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Notes from the Mr. Peanut Tour — Part I

Post­ing this from Nashville, where I’ve just returned home after three weeks of on-and-off tour­ing. It’s been a thrill, meet­ing read­ers, inde­pen­dent book­sellers, and hit­ting the road, falling in love with the Mis­sis­sippi Delta, dri­ving, think­ing, and read­ing to audi­ences. Things kicked off here on June 22, the day of Mr. Peanut’s pub­li­ca­tion, though really they kicked off the week before with Jim Ridley’s great cover story about the novel in the Nashville Scene. That, in part, accounts for the great crowd we had at Davis Kidd, a gath­er­ing of friends, fam­ily, for­mer col­leagues (from the Scene and the Har­peth Hall School), stu­dents, par­ents of stu­dents, and other inter­ested par­ties. I read from the Shep­pard sec­tion, the scene when Mar­i­lyn first wakes up the day before her murder—it’s the reader’s first intro­duc­tion to her—then a brief snip­pet of the Has­troll sec­tion. There was a ter­rific party after­ward that my wife threw for me at Sun­set Grill—in all, a roar­ing success.

The next day I drove to Mem­phis, where I stayed at the Peabody Hotel and finally had a chance to see its leg­endary ducks make their daily migra­tion from the roof to the lobby, where they swim in the foun­tain until mak­ing their way back upstairs at 5. FYI, the ducks don’t wad­dle from the ele­va­tor to the foun­tain; they run. You have to be quick with the cam­era. Also took a nice run myself on Thurs­day morn­ing along the trol­ley tracks to the bridge to Mud Island, which spans half the Mis­sis­sippi, “that wide mus­cle of water” as a friend once described it, though it was so hot that morn­ing and dur­ing my stay that I was sur­prised the base­ball games at Red­bird sta­dium weren’t called off due to inclement weather. Before my read­ing at Memphis’s Davis Kidd store (they had a fan­tas­tic dis­play table set up for Mr. Peanut), I did morn­ing tele­vi­sion, News Chan­nel 3’s Live at 9 show, which was a ball, as well as a fan­tas­tic inter­view on Book­talk, broad­cast on Mem­phis 89.3 WYPL-FM and hosted by Stephen Usery. The man is a local trea­sure and a gift to the book world. His ques­tions made for an incred­i­ble con­ver­sa­tion and his com­mand of the book was so com­plete that it made for the kind of in-depth spon­tane­ity most talk shows utterly lack, not to men­tion that he has one of those voices you can’t shake, per­fect for radio because it seems a uni­verse away and impos­si­bly near at the same time. That night at Davis Kidd, I read the same sec­tion as I had in Nashville, and later, rather haunt­ingly, a woman from the audi­ence came up to me after­ward and told me that I’d “writ­ten her life.”

That Sun­day, Scott Turow’s piece came out on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, along with a Q & A in Paper Cuts, the paper’s book blog. Michiko Kaku­tani had reviewed the novel the pre­vi­ous Tues­day, and so I was flooded with emails, tweets, and Face­book posts from all over the coun­try, hear­ing from friends I hadn’t com­mu­ni­cated with in decades—even a guy I wres­tled as a sopho­more. It was all utterly sur­real, one of those moments when you feel the book is some­thing that, oddly, no longer belongs to you, the clos­est expe­ri­ence, I imag­ine, a man can get to giv­ing birth—which ain’t close, mind.

Onward Mon­day evening to Blytheville, Arkansas, to That Book­store in Blytheville, 70 miles north of Mem­phis, a fount of cul­ture in the heart of a sleepy lit­tle town, run by the leg­endary Mary Gay Ship­ley, who has been to both the Clin­ton and Bush II White Houses to be hon­ored for her con­tri­bu­tions to lit­er­acy. We had a great din­ner before­hand (killer chicken salad, plus peanut but­ter cake and peanut M & Ms). I signed the store’s annual chair, talked with Mary Gay’s hus­band about Karl Marlantes’s Mat­ter­horn (he’s a big fan and a Viet­nam vet­eran him­self), read sit­ting in a rock­ing chair, and was off the next morn­ing to Oxford, MS.

I’d been to Square Books once before, many years ago, and then as now, I was in awe of the place. You see the pic­tures of the writ­ers who’ve passed through on the walls,you sit in any of the store’s nooks, run­ning your fin­gers along the spines of books you’ve read or haven’t yet and you feel, in its well-furnished rooms, that par­tic­u­lar brand of anxiety—a nag­ging feel­ing of time pass­ing and time com­pressed in these pages that reminds you of all the things you want to write before you die—coupled with the hap­pi­est rev­er­ence for all the great work you’re sur­rounded by. I had lunch at Ajax with Richard Howorth, Off Square’s owner (as well as Oxford’s for­mer mayor), and who is, rightly, a leg­end in his own right. Also, ate a killer shrimp Po boy and kick­ass turnip greens.

Richard wrote about the read­ing I did that night on the store’s blog, which took place at Off Square Books, a block down from the main store. I’d got­ten bored of read­ing the Mar­i­lyn scene, so I decided on the long move­ment in the Shep­pard sec­tion that describes his first meet­ing with his long-time mis­tress, Susan Hayes, and ends with them hav­ing sex in Sheppard’s MG—a rous­ing bit of busi­ness. The high point for me, how­ever, came dur­ing the Q & A, when a woman asked what my wife thought of the book. Unbe­knownst to her, Beth was stand­ing in the back and answered the ques­tion her­self, and the woman seemed per­plexed by Beth’s pride in the book. That ques­tion, by the way, has been asked more than any other all tour, and I find it inter­est­ing that it’s asked so often because it reflects, I think, a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing about how fic­tion is cre­ated, not to men­tion its func­tion. Kafka, for instance, knew noth­ing about being a bug, but he wrote con­vinc­ingly about iso­la­tion, just as Nabokov—no pedophile he—wrote so achingly about obses­sion. Mr. Peanut’s hon­est look at how mar­riages can descend into dark­ness is no more unflinch­ing than its aware­ness of the oppor­tu­ni­ties for redemp­tion and renewal in any rela­tion­ship. It’s a book that argues for wake­ful­ness. But enough of that. Actress Joey Lau­ren Adams was in atten­dance, she ate din­ner with us later at TK, and since see­ing Chas­ing Amy many years ago, I have remained totally smit­ten, so that was a thrill.

Made for Jack­son, MS, next to read at Lemuria book­store, owned by Joe Hick­man. It’s an amaz­ing place, the store itself is incred­i­ble and the staff is great (love me some Zita!) with a build­ing adja­cent to it where they not only hold events but also house sev­eral hun­dred square feet worth of signed first edi­tion hard covers—as amaz­ing a sight as any book lover will ever see. This build­ing feels like a cross between a the­ater and a library, low lit as it is, with a podium set on a small stage where the writer reads, this spot­lighted, so that you can barely see the crowd when you look up, and so it feels more like giv­ing a per­for­mance than any other venue I’ve appeared in so far. The staff had hung the lights in the room with giant Mobius strips fash­ioned of con­struc­tion paper, there was a lit­tle bit of beer-drinking before­hand, the feel­ing was loose and relaxed, and when I got to the end of the Shep­pard sec­tion with its “thrice cli­max,” an enor­mous thun­der­storm broke over us—very apropos—and it poured so long and hard after­ward that peo­ple hung out well past the end of the Q & A.

The next morn­ing, it was down to Green­wood, MS, to Turn Row Books, run by Jamie and Kelly Korne­gay. I stayed at the Allu­vian, the fan­tas­tic bou­tique hotel in the heart of Green­wood and had the plea­sure of a great host, Jody Sim­cox, the brother of a very close friend. We played ten­nis mid­day, had lunch at Delta Bistro with Jody’s lovely wife Kim (the food was fan­tas­tic, Andouille  Sheppard’s pie, with a slice of lemon pie after­ward) fol­lowed by a tour of Green­wood and the Delta. There are gor­geous man­sions lin­ing the Yazoo River and I got to see a pivot irri­ga­tion sys­tem up close, which looks like the leg of a giant bug. Read in front of a very eclec­tic crowd at Turn Row that night. Among oth­ers, the multi-talented cook­book writer, Martha Hall Foose, was there, along with Academy-Award-winning cin­e­matog­ra­pher Stephen Gold­blatt, who was doing pre-production for the movie of The Help. After­ward, we had drinks and din­ner at Giardina’s, with Jody, Kim, Kelly, and Jamie (soft shell crab, unreal) and the dis­cus­sion ranged from the oil spill and its impact on the Delta to the rela­tion­ship between crit­ics and the book industry—which is all I’m going to say about that.

More to come…

When I Die, Will My Children Watch Me On YouTube?

This was dug up by blog­gers at the Nashville Scene. Yes, I played Alan Alda’s son in a movie. It was The Seduc­tion of Joe Tynan, also star­ring Bar­bara Har­ris, Meryl Streep, and Rip Torn.  Here’s the clip.

City of Big Shoulders

Hop­ing every­one read­ing this in Nashville can make it to my read­ing at Davis Kidd, Tues­day night at 7 p.m.

There’s a ter­rific arti­cle about Mr. Peanut in this week’s Nashville Scene writ­ten by Jim Rid­ley, the paper’s editor-in-chief and noth­ing short of a local trea­sure. Jim, who over the years has been one of the most admired and influ­en­tial writ­ers in our fair city (his cover story, “Fade to Black,” single-handedly launched the effort to save our local indie film the­ater, The Bel­court, over a decade ago) is also a film critic with­out com­pare, and his elu­ci­da­tion of Mr. Peanut’s Hitch­cock­ian themes are fan­tas­tic. You can read those here.

As well, there’s a bril­liant arti­cle about the novel in the British mag­a­zine Aes­thet­ica this month. It isn’t avail­able online, though it is by sub­scrip­tion (it’s a beau­ti­ful pub­li­ca­tion), and I did a Q & A with the writer, Rachel Hazel­wood, in the run-up to the piece. I’ve included it here because the ques­tions were fan­tas­tic and many of the answers weren’t included in the piece. It fol­lows below.

I’m just back from Chicago where I had the plea­sure of meet­ing sev­eral of the city’s inde­pen­dent book­sellers. I trekked out to Oak Park for lunch with Rachel and Jason Weaver, own­ers of the great store The Book Table. We talked about every­thing from Mr. Peanut to local and national pol­i­tics. As much of treat as meet­ing them was, their store is per­fect, one of those places book lovers wor­ship, because you walk in and feel the same calm come over you as you might in a tem­ple or a church, not to men­tion the fact that the store’s lay­out nur­tures the most plea­sur­able thing about book buy­ing: serendipity.

Later that night, I had din­ner with a fan­tas­tic group of inde­pen­dent book­sellers: Sue Boucher, from Lake For­est; Jeff Wax­man and Alex Hus­ton from Sem­i­nary CoOp; Javier Ramirez, from 57th Street; Syzy Takacs and Sarah Eagle from The Book­cel­lar; Andy Glee­son from Barbara’s; as well as John Hastie and Brid­get Piekarz from Ran­dom House. Din­ner was hosted by Laura Bar­ratto from Ran­dom House, who, I learned, stud­ied Hitch­cock at Iowa with the great fem­i­nist critic, Tania Mod­leski, whose book I hap­pened to bring with me on the trip. After a rau­cous din­ner at Kiki’s Bistro (highly rec­om­mended) sev­eral of us went to a local dive to catch the end of the Lakers/Celtics game. Admit­tedly, I was pulling for the Celtics. (I love Kevin Garnett.)

The flight home was a night­mare. As my wife and I like to say, the Chaos Mon­key was upon me. I left the hotel at 9:15 a.m., got on an air­plane whose air-conditioning sys­tem wasn’t work­ing. After taxi­ing to the run­way, we returned to the ter­mi­nal to have main­te­nance work on the plane, but to no avail. The flight was can­celled. Got re-routed through Dallas-Fort Worth at 2:45, but just before board­ing, that flight was can­celled as well. Called my wife, an expert trav­eler, who advised I flee O’Hare for Mid­way. After an hour in traf­fic, caught a delayed flight to Nashville and was home by 10 p.m. God bless her, because if I’d taken the flight out of O’Hare, I wouldn’t have been home till past one a.m.

Here’s that Q & A:

1. I’m intrigued by the ideas behind your story, how much of the novel was pre-planned and how much of the nar­ra­tive devel­oped as you wrote?

In the novel, Detec­tive Sam Shep­pard says, “Mar­riage is a long wait.” Well, writ­ing Mr. Peanut was a long wait too, and it was bru­tally organic. The novel’s gen­e­sis came when my father told me a sus­pi­cious story about my cousin, who was mor­bidly obese, suf­fered from severe depres­sion and nut aller­gies, and com­mit­ted sui­cide, accord­ing to her husband—the only wit­ness conveniently—by ingest­ing a hand­ful of peanuts at their kitchen table on the heels of an argu­ment. The story left me thunderstruck—I was sure he’d killed her—and, in a sin­gle sit­ting, I wrote three chap­ters that closely resem­ble what’s in the book now. But then I pulled up, because I’d writ­ten my way into some­thing I didn’t under­stand yet. That was back in 1995.

To best answer your ques­tion though, let’s take this ter­ri­bly tragic and ambigu­ous event and extrap­o­late from it the ideas of guilt and inno­cence as well as love and hatred in mar­riage. Dur­ing that first fren­zied draft­ing, I’d injected two detec­tives into the nar­ra­tive, one of whom assumes all sus­pects to be guilty first, the other the oppo­site. It was too didac­tic, obvi­ously, but it was a jumping-off point, along with the first two lines: “When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her him­self. He dreamed con­ve­nient acts of God.” My intent was to invert Thurber’s Wal­ter Mitty story: take a man who wants to escape his mar­riage and rather than have him dream of hero­ism, I’d make his dreams more vil­lain­ous, night­mar­ish, and morbid.

At the out­set, I was sim­ply deal­ing with char­ac­ters and a sit­u­a­tion: a woman, dead on her kitchen floor, whose hus­band claimed she com­mit­ted sui­cide. It was only years into draft­ing that I became con­scious of what was in the text the­mat­i­cally. For me, the process of writ­ing is one of dis­cov­er­ing what it is I’ve just put down on paper. It’s not effi­cient, but I hope that gives the nar­ra­tive more drive.

2.  How much did your expe­ri­ences as a jour­nal­ist inform your approach to the book? Was it an advan­tage when it came to tack­ling the research, for instance the story of Sam Sheppard?

Not as much as you might think since most of the mate­r­ial on the Dr. Shep­pard mur­der case is nicely com­piled in sev­eral very good books, though I did need to learn about the state of med­i­cine in the Fifties, par­tic­u­larly vas­cu­lar surgery. To be sure, my com­fort with the process of inter­view­ing sources made the time I spent with sev­eral doc­tors I con­sulted much more effi­cient while I was research­ing every­thing from the effect of endometrio­sis and throm­bophilia on preg­nan­cies, to com­pli­ca­tions related to bariatric surgery and the side effects of cer­tain com­bi­na­tions of antidepressants.

Actu­ally, hav­ing been a jour­nal­ist came in most handy dur­ing the edit­ing process because I’d had the expe­ri­ence many times of writ­ing, say, a four– to six-thousand word story that my edi­tor would return to me with changes that I’d need to make quickly, and that taught me by neces­sity not to hold too tightly to my own mate­r­ial. Of course it also helped that my edi­tor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, and I were good friends before we worked together. I’d already learned to trust that the changes he pro­posed to some­thing I’d worked on for so long and was so per­sonal to me would only dis­til and sharpen the nar­ra­tive. I really enjoyed that stage, and, as Gary likes to say, “It’s the best con­ver­sa­tion there is.” I’d advise first-time writ­ers going through it to keep their eyes wide open and check their egos at the door, not to men­tion the fact that it just speeds the plough. I’d read some­where about David Fos­ter Wallace’s multi-page exchanges with his edi­tor regard­ing changes to  Infi­nite Jest and I’m here to tell you, I couldn’t wage such a lengthy cam­paign over phrases, clauses, or the place­ment, here and there, of a comma. I con­cede from the get-go that I’m blind to my own excesses on the page and appre­ci­ate all the help, thanks.

3. With regards to the inclu­sion of Sam Shep­pard, what moti­vated you to include his (and Marilyn’s) story within your novel?

So many things. As I said ear­lier, in my ini­tial draft­ing the two detec­tives I’d started with were so obvi­ously alle­gor­i­cal that I decided I needed a gray-area fig­ure who embod­ied the whole con­tin­uum of guilt and inno­cence within mar­riage. I didn’t stum­ble onto Shep­pard until I was watch­ing the remake of The Fugi­tive, the movie with Har­ri­son Ford, sev­eral years after I’d started. My dad’s an actor and he began talk­ing about the orig­i­nal series, how great David Janssen was as Dr. Richard Kim­ball, and that it was based on an actual case. So I started pok­ing around on the Inter­net and almost imme­di­ately real­ized I’d hit the mother lode. With the Shep­pard story you have a mur­der mys­tery and a mar­riage that you can research till King­dom Come, but are still forced, in spite of all the evi­dence, to spec­u­late about Sheppard’s guilt or inno­cence, to make an imag­i­na­tive leap, as Detec­tive Has­troll says, into a moment of “ter­ri­ble privacy”—something we do all the time and quite cav­a­lierly about other people’s marriages.

Then there’s the mur­der itself, the endur­ing mys­tery sur­round­ing it, and the really ter­ri­fy­ing fact—if you’re will­ing to con­cede that Shep­pard is pos­si­bly innocent—that you can be going about your busi­ness quite pleas­antly and then sud­denly your life gets sucked down a worm­hole. In one night, Sheppard’s wife was bru­tally mur­dered, his unborn child killed, his well-being stripped from him, not to men­tion his career as a doc­tor. He lost the com­pany of his son for a decade as well as his free­dom. At the same time, you learn about Sheppard’s mar­riage, his phi­lan­der­ing, his atro­ciously destruc­tive, humil­i­at­ing behav­iour toward his wife. You have to ask some fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about men and their capac­ity for lit­eral and emo­tional fidelity. Add to that the dawn­ing of the sex­ual and fem­i­nist rev­o­lu­tion in the Fifties, with women not only expe­ri­enc­ing the lim­its of home­mak­ing but also enjoy­ing their first major influx into the work­force, women grasp­ing at finan­cial and sex­ual inde­pen­dence but still under­stand­ing them­selves largely in terms of the male gaze. It’s all sim­ply fascinating.

At bot­tom, what you have with the Shep­pard mur­der case is the thing that cuts to the cen­tre of any dis­cus­sion about mar­riage: its impen­e­tra­bil­ity from the out­side look­ing in. Only the two peo­ple in a mar­riage can under­stand what keeps them together. As Shep­pard says on the night his wife is mur­dered, “They had both held on, at times by means unbe­knownst to the other that might not look to an out­sider like hold­ing on at all.” And Mar­i­lyn, in turn: “Every­one should be lucky enough to be loved for a long time. To know what that was like—to be loved and to change, to be priv­i­leged to suf­fer it, to remain.” Love’s endurance in mar­riage is, to me, a great mys­tery, case to case and cou­ple to cou­ple, and it makes, I think, for high drama. The Shep­pard story seems to cap­ture it all.

4. As well as the cen­tral theme of mar­riage, you deal with issues of obe­sity; depres­sion; escapism; our own and other people’s expec­ta­tions of our­selves; the ques­tion of oth­er­ness and know­ing other peo­ple (espe­cially within a mar­riage); desire (sex­ual and gluttony)…my list goes on! Did you set out to exam­ine these issues or did they evolve as you wrote the story?

If read­ers feel like they’re fig­ur­ing things out as they go along, well, I was too, but let’s take your list. You men­tion obe­sity, i.e., weight, and I became more con­scious of the play on that word, weight and wait, and how, often­times, it seems that the more com­mon approach to prob­lems in rela­tion­ships is to try and wait them out as opposed to tak­ing action. Alice’s recur­ring issues with her weight point to the strug­gles we all deal with when we try to affect change in our own lives. Depres­sion, to take the next item on your list, is obvi­ously a form of psy­cho­log­i­cal heav­i­ness, but talk to peo­ple who suf­fer it, or those who are in rela­tion­ships with peo­ple who strug­gle with it, and they’ll tell you it’s a vora­cious ill­ness, mock­ing the meat it feeds on, gorg­ing itself on hap­pi­ness and joy, on life itself, not to men­tion its spi­ralling nature on the beloved and its whirlpool-effect on those close by—and so I incor­po­rated that with respect to the work of Escher and David’s video games that are based on it, because Escher’s prints, like love, are disorienting—up is down and vice versa—feel inescapable, and his inter­locked draw­ings and oth­er­worldly envi­ron­ments are as strange as they are air­less, like mar­riage at times.

5. I men­tion above the theme of escapism – this felt like a cen­tral part of your nar­ra­tive, how we all, in dif­fer­ent ways and to dif­fer­ent degrees, try to cre­ate a life we would like to be liv­ing. For instance the absorp­tion in a game where an avatar can be all that we are not, or by indulging in our fan­tasies. Can you tell me more about this?

That’s a ter­rific obser­va­tion because to me, read­ing a novel—the aes­thetic sub­mer­sion and escapism in another sensibility—is the high­est form of avatarism there is. As Ariel tells Pros­pero about the latter’s island cap­tives in The Tem­pest, “Your charm so strongly works ‘em/That if you now beheld them your affections/Would become ten­der.” Pros­pero asks, “Dost thou think so, spirit?” and Ariel answers: “Mine would, sir, were I human.”

That sav­ing use of the sub­junc­tive mood—“Mine would if I were…”—is the safest, most soul-expanding form of moral explo­ration we have absent a Vul­can mind-meld. That’s the pos­i­tive side of escapism, and I wanted to incor­po­rate that idea into the novel with respect to mar­riage: that by empa­thy and imag­i­na­tion “we might pre­vent,” as Detec­tive Has­troll says, “our own cru­el­ties and crimes.” But then, of course, there’s the neg­a­tive aspect, and this points to my own take on much of Hitchcock’s work. Escapism, usu­ally fig­ured forth as a kind of idle­ness in his films, is the straight­est road to trou­ble and moral haz­ard, one that para­dox­i­cally leads to the exit from an unten­able situation.

For instance, in Rear Win­dow, L.B. Jef­feries, stuck with a bro­ken leg in his apart­ment and nearly insane with bore­dom, tells his edi­tor, Gun­ni­son, “Some­thing bet­ter hap­pen to me soon or I’ll go and get myself mar­ried.” He’s talk­ing about his girl­friend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, of course, and what fol­lows is this crazy con­junc­tion of his own pro­jected fan­tasies of mur­der­ing her—precognitive thoughts that spring from his fear of commitment—onto what may or may not be a mur­der across his court­yard. Now inter­est­ingly, it’s both Jef­feries’ escapist voyeurism and his uncon­scious fears that inform how he sees what’s hap­pen­ing across the court­yard from him, but they also have the poten­tial to lib­er­ate him from his com­pul­sions and pos­si­bly trans­form him into a man capa­ble of love. And whether or not the jew­ellery salesman’s crime is real, it still forces Jef­feries to deal with Lisa as a whole per­son dur­ing their week as ama­teur detec­tives, to reject the notion that she mor­tally threat­ens his freedom—though why any man should have a prob­lem being Grace Kelly’s love slave, I have no idea. Still, idle­ness, and the escapism it engen­ders, are con­joined with detec­tion.

I feel like so much of the time we have to smack our­selves and say, Snap out of it. Life is right in front of you. Ego­ism is our default mode of escape, and this is par­tic­u­larly true when it comes to those we’re shar­ing our lives with—wives, hus­bands, chil­dren. Sad, but true, and I wanted to explore that in the novel.

6. You write very con­vinc­ingly about obe­sity and the heartache involved in try­ing to lose weight as well as con­front the root cause of eat­ing dis­or­ders. How did you approach this subject?

I was a wrestler from sev­enth grade until I was a senior in high school, and I spent my youth los­ing weight all the time. I wouldn’t trade the pain and sac­ri­fice that sport requires for any­thing. Among other things, I learned dis­ci­pline, but I also spent many nights suck­ing ice because I was so thirsty and couldn’t risk gain­ing the water weight. I’ve  made myself puke and donned wet suits before jog­ging in saunas. I once dropped eleven pounds in twenty-four hours. One Christ­mas vaca­tion, I gained twelve pounds in a week, which prompted my coach to smack me on the back of the head. I’m five foot eleven, the same height I was my senior year in high school except I’m thirty pounds heav­ier than when I wres­tled that spring at Nation­als. So when it came to weight loss and heartache in the novel, that stuff was purely autobiographical.

7. I’m curi­ous about your manip­u­la­tion of the nar­ra­tive arc – there are clear ref­er­ences to a Mobius strip and Escher, as well as echoes of Calvino and Murakami — can you tell me more about the struc­ture of your novel?

I inten­tion­ally shaped the novel as a Mobius band, hav­ing it loop back on itself, since mar­riage, like that oddly shaped fig­ure, is an insti­tu­tion where two peo­ple are sup­posed to be walk­ing on the same side of the street, but often­times appear to be on com­pletely oppo­site sides. There is, after all, a hit-man in the book named Mobius who spe­cial­izes in get­ting rid of wives. His first words to David when they meet, “Tell me your side of the story,” are not only a play on a Mobius strip’s one-sidedness but also the begin­ning of the end of any relationship—when you only affirm your point of view. I said that the writ­ing was a painfully organic process and giv­ing the nar­ra­tive its for­ward drive was inte­grally related to shap­ing it as such—something I didn’t fig­ure out until I was well along and had done a great deal of obses­sive out­lin­ing. How to link up these sev­eral narratives?

On the level of char­ac­ter, mean­while, you have David, whose video games are inspired by Escher’s seem­ingly inescapable envi­ron­ments, which is also like marriage—you feel trapped in it, in the best and worst ways—not to men­tion Escher’s com­po­si­tional strat­egy of tes­sel­la­tion, of fig­ures that inter­lock and recur the way the detective’s lives are inter­locked with their wives, with David’s life, and with the mur­der of Alice. All of these things were in my head on the level of plot­ting and motif, but you’re right to point out the influ­ence of both Calvino and Murakami, the for­mer because books like Invis­i­ble Cities, The Cas­tle of Crossed Des­tinies, and If on a Winter’s Night a Trav­eller take for­mal principles—like the nautilus’s spi­ral or the tarot card—and make them inte­gral to con­tent. No one writ­ing today desta­bi­lizes real­ity like Murakami, gets you to effort­lessly buy the idea that a man can, say, be look­ing in an alley for his cat, slip down a well, and be trans­ported into a com­pletely dif­fer­ent real­ity. I wanted to use a sim­i­lar effect with regard to avatars in the novel. If it worked any­where near as well it did in Sput­nik Sweet­heart, for instance, or The Wind-Up Bird Chron­i­cle, then I couldn’t be more pleased.

8. You clearly admire Hitch­cock and his films, how much of an influ­ence was he or his films on how you approached your novel?

His influ­ence was immense. Mr. Peanut abounds with allu­sions to Hitchcock’s films, the­mat­i­cally it includes my ideas on idle­ness that I dis­cussed above, as well as the favourite Hitch­cock plot of “a man wrongly accused”—which is so rem­i­nis­cent not only of the Shep­pard mur­der case but also the tele­vi­sion and movie spin­offs of The Fugi­tive. There’s a MacGuf­fin too: did David kill his wife?—which, by the way, was the first thing Otto Graham’s wife asked her famous Amer­i­can football-star hus­band when he told her Mar­i­lyn Shep­pard had been mur­dered: “Did Sam do it?” There’s the theme of dou­bling from Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, and Psy­cho, and the motif of mir­rors that’s ram­pant in Hitch­cock as well. And after Young and Inno­cent there’s Hitch’s obses­sion with fallen char­ac­ters and their strug­gles to sum­mon the courage to love each other—Noto­ri­ous, Marnie, The Birds, Rear Win­dow, and North by North­west imme­di­ately come to mind.

When I stud­ied Hitch­cock, I was struck by his work­ing method, his sto­ry­board­ing of every­thing before he filmed—his level of inten­tion­al­ity is aston­ish­ing, and it’s what makes re-watching a Hitch­cock movie so enjoy­able. I’ve eas­ily seen Rear Win­dow a hun­dred times and I still pick up new things every time I watch it. Sim­i­larly, in writ­ing Mr. Peanut, I tried to con­struct a text that would also reward re-reading.

9. You give far more atten­tion to Sam/Marilyn and David /Alice, as opposed to Ward and Han­nah  – was that always your inten­tion or is that how the novel developed?

It’s really a ques­tion of the mode of telling. To me, Ward and Han­nah Hastroll’s rela­tion­ship has a pre­dom­i­nantly comic dimen­sion and con­se­quently the sit­u­a­tion between them—her self-imposed intern­ment in bed and his attempts to get her out—didn’t require the same nar­ra­tive space to resolve. Because it’s so much tighter, it’s needed a dif­fer­ent kind of treat­ment. I very much had Calvino’s idea of Light­ness from Six Memos for the Next Mil­len­nium in mind when I wrote it—this approach of sub­tract­ing weight from a sit­u­a­tion or story, flens­ing it of the require­ments of social real­ism, so that it becomes more mythic, more sym­bolic; whereas the Shep­pard sec­tion is a com­bi­na­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller and true-crime noir. David and Alice, well, they’re all bru­tal real­ism until the very end when things take a Wind-Up Bird turn. It was a shorter, more comic way of look­ing at marriage’s ruts and impasses—couples’ crazy Mex­i­can stand­offs. To my mind, Ward and Han­nah are the heroes of the novel because they man­age to work out their prob­lems with­out col­lat­eral damage.

10.  With regards to the por­trayal of women in your novel, I can’t help but feel that it isn’t a par­tic­u­larly pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women, espe­cially how Alice and Han­nah behave. They seem to veer between obsti­nacy and/or silence and extreme out­bursts, with very lit­tle attempt at real com­mu­ni­ca­tion in-between. Admit­tedly Mar­i­lyn presents an alter­na­tive point of view, but as the long-suffering wife, which isn’t a par­tic­u­larly life-affirming rep­re­sen­ta­tion of wom­an­hood either.  Was this to serve the pur­pose of the novel, i.e. the explo­ration of mar­riages in cri­sis? (This will make a great book club choice, by the way, I can hear the heated dis­cus­sions on the valid­ity of the three women’s actions!)

I’m chuck­ling at this ques­tion for sev­eral rea­sons. First of all because a for­mer col­league said Mr. Peanut would be great for a husband/wife book club—which sounds like a fight wait­ing to hap­pen to me—and sec­ond because this same per­son told me that after read­ing a descrip­tion of the novel with her hus­band, he laughed at the first line, they started to talk about the novel’s plot, and nearly came to blows dur­ing the fight that ensued.

But I’m going to take issue—not umbrage, but issue—with the ques­tion. No writer, male or female, has a respon­si­bil­ity to “pos­i­tively rep­re­sent” any­one, and I think this crit­i­cism some­times gets lev­elled at male writ­ers a bit irre­spon­si­bly if their women char­ac­ters dis­play unpalat­able behav­iour. Are the men in Mr. Peanut so admirable? I’ll bet no one will have a prob­lem with their characterization.

Now I’d absolutely con­cede I’m deal­ing with mar­riage in cri­sis, but at the same time, I’d turn the ques­tion around: is it your expe­ri­ence that women—and men, for that matter—more often than not sit down and work things out ratio­nally, qui­etly, and maturely with their spouses, or, on the rare occa­sion, project their anger, inflict passive-aggressive pun­ish­ment, cheat out of spite, or make absurd com­pro­mises that seem, from the out­side, like jail? If your answer is “Yes, we are quite pacific in our deal­ings with each other and almost always attempt ‘real com­mu­ni­ca­tion’, I am beg­ging you: please come to Amer­ica and help us with our fifty-plus per­cent divorce rate. I promise you’ll make a fortune.

I’ll say this about the women in the novel: each shows great courage and faith in her rela­tion­ship and her spouse, in spite of his absolutely neg­a­tive behav­iour. Alice, who suf­fers many ter­ri­ble set­backs, both phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal, is will­ing, after every­thing she and David have gone through, to attempt some­thing very rad­i­cal to restore their lives together—it’s David who balks. Han­nah Has­troll con­fines her­self to bed for the same rea­son, in a des­per­ate attempt to force her hus­band to recal­i­brate his views about their present and future, and once he real­izes the pur­poses of her gam­bit she’s there to wel­come him back to her with open arms. And as a woman deal­ing with a very nar­cis­sis­tic, cruel man, Mar­i­lyn Sheppard—whose behav­iour must be contextualized—shows a real will­ing­ness to wait for him to come around, if we’re to believe that she and Shep­pard were happy before she was mur­dered. To my mind, it’s the women in the book who are the most admirable. True, they don’t arrive at these qual­i­ties pleas­antly, but as a guy who’s been with his wife for twenty years, I can only say that giv­ing birth to our bet­ter selves hasn’t always been pretty—much as we love each other.

11. Who are your influ­ences? Who are the writ­ers you admire, both past and present?

I’m an omniv­o­rous reader and I really wish some­times that I had one great influ­ence like a Bel­low, Dos­toyevsky. Once I find a writer I love, I read every­thing they’ve writ­ten, and writ­ers such as Nabokov, Bel­low, Roth, Babel and Chekhov have had huge influ­ences on me, but so too have Calvino, Delillo, Eliz­a­beth Bishop, and Char­lotte Bronte. I’m going through a heavy Alice Munro phase right now—her work slays me. My two secret favourite books of all time, up there with Lolita, Her­zog, Homer’s Odyssey, A Sport and a Pas­time, and One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude, are prob­a­bly Cor­mac McCarthy’s Sut­tree and John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig. When I was writ­ing Mr. Peanut, I reg­u­larly re-read The Unbear­able Light­ness of Being, not only because of the ease with which Kun­dera inter­weaves and over­laps his nar­ra­tives but also because I admire his use of light­ness and his humour and play­ful­ness when it comes to philo­soph­i­cal concepts.

12. What’s next? I’m sure any­one who reads Mr Peanut will be eager for more! Can you tell me, or give a hint, or what you’re writ­ing at the moment or what you plan to write?

I have a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries titled Ladies and Gen­tle­men com­ing out next sum­mer and then a big project planned that I’ve already started research­ing enti­tled Death’s Door. Its point of depar­ture is the Divine Com­edy but it’s a hor­i­zon­tal as opposed to ver­ti­cal tour, if that makes any sense. That’s all I’m will­ing to say about it at this point, because like Mr. Peanut when I started, I don’t under­stand it yet and I can’t wait to start.

A Prayer for President Obama

I went run­ning this morn­ing, just a lit­tle over five miles, and because I live in Nashville, and because it’s June and it’s hot, I run very early, usu­ally well before 7 a.m. I run any­where between five and ten miles daily, but we’ve been beset by record heat this past week with a ten-day fore­cast that promises mid– to low-nineties for nearly all of it, and the early hour only helps so much. It gets so hot so early now, you can’t believe it. With the humid­ity down here, a sunny day in the mid-nineties that irra­di­ates the asphalt like a kiln feels like it’s well over a hun­dred degrees. It’s bone-stripping heat: you feel like your skeleton’s been removed from your body, so that you go Gumby after five min­utes in it. Peo­ple com­pletely avoid the out­doors come mid­day. It’s under­stand­able. This morn­ing, after drop­ping my kids off at camp, still sweat­ing from my run post-cold shower, I became so dizzy I thought I was going to faint.

Like bil­lions of peo­ple, to me the heat is a sign of things to come.  My wife and I talked about it this Sun­day morn­ing. We’d gone shop­ping at Tar­get, it was bru­tal out­side, and there were almost no cars in the lot at 11:30, uncom­mon even though plenty of folks were at church in this church-going city. I told my wife that when it’s this hot, I get a sick feel­ing in my gut, some­thing nearly ani­mal, almost instinc­tual. It’s a feel­ing that the world is going to end, that life on this planet will be fried to a crisp. I’m nei­ther a pes­simistic nor fear­ful per­son, but I liken this feel­ing to the days of the recent hous­ing bub­ble, that off-kilter feel­ing that there was too much wealth every­where, that first splin­ter of col­lec­tive guilt or doubt: how long can we be this…rich?

Who knows? My wife does:  “No,” she said, “we’re like roaches. We’ll find a way to sur­vive on this planet, except our lives on it will no longer be rec­og­niz­able to us.” And my rep­tile brain flashed back to the sev­en­ties and I had visions of Michael York in Logan’s Run. We’ll live in domes, I thought, and the world beyond the glass will be as unin­hab­it­able as the moon. As for Sand­men and youth cults, I don’t know about that, but in Min­nesota, in the unfor­giv­ing win­ters, they avoid the weather via tubes that con­nect build­ings. Why not a same avoid­ance infra­struc­ture for relent­less heat? We adapt, we adapt, and we forget.

This brings me to the Obama address tonight from the Oval Office about the Gulf oil spill. I’m pray­ing for some­thing, and that is to be surprised.

Rahm Emmanuel, the president’s Chief of Staff, is often quoted as say­ing, “A cri­sis is a ter­ri­ble thing to waste.”  A cri­sis is defined as a turn­ing point. Its ety­mol­ogy is very inter­est­ing: from the Greek krí­sis deci­sion, equiv. to krivar. s.of krī́nein to decide, sep­a­rate, judge + –sis –sis. A cri­sis is a moment of choice.

Like nearly all Amer­i­cans, the Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon spill has hor­ri­fied me. What hor­ri­fies me more is the fact that, gen­er­ally speak­ing, we are more often than not a coun­try that waits for a cri­sis to make a sig­nif­i­cant course cor­rec­tion. My prayer for tonight is that after explain­ing the sit­u­a­tion on the ground, as it were, as well as way for­ward in the Gulf—clean-up efforts both present and future, etc.—the pres­i­dent announces a vig­or­ous, even rad­i­cal move away from a fos­sil fuel-based energy econ­omy. If he did, my faith in Wash­ing­ton as a bea­con of lead­er­ship would be renewed. I’m sure he won’t. This is quote from him in today’s New York Times:

Now I can’t promise folks that the oil will be cleaned up overnight,” Mr. Obama said. “It will not be.” More busi­nesses will be hurt and peo­ple will be angry. “But I promise you this, that things are going to return to normal.”

We have to change. A return to nor­mal is not an option.

If not now, when?

* * *

In Mr. Peanut news, I received the Harper­Collins Canada copies of the book and their lus­trous and spec­tac­u­lar with a beau­ti­ful black spine. As I write this, Mr. Peanut is cur­rently #1 on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Indie Book­sellers Beach Reads.

Several Secrets to Becoming a Serious Writer

I’m in the mid­dle of writ­ing a piece for the ter­rific blog threeguysonebook.com that got me think­ing about all the writ­ers I’ve had the priv­i­lege to encounter, and so I thought I’d offer some of the things I’ve learned from them over the years. None of these are in any par­tic­u­lar order, nor is this list complete.

At Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity, where I got my M.F.A., I had the good for­tune to study with Regi­nald McK­night, author of the short-story col­lec­tion The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas (the title story is widely anthol­o­gized and deservedly so) as well as the novel, I Get on the Bus. If you get a chance, go hear him read, because he’s a born per­former and mimic, and when you sit down with his work after­ward, his spo­ken voice ani­mates the prose in ways that only add to the expe­ri­ence. Any­how, one evening the Eng­lish depart­ment took McK­night and the cre­ative writ­ing stu­dents out for din­ner; it was a big group, and dur­ing the meal, some­one said some­thing par­tic­u­larly funny, upon which McK­night busted out a pen and note­book from his back­pack to write it down, which brings me to my First Secret: Bring a pen and note­book with you everywhere.

William Gad­dis, the leg­endary mod­ernist author of The Recog­ni­tions, JR, and Carpenter’s Gothic, also spoke at Wash U, a guest of William Gass’s Inter­na­tional Writ­ers Cen­ter, and before a huge audi­ence, gave a talk about his life and career that was tinged with bit­ter­ness. Mostly he bemoaned his lack of read­er­ship, claim­ing that for years he could count on one hand the peo­ple who’d read The Recog­ni­tions. I con­fess I haven’t helped the cause, but it brings up Num­ber Two: Don’t become a writer if you want to be famous. He went on to dis­cuss a sem­i­nar he’d given dur­ing his one year teach­ing (he made his liv­ing pri­mar­ily as a cor­po­rate speech­writer, which gives truth to Secret Num­ber Three: Don’t write to pay the rent), a course he called “Fail­ure in Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture,” and his cur­ricu­lum, which he grumpily enu­mer­ated for the audi­ence, got quite a few laughs (Ahab: fail­ure; Gatsby: fail­ure; Jake Barnes; fail­ure), prov­ing Samuel Beckett’s obser­va­tion that noth­ing is fun­nier than unhap­pi­ness. The depart­ment took Gad­dis out to lunch after­ward, with me in tow. I jumped every free meal I could back then (adden­dum to Num­ber Three: Don’t write to eat). We went to Dressel’s, which serves great hot but­tered rum and home­made chips, and I asked him if there was some­thing he was cur­rently work­ing on. He con­sid­ered the ques­tion and then said, “I’m work­ing on work­ing on some­thing.” Secret Num­ber Four: Trust idle­ness.

The great Car­los Fuentes, Mex­i­can author of The Death of Artemio Cruz and Christo­pher Unborn, also spoke at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity (not a bad place to be a young writer, huh?). I have the date of his talk in my jour­nal, Octo­ber 6, 1993, and its title: Cul­ture and Cri­sis in Latin Amer­ica, dur­ing which he offered his Ten Com­mand­ments for the Novel. Let’s make these a set and call them Secret Num­ber Five:

1. The novel does not inform.

2. The novel imagines.

3. The novel imag­ines every­thing that is invisible.

4. The novel trans­forms the unsaid part of the world into the said part of the world.

5. The novel reflects and cre­ates reality.

6. The novel’s cre­ation affects the future and antic­i­pates unre­al­ized possibilities.

7. The novel depends on the future and the past. Cre­ativ­ity gives new life and nov­elty to the past.

8. The novel cre­ates a new time, one of read­ing assim­i­lated into life. It brings the mem­ory of the past and desire for the future together in the present.

9. The novel is an area where real­i­ties that might not meet actu­ally shake hands.

10. The novel is a pre­cise parabola of an unfin­ished world.

They’re pretty incred­i­ble and bring me to Num­ber Six: Go hear writ­ers speak when­ever pos­si­ble. Or at least go here them read.

At Vas­sar Col­lege, where I received my B.A., I heard Mary McCarthy do just that. She read from The Group, it was the spring of my junior year, and McCarthy was very near the end of her life (she would die sev­eral months later). A desk and chair were set up for her on stage, and she strug­gled to get through the chap­ter she’d picked because she kept chuck­ling at the scene. Some­times it even dou­bled her over, as if she hadn’t been its author or, like Kafka, found some­thing secretly funny in work that, to me at least, seemed any­thing but. That brings me to Num­bers Seven and Eight: Be will­ing to laugh at your­self (Lee Smith, who spoke at my wife’s grad­u­a­tion, is good at this too) and Don’t be afraid to like your own work, although I’ll tack on to these Num­ber Nine: Don’t like your work too much (Faulkner’s ver­sion of this: Be will­ing to kill your dar­lings).

Num­ber Ten may go with­out say­ing: Know­ing the secrets to seri­ous writ­ing won’t guar­an­tee you’ll get published.

Dur­ing another great event at Vas­sar, the poets Joseph Brod­sky and Czes­law Milosz paid a visit, per­form­ing like a pair of Nobel-prize-winning duel­ing ban­joes. In their appear­ance and deliv­ery, they were a study in oppo­sites: Milosz was impos­ing, large, with a reced­ing hair­line that made his huge head look big­ger, and had a deep basso voice that rang out like the last ding-dong of doom (Num­ber Eleven: Allude to a Nobel-prize accep­tance speech if the oppor­tu­nity presents itself). Brod­sky, mean­while, was thin, ironic, and humor­ous; he had a ton­sure of curly hair and was light­ning to Milosz’s thun­der. Brod­sky said, and I quote: “The dif­fer­ence between the lan­guage of art and life is that the lan­guage of life is cliché.” Thus, Num­bers Twelve and Thir­teen: Mem­o­rize mem­o­rable say­ings and Avoid clichés (see “light­ning to Milosz’s thunder”).

Robert Coover vis­ited Wash U for a semes­ter and gave a lengthy talk on hyper-texts. This was back in 1994, and he used—I get nos­tal­gic just think­ing about it—an over­head pro­jec­tor dur­ing his lec­ture. His the­sis: hyper-texts are the future of the novel. (Secret Num­ber Four­teen: Hyper–texts are not the future of the novel.)

By the way, I’m guess­ing every­one read­ing this has prob­a­bly fig­ured out Num­ber Fif­teen: If you want to be a seri­ous writer, it cer­tainly doesn’t hurt to go to a writ­ing program.

The incom­pa­ra­ble Stan­ley Elkin, my pro­fes­sor at Wash U, was almost com­pletely crip­pled with MS when I arrived. I was fresh off an M.A. at Hollins Uni­ver­sity, and I’d had a mon­strously pro­duc­tive year at the lat­ter, due in large part to the gen­tle guid­ance of Richard Dil­lard, a writer and teacher of such prodi­gious gifts his brain needs to be cryo­geni­cally frozen and stud­ied upon his death. At the time, I was well into the mid­dle of a novel that had its moments but was alto­gether a fail­ure, a fact that would take me two years to real­ize (Num­ber Six­teen: Writ­ing is an inef­fi­cient process; see also Sev­en­teen: Writ­ers are self-deluded. Or quot­ing Stan­ley here (see Twelve above): “Don’t con­fuse your hope with your evi­dence”). A large man, he’d teach sem­i­nar in his liv­ing room, slumped in his wheel­chair. At the time, he was tak­ing heavy doses of pred­nisone, which puffed out his fea­tures, gave his skin a shiny, almost rep­til­ian appear­ance; his right arm, if mem­ory serves me, was the only limb over which he had any motor con­trol (this was soon lost too, so that by my final year there, he had only the use of his hand; he typed his last novel, Mrs. Ted Bliss, with one fin­ger; Secret Num­ber Eigh­teen: Writ­ers need a great deal of deter­mi­na­tion).

Elkin could be bru­tal to stu­dents, though he was never untruth­ful. My first day in work­shop, he brought two women to tears cri­tiquing their sto­ries and, of the four of us accepted into the pro­gram that year, two quit before the end of the term because they couldn’t han­dle work­ing with him. The third per­son stopped writ­ing alto­gether and fled to Stan­ford Law School, though that was for more prac­ti­cal rea­sons (Num­ber Nine­teen: The writ­ing life isn’t for every­one). I respected her for that, but the two quit­ters lost out. The gaunt­let you ran under Elkin’s tute­lage was sur­viv­ing his influ­ence because he was a writer who was great, first and fore­most, at teach­ing his own aes­thetic, which he summed up as fol­lows: “All com­edy is rooted in pow­er­less­ness” and is also Num­ber Twenty.

He was also about the fun­ni­est per­son I’ve ever had the plea­sure to be around. When Joyce Carol Oates came to speak on cam­pus, I hap­pened to be in the depart­ment lounge with Elkin when she poked her head in the door. She has a long, beau­ti­ful neck and a tiny voice; she said, “Hi, Stan­ley,” to which Elkin said “hi” back. She began to with­draw, but she was slow to do this (her neck was some­thing) and he stopped her and said, “Hey, Joyce, don’t ever get a cold in your throat. It’ll kill you.” Secret Num­ber Twenty One: To learn how to write great comic fic­tion, study Elkin’s “The Guest”, from Criers and Kib­itzers, Kib­itzers and Criers—my wife and I can crack each other up by utter­ing the words, “Camel shit!”—as well as his novella The Mak­ing of Ashen­den, in which a man must bring a female bear to orgasm in order to save his own life. Both will make you cough a lung.

* * *

In more Mr. Peanut news, copies of the Knopf edi­tion arrived in the mail yes­ter­day, and as Hum­bert Hum­bert says in Lolita, “They are beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful.” My favorite thing about the cover: the pix­i­lated skull is so shiny you can see your reflec­tion in it. Form, as it’s said, goes hand in hand with content.

A Few Thoughts on Federer vs. Nadal XXI

The Magic Box, sight of the Madrid Mas­ters, is named Manolo San­tana Sta­dium after the last men’s Span­ish ten­nis player before Raphael Nadal to win Wim­ble­don, and its harsh, tri­an­gu­lar par­ti­tions sep­a­rat­ing the fans’ boxes from each other remind me of those Match­box Cars suit­cases, because they climb oddly high, like pri­vacy fences, and appear sim­i­larly claus­tro­pho­bic. This past Sun­day, the cham­pi­onship match fea­tured Roger Fed­erer and Raphael Nadal squar­ing off for the twenty-first time in what is most likely a pre­view of the French Open final. Head to head, Rafa leads the series 13–7, and to make mat­ters grim­mer for Fed­erer, he’s beaten Rafa only twice on clay. Things didn’t go so well for the Swiss this time either.

The Magic Box doesn’t look like a great place to play clay-court ten­nis, although the fans look ter­rific them­selves, so good, in fact, that I feared for the play­ers’ con­cen­tra­tion. Fed­erer, a well-known clotheshorse, prob­a­bly couldn’t help but take men­tal notes, what with all the guys in the stands dressed like they’d stepped out of Span­ish GQ (he could give his oppo­nent, Señor Plaid Shorts, a hand with the hab­er­dash­ery); mean­while, the women in the first few rows were so stag­ger­ingly beau­ti­ful I kept expect­ing Rafa to blink at them sheep­ishly every time he sig­naled for his towel, or more likely cower in shy­ness. As venues go, the Box is all well and good for see­ing and being seen, but like Arthur Ashe Sta­dium, it’s sus­cep­ti­ble to the fick­le­ness of weather, to gusts of wind, heat, blind­ing sun­shine and, dur­ing the final, cold. Cut-away shots revealed numer­ous ladies wrapped in scarves and heavy jack­ets. Mirka, Federer’s wife, was so heav­ily bun­dled in white she needed only a pair of gog­gles on her fore­head and you’d think she was going snow ski­ing. Maybe the place should be called the Ice Box.

As for the clay itself, it appears, at least on Ten­nis Chan­nel (when will these peo­ple get an HD feed?), to be the graini­est, dri­est, and slick­est patch of dirt in Spain. Nadal, who slipped try­ing to get to one of Federer’s many drop shots in the sec­ond set, gave the skid marks he’d left such a hot look of dis­gust I thought the ground would smoke. Add to these fac­tors the alti­tude, which imparts added veloc­ity to the ball, and you’ve got a court that’s built for speed but not traction—in ten­nis terms, a nightmare.

The tour­na­ment is orga­nized by Ion Tiriac, a for­mer Roman­ian pro turned busi­ness mogul who has made bil­lions since the fall of com­mu­nism sell­ing every­thing from cars to insur­ance to banks, but who still finds time to run Mas­ters Series events, and my favorite Tiriac-touch to this tour­na­ment is the addi­tion of gor­geous ball girls, which adds, I guess, to the enter­tain­ment value of the expe­ri­ence, though not for the play­ers. These ladies weren’t picked for their speed, after all, and Fed­erer, who wastes lit­tle time between points, looked annoyed through­out by the slow­ness with which they made their way from net post to ball to net post, mov­ing, really, like kids ice skat­ing for the first time, nei­ther stop­ping nor turn­ing on a dime. If he weren’t so genteel—if he had just a touch of McEn­roe in him—he might have said what he looked like wanted to, which was, “Hurry fuck­ing up.” Nadal, mean­while, was reg­u­larly thank­ing them when­ever they handed him his towel, but he had plenty of time to be cor­dial: he was pretty much kick­ing Federer’s ass.

The first set was scratchy. Lots of prob­ing by each player, lots of nerves, with balls fly­ing long off both men’s rac­quets, a sign that had less to do with the alti­tude than a lack of com­mit­ment and con­fi­dence, and which the stats bore out: eigh­teen unforced errors between them by the third game. Through­out these peri­ods of sta­tic there were flashes of each man’s strat­egy. For Fed it was to step around his back­hand at every oppor­tu­nity and lash the ball into the cor­ners; that and con­trol the ser­vice tee, pun­ish­ing the ball up the mid­dle and deploy­ing the drop shot every time Nadal tried to stretch the back­court defen­sively. Nadal, mean­while, did the same-old, same-old: hit that jump­ing top­spin to Fed’s back­hand unfor­giv­ingly, the one that bounces so high Roger looks like he’s swat­ting a fly on the ceil­ing, but with this wrin­kle added: he’s finally using up-to-date strings that make his shots even heav­ier and live­lier with rpm’s. The major­ity of the points went as fol­lows: serve; Rafa fore­hand to Fed back­hand; repeat until Fed’s mishit results in a short ball; pounce with inside-out fore­hand to the open court. The End. Nadal won the first set rou­tinely, 6–4.

In the sec­ond set, how­ever, there were flashes of what makes the Federer/Nadal rivalry so aston­ish­ing: the sheer qual­ity of the exchanges themselves—play that led Justin Gim­blestob to yell dur­ing the 2009 Aussie final, “Peo­ple need to real­ize this is not normal”—the absorp­tion and redi­rec­tion, by both men, of breath­tak­ingly pow­er­ful shots that only they can reply to, Fed’s quick­sil­ver strikes met by Rafa’s blunt-force, bolo-forehands, the con­ver­sa­tion between them con­ducted at hummingbird-speed. At times the angles of the cross­court ral­lies were so extreme it was as if there was a lane that ran along the length of the net and extended nearly into the crowd at both sides. Dur­ing sev­eral exchanges, the play­ers were hit­ting from posi­tions so wide and for­ward in the court it was like a magic trick.

There were those ath­letic plea­sures along with the sports­man­ship, of course, the refusal of either man to accept the mul­ti­ple muffed calls by lines­man even when it went against him (one blown call fol­low­ing an extra­or­di­nary cross­court back­hand by Fed­erer led Nadal, dur­ing the replay that fol­lowed, to very obvi­ously and inten­tion­ally dump his return into the net). In a nice touch toward the end of the sec­ond set, which Rafa won 7–6, he raised his hand to the chant­ing crowd to quiet them while Fed­erer pre­pared to serve. They’re gen­tle­men both, but Nadal, who will lov­ingly nuz­zle Federer’s ear after drub­bing him, exhibits no mercy before the fact.

That Nadal wanted this more was obvi­ous. What struck me most pow­er­fully, though, was Federer’s res­ig­na­tion through­out. You could see it in his body lan­guage, which was on the verge of exas­per­a­tion and that shifted, occa­sion­ally, to straight-up bad mood. He had an expres­sion on his face of sour­ness, some­times man­i­fest­ing itself as a refusal, in that moment right before he bounced the ball pre-serve, to look at Rafa across the net. No other player reg­u­larly elic­its this coun­te­nance from The King. He resem­bles some­one tak­ing a test he knows he’ll fail, but this res­ig­na­tion reflects a deeper recog­ni­tion that he can’t escape. In ten­nis, the match-up is des­tiny, after all, and Grand Slam totals be damned: when both men bring their best, Rafa is sim­ply better.

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In other news, the Jonathan Cape – UK copies of Mr. Peanut arrived yes­ter­day. As my grand­fa­ther used to say, Loverly.

Welcome to Nashville, Target of God’s Wrath

Nashville FloodWel­come to my web­site too! I’d love to talk about the June 22 release of my upcom­ing novel, Mr. Peanut, but the fact is that we’ve suf­fered bib­li­cally here in Nashville, from a so-so nation­ally cov­ered flood from which we’ve only begun to recover, to locusts (cicadas, after a sev­eral years’ hia­tus, have returned, the exploded husks of their bod­ies cov­er­ing trees and lawns every­where), so this being the Vol­un­teer State, I’m giv­ing over my blog to some local cov­er­age of the event in case peo­ple read­ing have missed it. From the Nashville Scene, which has done a fan­tas­tic, tire­less job cov­er­ing The Flood and the city’s cleanup and recov­ery efforts after­ward, you’ll find a great sum­ma­tion of cur­rent events on the ground, sto­ries from the hard­est hit neigh­bor­hoods, as well as places to vol­un­teer time; or, for those liv­ing out of town, orga­ni­za­tions in need of money for relief efforts. Here’s a great story from The Ten­nessean about the sad state of our beau­ti­ful sym­phony hall. Ini­tial esti­ma­tions regard­ing dam­age were, to put it mildly, con­ser­v­a­tive, and the embed­ded video and other images are sur­real. Finally, here’s another list­ing of vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties. Life these days is trump­ing art, both locally (there’s TVA’s billion-gallon coal ash spill in Kingston, TN too) and nation­ally (let’s not even start on the Gulf of Mex­ico, that spew­ing wound in the planet), but if you have a few min­utes, take a look around.

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Appear­ances

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