Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Master of Reality

[Trying to type on an Apple bluetooth keyboard for the first time – man, this little thing is weird.  There seems to be a whole cult of people that like this thing more than any other keyboard in the world, but I’ll be damned if I can’t stop hitting the caps lock key by mistake every other word, making the entire paragraph look like some kind of Tea Party protest sign.]

Okay, so I was out on Saturday and after dinner at a somewhat forgettable Indian place on Piedmont, we were walking back to the car and saw this little newsstand store.  And it was an actual newsstand – a store about as big as a bedroom off of a side street, two walls filled with racks of magazines and newspapers.  The other wall had t-shirts, moleskine notebooks, zines, and other paraphernalia.  (Fourth wall: glass, mostly.)  It had some pithy, punny name, like “Issues” or something, but I forgot what. [It was Issues.] Anyway, we went in and I looked for something to buy to support this guy, since there’s no way in hell he’s making loads of cash selling the occasional copy of High Times and operating a subsidized reading room for hipster doofuses.  I also wanted some proof that I wasn’t teleported back to the mid-90s, because it’s been forever since I’ve seen an independent newsstand that actually stocked non-Hearst, non-Conde Nast, non-News Corp, non-Time Warner publications.

I grabbed a zine (I forget what – I’ll look it up later) and headed to the cash register, but found a small pile of those 33 1/3 books on a shelf.  I may have mentioned these before, but Continuum publishes them, and they are a small pocket-sized book (maybe 4.5″x6.5″) and they are each numbered as part of a series, which gives them the same hoarder appeal as records.  Each title is about a particular album, and most of them are a small critical analysis or history of that particular record.  But the first one I got (Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice) was not about the Smiths album of the same name, but was instead this hundred-page fiction story about a miserable kid in high school, a sort of punk wannabe guy who goes to this crappy high school where there was a suicide, and his infatuation with this girl.  It reminded me a lot of John Sheppard’s Small Town Punk (the real first edition, not the rereleased cassette single version) and how it captured the angst of growing up in Reagan America and how punk was not a brand of hair dye you bought at the mall, but a type of disaffection you suffered when you weren’t a jock in high school.

Based on that book, I went to Amazon and clicked away and bought a bunch of the books, but then found out that most of them were just these stupid record collector/music critic wankers going on about how important a particular Led Zeppelin album was to the world, as if I gave a shit.  But Colin Meloy wrote one for the Replacements’ Let It Be that was about a kid from Montana that finds this album and it becomes a huge corner-turning event for him, and I really dug that book.  (And from the Amazon reviews, which I should have read in the first place, I guess a ton of people had the opposite reaction as me, and loved the musicophile books and had a serious WTF moment over the Meloy and Pernice books.)

So I got the Master of Reality book about the Black Sabbath album, written by John Darnielle.  This was written in two parts, the first as the journal of a kid who was locked up in a rehab psych ward, and the second as an extended letter to his old shrink, ten-odd years later.  The whole thing was interesting and touching and the hundred pages flew past pretty quick.  And there were two basic reverberations or takeaways from this.  The first is this urge for me to wrap up a 30-40000 word novella or short story or whatever from my various writing about either high school or college, and publish a really kick-ass small pocket book like this.  And the issue with this is the constant struggle I have right now with what to write, because I’m still stuck at this fork in the road with “straight” fiction like Summer Rain on one side, and “weird” fiction like Rumored on the other side.  It’s easier in some senses to write the “straight” stuff, but I feel like creatively, I have a lot more depth and ability with the other stuff.  So there’s a part of me that reads something like these 33 1/3 books, or Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned and recognizes a great need to cut the shit and not try to write some high school angst book and get back to reading Leyner and Federman and Burroughs and whatever else.

The other thing that this book hit was my childhood friendship with Jim Manges.  I’ve talked about Manges before, but this story reminded me so much of his backstory.  Manges did some time in Oaklawn, the local rehab place, and a lot of the long conversations I had with him in high school formed my opinion of the whole system.  Probably once or twice a semester, a kid would vanish from classes, and the rumor mill would start churning with the various stories about how he tried to kill himself or got hooked on whatever drug, and got sent off to dry out.  A heavy fundamentalist christian base in Elkhart was either the cart or the horse in the situation; a lot of kids with Jesus freak parents would rebel heavily, get into serious trouble with drugs or sex or crime or a combination of the three, and would end up either in juvie or rehab.  Or was it that the heavily religious would send their kids up the river over the slightest issue?  It’s hard to tell, but Manges was a little bit of both.

Jim’s parents used to pull the usual totalitarian stuff, like random room searches.  Like I remember one time he told me not to bring over a Van Halen record because his mom would throw a fit, due to that smoking angel album cover, “Running with the devil”, and the local televangelist’s regular special on what records of your kids’ to burn always mentioning Van Halen.  I mean, this was the particular record that contained keyboard parts at a time when keyboards were sacrilege to any hard rock/heavy metal fan, and now half of the songs on that album are played in elevators and dentist’s offices.  I also don’t need to go into too much detail about how his mom thought D&D was a gateway to hell, and we had to smuggle in our D20s and modules and lead figures if we ever wanted to play a few rounds of The Keep on the Borderlands. But, Jim also smoked when smoking was as off-limits as shooting heroin is now, and he used to always have porn, drugs, music, firecrackers, knives, and whatever else hidden in his room, so his mom’s searches were not completely unfounded.

But a big part of Jim – and this book – that I identified with was that rudderless drift through the unknown, being knocked around on all sides, from parents, other kids, teachers, crappy part-time jobs, and everything else in life.  From my point of view, everyone else around me had it together.  If they needed anything, from an Izod shirt to a 5.0 Mustang, they just asked their parents and they magically got it.  I assumed all of them would drift right through college with no effort, then come back and work for their family’s businesses or climb the corporate ladder that seemed to stretch up forever to unlimited wealth back in the pre-crash 80s.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I was supposed to do, and got fed nothing but contradictory messages from the authority figures at the top.  None of it made sense to me, and people like Jim – the misfits that clashed with authority – gave me some assurance that I wasn’t the only one screwed up.

I think Jim gave me the best piece of advice I ever got when I was maybe 16 or 17, and the “we need to talk” talks were mounting.  He told me “all I ever do is find some fixed point on a far wall, like the clock on the microwave, and just focus on that and let them talk until they feel like they’re done talking.  They’re like sharks looking for blood if you try to talk your way out of anything.”  That advice didn’t do much for him; I think he’s been in and out of prison three or four times now.  But I survived, so that’s something.

I gave up on the Apple keyboard a bit ago, though.  I think it will be nice for on the road, when I’ve only got the iPad.  But at home, the ergo keyboard rules supreme.  And speaking of being on the road, I have to go pack up and get ready to head back to New York tomorrow morning, for the first time since I left in 2007.  Should be interesting…