Almost exactly a decade ago, in what sometimes feels like another life, I started to write a book about a kid from Michigan’s first summer out of high school. The kid is obsessed with music and plays in a band and drinks alcohol and has intense longings and weird sexual encounters and conflicted feelings about his shit job as a dishwasher at a restaurant and about his largely absentee dad and gets a big crush on a moody, unavailable girl, the girlfriend of the guy who plays drums in his band, and splits for a town in northern MI to hang with his groovy guitar-playing uncle when it all becomes too much. Some of the things in the book actually happened to me. For instance there’s this part where the kid gets together with this 20 year old hippie woman who smells like patchouli and they make out on a beanbag chair on the floor and the kid has no idea what he’s doing and is terrified and has a premature “climax” without even all of his clothes off and then isn’t really sure what happened, whether he actually had intercourse or not, because everything was so fast and confusing and it was dark and he tries to really think and remember but he just doesn’t know, and then the woman calls him a bit later and says she has chlamydia and maybe he has it too and the whole episode haunts him and fills his head with very confusing notions about sex, about which he’s been hearing all these years, from more experienced friends and from the groovy guitar-playing uncle who speaks to him, the kid, of women and love and intercourse in casually frank and sometimes quite graphic terms and has ever since the kid was about 10 years old. I guess some of this isn’t in the book but anyway the scene with the older hippie woman happened to me but actually in the fall of 90 when I was 16 and not in the summer of 92 when I was 17 (about to be 18), like in the book. I’ve written elsewhere about the book’s origins, the circumstances surrounding my decision to write it etc. and won’t go into that here, but have never really talked much about what happened after I finished it (not that a hungry public has been gagging to hear the tale).
I finished the book, a full draft of the book, in the summer of 2004, shortly before I turned 30. I remember printing out the draft, which took forever because I had this clunky old printer, which was only 3 years old but in the way of these things already a dinosaur, and as I was printing I was listening to the first Preston School of Industry record, which has this great song, the first song on the LP, “Whalebones”, and I was so into this song that later I put a split-second reference to it in the book, not the song really, just the title. I remember going into the city after that and getting it copied at this place on 7th Street where I always went and on the way back, on the L train, running into this guy I worked with but didn’t know too well and he said “Bryan, I didn’t know you lived in Billyburg,” and I smiled and nodded but thought: Who says Billyburg, who really calls it that? (I lived in Greenpoint, actually.) I remember for some period of time, the next few weeks or so, carrying a copy of the manuscript around with me everywhere I went in case my apt. burned down or something, at least I’d still have my book, which I had convinced myself was all I really cared about, all that mattered in my life, I mean I had thought about this book nonstop for at least three years (and longer, much longer, if you count abstract thoughts about just writing a book someday) and if my apt. burned down and I lost the book I’d kill myself or something (though maybe that’s dramatic, maybe I had e-mailed it to myself, though I don’t remember doing that).
After finishing I spent the next several months cutting and shaping, rearranging, brooding over commas, all the usual neurotic stuff of rewriting, working on it into the winter, by which time I had acquired yet another corporate job, that of proofreader in the event-planning dept. of a major financial company. Proofreading in this case meant reading things like signs for conventions like you see in hotel lobbies, so someone would bring me a bunch of signs that said RESTROOMS or PHONE or BREAKOUT MEETING 3, incredibly easy shit, a dream job, for a little while anyway, until I got bored and depressed and started feeling quite worthless and like a failure because by then I was receiving quite a few rejection notes from agents saying they did not want to rep me for this or that reason, wish you the best of luck, blah blah blah. It’s funny, a couple weeks ago in the Times this guy John Williams wrote a book review where he said it was a mark of literary authenticity for writers to think of average jobs as a step below a 9 year old in a coal factory during the Industrial Revolution (I’m paraphrasing, but I think that was it) and I chuckled because I think it’s actually a good point and also because I’ve spent more hours than I care to remember obsessing over and complaining out loud about and then writing almost a whole book about how unhappy my various jobs have made me, but the big break in the clouds in May of 2005, at my events-planning proofreading job, was the sale of my novel to this very same John Williams who was then an editor at Harper Perennial. I had gotten an agent by then obviously and felt, finally, a little bit pro and like I was living the dream that I had moved to NY to pursue and that the world would open up for me in magical ways and that I was a very changed man indeed, all of which ended up being both true and false in ways I could not have anticipated as a naive and arrogant 30 year old walking home from the L train (god, what a long walk from the Bedford Ave stop to my apt., I did that walk for 11 fucking years) feeling stunned by good fortune. Just over a year later I was in Chicago for a reading and the man who did the book’s cover art, Jay Ryan, handed me a finished copy seconds after we met in person for the first time. “Have you seen one of these yet?” he said, smiling. I actually hadn’t. They had been express-mailed to his studio. My heart hammered as I stood there, looking at the book, which is called Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way, and which you can purchase for your e-reader, on various platforms and for the month of August only, for 99 cents.
The last two bands I saw live were Wild Flag and Superchunk who opened for Bright Eyes at Radio City. I used to really like Bright Eyes but don’t anymore so I split before they played. Wild Flag was pretty good but I was there to see Superchunk. They didn’t play for very long but they blew my mind. Their LP Majesty Shredding is one of my favorite records from last year (not that I’m super caught up, I never even heard The Suburbs). It’s interesting, the record makes me kind of nostalgic because Superchunk is an old favorite that I listened to mostly in my twenties but it’s also really great current rock music, richly textured, expertly played and with good lyrics. Majesty Shredding is the first Superchunk record in nine years and sounds a lot like their earlier rocking stuff without being a rehash. It’s quite a feat.
I had never seen Superchunk before. They were amazing to watch. Mac McCaughan jumped around a lot but never seemed winded when he sang or flubbed a guitar line. I always thought he was an underrated guitar player but didn’t expect him to kill it like that live. Radio City is a fun place to see a show. It’s beautiful and you can sit in a nice plush seat. Does that make me sound old? I felt old at the show. A lot of Bright Eyes fans seem to be in their late teens or early twenties. My friend Matthew and I sat in the mezzanine and a bunch of young Bright Eyes fans talked all through Superchunk and constantly looked at their phones. Seeing all those phones was a big bummer. I hate seeing phones at shows (I hate seeing them anywhere). It’s one of the reasons I don’t go see live music much anymore. I don’t like seeing a bunch of zombies standing around with a blue glow on their faces from some dumb little screen. Either that or with their arm up trying to film something so they can have footage with terrible sound and picture quality so they can post it on YouTube and have strangers using aliases write sub-literate “comments.” I could go on a longer riff here but it should suffice to say that if we’ve ever hung out and you paused or trailed off mid-sentence to look at your phone and then offered a weak, insincere sorry, I just had to check this thing or that thing, or I just had to see if so and so wrote me back—if you’ve done this in my presence I probably don’t like you anymore.
In the old days I went to shows all the time. I was in a couple of bands so I played a lot of them too. One of the best shows I ever saw was the Jesus Lizard at Club Soda in Kalamazoo MI. For some reason I was sitting on a monitor on the side of the stage. The place was packed. It was the middle of summer and it was hot and everyone was sweaty. To the best of my memory the Jesus Lizard steered clear of unfamiliar material and just played their “hits.” They were incredibly loud and military-precision tight. David Yow hurled himself at the crowd. I remember he landed on a girl I had briefly dated who had given me chlamydia. She got pissed and pushed back at him and at one point, after he dove into the crowd again, bit him (he was shirtless). After the show a bunch of us went to the Big Burrito and Erin for some reason got a hot coffee and it spilled on the table and we laughed.
Another mind-blower was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. They played at the Reptile House in Grand Rapids. In my memory not many people were there. But the band gave it their all like it was Madison Square Garden. Jon Spencer was sweating and flailing and making his theramin shriek (also he’s very handsome) and Judah Bauer was like his cool, steady counterpart a few feet away. The drummer’s name is Russell Simins. Ha ha, what are the chances, I used to think. But Club Soda again: I went there one night not really expecting much, just kind of looking to get out of the house, and this band Fitz of Depression that I’d only vaguely heard of rocked the holy hell out of the place. I was high on Huber Bock beer and was so ecstatic that afterward I went into the little backstage room and started telling the guys in the band, who seemed like nice dudes, how fucking great they were. It was totally magical.
Also the time I saw R.E.M. at Pine Knob in Clarkston MI on 9/9/89, a date I took to be of supreme significance because of their song “9-9.” The first song they played was “Stand,” which Michael Stipe introduced by saying something like “this is one of the most audacious, brilliant pieces of music ever recorded.” Every song in the set sent me into further states of ecstasy, it was such sweet agony in that pause between songs waiting for the opening notes of the next one so I could get that instant flash of recognition and go nuts. Oh and I danced, actually fucking danced, wildly, unironically, unself-consciously. What a gas. Ten years later I saw Pavement at Irving Plaza in NYC and though I was insanely excited almost felt too uptight to even nod along. Was it just me? Was it the crowd? I was still new to New York then. Did I feel like I had to be cool? Well trying to be cool fucked me up exactly five years later, 9/9/94, when I saw this kid wearing a terrible bootleg Fugazi T-shirt and started making fun of him a little, and he tried to be a sport and he said good-naturedly “Who wants a piggyback ride?” and I said I did, then got on his back but didn’t realize he was drunk and the kid slipped and fell and came down on my ankle and it snapped on both sides. I was on crutches for a long time and had to have three surgeries.
When I saw Nirvana I was recovering from mono and still quite weak. I was in the front row and the crowd pinned me against the barrier and I was short of breath the whole time and worried my spleen would burst (something I had heard happens when you have mono). There was a metalhead next to me and during “Territorial Pissings” he went nuts and started headbanging and his long sweaty hair kept flying into my face. At the end of the show Kurt raised his arms and yelled “Thank you very much! I love you all!” in a way that seemed like he didn’t really love us that much and then my friend Mark and I went to Subway. A guy from our high school was working behind the counter (we were sophomores in college then). Five years earlier this guy had sold me bunk acid. He dropped a sugar cube in my hand and I ate it to no avail. A sugar cube! I should have known. He said he’d pay me back but he never did. As he was making my sandwich I said, “You know, you still owe me five bucks.” He looked at me and I said, “From the fake acid, remember?”
After Superchunk left the stage Matthew said we should stay and just sit and talk through Bright Eyes. It would have been funny, those kids would have been pissed, especially if it was a quiet part and Conor Oberst was doing that thing where his voice quivers and it sounds like he has spit all over his lips.
I visited the Open City office for the first time in November or December of 2001. I was there to read proofs of Before and After: Stories From New York, the first anthology of writing from Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. The book had been in production pre-9/11, but would now include pieces written after the attack.
I’d been working in the World Trade Center and was in the building that morning. I wrote an essay about the experience and hoped to publish it somewhere. My friend Greg Purcell put me in touch with Tom Beller. Tom read my essay and asked if he could put it in the anthology. The only thing was, he wanted to cut the last page. I said no. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was too close to the material, still in shock. I thought the last page was essential. Tom persisted. We exchanged e-mails. I relented. I saw the piece with the cut and knew he was right.
He asked me to swing by the office and read some proofs. He wanted my take on the slew of (for lack of a better phrase) “attack pieces.” I was surprised. Tom didn’t know me at all. But I appreciated the gesture on a couple of levels. First, I was territorial about the attack. Hundreds of writers were cranking out words about it. Few of them had been as close to it as I was. (Perhaps you remember Adam Gopnik’s idiotic New Yorker contribution, comparing the smell wafting uptown to smoked mozzarella.) Second, I grooved on the spirit of the request: I like what you wrote, you seem okay, therefore I trust you, come on by! It seemed to me the way publishing—and certainly literary magazines—should function, but didn’t.
So I went to the office. Joanna Yas was there. She was wearing a Joy Division Unknown Pleasures T-shirt. I looked around in awe. Open City was one of the top two or three magazines I wanted to be published in. I’d sent them a story recently, in fact. I eyed the slush pile. It was depressing. I thought of all the slush piles at all the magazines I’d submitted to, my stories in envelopes among hundreds of others.
Tom and I sat reading Before and After proofs. Joanna was working on Open City stuff, but we sought her opinion every three minutes. I kept looking at the slush pile.
“Do you want to read slush?” said Joanna.
“No, I was just— I have a story in there.”
I dug around, found my envelope, opened it.
“We haven’t had a chance to look at it.”
I scanned the first few lines. It didn’t seem that good anymore.
“That’s okay. I’ll just take it back.”
It would be another three years before I was published in Open City. Tom left a message on my answering machine telling me the news. At the time I was almost done with a draft of a novel, and had no idea what would happen next. I didn’t have an agent or anything. It was just me in my apartment, plowing ahead. The story they accepted was an outtake from the novel, and the fact that they liked it seemed to validate the whole undertaking and let me know I was on the right path. I was euphoric when I received finished copies of the magazine, sleek and beautiful, as always.
One of the things I always liked about Open City was that good writing was always the point. It didn’t succumb to the post-McSweeney’s vogue for baroque presentation and editorial commentary rendered in microscopic type. The readings avoided camp spectacle. And the parties, yes, there were those. By the time I hit the scene, they weren’t as epic, or so I was told. I never knew the difference. As a midwestern transplant who’d spent his first few years in New York working in financial offices, the bar where I attended my first OC party might as well have been George Plimpton’s pad in the sixties.
Open City changed my life. It gave me a literary entity with which to identify and align myself, and introduced me to some of my closest friends. Last fall, Open City Books published my memoir. In a way it felt like a full-circle moment. The book grew out of the essay Tom published in Before and After. On the night I read those proofs he sent me home with Sam Lipsyte’s Venus Drive and Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth, two of the first three titles they put out. I was proud to join their company (along with Rachel Sherman, Edward St. Aubyn, et al.). Working with Joanna and Tom on the book was a blast. Again, it seemed like how publishing should operate: editors responding enthusiastically to the imperatives of taste and literature without having to consult marketing departments or kowtow to James Patterson.
The silver lining, then: Open City Books will continue. Which is good news (all self-interest aside), because big publishing is going through fucked-up times, and small presses are doing important work, and to have even one go under now would be a blow to people who like reading books not based on blogs or Twitter feeds, or ghostwritten for dipshit Republican politicians.
I happened to check my e-mail right after Tom sent the message telling me the magazine was closing. Immediately after reading it I picked up the phone.
He answered, laughing. “That was fast.”
Yeah, man. It really was.