I've been writing novels since 1999 - seventeen years now, and I like to think I've gotten better. My first book was written in the shadow of an old relationship that faltered and in the brightness of a new relationship that seemed to be working out. Shawn's also been seventeen years now, so that's been kind of tidy.
I've been writing seriously for a long time. A little while ago, when I turned thirty and had a crisis of confidence, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't ever going to write an "important" novel. Nothing that changed people in a big way. Not only have I found it very difficult to secure an agent or a publisher interested in my books, I've sort of resigned myself to the idea that the books I want to write are accessible, and fairly contemporary, and not about Big Themes. I'm never going to write 1984, for instance. I'm not going to write The Grapes of Wrath.
I came to that way of thinking at a time when I was freaking out about being 30 and not having published a great deal of my fiction. My nonfiction has done well. I've written a few monographs of Stephen King and I'm well-known in that world. I'm writing a bio/exegesis on one of my favorite bands' albums, and I hope that will be something, too. But I've written 22 novels and only one of them has been published, as an ebook. My short-fiction collection is available in paperback, but that hasn't really done gangbusters, either. None of this matters and all of this matters. I take my writing seriously, and not being published in the traditional way has been this huge burden I sometimes think about and sometimes don't. I want my name on the dustjacket of a hardcover book you can pick up at the supermarket, you know? Maybe all that's beside the point.
In 2009, following the completion of Roller Disco Saturday Night, I fell into a writer's block. When the thing you love doing the most is something suddenly shut off from you, you feel adrift. I'm sure a lot of it had to do with my impending fourth decade. I spent three years writing about another writer's work and life, editing I'm On Fire and Roller Disco, and attempting a couple very long novels that shit the bed (Tangerine and American Storm). Then, in 2013, something in me snapped and I sat down to write what I thought would be a novella called My Agent of Chaos. It turned out to be more than that - not only a full-bodied novel, but also my writing salvation. It was a serious book with something to say. I don't know if it was Important or not, but it was real and it was something I could be proud of.
And look, I don't know what Important means - to readers, to myself, to publishing houses and agents. I'm not sure. What I do know is that I followed up Chaos with a book called Panic Town, the fifth book in a mystery series featuring private eye Wayne Corbin - a man I've followed since that first, furtive year of novel-writing in 1999. Panic Town isn't really "Important" except how it's important to me. It allowed me to remember, in a way Chaos didn't, that writing was hard work, but it was also super fun. I wrote the book in a white heat and marveled that I'd finished in in three months. I'd blocked out nine.
I got to thinking about the books I'd liked so much in the past that I'd written - books the few readers I'd had seemed to like the best. Find the River, written in 2001 - my first big books with a big cast. The Legend of Jenny McCabe, in 2006 - a book from which I took minor characters from most of my previous books, made them major characters, and put them all in Minneapolis. That book was massive, nearly 300,000 words. Maybe You're Right, written right after, a book about sex and love and writing. Those were the ones I thought of as my "high points" of my literary work (though I'd argue that my fourth Wayne Corbin book, The Taste of Concrete On Your Tongue, might function that way, too).
My Agent of Chaos turned out to be good, and hard-won, but I don't know as if I'd put it on the top shelf of my work. Right after Panic Town, I decided to jump back into National Novel Writing Month and bang out what turned out to be Things Have Changed, a book that felt Important in my head but turned out not to be. It's pretty slight, despite the fact that it opens on a grisly suicide and features a character with possible multiple personalities. It worked, but barely.
Then I decided to write Eating Animals. A book that started out being about a cooking show competition and turned into a treatise on S&M and sin and evil and generational misdeeds. The longer I wrote, the more I realized I wanted to write my own East of Eden, and that I was succeeding at doing so. It's a nearly 200,000 word book that I managed to write in 4 months. I wrote one 5,000 word chunk in a single afternoon, fewer than 2 hours, just because it was too strong not to. That book made me believe I could write Important things. Stuff that mattered. I think Eating Animals might actually be Important. I don't know. It was important to me.
When I wrote Who We Are, What We'll Do, and What We Won't, I intended it to be a little slight. Of course, that didn't work out for me, either. I wrote it for NaNoWriMo, anticipating a similar experience to Things Had Changed. What I got was another My Agent of Chaos - almost among my best work, but I didn't stick the landing and it needs fixing. And I will fix it. It means more to me now than it did when I started.
What now? What next? I'm working on a nonfiction book about the band Blitzen Trapper right now, and I'm editing a book my father wrote. Then: what I anticipate to be a long, long book called American Lonely.
My three favorite novels of all time are It, by King; East of Eden, by Steinbeck; and The World According to Garp, by Irving. I've written my homages to the first two. I think I want to write my homage to Garp next. Not the story or even the style of writing, but the scope, the thrust, the intensity. I want to write something that, even if it doesn't turn out to be Important, will be something that Matters. I thought, when I was going through my writer's block, that I had not only ceased to write, but that I would never again write work that Matters. I proved myself wrong.
I'm a good writer. I'm a smart guy. And I have a feeling that, if I treat it right and don't prioritize speed and page count over story, American Lonely can be Important. That's how I want to start my forty-first year: doing something Important.
I'll let you know when I get there.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Awhile back, I wrote for a magazine called A Bear's Life. It started out positive and ended up not, but they did publish a few articles I wrote dealing with my own personal gay experiences. At the time, all the nonfiction I was writing was either about Stephen King or Disney, so it was a welcome respite to write about myself.
My first article was in part about the first boy I was ever in love with and in part about my first celebrity crush. Both were straight, of course. The article was called "Dennis Blunden Doesn't Love Me," and I thought, since A Bear's Life doesn't exist anymore and since I retained all the rights anyway, why not share it with you guys. WARNING sensitive readers: it's a little bit PG-13 in here, so if you don't want to know about my naked teenage exploits, avoid.
Dennis Blunden Doesn’t Love Me
originally appeared in A Bear’s Life magazine
The first guy I ever fell in love with was a crazy person. No, I don’t mean “crazy,” like the fun kind of crazy like Bill Murray in What About Bob? or even the borderline-dark crazy of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, when all she really needed was some makeup and a few meaningful glances from Emilio Estevez to snap out of it. No, my first love was clinically bipolar, afflicted with megalomania, and had a violent persecution complex. He was also straight. Let’s call him Eugene.
I met Eugene in high school and I should have known what I was getting myself into, but the sociological climate of the early 90s was working against me. Depression and vague rage were popular due to the advent of grunge music, and because I was in high school, all that stuff was heightened. It would be beautifully narrative if I could think of my falling for Eugene as a symbol of our turbulent times – he was a brooding, mysterious loner, just like the misunderstood geniuses you see in Cameron Crowe movies. And I was finally admitting to myself that I liked boys; figuring that out at sixteen in a high school world populated by slackers and overachievers and the heavily medicated might have made Eugene’s unique brand of lunacy appealing.
But mostly, it was the fact that he could grow a beard at seventeen. That, and those blue, blue eyes.
Of course, like most straight-guy crushes, it ended disastrously. After Eugene uncovered my intentions – via an ill-advised game of Truth or Dare, no less – he actually seemed curious. What followed was an even more ill advised sticky-fumble session, during which I realized that while I was giving inexpert head to the love of my life, he was having an experiment he was only half-heartedly into. Of course, this only meant that grunge suddenly made way more sense. That Pearl Jam song, “Black”? Totally written about me.
The lesson I should have learned is this: keep the straight guys untouchable. This had worked great during my nascent gay days when I lusted after celebrities before I knew what lust really was. Remember that 80’s show Head of the Class? The first guy I ever crushed on was the chubby guy who sat in the back row wearing flannel and Chuck Taylors and cracked jokes and had this hair I used to imagine running my hands through. Played by Dan Schneider, Dennis Blunden was the wellspring from which all my other attractions erupted. The hypothesis goes as such: Dennis’s penchant for flannel begat my attraction for Al Borland on Home Improvement, whose beard got me thinking about Riker from Star Trek, whose hairy chest turned me into the bear-crazy cub you see before you. Essentially, my lust is Darwinian; if not for Dan Schneider, this might be a column about how much I’m into the vapid clone scene. Fetch me a Diet Red Bull, Marco, I’m late for the foam party!
Sadly, me being me, I found a way to ruin my first crush, too. You know that song, “Centerfold,” where the girl the guy is into is lodged in his memory as this pristine high school angel until he later sees her in a porno magazine? My thing is like that, except for a sad lack of naked Dan Schneider. See, I happened to stumble across his Twitter feed (“stumble across” in this case means “actively seek out,” because I am occasionally a lunatic myself), and signed up at once, perhaps hoping for a string of insightful self-reflective tweets captured brilliantly in 140 characters or less. Instead? His Twitter is almost entirely a marketing gimmick pushing the TV show he’s currently writing. Completely understandable, entirely normal … and overwhelmingly disappointing. When you’ve traced back every crush, every lust, every love back to one individual – one fictional individual – you’re inevitably going to feel disillusioned when you realize he’s just a regular working Joe trying to make a buck.
For what it’s worth, though, I ended up running into Eugene again not too long ago. I found him at random, bumping into him at a camping-goods store in town, where he was then working. We went out for burritos, and maybe, yes, I did harbor some illusions that he’d gone gay somewhere along the way and would desperately want to make out with me. Alas: he was still straight, and seeing a girl, and startlingly sane. (And, I must mention, still bearded.) No sticky fumblings this time, just one of those conversations between guys who went to high school together. Near the end, he said to me, “I’m sorry if I fucked things up back then.”
Back in high school, our climaxes had been anticlimactic. I’d been waiting years for real release. Which goes to show, I guess, that sometimes even one-sided sociopathic first love has a happy ending.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
There are two pits for General Admission at Madison Square Garden: the one at the very front, allowing you the closest access to the stage; to get into this one, you had to show up early in the day and get a special wristband, and then come back later and be entered into a special lottery, and only if you were really lucky did you get shuffled into the pen containing the most dedicated fans around. Then there’s the second pit, the one I’m in, a little further from the stage, holding all the general admission folks who couldn’t do the whole lottery thing, presumably because they got up at ass o’clock to get on a train from Boston and it’s technically a work day so they telecommuted all day from the aforementioned train and various Starbuckses and libraries around New York so they don’t lose their vacation days. You know, I’m assuming.
Despite being further back, the energy in the second pit is palpable. This is a bit of an unusual setup for me. When I go to Drive-By Truckers or Blitzen Trapper shows, I’m right up front, usually touching the stage. Back here, I expected things to be a little more blasé … but this is Bruce Springsteen. At least in the leadup, everyone back here is pumped and ready. Of course there are two gigantically tall humans in front of me, but if I stand just right, they serve as a window rather than a door, and I’ve got a direct sightline to the center mic. Now, if only Bruce stays in one place the whole night, I’ll be fine.
He takes the stage about an hour after I arrive and the place goes nutso berserk. Everyone on their feet, arms in the air, cheering either inarticulately or shouting the name that sounds too much like “boo!” to the unsuspecting ear: BRUUUUUUUUUCE! Every time I tell myself I won’t do it. Every time I’m wrong. Hell, I’m wearing the shirt of the show to the show. I don’t care about being cool anymore. I just want to have the time of my life.
Launching right into “Meet Me In the City” – one of the outtakes off The Ties That Bind: The River Collection – and Madison Square Garden is right there, already screaming the words along and knowing the call and response near the end of the song without having to be told. It’s like when he went out for his first Rising show and everyone in the audience knew the words already. Tears spring to my eyes because my emotional availability is sometimes a liability. The band is in full form, chugging like a steam train down a track whose destination feels familiar but is never quite the same. After “Meet Me” pounds to a close, Springsteen comes to that center mic, beautifully composed between the heads of my two Amazonian compatriots, and explains a little of what writing The River meant to him. I’m not going to transcribe from memory, but the gist and the feeling was that this was the album about trying to find his place inside the world in which he lived. The prior albums were all about being an insider, but The River was about finding yourself in a society in which you had to define yourself. So that’s why, at least partially, it meant so much to me back in those dim days of 1993, when I lived alone and was searching, searching for some reasons and explanations as to why and how my life turned out this way.
Here’s what you don’t get from message boards, especially one as psycho bonkers as the Springsteen one: the feel of the place, the knowledge that you’re both a part of something big and that you’re experiencing this singularly, as an isolated person, and Bruce is singing directly to you. He’s singing about cars and girls, two things I know so little about, but it all feels like my experience. Out in the street, I walk the way I want to walk; I know about how the cool of the night takes the edge off the heat; hell, oo oo, I got a crush on you. The message boards – boy howdy, guys; they’re all about conspiracy theories and how Bruce won’t stop lying to us and how the “well is dry” and it’s weird as fuck. But here, in the thick of it, it’s nothing short of transformative. How, in a fun little rockabilly song like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” can he perfectly address the weird nuance of being so sexually frustrated you feel mean? That’s so specific and odd to sing about, and he does it with the same smile and incongruous joy that he would sing about existential futility in “Dancing in the Dark.”
During “Hungry Heart” – he always lets the audience sing the first verse entirely, then he repeats it, because baller – he tramped off the stage and up to the riser between Pit One and Pit Two. I was so close – almost close enough to touch, but we all remember that time during the Rising tour when I reached up and grabbed his hand in the middle of “Mary’s Place” and was so awestruck I didn’t know how to let go. He ended up shaking me off without skipping a beat. I didn’t take many pictures of the show – I wanted to live inside it – but I took a picture of him right next to me, before he leapt off the riser and crowd surfed back to the stage. He’s in his sixties, guys.
I will give a shout-out to some of the denizens of the Second Pit, who paid the same amount I did to get here and who decided that their conversation was far more important than Bruce Springsteen. I knew it would happen during some of the slow songs, but come on, folks, I’m trying to wrap myself up in the song that perfectly encapsulated my previously complicated relationship with my father, I don’t need to know about what Helen did at that PTA meeting. I was on the verge of asking, “I’m sorry, is Bruce Springsteen interrupting your night?” when someone behind them shouted, “Hey shut the fook up!” New York, you’re my savior.
Note: the song, “The River” is perfect in every way, especially live, and especially when the people in front of you are as invested as you are. I’m pretty much sure tears came to my eyes during the entire first two sides of album, and we weren’t even on “Point Blank” yet.
Given the second pit’s macroaggressions, I was prepared to suffer through the final three-song suite, which are all slowish numbers that require a little more attention and care. I think Springsteen must have anticipated that, because he recast them: “The Price You Pay” is epic enough on the album, but in concert, it’s another “Backstreets,” it’s another “Born to Run.” Here, live, it attains the Biblical promise and intent of the lyrics, even though it’s just about people trying to get by. The album’s final love song, “Drive All Night” has the potential to be dismissed; long stretches are just repetitions (“You’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got my love, girl; you’ve got my love”) or frankly bizarre declarations (“I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes.”) What happens here is that the song becomes all about buildup, slow, meditative, desperately and subtly erotic … and then the band crashes in, and it’s all release. It’s a song that took me awhile to understand on the record, but here in this setting, it’s the closest to auditory sex Springsteen gets this side of “I’m On Fire.” He finished off The River with a somber, bleak rendition of “Wreck On the Highway”: no gussying this one up, no concessions for an arena audience. It gets dark and stays dark, because that’s the way he wants you to feel this one. If he’d decided to play the entirety of Nebraska after this one, no one would blame him.
He didn’t, though, maybe because he knew we all needed a little cheering up. “So that’s The River,” he concluded, and then hit the place with a one-two-three punch of “She’s the One,” “Candy’s Room,” and “Because the Night.” Everyone was up and dancing. One of the flannel giants in front of me turned to me and said, “Can you believe how cool this is?” “I can’t!” I shouted, and then we both joined in the chorus.
Then, oh man. There are moments that come into your life that are so elevated and unique that you can barely credit them as they’re happening. My favorite song of all time is “Brilliant Disguise,” a song whose meaning has shifted for me since I first discovered in when I was 18, but has never stopped meaning just as much to me. It’s the intersection of surety and identity, and how those two things are never as solid as we think they are. In Springsteen’s book Songs, he refers to this as the sequel to “Stolen Car,” which he’d played earlier during the River set, and hearing them bookending like tonight, it makes sense: “Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do” pairs so well, so hellishly well with, “so when you look at me baby, you’d better look hard and look twice / is that me baby, or a brilliant disguise.” Who am I? Why am I? What the hell have I done?
I have never seen the song live, and suddenly, here it was, and I was this close, and those words I’d memorized over half a lifetime ago were drifting into me from the source. I was unprepared and overwhelmed. Never has not understanding who you are and what you mean to other people been so thrilling.
Then there’s the raucous bam-bam of “Wrecking Ball” and “The Rising,” two songs that the message board assured me were “over” and “not worth listening to” and “no one really even likes.” You wouldn’t have known it from everything going on in Madison Square Garden: everyone from the pits to the nosebleeds on their feet, singing along and dancing if they had a mind. This occurs to me over and over, but it never fails to stun and thrill me: the audience’s total embrace of Springsteen’s newer material is nothing short of astounding. I wouldn’t say “Wrecking Ball” got the exact response as “Thunder Road,” which came next, but it thrilled everyone to their feet and everyone knew all the words. Is there any legacy performer for whom this is true?
We closed things out with Bruce spoonfeeding us what even the casual fans wanted: “Born to Run,” “Dancing In the Dark,” and “Rosalita,” with a grand finale cover of “Shout,” one final blast before we all had to return to the normal lives we lived that aren’t interpreted by a master songsmith. I couldn’t leave for a little while, too enthralled by what I had seen and experienced to really move. I wanted to absorb it. I wanted to keep feeling it.
Of course these moments are fleeting. They have to be. No one can live forever on nerve endings and elevated consciousness. Eventually we come back down to earth, and while it’s a somewhat duller, somewhat less thrilling life in the shadow of three and a half hours of pure passion and excitement, we take at least a little of that with us, and spread it into the world. If that’s the price you pay, I can live with it.