When I finished it I sent it to my editor. I wrote the last sentence and I sent it. I didn’t read it again.
SV: You didn’t?!
ML: No, because I take so long to write. Like, there’s the first paragraph. I’m looking at that so closely, for so long, before I move on. Let’s say the first section is A. I’m looking at A for days and days and waking up and thinking about it and having a drink and looking at it and all the different ways to get angled. And then B. And then looking at A and B to juxtapose what that’s doing. So I’m moving very deliberately. Until I just know the book. In the way that we were talking about chess, I know the book the way you’d know a famous game was played.
SV: To have your mom’s voice in there like you do, it’s very powerful. A friend of mine listened to the book. He’s a painter.
ML: He listened to the audio book?
ML: My mom read her part.
SV: I know! That’s great.
ML: I really used my mom. I felt slightly guilty. I didn’t say, “Okay Mom, I need something in your voice and I need it to feel palpably like this. But so you’re introducing me at a reading and no one’s there . . .” I didn’t do that.
SV: You didn’t?
ML: No, I wanted my mom to do what she did in the book. I wanted this to be an extraordinarily discursive introduction that, at times, has nothing to do with me, and more to do with her.
SV: Which then has everything to do with you.
ML: Of course. And how do you get that? I said to my mom, “I want you to talk to me about being pregnant with me. Or what it was like to be pregnant and deliver a child in 1955, 1956.” And once you turn my mom on, it’s like, okay, fourteen hours later . . .
ML: I think that’s enough. I think we’re good. But then I had this incredible thing. Which is such a beautiful portrait of what it was like to be a twenty-one-year old woman in 1955, 1956, pregnant.
SV: It’s really touching. And the effect was, I thought, weirdly, more personal than reading a more traditional autobiography.
ML: Much more so. I’m really proud of this book because I did things structurally that I maybe didn’t have the confidence to do before because it’s a very legible book. There might be people who don’t like this.
SV: Like your fans?
ML: Yes. [Laughs] My fans. People who like being completely lost. There are moments in the earlier books where you don’t know, is a table speaking? A coffee? Is a uterus speaking? What is it? I don’t even know what it is. I think there are things that are wonderful about that. Here, it never happens. You know, we’re in a mall. We’re in the food court of the mall. Mom’s Mark is . . . Mom’s Mark! [Laughs] I am Mom’s Mark. Well, as you just said, it ends up being more naturalistic and personal than a more traditional autobiography.
SV: One of the things I kept thinking about—reading this new book, and when I looked through your old stuff too—is your relationship to the word, to language, and it seemed to me, that you are, in a sense, a fundamentally Jewish writer. Is that something that you relate to or think about—your relationship to the word, its essence?
ML: Yeah, I’ve thought about it. And I think that’s true probably. Sam Lipsyte said something like that to me about this book. As I’ve said before I think the value placed on the virtue and the makers of literature come from that milieu, a specifically Jewish type of reverence for the word. Not that Jews are the only ones, they’re among many, many groups who do. It has its own flavor.
But I have had great interest recently in Abraham Abulafia, a medieval Spanish Kabbalist who developed all sorts of mystical theories of language and developed meditation techniques that involved very complex uses of divine names and letter permutations. Fascinating stuff, and certainly the most recent tincture of “Jewishness” in my thinking and my work. There’s a great book about him by Moshe Idel.
SV: It seems to me you use language in a very exalted, joyous way. To go back to the Charlie Rose interview, you said you like to “delight” your readers. This idea of delighting your readers seems, weirdly, kind of radical. That’s not really what people were up to in the ’90s or even now. It doesn’t seem like that’s what the publishing world is looking for so much.
ML: No. I think it’s my great desire, really. It reminds me how somewhere, someone had asked me, “Should there be a moral component to what you do?” And just standing on my feet at that moment, I thought of the plot of Sullivan’s Travels where, toward the end of the film, it shows these convicts on a chain gang crying in laughter like in a Mickey Mouse cartoon because their lives are so abjectly horrible. And to have just that moment—to use that word delight—at seeing something that makes them weep with joy—like when I was telling you earlier when I responded to hearing a Beatles song, or watching Bugs Bunny cartoons. That’s what I wanted to do. Delight a person.
SV: So there’s this criticism . . .
ML: Delighting someone in 2016 in this country through language on a page is a whole complex dialectical mission. It’s not just saying, “I’m going to write some funny stuff and if the person laughs we’re good and I’m happy.” No. You were going to ask me something along those lines . . .
SV: Back in the day a certain beloved author criticized you and . . .
ML: Well, that’s the guy, actually. I was in Syracuse and he happened to be there. I was doing a reading. Mary Karr had invited me because she was teaching there, and I had done a reading one day, and a big long Q and A another day, and Wallace, at the end of this long day—and I had a train to catch, and I saw him—he raised his hand. [Laughs] And I knew it was going to be this thing because that was Wallace’s thing with me.
SV: He seemed like he had a thing with you.
ML: Yeah, and also I was really aware of making this train. [Laughs] And so it was with this very deep sigh that I said, “Okay, David,” ’cause I knew this was coming, this question. And that’s when I told the story of Sullivan’s Travels. What is the moral component of delight? I mean, very simply, I think there’s an enormous one.
SV: I agree. I’ve always been bothered by Wallace’s critique of you, that you’re a “nihilist” whose work is, essentially, meaningless. I think he got it exactly wrong. Your use of the word is, like the Jewish mystics’, joyous, ecstatic, rapturous—an expression that is the thing itself, rather than, merely, a representation of it.
ML: Yeah, I was never bothered by it. I didn’t pay enormous attention to what specific people were saying about me because I try to protect myself a bit and do what I do. Wallace, at that time, was very interested in having an exchange, through letters and different things, about this, and I said I would rather just—I mean, it was all very amicable, and I said I think the most complex expression of what I think can be done is in these books. So I’d kind of rather do it that way. So, I’ll pass. [Laughs]
SV: Okay, I’m going to talk about you like a professional athlete for a second.
SV: When I read The Sugar Frosted Nutsack I thought, this is Mark Leyner’s best book. I can’t believe what you just pulled off. And, then, when I read Gone with the Mind, I thought, no, this is your best book! You’re on a run.
ML: I know. I’m feeling very Steph Curry with these. [Laughs] That sounds terrible.
SV: No, it’s true.
ML: No, I am feeling like, for my work—and I’m not saying in any way it has any value to anyone, but in my own terms—I’m operating at a really high level at making the sort of books I want, with these two.
SV: So what are you going to do next? Not that you would or should tell me, but . . .
ML: I’m going to be very patient about what the next thing is because I’m really thinking that something’s happening with these and I want to pursue that with great devotion and care.
SV: You’ve said before, and I’m paraphrasing, that while other authors have to invent new narrators for each new book, you have to invent new authors. I’ve never heard anyone put it like that before. Who is the author you invented for Gone with the Mind? Or did you not have to do it for this one?
ML: No, I have to do it each time. [Long pause] This is something best answered in the gestalt of the book, who that author is. I sort of answered that when I talked about the different stance I felt in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. In The Sugar Frosted Nutsack that author was a magisterial, mandarin kind of figure. And this author, I would say, is writing from a much more marginalized position. Again, to a certain degree, saying farewell, you know?
There’s this beautiful line in a Keats poem about joy—I think it’s in “Ode on Melancholy”—about joy ever-bidding adieu. I write about this in Gone with the Mind when I was getting that prostate cancer surgery. I didn’t know how I was going to come out of that surgery, like, not being able to do certain things that you associate with being a virile man. So I gave it a lot of thought in terms of what posture I would be able to take as an author, if I’m having to feel very different about myself. I still think Gone with the Mind, like The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, they’re still books being written by a street person. They’re very feisty. I think of all of my books as being feisty.
ML: And I was concerned, I was trying to figure out, if the surgery didn’t go well then I would have to recompose myself as a man, as a human being, then I would also have to do that in terms of how I’d approach this that I wouldn’t feel so street, as we’re saying. But that didn’t happen so I still can. [Laughs]
SV: But this is the mama’s boy version now, right? Because now we know you’re the preeminent mama’s boy in American letters today.
ML: Yeah, but you have to be an extraordinary motherfucker to come at people that way.
Lost & Found:Sam Lipsyte, Julia Cooke, Steve Almond, Jess Pane, Teow Lim Goh
If you didn’t know any better, the guy on stage looked pretty jolly, a kindly, balding, white-bearded fellow in a wheelchair (“MS,” an audience member here in this packed hall at Brown University near the end of the 1980s whispered), an avuncular gent ready to embrace the crowd with warm wit. I knew a little bit better, but when he opened his mouth what rumbled out still shocked and mesmerized, and if you took a second gander you saw now in this moonish middle-aged man a sly ferocity, a devilish need to provoke, to push, like his notorious creation Push the Bully. He sure as shit wasn’t Santa Claus, and he was going to let you know it with astonishing lyricism and perversity.
“My name is Stanley,” Stanley Elkin began, reading from an essay (“What’s in a Name?”) collected in this book. A simple enough declaration, but what followed (go read the opening, I’ll wait) was a long paragraph about what somebody named Stanley might do to your child, a riff more funny, disturbing, and poetic than any three steps of the tongue down the palate, any humdrum life lights or loin fires. The piece soon veered away from first-person molester hypotheticals, but not before words like “fork” and “grimes” and “bespittled” had lodged new resonances in my noggin.
I’d read him, in fevers of bliss, already, a few of his novels and short stories, always dazzled by his language and humor, but it was another thing to see him in person. He was all sprezzatura on the page, his circus utterances unfurling with seeming ease. Up in the lights you could sense struggle, agon, some inner grimace, probably more to do with physical discomfort than anything. Certainly he knew how to read his prose—he was maestro and orchestra at once—and it was the music I’d come to hear.
I had just recently been privy to this idea that some artists give aspiring ones “permission,” and I had adopted that feeling about Elkin. Reading his books, you realized how lazy most writing is, how instead of just skating in circles on the rinky-dink ice of dull utterance, you could try to put life into every line, to see every clause as an opportunity for some kind of close-up magic, a pigeon of felt actuality bursting from your fist. (“Try” was—alas, is, for everyone but Elkin—the operative word.) But the fireworks weren’t just for the sake of the spectacle, or the trick. It all needed, in some marvelous way, to connect to that larger entity, the show. Elkin once laid down what he called “the rules” in a radio interview: “Form perfect sentences and flesh these sentences out in high structures of imagination.”
Elkin did so, again and again, in novels like The Living End, George Mills, The Magic Kingdom, and The Dick Gibson Show, as well as in short stories like “A Poetics for Bullies.”
That night in Providence he was part of a largish gathering of writers, all friends of a sort, invited by the great Robert Coover. These were the so-called postmodernists, those in step with John Barth’s famous essay “The Literature of Exhaustion,” purveyors of an exciting anti-realism, though such appellations would grow more and more meaningless. Still, in those days, the particular camps in contemporary American literature seemed fairly well demarcated. Later they’d dissolve into the mist, but that’s another story.
Also on hand were William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass, a colleague of Elkin’s at Washington University in St. Louis. Gaddis was dapper and anxious, Gass was a shaggy wizard, Barthelme charming, and if they constituted some kind of pantheon (and they did to me), Elkin was a gruff but fair-minded war god, assuming the war was one waged against the forces out to stifle daring prose, deep comedy, and an honest (complex, contradictory, horrified, celebratory) sense of the world.
Pieces of Soap is pure Elkin, and something different as well. While there’s no real separation on the sentence level between Elkin the fiction writer and Elkin the essayist, he does employ, like a wrestler (see his memorable grappler Boswell), a variety of new grips. Elkin explores many themes, including literature, movies, sex, small-town comforts, big-time diseases, and many other topics quotidian, epic, or, mostly, both. He understands the Shakespearean stakes and poetry in a breakfast spread, or, as in the title essay, a collection of “wrapped motel, hotel, airline, railway, and steamer soaps.” Elkin does not keep his pieces of soap for Proustian remembrance, and, he says, he “writes more from the grave robber’s viewpoint than the collector’s.” He traces his soap-collecting compulsion to the past (which Faulkner, one of Elkin’s permission-givers, and subject of his Ph.D. thesis, reminded us is not even past), to his traveling salesman father. Once Elkin starts using his soaps, they become talismans against mortality, or at least a way to measure the life left to him.
Elkin also makes incisive forays into theories of craft. He reveals the true nature of plot (it’s “isometric”) and novels (“For conveying ideas, novels are among the least functional and most decorative of the blunt instruments”). Elkin’s thoughts on fiction are as brazen and astute and often as entertaining as his fictions. His adventures in Hollywood, described in two brilliant pieces here, are as much about himself, and America, as they are about the celebrity-industrial complex circa 1989. By now a “cripple,” he falls out of a hotel shower, “my pale Missouri body falling from grace—only no one falls from grace so much as from its absence . . .”
“Schmuck,” his connection, his old Yale acquaintance, TV honcho David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood) calls Stanley, for resigning himself to a shower without grab bars. Sometimes Elkin is a schmuck. He makes great art from the fact. Often he leads with his wounds. He lures you, traps you with them. Not that you mind, of course. It’s part of the magic, the show. (“Never the winner of my anecdotes . . . but the fall guy, the whiner take all.”) The schmuck also confesses to trying to be an asshole, and losing the game, as when he attempts to humiliate a former Democratic Party nominee for president for what Elkin perceives as phony courtesy at a cocktail party. But the old pol handles him perfectly. Awful for Elkin, but all the better for us, for the story.
Yes, Elkin is funny, one of the funniest ever (radio interviewer: “Is there any pain or humiliation that is too great for humor?” Elkin: “No. No, there isn’t”). He was also one of the most serious ever. He was often amused, but his books were never merely amusing. Too much was on the line. His vision of society, culture, absurdity, the stations of the self, the sufferings and charms of the body, were all too acute for light humor. The title of a recent TV show and website, Funny or Die, almost has it right. Yet what it misses is everything. Funny and die is more like it. But also funny and live, in bigness and in smallness, in sickness and in health, and in the case of Stanley Elkin, not just live but perdure, beyond life, in some of the most original and thrilling prose in the language.
About the Cover:Ashley Percival
Ashley Percival is known for his colorful animals, especially his series of owls. Stylish and youthful, his subjects are sometimes found perched on skateboards or bikes. Percival says his animals—often bespectacled and clad in enviable patterns—share his sense of fashion.
In college, Percival’s childhood fascination with animals became an interest in wildlife photography. Now, he occasionally refers to photos, but draws mostly from his memory and imagination. He starts each illustration on paper, using traditional drawing media, before moving to Photoshop to add the final touches. His aesthetic is influenced by children’s books, specifically Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
This issues’s cover art, The Fresh Owl, is an early piece in Percival’s owl series and it’s one of his most popular works. It’s easy to see why, with the subject’s delicately placed beanie and unassuming gaze. We hope this friendly face provides a bright spot in the dark of winter. You can see more at www.ashleypercival.com.