The McSweeney’s Effect

Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National has a lengthy appreciation of McSweeney’s that isn’t as well-sourced as one might like: Managing editor Eli Horowitz gets a lot of room to expound on the amazingness of the journal, and only one author is cited as an example of a quality writer who got his first break there. Then again, the writer is Philipp Meyer, author of the excellent novel American Rust, and he describes the publication of one of his first short-stories there as a “life-changing thing”:

[I]t does this incredible thing for people like me, or people like me five years ago if that makes sense. Because a lot of publishers, for reasons of legitimacy, feel the need to include big writers. Or maybe it’s not even for legitimacy, maybe it’s just to put names on the front cover that will sell. And usually, to be honest, it’s the crummier work from those writers. They rarely, if ever, take risks on folk who they’ve never heard of. You might not have heard of them as the reader, but it’s almost always someone on the magazine who knew someone, someone’s old professor makes a call and gets the story in.

I think the standard complaints about McSweeney’s still apply, and though in my old age I can’t work up the same attitude toward the publication I used to, I’m still skeptical about their offerings, especially their books. Of course, I’m also still going to buy that newspaper issue, but you’ll notice that the PR page doesn’t stress the amazing-unknown-writers angle; the issue’s innovation is its design, not its corralling of lesser-known writers.

On American Rust

Few good novels come as stuffed full of lectures as Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, which tracks the lives of a handful of people in the economically decimated Monongahela Valley after a murder. Every once in a while, after the plot has moved along sufficiently, a bit of dialogue like this springs up:

“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore.” He shrugged. “There’s only so good you can be about pushing a mop or emptying a bedpan. we’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses. Personally I don’t care for it, but those things are inevitable. The real problem is the average citizen does not have a job he can be good at. You lose that, you lose the country.”

The only person on Earth who actually says things like that out loud is David Simon—and only then in front of an audience, I suspect. Passages like that should spell trouble for a novel that deals in realism, one that attempts to accurately portray the gritty truth about prison life, train yards, cops, bars, and doublewides. I read the first 75 or so pages skeptical about Meyer’s ability to have it both ways—would he write a novel or a jeremiad? Ultimately Meyer opts to write a novel, and one that succeeds in part because he has two sharply defined lead characters: Billy, a high-school football star and local troublemaker wrongly accused of killing a drifter; and Isaac, who actually did the deed and attempts to escape by hopping trains out west.

Meyer spends a lot of time in the heads of both men, and their characters are distinguished as much by their interior monologues as by what actually happens to them. Billy’s thoughts are earnest but simple. (“He would go to the library and fill out the applications for schools, April 10th now, another day advancing, it would not stop until he died. Only even then it would not stop, the day he died would be like any other day. He hoped that was a long way off.”) Isaac is the bright one, and he swims from thought to thought, scraps of information popping into his head, allowing Meyer to keep the language colorful while also capturing Isaac’s mindset. (“Internal pain, turns the stomach. Better to break an arm. Depends. Good rib-break better than bad arm-break. Leg-break the worst—can’t move—done for. Plus lose a quart of blood per femur. Reason they break your legs on the cross—act of mercy.”)

That kind of rigorous insularity extends to the remaining handful of characters in the novel. Poe’s mother, Isaac’s sister, and the local police chief, together with Isaac and Billy, make for a tight knot of characters, and if five interior monologues seem like two or three too many to keep track of, it’s doesn’t seem like a lot when five people encompass a world. Meyer’s loudly broadcasted messages are matched by a more subtle one: Lacking large economic engines and lacking social supports, people turn tribal, and each moral decision one member of the tribe makes affects everybody else. Meyer’s great achievement in the novel is showing how those small decisions radiate outward so strongly.

Meyer spends enough time drilling deep into the heads of his characters to earn the right to his mini-essays on death of America’s manufacturing base. That’s smart thinking: Journalistic strategies and novelistic strategies don’t tend to mix well. Meyer only makes the mistake of attempting to explicitly blend the two only once, toward the end of the novel as Isaac hitches a ride with a trucker:

The driver winked at him again. “You mind holding on a second? You ought to listen to this guy who’s coming on.”


“You know him?”

Isaac could hear the voice chattering away. “I think my dad likes this guy.”

“G. Gordon Liddy.” He shrugged. “I don’t always agree with him but he’s interesting.”

Isaac settled himself while the driver turned the radio up. Then suddenly he turned it down again.

“I realized my point,” he said. “There’s no mystery for your generation. But back to our programming.” He turned up the radio again.

Removed from the novel proper, that’s a reasonable enough exchange, the kind of chatter that might really happen in a semi cab. But by this point, Meyer has led the reader to pay attention to big statements, and the one that arrives after all this signaling—hang on, he’s turning down the radio!—couldn’t be emptier. “There’s no mystery for your generation” could just be some dumb thing chatty truckers say about society, but preceded by all the smart things others say about society, it reads like a noisy statement of theme, and a banal one at that. Mercifully, tough, Meyer doesn’t dwell on it. One page later Isaac’s out of the truck and walking down the highway, alone with his thoughts, a better place for him and the novel to be.

Links: First Family

The Center for Fiction has announced the finalists for its first novel prize: Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust, Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle, Paul Harding‘s Tinkers, Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants, and John Pipkin‘s Woodsburner. I can strongly endorse both The Vagrants and American Rust—more on the latter soon.

Daniel Menaker catalogs the various agonies of working in the publishing business today. “When you are trying to acquire books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like, you have to have some of the eclectic and demotic taste of the reading public,” he writes, which rankles Michael Orthofer: “Why not give literary discernment a try?” he asks. I suspect the books reflecting literary discernment don’t get financed without the largesse that’s facilitated only when you luck out at making books that hundreds of thousands of people will buy, read, and like.

Case in point: MacAdam/Cage, a small press that prides itself on publishing fiction of literary discernment, is having financial troubles. Unfortunately, this means a delay for Jack Pendarvis’ upcoming novel, Shut Up, Ugly, but he’s taking it in stride.

On October 13 in New York, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and others will participate in a reading of documents relating to the torture of detainees.

In related DeLillo news, the new cover for the paperback edition of White Noise is both very attractive and uncannily appropriate—something about illustrator Michael Cho’s style slyly echoes the satirical, pop-culture-soaked tone of the novel.

Leonard Gardner recalls his work on Fat City, both the book and the film. Regarding the fact that he never wrote a second novel, he has a stock answer: “Sometimes you only get to win one championship.”

A reminder that John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath wasn’t admired in all quarters when it was first published.

In 1908 when burglars broke into Mark Twain‘s home in Redding, Connecticut. Twain would quip shortly after the incident: “Now they (the burglars) are in jail, and if they keep on, they will go to Congress. When a person starts down hill, you can never tell where he is going to stop.”

And American Agriculturist would like to call bullshit on people who compare the works of Michael Pollan et al to Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle.

Links: Crunching the Numbers

For about another week, the great works of American literature come dirt cheap: The Library of America is having a 50-percent-off sale.

Edgar Lee Masters had it in for Abraham Lincoln (and Carl Sandburg too).

Paul Theroux wore bell bottoms in the 70s.

Mathematician Manil Suri spent seven years working on his second novel, The Age of Shiva—by his accounting, 64.19 words a day.

Bob Hoover finds a few connections between John Updike and William Dean Howells.

One of the better takedowns of a book I’ve seen in a while is Benjamin Alsup‘s assessment (not online, best as I can tell) in Esquire of Philipp Meyer‘s American Rust: “[I]t sounds like an Ivy Leaguer mimicking the speech patters of white working-class people. It’s one part Woody Guthrie, one party All the Pretty Horses, and 98 parts Hillary Clinton.” (I haven’t read it.)

On a more positive note: Newsweek catches up with Yiyun Li, whose debut novel, The Vagrants, is one of my favorite novels of the young year.

(And while I’m playing tipster, Peter Stephan Jungk‘s Crossing the Hudson, out next month, is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in quite some time.)