Two Novels, Two Global Catastrophes, Two Decades Apart

My first novel bombed spectacularly. This was about 20 years ago. Everything went wrong. First my editor quit after which my publishing house kinda-sorta forgot I existed. Orphaned was the word they used. Since nobody gave a damn, I at least got to choose my own book cover. The photograph I selected showed this kid—he looked maybe 14—standing in front of a Ferris wheel and hitting a cigarette while staring at something off camera with his undivided motherfucking attention. What was that kid staring at so intently? You couldn’t tell—just to look at the photo you couldn’t—it was a mystery—but I knew what he was staring at because I’d come across the photograph inside a Whitney exhibit called “Carnival Strippers.”

I’d sold that novel for three grand in an age when young writers were scoring obscene windfalls. Even my own publishing house had just allegedly paid a high six-figure deal to this other first-time author named Manil Suri. Our novels were coming out at the same time, and you can probably guess which novel our publishing house tirelessly promoted and which novel they couldn’t have picked out of a police line-up. I kept throwing darts at Manil Suri until the reviews for my novel started coming in. And, boy, there were lots of them, a shit ton, like 40 straight good-to-glowing ones I incessantly reread and could quote at length. I thought I was a made man, but, no, the reviews didn’t matter much because bookstores hadn’t ordered my hardback—they’d all ordered Manil Suri’s instead.

The reviews did at least cause my publishing house to realize I existed. They introduced themselves and the head of the house called me into his office to chit chat. A senior editor took me under wing and got behind my upcoming paperback. We were about to move product. “Look out, Manil!” I thought. A new book cover was designed. I think it fair to describe the new cover as gaudy if not confectionery with the book title done up in motherfucking skywriting.

When my new editor took me to lunch at the oyster bar in Grand Central, my plan was to lobby for the old book cover. Being from Mississippi, I’d never been to a restaurant with different-type oysters—I thought all oysters were gulf oysters—and I ended up ordering the ones with the coolest name, which was also how I chose horses at the track. The oysters that arrived were small and darkly colored like wet stones. I would love to see a video of me trying to choke them down while holding a conversation with my new editor. I’d ordered a dozen of whatever horrible type oysters these were that tasted like dirt mixed with manure and insecticide. I was too worried about hurling onto the tabletop to even mention book covers.

Two weeks later I had another chance to broach the subject. This time my new editor had invited me to lunch at some hipster restaurant where I impressed her by gawking over the $12 sticker price on a patty melt. I couldn’t get over that. I was like twelve bucks for a patty melt! After I ate my twelve-dollar patty melt my editor talked me into ordering some kind of herbal tea with a dead sea urchin floating in it. Actually all she did was mention that some people claimed sea-urchin tea got you high. So I immediately ordered it. It didn’t get me high, but it did make me bed-ridden ill for the rest of that day. I liked my new editor, but we seemed star-crossed, and of course I couldn’t dismiss the possibility she was trying to poison me. In the end, the confectionery book cover prevailed, but that’s not why the paperback bombed so badly.

It was the worst year for book sales since the Civil War. My paperback sold nine copies.

I’d moved to New York to be near my Upper East Side girlfriend. Her part of Manhattan reminded me a cruise ship. This was under fucking Giuliani’s stop-and-frisk Nazi warm up routine. I lived in the Lower East Side where it was still noisy and ugly and dirty and half dangerous. I liked how the bars didn’t have names and how late at night I could stagger home by following the Twin Towers to my tenement. But I couldn’t land a job in Manhattan and ran out of savings and had to move back to my old job bartending in Vermont.

I left New York eleven days before 9/11.

One thing you might recall about those unprecedented attacks on the home front was that, after the dust from the towers had settled, nobody seemed particularly interested in coming-of-age novels set in Mississippi. It was the worst year for book sales since the Civil War. My paperback sold nine copies, I think, and that pathetic sales figure got stamped onto my forehead. At the age of 39 I was finished, kaput. That’s how it seemed to work back then. You got one shot to sink the clown.

I didn’t quit writing because I didn’t know how to quit writing. It was an addiction, like a heroin I secreted that afterward left me dazed and impractical and longing for booze. I kept writing these weird novels about madness. I’d grown up suffering from the one mental illness you most don’t want. Paranoid schizophrenia is a motherfucker. There were more villains inside my head than in the Globe Theater. They never shut the fuck up and enjoyed telling me to kill myself and steal stuff. I ignored them and kept knocking out weird novels that nobody read. And I mean nobody read. I’d finish one, stash it, start another. Agents wouldn’t even reject me now. Once or twice I even toyed with the idea of a pen name but decided fuck that.

It took 19 years before I was forgiven and allowed to publish a second novel. By then I’d become a sort of pityfuck freakshow. So exemplary was my failure it became a feather in my cap, a hard-luck narrative used to hype my upcoming novel The Last Taxi Driver.

Things started off good with that novel too. It got a starred review in Kirkus just like my old one had. Twenty years between consecutive starred reviews! I wrote Kirkus and asked if that was a world record, but they didn’t reply. I’m pretty sure it was a world record. Then the New York Times Book Review wrote me up just two weeks after my novel had dropped and described my prose as “beguiling, energetic, and razor-sharp.” Then my agent sold the publishing rights for the novel in France, Italy, and the UK. I began to imagine people saying shit like, “He’s huge in Paris, you know?” or “He’s an absolute god in Milan.” Yeah, I had this literature thing licked.

The day before my book tour began, I received an email informing me that Harper’s was going published the first chapter of my novel in their next issue. I read that email like 63 times and printed it out and put it in my back pocket so that I’d quit convincing myself I’d made it up. By coincidence, I’d been in Harper’s 25 years earlier, back when I’d desperately wanted to be one of those brat-pack Vintage Contemporary types who got all the good drugs.

Even with things going well, I had moments when I expected the worst. My friends liked to call me paranoid as if that were an insult, but paranoia was one of my best qualities. I’d be dead, or at least in prison, if it weren’t for paranoia. So in the back of my mind I kept remembering 9/11—never forget!—and half expecting the world to end in a giant fireball the moment my novel touched ground. And when Trump drone-assassinated that Iranian general for no reason, I was like uh huh here we go. But Trump’s dumb luck held and the world didn’t perish in a nuclear holocaust. “Huh,” I thought, and began to suspect that maybe just maybe the world wouldn’t end. But then it did end or at least the coronavirus hit.

Supposedly it had not yet reached America when I started my book tour in post Mardi Gras New Orleans. I’d vowed to have fun on the tour. I’d even scored a prescription for beta blockers. My friend Mary Miller had recommended them for performance anxiety. For the first time in my life I was comfortable at parties and enjoyed running my mouth during readings and interviews. Maybe it wasn’t the beta blockers, though. Maybe it was just that I was old as hell this time around and gave far less of a fuck. Either way, I did have fun, and, looking back at what happened next, I’m grateful for those two weeks before the world ended.

I didn’t quit writing because I didn’t know how to quit writing. It was an addiction.

When the plague washed ashore, my tour got canceled and then all the bookstores in the world closed. It seemed almost funny to me because I was in shock like everyone else. At other times I’d feel guilty, as if I’d tripwired Armageddon by publishing my stupid novel. There’s a word for that type of thinking. It’s called solipsism. I’d always been fond of solipsism. Solipsism and paranoia were like my two best friends growing up. And they were conditions I passed along to the narrator of my new novel, a disgruntled cabbie named Lou who believed the inanimate objects of his world to be conspiring against him, especially the traffic lights and Dodge Chargers. Poor Lou had inherited all my maladies. But he’d also scored a few good qualities I had to make up from scratch.

When the lock down hit, I’d been living back in Mississippi for a decade. Oxford was half rich foodies and half poor restaurant workers. It wasn’t only taxi drivers who were obsolete now it was half the service industry. Everyone I loved was freaked out. Then, right before the lock down began, I did something typically stupid and blew half my Harper’s cash on a fancy virtual-reality headset, the last one at Walmart. Then I hoarded up a bunch of canned goods, bought six handles of booze, and scored an undisclosed amount of pot. After that I went to the doctor’s and peed in a cup in order to get my prescription for Adderall refilled—only poor people have to pee in cups for drugs here in Oxford. All in all it was the most practical day in my life. Then I went home.

I’d been renting the top floor of a small house near the square for years. The house was an old servant quarters tilted into a ravine thick with critters and kudzu. As spring arrived and kudzu started crawling over my house, I began to move deep into the world of virtual reality where I eventually became a professional boxer named Kid Hack. The virtual boxers I battled against were musclebound goons who had been designed to inspire great fear. Facing up to them in the ring scared the shit out of me even though I wouldn’t feel the blows they were about to rain in percussive flashes upon my body and skull. I took my new profession seriously and trained diligently on the virtual speed bag and heavy bag and reflex ball and went undefeated in my first three bouts. I had no real power behind either hook, but my left jab was an unstoppable flick that kept tallying up points until my asthma sprang to life during the third round at which point I grappled and held on for the decision. Some mornings I’d wake up so tired from sparring I couldn’t lift my arms.

I was in decent shape for the first time in decades and was starting to feel like a dangerous man until I got placed on a fight card against this boxer called the Reverend. He was young and wholesome looking, which gave me a bad feeling. I trained a little too much one afternoon and got vertigo and ended up clinging to the toilet like it was a life raft. While throwing up, I recalled that if you die in the Matrix you die in real life. What if I had a heart attack in the ring? That seem plausible. After all, I was old as fuck and drank a great deal and gobbled amphetamines like candy plus my lungs were sticky with THC. Also I consumed a great deal of cheese. The Reverend by contrast was young and vital and virtual and immortal and handsome and didn’t even drink—he’d been billed as some kind of religious fanatic in the poster promoting our bout. I had a horrible vision as I gazed into the circling waters of the toilet bowl and saw myself collapsed onto the canvas with the crowd booing me and throwing shit into the ring while some born-again galoot celebrated over my virtual corpse and the ref counted me out. I had to ask myself, “Man, is that really how you wanna go?”

For weeks I kept ducking the Reverend, a decision I partially attributed to cowardice and partially to my discovery of virtual-reality fishing. Eventually I did tentatively climb into the ring with him, but when the bell rang on the third round—I’d been getting hammered—I just stood there staring sullenly across the ring. My arms were lead. My legs were water. And there he stood, healthy as ever: religious zealotry personified. In some ways I’d been fighting that asshole my whole life, I realized. I sighed and then threw in the towel. I was like no mas, motherfucker.

After that, I became the Pugilist at Rest except really stoned and holding up a gigantic virtual-reality catfish. I spent so much time fishing in virtual reality my cat would start biting my toes. I’d emerge long enough to feed him. As I’d watched him eat, I enjoyed how the real world felt suspect now. The lines between worlds had blurred, which at least took the sting out of abject failure. It also made me recall something Elon Musk once said about how it’s almost a mathematical certainty our world was created by some incel loser masturbating in his mother’s basement. Those weren’t Musk’s exact words, but the gist of his argument was that if every real world in a real universe ends up spawning millions of simulated worlds, and each of those simulations then spawns millions more virtual universes, then we are very likely trapped in a world that doesn’t even exist.

That made me feel better, too, and I spent a lot of time pondering that new lack of reality while fishing in a virtual South Korea, which was where my fishing software had been designed. Inside that 360-degree holographic panorama where everything was fake except the drugs, I learned to recognize 30 species of fish native to South Korea and became intimate with 20 fishing holes that also existed in the so-called real world. Each virtual fishing hole had its own ecosystem with arbitrary weird shit happening like clouds of starlings crisscrossing the sky or geese floating on the water or spectacular sunsets or double rainbows or fireworks displays. My virtual-reality bass boat even had a boombox in it that played Spotify. I’d sit in that boat for hours with my virtual rod resting on my budding beer belly and cast my line into the South Korean rain while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. At those moments it seemed as if I’d left the old world behind, although there were still times, even while angling inside the Matrix, when I felt sorry for all the new authors who didn’t even get a lousy half-ass book tour before they too were forgotten.


Lee Durkee’s The Last Taxi Driver is available now from Tin House.

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