Where did you get the idea for it?
I wanted to write a sort of blues, a story of loss and disappointment that would, nonetheless, be a joy to read. I visualized a former President, broke and on the road, attempting to live in the world he’d wrought, just like the rest of us. The character stands for a class of people in need of a real comeuppance. Once he gets it, though, it leads to something positive.
What influenced you?
My years in Italy, when I was in my twenties, were probably my formative experience. I lived in Naples, and there was poverty all around me. Corruption and extortion were endemic. I remember going with a friend to witness his marriage license. The bride’s parents had an envelope full of cash to pay off the clerks and bureaucrats. Anything you wanted to do, you had to see the right people, you had to bring the payola. There was a whole class of otherwise unemployed men whose business was to know those people and make those introductions for you. That’s the way it functioned. It was a sewer. Americans have no idea. But people survived nonetheless, lots of mom and pop businesses that were probably just getting by. Tiny restaurants and tourist homes that operated on the thinnest of margins, but served wonderful food, and gave adequate service. Lots of individual artisans and small family run factories, because no one could trust their underpaid employees. Black markets for almost everything. Every transaction was done in cash and always under the table. No one paid taxes taxes because they had to pay the bribes. They had to pay the bribes because they wouldn’t pay taxes. It was a snake eating its own tail. But, as a foreigner there, with a bit of money, what a life. Splendid is the only word for it.
When I came back to the States everything seemed so unreal to me, like living in Oz, and there was the Wizard, Ronald Reagan, saying government was the problem. He had no idea. He’d never lived in a dysfunctional system. But did he ever help to create one. The wicked witches are running rampant. I shudder to think we’re becoming like Naples, but that is the way we are headed if we keep cutting taxes and starving the beast and letting the big money crowd dictate legislation and regulation.
How did you manage to turn the recession into something so entertaining?
Humor is said to be despair that doesn’t take itself seriously. That’s what the blues is all about, too. Feeling good, in spite of it all. I’d seen hard times myself and managed to keep my spirits up, so I lent that spirit of optimism to my main character. He has great faith in his pot roast chili and his bounteous gift for gab. Feckless as he is, he is determined to make it. His enterprising spirit is something people should identify with, even if he is a trust fund baby and a narcissistic prick.
To me, that’s what makes it so much fun, all the bravado and hard knocks, the grandiose schemes that come to naught, the ongoing inflation/deflation of Eddie’s self-image.
Narcissism runs in the family, so I’m pretty familiar with how it works and much of the joke is on me. I went through a 12-steps program shortly before I started writing, and was reading a lot of self-help books. The one that made the biggest impression was Iron John.
You mean the book by Robert Bly?
Exactly. It’s all about the humbling of the arrogant prince, making him do the dirty work until he becomes a mensch. I realized what I was going through was something that was necessary.
There’s a lot about political economy, some of it pretty controversial.
I don’t know about controversial. I’m sure it just advocates ideas that need to be recirculated. The way I envision Eddie, he’s like a court jester. He tells some light and amusing tales, but he also gets his digs in on some fundamental ideas, and gets closer to his own truths, as well. Not only has he lost his fortune but he suffers a crisis of conscience for all the financial shenanigans that made him as rich as he was. Now that he’s trying to make his own way, seeing the world from downside up is an enlightening change of perspective.
You took a lot of risks including both highbrow and lowbrow elements. What is that all about?
I think my generation, the boomers, was perhaps the last to be acculturated to the classical canon. Most of us rejected it, especially the music, for a culture that was just as alien to us, rooted, as it was, in slavery and sharecropping. We loved its authenticity that our lives in the suburbs lacked. We also rejected the literary canon, which is why Eddie’s stories are inspired by pulp fiction. As Eddie learns what the blues are about he becomes more empathetic, though he never quite manages to moult his ego.
Why is it that your characters have so many identity issues?
Because so many of the people I’ve known have similar issues. People need something authentic in their lives, but our media dominated culture doesn’t produce anything like that. Mostly, what it churns out is safe, entertaining, market researched drivel, masquerading as culture, or worse, as youthful rebellion. If anything were better designed to keep youth away from the barricades than sex, drugs, and rock’n roll, I can’t imagine what it is.
That’s one of Eddie’s epiphanies in the novel, is it not?
Eddie sees that politics should be concerned with people’s livelihoods, regardless of the changes needed in the economic structure. Instead, we’re fighting over spurious issues of import only to small groups, while the rentiers rob us of our bacon and bread, and holler about class warfare, as if they haven’t been waging one for the last thirty years. The sort of identity politics we’ve practiced for the last generation, largely under the influence of post-modern theory, have ceded America’s future to the banking and real-estate cartels, while most of those who are being hurt are more likely to take to the barricades for the rights of their oppressors. That is something that needs to change, and I hope that the populist movements can find common ground and do it, as they do in my book.
What is the reaction to it, so far?
It’s viewed as literary fiction, but not literary enough. Literary fiction, to me, is just another genre. Pretty writing for ladies’ book clubs than stays within the boundaries of permissible thought. What mine lacks is that lyrical MFA voice, which is inappropriate for it. It has its own style from the very beginning. There’s a cadence to the narrative suggesting a vehicle in motion. The story is character driven, but they reveal themselves in dialogue more than inner monologues. The character is broken, into fragments almost. He has public and private personas, as well as an alter ego, and each of those parts of him has a voice. He starts out as a false populist, but becomes more truly populist as the story progresses. Eddie is portrayed as a total loser, but he is also the real deal, who becomes a hero in the end, as he stands up to the powers that be and inspires a movement like the Arab Spring. I prefer to think of it as imaginative literature.
What is your creative process like? Do you outline, write back story, do character studies and such?
I used to, but not this time. I found myself impeded by it when I did. I knew what certain elements were; the road trip, the chili, the blues aspect. Otherwise, I write organically. I sit down and write whatever comes to mind and let each sentence suggest the next. That’s what keeps the thread going. When I run into problems, such as where to go next, it’s because I haven’t made it clear to myself where I have been, so I go back and edit and rewrite, and the problem usually resolves itself, especially if I sleep on it first. It’s a process of self-discovery as much as of creativity. Once I have the skeleton, I flesh it out in the later drafts.