Wolf in White Van

Wolf in White Van

I have to hand it to Claire Vaye Watkins, who loudly proclaimed, “Absolutely fucking brilliant,” on the back of John Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van. She’s really raising the bar for novel blurbs. How do you top that?

The blurb is great. The novel, merely good. Not absolutely fucking brilliant, but worth reading, and maybe you should check it out.

If you don’t recognize the name, John Darnielle is otherwise known as “that guy from the Mountain Goats.” The bio boasts that he is “widely considered the greatest lyricist of his generation,” and the competition might be thin, but he’s still one of my favorites. If you’re a Mountain Goats fan, and you should be, you’ll recognize his signature. Many of the lines sound like they were lifted from his songs. “…I am heavy in his arms, and I feel safe there, but I am lost…” The note his protagonist writes on page 60 reads like the track titles for a Mountain Goats CD:


That protagonist is hideously disfigured after some sort of “accident,” the details of which serve as a minor reveal somewhere halfway through the book, I think. I won’t spoil it for you, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much to spoil, which is one of the book’s flaws. I will argue the “accident” could have been something else entirely, there is no impetus behind it—we don’t feel the blow of horrible misfortune, the deep pangs of regret, or confusion, or loss, or what might have been. There is merely this thing that happened, which we learn more about at the end, but weightlessly. Whatever the cause, he spends the rest of his life holed up in his apartment, mailing out slips of paper, like the one above, to people participating in a sort of archaic, snail-mail fantasy game that I would probably sign up for if such a thing existed.

A few chapters in, I was struck with the haunting sensation I was actually reading a Paul Auster novel (I know there’s a German word for that). And I suppose what I mean by that is a sort of muted, lonely white-man prose, which is a fine thing. I don’t mean that disparagingly at all. And like Auster, Darnielle’s hero (and he is a hero, or at least has many hero fantasies) feels trapped in his circumstances (The Music of Chance, Moon Palace, Leviathan…) But unlike Auster’s characters, he’s trying to make the best of it, which makes him a lot more likable. He could try a little harder though, and I’m referring to both the hero and the author here. Neither reach for something more, and by the end of the book (a scant 207 pages, and small pages at that), we end up basically where we started.

I’m not doing a good job selling this, am I. It’s nicely written, and has the kind of energy you might expect from a such a lively and poignant songwriter. If you’re not yet familiar with the band, I recommend starting out with Heretic Pride.

Goodbye NYC


I found a trove of undeveloped film while packing and took it to L&I Photo, a lab that long ago moved from 17th Street to 22nd Street, but now it’s gone, and this was especially upsetting because when I quit my job there as a foot messenger in 1992, they told me I could have it back whenever I wanted. So much for that backup plan.

(There weren’t many interesting photos on those rolls, but I’m posting some other photos.)

Scan-20I had gotten that job after months of marching through the Manhattan streets filling out applications, which is what people do when they aren’t skilled enough to panhandle. After a while I began to wonder if it was possible to just get paid to walk around all day, and then my prayers were finally answered by L&I. I would sit on a bench by the window in the photo lab and read, and then every so often I’d be asked to deliver some contact sheets to a photo studio somewhere in Chelsea, I’d browse through used bookstores on the way back, maybe stop to smoke on a park bench, and because the other messengers often didn’t show up for work at all, my employers were very pleased with my productivity.

You walk around the streets of New York all day, every day, you see some things. I saw the back of a garbage truck engulfed in flames, the driver had no choice but to dump its contents and pull away to a safe distance, leaving an enormous, smelly bonfire of garbage on the middle of 5th Avenue. We gathered around it in a large circle as if performing some native ritual. When the firemen pulled up, they laughed to our sarcastic applause.

At nearly that same spot, I saw four men with knives hold up a taxi cab like they were robbing a stagecoach. They had not accounted for the cop car stuck in traffic on 17th street. Someone pounded on the window. “That taxi’s being robbed!” The cops peeled out in reverse, a perfect James Garner maneuver. The robbers split in four directions, but one was caught, and I expect that was all they needed.

bobI lived in Williamsburg at the time, which back then was poor, and destitute, and best of all, affordable. We rented a five-bedroom railroad above a video store run by a guy named Bob. We called him landlord Bob. He was a haggard, bulbous-nosed, coke snorting, porn vendor who demanded the rent be paid in $100 bills. He was like a god to us. When he died, old New York died with him.

More on that place some other time.

When I returned to Williamsburg after college, it was as if some hipster fairy had waved her sparkly wand over the Polish travel agencies and check cashing places, transforming them to sushi bars, and cafés. Later would come the high-rise condominiums and artisanal cheese shops. I moved to Astoria where I’ve been ever since.

DSC_0137Having also lived in Boston, and managing to squeeze in stints in San Francisco and Los Angeles as well, I can say that New York is unsurpassed in its ability to unite so many disparate people through a shared sense of wonder and drudgery. We suffer together on the 4 train, we swoon together in Central Park. We survive and thrive on the best food in and of the world. We listen to each other fight and fuck.

No matter where you live, you can get to Union Square this evening for cocktails.

Within the last three days, you overheard something hilarious.

There is a special thrill in the skillful navigation of a crowded subway station, knowing exactly which stairs to take, where to stand on the platform to maximize the efficiency of your transfer. Your arrival home leaves you feeling exhausted, yet victorious.

DSC_7676They say New York doesn’t love you, but it will try to seduce you with an endless stream of surprise gifts—a job interview resulting in a new friendship, a brilliant cup of coffee, or even just the sunset diffused through an orange haze of rain over the Manhattan skyline. It will try to seduce you with the knowledge that every moment, something truly wonderful may happen.

I have been here through blackouts, blizzards, hurricanes, and of course, 9/11. As I ready myself to leave New York—in three day’s time—I take no comfort in the prospect of potentially avoiding the next disaster, but rather find myself terrified I might miss it.



I’m not sure why I jumped at the chance to buy a collection of rejection letters, which is sort of like buying a box of bloody razorblades. Do I just delight in pain? The thing about being a writer, or trying to be a writer, is coming to terms with your pathetic insignificance in the literary universe. You are not even one glittering star in an infinite cosmos—you are more like dark matter, that invisible stuff that is pushing the universe farther and farther apart, and until recently, nobody even knew you were there. The saying “You can’t please all the people all the time” is completely useless in the literary universe. More often, you can’t please anybody, ever. And this question about who you’re writing for, this is also silly. You’re writing for one person, in this case, Lee Klein, who is the editor of the online journal, Eyeshot.net, which—and I’m just saying this to be mean—does not appear to have had a design update since 1998. Writing for Lee Klein, and people like Lee Klein, is depressing, frustrating, and awful. They are fickle, weird, fussy, and if this book is to be believed, they read your submissions half-drunk and sleep deprived. Klein, at the very least though, has taken it upon himself to write back, and to write back honestly, possibly with some equal frustration, and probably with a lot of genuine kindness. Or brutal kindness, which is perhaps what I was hoping to find in this collection of his rejection letters, and I think I found it. Klein’s rejection letters are half notes on style (or even half-notes on style), and half ramblings on what he did that day, and what the weather is like, which at times feels kind of self-absorbed, but after a while you get the feeling that Klein is really just like anyone—a frustrated voice searching for an audience, any audience. I’m tempted to submit to Eyeshot in the hopes of receiving one of these rejections myself, or maybe just to annoy him. Anyway, if you like writing about writing, I recommend this.

MFA vs Gamera!


For those of you who have not been sucked into the vortex of the literary establishment, you may not have heard of this book, MFA vs NYC, published by the journal N+1. The crux of it: “There were 79 degree-granting programs in creative writing in 1975; today, there are 1,269…” It used to be that the NYC publishing industry was the literary monster in the US, but this new academic mega-beast has crawled up from the sea. We all risk being stomped, I think.

It’s only in recent years that I became aware of the awesome power of the MFA. Indeed, it is massive and daunting. As George Saunders put it, “I’ve noted a gradual professionalization, especially over the last ten years, a growing feeling that, if a person wants to be a writer, an MFA is an absolute, panic-inducing must.” MFA vs NYC is not about the panic these monsters induce. It’s more about the monsters themselves. But let’s take a moment to reflect on the screaming hoards.

Some perspective: Yale Law is rated the most competitive law school in the country. Last year they received 2,943 applications and handed out 245 offers, for an acceptance rate of about 8%. Compare with the Creative Writing program at Iowa University, which received 929 applications for 25 openings. That’s an acceptance rate of just 2.6%. And that’s not the most competitive MFA program. That honor goes to Vanderbilt which last year had an acceptance rate of 0.86%. In fact, the top fifty MFA programs have acceptance rates between 1-4%. Which means they are at least twice as competitive—and as much as eight times as competitive as the most competitive law school in the country. (It should be noted, however, the quality of that competition likely covers a broader spectrum than that of Yale Law.)

If you are one of those people who have come to feel the MFA is, as Saunders put it, a panic-inducing must, you can understand where that panic is coming from.

Most faculty at these programs will do their best to assure the rush of potential applicants that MFA’s are not really necessary, and that in many cases it is unwise to pursue one. This is perfectly understandable advice.

1) It would be depressing to think one needed an advanced degree in any art form to succeed.

2) MFA faculty have hundreds, and hundreds (and sometimes hundreds more) submissions to read through, and it would surely be nice to prune that number down ahead of time.

3) It is a misconception that holding an MFA will open the door to teaching.

4) Although some programs offer funding through a teaching assistantship, the others will just eat your money. A lot of it.

5) And so on…

But let’s be honest, having an MFA helps, quite a bit. Agents are buried in manuscripts, and that MFA credential is an easy way to sort the pile. You can’t blame them. Writing is hard—the most infuriatingly difficult thing I’ve ever attempted (and I’ve attempted several things!) Most of the musicians, photographers, and painters I know are relatively happy creatures (for artists), but I routinely have to talk my writer friends down from their roofs. Writing is next to impossible. And by the way, “next to impossible” is a cliché and should never be used. You see how hard it is? I think even the best writers would benefit tremendously from having a few years to focus on their craft in an academic setting.

If they can get into one.

I feel exceedingly fortunate to have received an offer from Ohio State, which is a great program (and it is fully funded). A wonderful school, wonderful faculty, I’m very excited at the prospect of joining this community. But if I am to be consumed by the MFA monster, I hope to give it profound indigestion. Writing, for me, is a strictly personal thing, it is not about belonging to a special club.

Even if I do not end up a published novelist, I hope to, at the very least, write the best fucking emails you’ve ever glanced through.