The bones were rolled, the names were drawn, the emails were sent, and I, among four others, was given an important task: choose a book for the LBC's inaugural selection.
Power! Pure mad power! But how to go about choosing a title? The goal here was to select someone small. Authors I hadn't heard of. Books that had no publicity budget to speak of. The first step was to look at my burgeoning bookpile of galleys -- a glum yet disparate mix of ARCs from presses I had never heard of and self-published titles, most of them sadly subscribing to Sturgeon's Law.
So I flagged all titles that met the loose criteria and began systematically reading the first fifty pages of each book that fit the bill. Nothing really caught my fancy. Without naming specific titles, I found that a surprising number of titles were written with a humorless or unambitious voice and, more criminally, that they conveyed worlds that simply weren't the kind of place that we live in. Even from the small presses, the big question that must be asked is whether the world needs more "mid novels" -- middlebrow books about middle-class males going through endless midlife crisises. They're brighter, they're whiter, and they live by one inexorable credo: Take no chances. (It is only the rare novelist like Richard Ford or Chang Rae-Lee who finds a new spin in this field, taking chances often when the reader isn't aware of it and finding new takes in a bourgeois world frequently chronicled in the world of letters.)
It was by complete accident that I picked up one small book that had been mailed to me. It featured two typewriters on the cover, but, more importantly, it was written by Stephen Dixon, a man that many had sung the proud hosannas of. The book was Old Friends.
I hadn't read Dixon, but I had my doubts. Another novel about writers? A novel written in one 200 page burst? But within pages, I found myself submerged in the book. These writers were later in their years than most, but where other novels have been content to portray writer characters as either batty eccentrics, recovering academics or temperamental geniuses, these two (Irv and Leonard) were the real deal. There are readings in SoHo bookstores when only one person shows up, there exclusively for the free eats. There are money crises. As the characters age, there are health crises. And then there's the quiet way in which Dixon uses anecdotes as telling metaphors into his characters' lives. Here's Irv trying to put his life into perspective midway through the book:
Actually, in San Francisco 30-plus years ago a panhandler slit my cheek (you probably thought the scar was an extension of my worry lines, since my forehead is filled up) with a razor because I only gave him a dime when he insisted I was good for a quarter. I tried telling him I was broke myself and waiting for my first unemployment insurance check to arrive by mail and that he had probably had more dough on him than I did. Smart thing to say? Shouldn't have just walked away? (115)
In that passage, we are fully indoctrinated in Irv's uncertainty. Here is a man who is trying to do the right thing (pursuing his dream of being a writer and checking in on the people close to him), a man who has spent his entire life trying to do the right (the key adjective is earnest) thing, and who is nevertheless plagued with guilt. The guilt, portrayed through the telling detail of the scar indistinguishable from the natural "worry lines" in his face (a scar stabbing the pure and cherubic facial detail expressing this earnestness and joie de vivre?), are emotional millstones that Irv still carries. Not only as a writer, but as someone who has chosen to live and work to his own drumbeat.
Despite their years, these two characters have remarkably little in the way of wisdom. They seem to be stumbling along, learning from each other because there's nobody else there. Not unlike certain artist and writer friends of mine, they find living situations where their girlfriends are forced to support their lifestyles in the long-term (and, unsurprisingly, they face resistance). Even when they spent far too much of their time "doing nothing." They are remarkably unschooled in their fields, adamantly refusing to read certain books to improve their craft.
More than anything else, what I admired about Dixon's book was the way in which he profiled this delicate balance between life and art, and how he has his supporting characters reacting quite believably to the two writers' life decisions.
And not just his supporting characters. If you read the novel, you'll see that the way these two men communicate to each other stems directly from their mutual balancing act. They become confidantes to each other, confessing personal details and learning to trust each other more to the point where they become indispensable. But they find themselves alone. The system can't always support them. And this dilemma, beyond Dixon's freeflow paragraphs, is what makes the novel so poignant.
What's particularly curious to me is how work (meaning a droll job or the effects of a flatline nine-to-five existence upon one's personal life) is often verboeten in today's novels. We don't talk about it. Indeed, it's one of those strange conundrums where if a writer does decide to talk about it, she's accused of turning out yet another tired or overwrought novel about the evils of the corporate world.
But Dixon is not a writer to flinch from these details. He has Irv later becoming a teaching lackey for a college, devoting nearly all of his energies to a workload in which Irv is both ridiculously overtaxed and ridiculously underpaid. It's exceptional that Irv still manages to maintain his identity, even as the workload threatens to sap the few energies that remain.
These are just some of the ways in which Old Friends transcends its trappings. I wouldn't dare to reveal all of the book's surprises.
Old Friends comes to us from Melville House Books, a small press run by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians. There's a good chance you might not find it in your local B&M store. But if you're looking for a novel framed within the abstract that is more than just a literary experiment, you can order it through the Melville House store.