Book Review: The Opposite of Loneliness

Epigraph from THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES:

Do you wanna leave soon?
No, I want enough time to be in love with everything . . .
And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.
– Marina Keegan, from the poem “Bygones”

I rarely post book reviews; however, after reading THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS: ESSAYS AND STORIES by Marina Keegan, I felt compelled to do so. Sadly, the sublimity of Keegan’s writing is nearly overshadowed by the tragic automobile accident that took her life at the age of 23. I say “nearly” because it would be a disservice to what was her emerging literary genius to focus on anything but her precocious talent. And I know that “genius” is a strong word to use for such a young writer who was only on the cusp of what promised to be not only an accomplished writing career but, based on her stories and essays, an extraordinary life well-examined, well-chronicled, and well-lived. I’m saddened to think of the keen observations of and insights into life Keegan would have provided us and posterity as she moved through her youth and into middle age and beyond, and I mourn for that loss as well.

Her bio identifies Keegan as “an award-winning author, journalist, playwright, poet, actress, and activist.” She had already interned at the Paris Review, been published in the New York Times, and was poised to begin a prestigious job at the New Yorker. For most, these would be crowning achievements, not resume builders. In my years as a high school literature and composition teacher, I’ve had fewer than a handful of students like Keegan, students whom, both I and they knew, were already better readers, thinkers, and writers than me and for whom the best I could do was not to get in their way, and the best they could do was to humor me. Keegan reminds me of those few students.

Although the quality of her stories and essays is uneven, not atypical of such a young writer, Keegan’s insights into human motivations and behaviors are poignantly spot on, whether the protagonist is college-aged, like the narrator of “Cold Pastoral” or an elderly widow as in “Reading Aloud.” In the former story, a college senior is considering breaking up with her boyfriend, Brian, who had only recently ended another long term relationship, when she receives news that he has died in a car accident. She is contacted by
Brian’s ex, who asks her to retrieve his diary from his room on-campus, fearful of what intimate and potentially-embarrassing details might fall into his parents’ hands should they recover it first. In this and her other stories, Keegan makes no attempt to gloss over the high frequency of sexual activity and substance abuse on college campuses. Awkwardly for the narrator, Brian’s parents, although they barely know her, request that she deliver one of the eulogies at his funeral. After she successfully smuggles the diary from Brian’s room, she reads from it only to learn that he had regrets over breaking up with his previous girlfriend and doubts as to the narrator’s worthiness, which only further complicates her feelings towards him, her self-image, and her role as eulogist. My favorite story of the collection is titled “Reading Aloud.” It’s the story of a widower who volunteers to read to the blind. She is assigned to young man who lives alone in an apartment and who mostly asks her to read utilitarian text which he would transpose onto his computer and into braille on his specialized printer for his later usage. The hook is that as she reads, she performs a deliberate striptease – one item of clothing at a time – until she is reading to him while entirely naked. In the presence of this young man, who is unable to see the effects that aging has wrought on her body, she feels sexy and alive again, just as she had felt when young and naked in the presence of her now deceased husband. It is a powerful story of longing and loss for both the blind man and the widow.

The essays reveal Keegan’s insatiable curiosity with seemingly all things and her remarkable breadth of interests and knowledge. The topics range from a hilarious and heartfelt recounting of her relationship with her first car in “Stability in Motion,” to a touching plea for compassion for all creatures, human and animal, in “Why We Care About Whales,” to a hilarious yet profoundly sad character sketch of a Chicago-based exterminator in “I Kill for Money.” In both her fiction and her essays, Keegan’s keen skills of observation and her ability to capture in words the nuances of being human in an all-too-often inhumane world is on full display. Her mastery of language, both literal and figurative, is apparent throughout, and her themes strike upon universal chords.

I highly recommend THE OPPOSITE OF LONELINESS for all ages of readers. The title betrays Keegan’s most wished for condition, which despite her clearly-privileged upbringing and any number of available opportunities to pursue careers that promised wealth and status, she had little-to-no interest in, for she knew that the opposite of loneliness was not to be found in either. She intuitively understood that both money and status were empty goals and false gods that, in the end, would have cost her soul, not nourished it. Unquestionably for the attainment of her own hopes and dreams, Marina Keegan died too young but not so young that she was unable to leave an indelible mark on the hearts, minds, and souls of those fortunate enough to discover this one collection of priceless insight into the precious gift that is life. Though not enough, it will have to do.

Zeitgeist and GOODNESS FALLS

Zeitgeist
One of the most difficult realities for writers is that much of a book’s potential for being picked up by a publisher and subsequently finding an audience has little to do with the quality of their writing. Countless are the writers who receive effusive praise from agents and editors alike who sing the praises of the author’s manuscript yet choose not to take it on, explaining that it just isn’t “the right fit.” It is a completely justifiable reason for rejection. After all, both agents and editors are in the book SELLING business; they are not merely munificent purveyors of art.

The vast majority of books lose money for their publisher. The ratio often quoted is somewhere around one in ten. The one that succeeds typically either mirrors or forces itself into the ever-fluid cultural zeitgeist. In other words, it fits. Zeitgeist. It’s a silly sounding German word that means “the spirit of the time.” I like to define is as “what’s on people’s minds” and/or “what people are talking about.” For example, zombies are entrenched in the current zeitgeist (The Walking Dead, World War Z, etc.), as are anti-heroes (Walter White, many of the heroes of Game of Thrones, the nerds of Big Bang Theory), and dystopian series (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.). The zeitgeist, however, is fickle, transient, and quick-to-change. Therefore, it is nearly impossible to write to the zeitgeist. I may be making an unfair assumption here, but I believe it’s a little more doable in the music world, for example, to tap into the zeitgeist and respond in a timely fashion, as the process of conceiving of, writing, performing, producing, and distributing a three-minute song is much more compressed than writing a novel.

This reality was the most significant deciding factor for me in choosing to publish GOODNESS FALLS independently. I have no qualms with traditional publishing other than its glacial pace for moving a book from date of acquisition to its launch date. I had several agents interested in the novel, but it was clear that the rewrite, pitch, and publish process was going to be a long haul. For some books, that is no big deal, especially when they, like all of the best ones do, confront universal ideas that always have been, are currently, and always will be of interest and resonance to people of all places. Some books, however, are more time-sensitive than others, more responsive to and reflective of the current state of things, and in danger of irrelevance if not hurried to market. The best of these also have compelling plots and their themes aspire to universality, but the incidents/issues that the author utilizes to hook and engage readers are time sensitive and in need of immediate availability.

Such was the case with GOODNESS FALLS. The major issue of the story is repetitive traumatic brain injury, a condition suffered by the story’s main character, a high school football player. There are several youth sports (not just football) that I sincerely believe we, as a society, need to reexamine the value of and, at least, make a reasonable judgement on the side of safety regarding what risks with our children’s health we are willing to consider acceptable. I hope GOODNESS FALLS can help raise awareness of the devastating consequences of traumatic brain injury and bring people to the table to discuss what can be done to lessen its occurrence in youth sports. Due to several high profile cases in professional sports, the issue is currently in the zeitgeist, yet I fear that those with vested interests (typically financial) in maintaining the status quo will move to quell any outcry that threatens those interests, and the novel will be ignored.

I hope to reach a day when a story like GOODNESS FALLS will have little-to-no-relevance to the lives of young people and the adults who provide them care. Today, however, is no that day.

A Sneak Peek into Chapter 1 of GOODNESS FALLS

Sneak Peek
T.J. Farrell is the protagonist of GOODNESS FALLS. Unlike most of us, at a young age he finds his thing, that one thing that comes easy, that one thing at which he is very good, that one thing that gives his life purpose and meaning. Sadly, many of us never find that thing at all. But T.J. can read a defense and quarterback an offense like a mini Peyton Manning. But what future or real world value are those skills for a kid in his senior year of high school whose average build doesn’t quite fit him into the suit that Division I programs require? And how precious must every play be for that same kid whose history of football-related concussions means that even a glancing blow to the helmet could banish him to the sidelines prematurely and forever? At 18, his life is about to enter sudden death:

from Chapter 1

“Unlike pretty much everything else in life, football made sense to me. For some kids, it’s math or hip-hop or engines. For me, it had always been football. Since I was just a little kid playing pee wee ball, it was on the football field and during the manic eight seconds of an average play that I felt most comfortable and the most alive. Eight seconds a play multiplied by approximately sixty offensive plays a game over a ten-game season equaled eighty minutes of high-quality living a year. That doesn’t amount to much, but I bet it’s more than most people get. And if we scored on that final play, the game, the season, my life would be extended for at least another eight minutes into the playoffs.”

Butterflies in Reverse

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My favorite band, The Counting Crows, have a song called “Butterfly in Reverse.” The telling line in the song says, “Marianne, you’re better than the world.” This line and the song’s title remind me of so many of the seniors I teach and the young adult characters I create who are “better than the world” they’re about to enter.

Eighteen years earlier, they emerged beautiful and innocent into a world whose toxicity slowly dimmed their colors, tamed their natural flightiness, and turned them into “butterflies in reverse.” Despite good intentions, too many of us – meaning parents, teachers, coaches, churches, politicians, media – have failed so many of them. We’ve trapped them in nets and pinned them to boards by imposing on them our own limited visions of their potentialities, our own failed hopes and dreams, and our own ignorance and prejudices.

In my novels, I find myself repeatedly creating teenage characters who are victimized by the adults in their lives: parents who involve themselves too much or too little in their kids’ lives; teachers and coaches who use student/athletes for their own self-aggrandizement or worse; institutions and companies that profit off of the dreams and accomplishments of young people who are not fairly remunerated for their efforts; and the many of us who use them for our entertainment without proper consideration paid to their physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Below, I’ve inserted a very cool recitation of the lyrics to “Butterfly in Reverse,” written by Adam Duritz and Ryan Adams, being performed over the music to the song “Fallen Slowly” by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

I know that raising, teaching, and working with young adults isn’t easy. It’s what I’ve done nearly every day for the past twenty-nine years. I also know that we have no greater responsibility and that, as a whole, we can do better. At that age, they need adults who guide, foster, and facilitate rather than those who use, demand, and indoctrinate.

From Room 106, Vol. 5 – Goodness Fails and “Nice Guys Finish Last!”

Nice Guys Finish Last

I’m often asked about the genesis of the titles for my novels. I’ve been drafting my current work-in-progress for over two years, and I still don’t have a title I like. SO SHELLY and GOODNESS FALLS both came from notes I’d written to myself for classroom lectures; however, I didn’t even realize that was the case for GOODNESS FALLS until this past week when I opened my lecture notes for a Bertoldt Brecht play, “The Good Woman of Setzuan,” and there it was written in big capital letters: GOODNESS FAILS, not falls, fails. At some point, I had unconsciously co-opted that phrase and applied it to my novel.

“The Good Woman of Setzuan” is a brilliant piece of meta-theater layered with many themes. Any number of critical lenses can be utilized in explicating the play. As a feminist piece, it illustrates the disadvantages of being a woman in a male-centric world. Through a Marxist lens, the play portrays the constant state of conflict between the owner and working classes. Finally, from a religious perspective – as a Marxist himself, Brecht had atheistic leanings – the play suggests the worn out condition and impotence of religion in the modern world. For me, however, the most striking and unsettling element of “The Good Woman of Setzuan” is its theme that in the world as it is, goodness fails.

The protagonist of the play, Shen Te, is a young girl who had been forced into prostitution due to hard times. When she miraculously comes into a small fortune, she tries to go legitimate and open a small shop. Those who know of her past, however, refuse to let her forget it. Out of jealousy, many of her fellow peasants, who, like crabs in a bucket, do not want to see one of their own climb up to better things, undermine her at every turn and pull her back down. In turns out that Shen Te’s virtuous nature is a hindrance to her in the hyper-competitive business world. The only way for her to survive and succeed is to assume an alter ego as a man, Shui Ta, who is cruel, unforgiving, and hardhearted. A sad reality emerges from the text: goodness fails.

At some point, I applied that theme to my new novel but altered fails to falls and set the story in a town called Goodness Falls. The switch from fails to falls portrays my teenage protagonist, T.J Farrell, who suffers from repetitive head injuries as a result of years of playing football, as more of a victim of malevolent forces and choices beyond his control than as one, like Shen Te, who tried and failed. In either case, whether actively pursued or passively lived, goodness fails or falls.

My purpose (nor do I believe it was Brecht’s) is not to assume a fatalist’s or a defeatist’s pose with the telling of my story. To the contrary, the goal is to raise awareness of how so often we handicap the good by creating systems in which it is not only discouraged but even punished rather than rewarded. I think of how Leo Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made famous the saying, “Good guys finish last!” Instead of celebrating that motto, which many in our society do, we should be deriding that absurd notion and defending virtue in all fields of endeavor so that goodness triumphs rather than fails or falls.

BAM!

I learned this week that, upon its release in May, the local Books-A-Million will be shelving GOODNESS FALLS. I couldn’t be happier. First off, a surprisingly small percentage of the books published each year ever make it onto a bookstore shelf, and it’s especially difficult for novels from independent publishers to find room. Most independent authors must make due with Internet sales, but based on their sales of SO SHELLY, they were thrilled to make room for GOODNESS FALLS.

It’s undeniable that, due to the preponderance of eReaders and the popularity of online book sellers, the importance of a book’s presence in a brick-and-mortar store has greatly diminished. However, for many book lovers, it’s still the preferred option for browsing and reading, and for an author, there are still few experiences as satisfying as seeing your book on a shelf in an honest-to-goodness bookstore.

For GOODNESS FALLS, I’m especially excited for the company that she should be keeping among the alphabetically-ordered books on the shelf of the Young Adult or Teen section. Let’s see, T, Ty – U, no one’s name begins with a U – V, Veronica Roth and her Divergent series! If nothing else, the odds are good that at least one person will pick up my book by accident.

Tapping Into My Inner Adolescent Female

Recently, I found myself engrossed in a Twitter conversation about authors writing across divides, such as racial and ethnic. The oldest writing adage in the book is to “write what you know,” but if authors only write about what and whom they know, their characters and stories will all look and sound alike, and they will soon run out of material. In SO SHELLY, there’s a scene with a group of young African-Americans. I remember how difficult it was to give voice and action to those characters without perpetuating stereotypes. I so worried that my portrayal would be unintentionally offensive, but there was no way of really knowing. In GOODNESS FALLS, there are several Mexican-American characters, and once again, I hope that I have provided an accurate portrayal.

The conversation also got me to thinking about how difficult it is to write across gender and generation gaps. As a male writer of young adult fiction, it is especially difficult because I know that an overwhelming percentage of my readers will be women or teenage girls. Although, I recently came across a statistic in Publishers Weekly that fifty-five percent of readers of YA novels are adults, and I know for a fact that the majority of my readers are adults. So, imagine the difficulty for me, as a middle-aged male, of tapping into my inner adolescent female. I bet you didn’t even know I had one. This conundrum becomes even more dicey when, as my stories are wont to, sexual situations arise, and I am challenged with presenting an accurate rendition of the complex concerns, expectations, motivations, and reactions of my female characters. Oh, and compound the delicacy of it with the difficulty of pulling it off while not sounding like a pervy old man when those female characters are teenage girls. Fiction ain’t easy!

In the end, the best that an author can do when crossing racial, ethnic, and gender divides is to be particularly sensitive; to maximize his empathetic powers’ and to draw from his observations, his own life experiences, and from those life experiences that have been shared with him by members of the subset of which he writes. At the very least, his portrayal should avoid the perpetuation of stereotypes.