Content

Friday 23 September
Art is a Gift

Filed under Books

One thing I like the most about Goodreads, as a Goodreads Author, is how the site regularly does book giveaways. The idea that I can give a book or two to a stranger and maybe they’ll read it is something very special. I don’t imagine I have any strangers reading this blog, but on the chance that you need or would like a free signed copy of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There mailed to your home, here’s a giveaway you’ve got one month from today to enter.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

If You Need Me I'll Be Over There by Dave  Madden

If You Need Me I'll Be Over There

by Dave Madden

Giveaway ends October 23, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

And if you already have or don’t need a signed copy of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, maybe you can go to Goodreads or Amazon and leave a review? It would mean a lot to me.

Thank you, friends.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-09-23  ::  dave

Wednesday 14 September
The Long, Dark Night of the Nascent Queer

Filed under Books + queers

kenanI.
Just before the fall semester hit me like a wave I’d underestimated, I finished Randall Kenan’s[1] A Visitation of Spirits, and I’ve been wanting to write some things about it. Much of the book follows Horace Cross, a teenager from rural North Carolina, throughout a night where a demon leads him through the sites of his past as Horace struggles with his gayness and what it might mean for his future. The demon is real, tangible, manifest. There’s also an angel. What kept me reading was the way Randall took this night of self-reckoning and rendered it as a battle between the forces of good and evil in a way that never felt overwrought.

It didn’t feel overwrought because it felt so familiar.

II.
I want to tell you the story of the night I woke up gay.

I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska, having moved there just months prior to start learning how to be a fiction writer. I’d recently left Pittsburgh, where I’d lived for 7 years, dated one woman for 6 months, and went on single dates with a number of other women before finding excuses not to follow up with date 2. In Lincoln, the plan was to find the right girlfriend to help me redefine myself, which had been the plan when I’d moved to Pittsburgh to college.

In other words, I kept running away from being forced to look critically at the porn I liked and the things I thought about alone in bed.

Early in the spring semester I asked Heather out on a date. She was a fellow MA student, a regular at the bars I liked, and we’d both been told by mutual friends that we were interested in each other. I suggested we go to a dive bar I liked, the sort of place it would never occur anyone to ever suggest going on a first date. But then again, I wasn’t thinking about setting any sort of mood other than drinky-social. We talked the whole night and had a great time. She dropped me off at my place, and I went inside.

Then the anxiety hit. The same fear that hit me every time I’d come home from a date. If things continue to go well, she’s going to want to sleep with me. What would she think, I wondered, when my body didn’t respond the way my brain wanted it to? What would she tell other people?

I turned out the lights and I lay down in my bed but I couldn’t fall asleep. I was 24 years old and every day of my life had been a lie I kept telling. That night, I’d turn from side to side, and then back on my back. I’d close my eyes or I’d leave them open. Either way, I felt the same. I felt like I was falling. It was the constant sensation of sinking deeper and deeper into the bed, as though I was falling away from the normal world.

III.
A Visitation of Spirits takes Horace through a haunting of his past, much like the first third of A Christmas Carol. He’s there watching the scene but unable to affect it. It’s not exactly a falling (he moves forward through it), but throughout his long, dark night he’s not exactly in control. I recognized it immediately. I can’t say this experience is universal, that all queer people have this kind of sinking, but I did.

Neal did, too. Though his long, dark night happened years before mine did, far earlier in his life than mine, he remembers it as a sleepless night of sinking slowly and endlessly into his bed. We shared this with each other very early in our relationship, maybe the second month. It made me fall in love with him, knowing exactly what he’d been through.

That night was so terrible, so full of regret and hatred for the person I’d been and yet wouldn’t let myself be, but all the same I was happy to relive it while reading Randall’s book, if only to see that I maybe wasn’t alone. And also to be reminded that I eventually came through it (things go worse for Horace). At some point that night I saw that all I had to do was make a decision. I could be like everyone else, be the person I felt others expected me to be, or I could try to be happy. Put that way, it wasn’t much of a decision at all.

That morning, I got out of bed a gay man.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I had the privilege of being Randall’s fellow at Sewanee this summer, and much of that privilege involved getting to watch him read and get right at the heart of a story’s chief concerns and how the writer at hand might revise toward them. It was like surgery, but with a kind of elegance and a continual list of books to look into.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-09-14  ::  dave

Saturday 25 June
The ‘If You Need Me I’m Totally Going To Be There’ Summer Book Tour — Now Coast-to-Coast!

Filed under Announcements + Books

(Not an official name.)

Announcing additional dates for my tour, reading from If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, a collection of stories about everyday people trying their best. If you’re near any of these cities this summer, come on out. I’d love to see you if we’re friends, or meet you if we’re not friends yet.

Omaha, NE*
The Bookworm
Wednesday July 6, 6pm

Minneapolis, MN*
Magers & Quinn
Thursday July 7, 7pm

Milwaukee, WI*
Boswell Book Company
Friday July 8, 7pm

Chicago, IL*
The Book Cellar
Saturday July 9, 6pm

Iowa City, IA*
Prairie Lights
Sunday July 10, 2pm

Des Moines, IA*
Beaverdale Books
Monday July 11, 6pm

Lincoln, NE*
Indigo Bridge Books
Tuesday July 12, 7pm

Washington, D.C.
Upshur Street Books
Sunday, July 17, 5pm

Sewanee, TN
Sewanee Writers’ Conference
July 19 – July 31

San Francisco, CA
Green Apple Books (on 9th Ave)
Tuesday, August 2, 7:30pm

Berkeley, CA
Pegasus Books
Wednesday, August 3, 7:30pm

Portland, OR
Mother Foucault’s Bookshop
Thursday, August 4, 7pm

San Francisco, CA**
The Booksmith
Thursday, September 8

* With Tyrone Jaeger and Theodore Wheeler
† With Amina Gautier and Theodore Wheeler
** With Kate Folk, John Jodzio, and Kara Vernor

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-25  ::  dave

Wednesday 22 June
“No Sky” – Guided by Voices

Filed under tabulature

UTBUTScoverI was a late fan to GBV, and after years and years of Bee Thousand supremacy in my fandom,[*] their Under the Bushes Under the Stars has usurped all their records as my favorite. I was surprised that this song’s tabs weren’t posted online anywhere, and then surprised that I was able to figure it out. Lots of open chording.

Tune down a half step (EbAbDbGbBbEb), which everyone should always be doing anyway.

Play all chords with open, ringing B and e strings, sliding the E/powerchord shape up and down the neck.

INTRO RIFF:

  E     A           B
e-0--s--0-0-0-0--s--0-0-
B-0--s--0-0-0-0--s--0-0-
G-1--s--6-6-6-6--s--8-8-
D-2--s--7-7-7-7--s--9-9-
A-2--s--7-7-7-7--s--9-9-
E-0--s--0-0-0-0--s--0-0-

INTRO/BRIDGE: same open E-A-B chords

VERSE:
A                                  E
Seen you around, yeah. I wanted to call you around (x2)

BRIDGE:
E                                A              B
     Could you, could you keep a secret from me, yeah? (x2)

VERSE

CHORUS:
A                            G       Bb
When I'm alone, I can see no sky. (x2)

BRIDGE (repeat to fade)

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. While I was supposed to’ve been writing the taxidermy book I instead spent some months in the spring of 2009 recording, track by track, this record, titling it, stupidly, Me Thousand. It’s been heard only by close friends who don’t judge.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-22  ::  dave

Tuesday 14 June
Laughing from Tragedy and Horror

Filed under Comedy

I.
Early Sunday, as everyone knows by now, a man went into a gay club and shot more than 50 people with an assault rifle. I woke up to the news. I tell myself not to go online before I’ve gotten out of bed, but that morning I did, and I saw the news, and I didn’t know what to think, so I stopped thinking. I saw that Orlando, where the shooting happened, was low on blood, desperate for donors, and I thought about how gay men continue to be barred from donating blood in this country, and then I stopped thinking about that.

Neal and I had a busy day planned. We’re redecorating—which sounds fancier and more expensive than what it really is: we’re swapping out beat-up furniture that’s gone through two moves with replacements he’s finding on the cheap through Craigslist. It’s requiring a lot of loading and unloading of our Volvo. Renting moving vans by the hour via apps. Our place, after three years, is slowly coming together.

II.
More and more I’m coming to adopt—or maybe it’s that I’m coming to trust—an absurdist view of life. I’ve been worried it was making me colder, harsher, and more cynical than I’ve always been. But yesterday I stopped worrying.

Here’s what happened. We were watching Veep,[1] where this season a jackass character named Jonah is being puppetstringed into running for a vacant congressional seat in New Hampshire so that he could help vote to keep Selina Meyer in the presidency. In last night’s episode, Jonah shot himself in the foot while on a televised hunt, and his opponent—who also was his 2nd-grade teacher—commented afterward that he should be more careful. That guns are dangerous.

Despite trailing her in polls by double-digits, he turns around and wins the election. Why? Because the NRA began running ads that pinpointed his opponent as being—with her comment about their danger—anti-gun.

It’s Christmastime in this episode, strangely (given the air date). When Jonah’s campaign manager sees the NRA billboard, he says, “It’s a Christmas miracle.”

I laughed and laughed. I cackled throughout the whole great episode. Yes, I believe that the people who were shot the other night are dead as a result of the NRA’s lobbying. I’ll go to the grave believing that. To be led through another instance of the NRA’s incessant madness driven by money and self-interest, and then to be invited to laugh, was maybe the best thing to happen to me on Sunday.

It didn’t make light of the tragedy, is what I’m saying. And it didn’t help me run away from the truth of what happened. It took away some of my fear and helped me see the shooting as it was.

III.
Absurdism, as I’ve been brought to understand it, has much to do with alienation, and borders on a kind of nihilism, but all the same makes me feel closer to (or at least more warmly toward) others. Here’s my trusty Handbook of Literary Terms doing a better job of defining it than I could:

Absurdism is the sense that human beings, cut off from their roots, live in meaningless isolation in an alien universe. Although the literature of the absurd employs many of the devices of expressionism and surrealism, its philosophical base is a form of existentialism that views human beings as moving from the nothingness from which they came to the nothingness in which they will end through an existence marked by anguish and absurdity.

It seems so bleak on the page. And maybe it is. But I’ve come to see it in opposition to romanticism. A romantic view of life holds on to narratives, particularly the narrative of forward progress. The narrative of heroes and villains. It views thoughts and prayers, or candlelight vigils, as messages that will be seen and understood by their intended audiences.

I’ve long been, and might still at times think like, a romantic. I’ve been concerned with how things should be. How I should be, should act. What is right and wrong. I’ve been googling things like “how to be a good person” in the faith that such a thing, such a character, even exists. It’s kept me from looking at the world as it is, from looking at myself as I am (instead of how I’m coming across to others).

Listen: I’d never want to disparage thinking, praying, or candlelight vigils. Some people are romantics, and through such a viewpoint is how they choose to handle and manage the unmanageable feeling of grief and tragedy. It’s not, though, the only way to do this. And these days I don’t think it’s mine.

IV.
There’s an idea I get exposed to every now and then that some things are too serious, or too dire, to joke about. Most recently I came across it in Roxane Gay’s essay (in Bad Feminist) on Daniel Tosh, written for Salon after his rape-heckling fiasco of 2012. “Humor about sexual violence suggests permissiveness,” she writes, for those people who might “do terrible things unto others.” In other words, it’s possible that would-be rapists are only waiting for the right joke to allow them to become actual rapists. As a claim, it’s probably unsupportable and definitely unsupported in her essay. But also: it shows a terrible lack of imagination.

The essay begins with an anecdote about the day of the Challenger explosion. Gay and her classmates are watching the liftoff, including James, the class clown. It blows up and everyone is silent. Then James says, “I guess there are a lot of dead fish now.”

As Gay tells it, the joke had bad consequences for James. “He had finally crossed an invisible line about what one can or cannot joke about,” she writes, and “suddenly became an outcast.” It was, everyone decided, “too soon” to tell that joke.

My sympathies are with James, telling for himself the joke that nobody would tell to him. I imagine death was very scary to him, the way it is to me. Murder, accidents, tragedy. School shootings. As a professor I worry very gravely about being shot one day, just for showing up at work. Which is to say that death and murder hold a certain power over me. This is what fear is and does. It traps you, it heightens your emotions, and it convinces you to react emotionally against that which scares you.

V.
Laughter is maybe the best way everyday people can disenfranchise the powerful.[2] We seem to understand this about our politicians, but we don’t understand it about our fears. For some, a joke told from tragedy is a kind of gift that weakens the sting of what hurts us. For others, a joke told from tragedy disturbs that narrative which reads that silence and solemnity are the way through grief. That tragedies are things to act reverently toward.

This is why nothing is too serious to joke about, why nothing should be off-limits for humor: you never know whose pain that joke is going to alleviate. And you never know how soon that person needs a joke. When Neal went to the Mayo Clinic years back about some troubling long-term stomach issues he couldn’t get diagnosed, I was living alone in Alabama. He called me to fill me in on the news.

“They say it might be Celiac,” he said, a disease I know well since my sister has it, and as a result she hasn’t touched gluten in more than a decade. “Or it could, actually be cancer.” I didn’t want to believe it. Cancer happened to people on TV. I didn’t know what to say. Then Neal, gratefully, spoke again: “I hope to God it’s cancer.”

It remains the most generous joke I’ve been told.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A lot of what got me thinking about the power of an absurdist view of life came out of realizing that when it came to DC-political shows on TV I liked Scandal and House of Cards but I felt something phony and artificial in them that made me only just like them. But I loved Veep and found it somehow truer, despite its never trying to seem authentic or realist.
  2. Armies historically have done a better job for those who get to wield them.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-14  ::  dave

Thursday 9 June
Geoff Dyer on Earnestness and Reverence

Filed under Endorsements

20160525_191030-1A couple weeks ago I saw a talk and ping pong match between Pico Iyer and Geoff Dyer. They were old friends. English expats who’ve traveled the world. It made for an easy, spacious talk. At one point Iyer (who took the role of interviewer, chiefly about Dyer’s new book White Sands) asked Dyer about something he’d once said: that the worst things a writer could be were earnest and reverent. Iyer felt that Dyer were at times earnest and reverent in his new book. Dyer did a very gentle British scoff, shuddering at the idea. “I would hope I avoided being either of those things,” he said, and then quoted Nietszche’s saying that earnestness is the sure sign of a slow mind.[a] It’s similar to reverence, which holds the viewer or thinker in a static, deferential position. Why these are bad for writers is that they are atitudes that create boundaries, or hierarchic dynamics Dyer sees the job of the writer being to break down or transcend.

The way I’ve been putting this for years is that I know I can write about something when I’ve got perfect ambivalence toward the subject. I have to both love the thing (taxidermy, standup comedy, my past) and loathe it, or find it distasteful, in order to write my way in.

All this came to mind after writing my post earlier in the week about bitchy book reviews. In making the point about how bitchiness is a useful tool, I think I was somehow iterating Dyer’s point here. I worry that book reviews are too earnest, and that what they do to books leaves them static and dead, like relics.

Dyer went on to propose two things a writer should be instead: loving and admiring. Camus reportedly called these “the two thirsts one cannot long neglect without drying up.”[b] Loving, Dyer said, as those of us in the audience who were married well knew, leaves all kinds of room for criticism, commentary, disappointment. And admiration, too, keeps the admirer open to inquiry, explanation, and analysis—which form the basis for all good writing.

At any rate, it’s an idea I’m going to keep in mind next time I hear about the new sincerity.

Oh, and Dyer won the ping pong match, though Iyer’s line of people waiting for signed books was much longer.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I can find through about 5 mins of Googling no source text for this quote, other than an interview Dyer gave years ago with Interview, though some sources point to it maybe being found in Beyond Good and Evil.
  2. You can find the quote in context (somewhat) here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-09  ::  dave

Tuesday 7 June
In Defense of Bitchy Book Reviews

Filed under Endorsements

HatchetI.
I think I want bitchy book reviews—or what for a long time (notably by the founding editors of The Believer) has been labeled “snark”—because they’re essayistic,[1] by which I mean they give you much more about the reviewer than about the thing reviewed. Now I need to figure out how to convince you why this is a good thing in book reviews. Aren’t they supposed to be about the books reviewed?

The answer is yes, but only if a review is what you need to decide whether to buy (or even read) a book. And I don’t know that there are many people out there for whom this is true. Regardless, it’s not true for me. I get recommendations from friends, family, bookstores. I’m attracted to covers, titles, blurbs. I know the author’s work from somewhere else. There are so many ways to decide to pick up a book that the function of a review seems less geared toward promoting a specific book than promoting a certain kind of conversation about books. And, as I hope to get to in more detail later, we should be able to allow any book to endure a conversation about it.

But here is the point I’m making now: Even if I need a review to tell me whether to buy a book, a bitchy, hatchet-job review isn’t going to deter me. In fact, it might make me pay more attention.

I don’t mean “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” so much as there’s barely even such a thing as publicity these days. When so few of the tens of thousands of books released in the U.S each year get reviewed, whatever draws my attention to a book seems worth defending. Bitchiness and snark aren’t the only ways to draw attention (though look at how much everyone loved Pete Wells’s review of Guy Fieri’s NYC restaurant), but a fun thing that happens is that in being unapologetically snarky a review shrugs itself out under the mantle/mantel of having to be authoritative, and suddenly books are a little freer.

II.
Let me give you an example.

Ian Sansom recently reviewed some food writing for the Times Literary Supplement. First up was what seemed like the sort of 83-pager you impulse-buy near a register. “There may be readers out there who are keen to have in one slim volume a recipe for voluté of celery, as mentioned in Bridget Jones’s Diary…” Sansom writes, “but they are either very hungry or utterly indiscriminating.” Next up is a Norton anthology of food writing, co-edited by Sandra M. Gilbert of and-Gubar/Madwoman in the Attic fame. Sansom’s issue with the book is that it is not as comprehensive as it makes itself out to be, and he does his job by pointing out the cultures and eras missing from the anthology, as well as the “dearth of fiction, no drama, and comparatively little on the economics of food production….” Then there’s this ¶:

There is also a tendency towards the inclusion of excerpts from the work of American academics and journalists whose primary distinctions and qualifications lie in fields outside the culinary, but whose distinctions and qualifications are loudly insisted on nonetheless, as if tenure at a prestigious liberal arts college or at an Ivy League university might automatically make one an interesting or significant writer on the subject of, say, brunch.

There’s so much luster and loveliness in that “say”. So much dogged disregard.[2] I hear a voice there and I get a sense of a person. Do I get more of a sense of a person than I do of a book. I might. And that’s okay.

In the next ¶ he accosts the editors for including their own writing. Then he says, “A book about food that people might actually want to read,” and goes on to lovingly review a gossippy book about celebrity food rumors.

III.
I said that Sansom’s review gives me more of himself and his ideas than it does about the books he’s reviewing. It might not be true. I don’t want to, like, quantify it by measuring column inches or anything. But it’s true that his review shows me mostly (maybe only) how Sansom read the books he was assigned. And this, I think, is terribly important. That his voice and personality are all over the page spares the review from having to be “authoritative” in that vague, untrue way of non-snarky, “fair” or “objective” reviews. He’s not in charge of determining or pinning down the book’s ultimate universal value, he’s in charge of telling you how he felt about reading it. And it’s bitchy and fun and funny and alluring, and it makes me learn all about a book I might not otherwise pay attention to.

Have I now been deterred from this Norton anthology? No. I’d never be attracted to it in the first place[3], but if I needed such a book, I’d pick Gilbert and Porter’s anthology up. It’s a Norton anthology. And it’s Sandra M. Gilbert. Those names are strong enough to survive any piddling review in the TLS.

Maybe what I’m getting at is the old “punch up, not down” maxim of comedy. But I don’t want to argue that we should only bring bitchiness to the already exalted. Here I’m thinking of Tanya Gold’s beautiful takedown of NYC haute cuisine in Harper’s last year. Per Se is going to survive her review. Thomas Keller is going to survive her review. What doesn’t survive is the fortress of pretense and preciousness that’s been erected around the places she reviews. Sansom’s review does something similar with notions of importance and enjoyment in food writing.

There are lots of ways that books get exalted or revered that are to the detriment of our conversations about books. Snark, bitchiness—in the end I’m talking about irony, which has always been our usefullest tool to pull down cloaks and pretensions. Books are sturdy and complex things. If we worry that a review can hurt a book in any way, then books become things akin to holy relics, which is to say dead.

Having the courage to be bitchy seems to treat books and the whole world of publishing with a kind of loving respect that allows for frustrations and disappointment. The way Pauline Kael treated movies.

Where are the Pauline Kaels of book reviewing?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Or can be, when done well, with a voice and a kind of daringness.
  2. To say nothing about how Sansom rightfully criticizes U.S. book publishing’s deathful northeast/Ivy League insularity.
  3. I’d very seriously much rather read about cardboard boxes than food.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-07  ::  dave

Monday 6 June
The Narrow Door, Memoir, and Chronology

Filed under Books + NF + Reviews

9781555977283A thing I’ve said more than once in classes is that every good book is a mystery. Which is to say that “mystery” isn’t something to be left for a certain genre of fiction. But mystery might apply just to novels, or to narrative more broadly. Last week I read Paul Lisicky’s new memoir of friendship in two sittings[*], and I came away with a new idea: every good book is a self-help book.

Reading it made me want to be a better friend, and a better partner to N.

In short: the book’s about Lisicky’s friendship with a novelist and how it, at times, intersects with his relationship with a poet. There’s pleasurable stuff about the life of a writer throughout, but the real gift is the way Lisicky turns the internal ruminations over the care and upkeep of our relationships—was I in the wrong or he in the wrong? should I call her or isn’t it that she should be calling me?—into meaningful drama.

I don’t care who becomes president in the fall. It doesn’t concern me because I can’t figure out how it will have any effect on how I treat the people in my life whom I love—those relationships that I’ve created and am in charge of maintaining. Which is to say, relationships are what I find myself caring about these days, so maybe it’s that Lisicky’s book is coming into my life at the right time. But I think there’s something novel or even mildly revolutionary about the book’s focus and attentions. I haven’t read a book so concerned, on the character level, with those boundaries between where the I-self ends and the other person begins.

Also, its structure warrants some attention. Here’s a passage that appears about 3/4 the way through:

2010 | I don’t leave my therapist’s office without remarking that the process ahead isn’t going to be chronological. [My therapist] nods with relief as if I’ve said the gold star thing. Though human beings condition one another to want order, peace, and resolution, we also don’t want too much of that, and just when it seems all is comprehensible, the world bewilders us again.

The book, it probably goes without saying, does not proceed chronologically. Nor does it do that Karr-esque thing in memoir of beginning with an in-media-res prologue that’s halfway through your story before leaping back to the beginning for Chapter 1. Instead, Lisicky goes through his story by working its angles, and what results is a book that finds its intrinsic form—the way trees grow into the shape their DNA tells them to—as opposed to a memoir led by its narrative. A memoir that looks like a novel, except is quote-unquote more true.

With The Narrow Door I’m becoming increasingly convinced that linear chronology is more hurtful than helpful when it comes to constructing a memoir. Not only because abandoning chronology leads to a better (i.e. more mimetically accurate) experience for the reader, but because it leads us as memoirists to worry less about re-creating what happened and more on interrogating who we’ve been.

Also, it’s a paperback original! More on The Narrow Door here.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Well, two lyings-down.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-06  ::  dave

Friday 3 June
Twitter Chat on If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There

Filed under Announcements

CkCjETvUoAAsI8IToday my publisher, Indiana University Press, set up a Twitter chat to talk about the new book. I’d never done one before. I found it to be enjoyable and anxiety-producing. For those actually getting work done at 9:30PST on a Friday, and as all my tweets get deleted after 30 days, I figured I’d post a link to the archive IU Press did.

You can read the whole chat (in reverse, unless you scroll to the end and work yer way up) here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-03  ::  dave

Wednesday 1 June
“Being Victor” – a prequel to “We All Have Difficult Jobs”

Filed under Prequels

If You Need Me I'll Be Over ThereThis is the last in a series of prequels I’ve been writing this spring. The idea has been to give people a little preview of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, and also to return for a time to these stories and these characters—some of whom I first wrote more than twelve years ago. This one is a prequel to the tenth story in the collection, “We All Have Difficult Jobs”. Thanks to everyone for reading.

Victor had IBS. Also, he hated his body. That this feeling had anything to do with his illness wasn’t something he let himself consider. Life for him was like walking home in a mascot costume of himself. When he sat it was like a dog was on his lap. A dog made of gutfat. Candid photos and peripheral mirrors revealed to him a gawp-mouthed doofus with sagging chinskin and the posture of a treebranch overladen with rotted fruit. Infamously, he’d coughfarted in every space he spent any time inside. He was, as of last week, just 38.

Also, he was gay. It had more than once occurred to him that this was a convenience. Had he lived in a large, coastal city he would be far too ugly to fuck, and so, living in Omaha, where the pickings were slim enough for Plains gays, despite being somehow both twig-thin and pouchy he could stand charitably in “wouldn’t kick him out of bed” territory. He was assless. Gnarl-kneed. His skin looked like a wet porcelain sink someone had failed to clean their shaved hair out of. Manny, though, was a baby-faced bruiser with even brown skin whose Blutonian chest was coated with hair like a shampooed pelt. Standing, he looked trussed and supported by iron beams, as though placed on life’s board game by the very hand of God. He was uncut and wrote novels for a living.

Which was why he didn’t have an answer for him. Maybe Victor was on a prank show. Maybe this proposal was some form of community service. Or a dare. They were lying in Memorial Park, after all, with any number of single men on blankets in the vicinity who could be observing this scene. Recording it to laugh at later.

“We can’t get married here,” he said. The sun sat low near the ground. Their shadows long. Their day almost over.

“I’ll take you anywhere we can,” Manny said. And then he pulled Victor on top of him.

He never got a solid answer from Manny on the question of What Exactly Do You See In Me?, but then again he never solidly asked the question. Instead it’d been a series of Are You Sure?s and Is It Too Soon?s that’d he presumed Manny would understand were expressions of his own bodily insecurities. It was different at work. At the Marquis he could say, “Listen to me, just because Warren Buffet eats at Gorat’s doesn’t mean you have to,” or tell Arturo that the baggage cart would cause more problems for him than just carrying a guest’s matched set in both hands. At work he only had to be a large brain, and a brain wasn’t a body. Why did he hate his body?

Once, he bought six sessions with a personal trainer at Gould’s Gym out on West Dodge. His name was Staden and he looked like an ostrich someone had dressed for the beach. Like Victor, basically. “I want to fill out more,” he told Staden, “here, here, and here.” He pointed to the sunken parts of his oldman body. His ass and et cetera. “And I want to lose all this,” he said, pointing at his gut. “And if you have anything that helps with IBS I’ll do it.”

Staden stood on one leg, scratching at his calf. “What’s IBS?”

“Just make me look like the two of us put together,” Victor said, and soon he was squatting more than a woman in a hip-hop video. He pushed and pulled dumbbells in all manner of moves. Staden had trained him on the barbell racks but who had time for all that loading and unloading? Try as he might, he couldn’t do a single pullup, and after two weeks of trying, he gave up.

“How many pullups can you do?” he asked Manny one night at Jojo’s.

“Why would I know that?” he said. Manny swam. It was all he had to do.

“I can only do three,” Victor said. Then: “I’m starting to feel stronger.” He flexed his whole torso there at their two-top, like an action figure. “Do I look any different?”

“You sound less interesting,” Manny said. “Why are you all of a sudden going to the gym all the time?”

He sounded angry, and Victor couldn’t figure out the best way to answer. He I-dunno’d to buy some time. All he could think to say was that he didn’t like what he saw in the mirror. Not that he hated what he saw, just that didn’t like it. He would never click on it, should he come across his body online in naked thumbnail. He would never linger over his own pinup.

He wanted Manny to see in him what he saw in Manny. He said, “Just trying to be more healthy.”

Manny swallowed the potato he was chewing. “You should swim with me sometime.”

Wouldn’t that be a sight, he and Manny side-by-side in Speedos, like a boy and his swim coach. Except Victor was four years older than Manny. He was four years older and had acted from their first date like a younger brother. Clueless about the world. Eager for any whiff of approval from the strong guy he shared a bedroom with. Before Manny had come to that Oscars party a coworker had thrown, Victor had seriously considered going to a butler academy, living out the rest of his years in some rich family’s employ. He was so ready to be loved by someone he’d have settled even for a child pornographer. That he got Manny’s attention had been like winning a lottery. Don’t jinx it, he thought, and so for three years now he’d never once said anything that might rock the boat.

“What is it?” Manny said. “You’ve stopped talking.”

The waiter would arrive soon with their gratis desserts. Maybe Victor could say he was thinking of that. Or of the new manager at the Marquis. Anything but the question at hand, because what if the question at hand led to an unhappy answer? What if what Manny liked about Victor was his apartment? Or what if he didn’t respect him so much as humor him? Maybe that could be enough. But how would he ever know? He could get all the answers he needed if only he had the courage to ask. He wanted it. He wanted to be daring, but instead he was Victor. He would always be Victor.

“It’s nothing,” Victor said.

*

You can get a copy of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.

Come see me read from one or two stories on IYNMIBOT’s Midwest Summer Tour.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-06-01  ::  dave

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