My Books Of Sad Jews
As National Novel Writing Month enters its final days, the next in our series about the novels that we started writing but, for whatever reason, never finished.
There’s a novel I didn’t write, and another novel that I did. I’ll tell you about the second one first. It’s finished — or notionally finished and objectively un-sold, although my agent tells me it received several posi-polite notes of no-thanks — and still here with me. It’s in my head, and at least virtually is right there on this laptop’s desktop, where it is both ostensibly complete and current through my last idle tinkerings with it, which I made on a slow and stop-full train trip back from Connecticut a few months ago. I like it well enough, although of course I would, because I wrote it and because most of the people in it sound somewhat like me, and because it’s about a life and family I could, and in some ways do, actually have.
So the novel I did write is about what I know about, which is New Jersey and a certain phylum of difficult Jewish people and the New York Mets. While I suppose I’m up to adding some steampunk erotica or radioactive and abruptly predatory carp or whatever onto the story if it would help, and while the judgment of various esteemed publishing houses is entirely to the contrary, I actually think the thing is pretty good, and that it succeeds to the extent that what I know about what I wrote about is able to mostly mitigate how little I know about writing a novel.
I haven’t written any new fiction in a while, but I still spend some time turning over this old-and-getting-older bit of fiction, not so much in hopes of somehow selling the novel as in the hope that I might finally feel finished with it. I hear and see things on the street that I describe in the novel, and I want to go home and make them righter and better; I find myself in places that I described a couple years ago, in some round or other of last frantic edits, and notice some small thing or things that I missed, the sum of which might have added up, cumulatively, to some greater difference.
There is some darkest-Borgesian timeline in which I spend the rest of my life at this: continually improving this bloating document, tweaking and perfecting it, keeping it scrupulously current, updating the characters with whatever many new insights into them I will surely have, until one day I have a novel of a thousand wild, lifeless and exhaustingly meticulous pages, in which every character is a perfect avatar for my past-madness eightysomething self, who by this point would look like Burgess Meredith and would be padding around the apartment in a R.A. Dickey name-and-number t-shirt with mustard stains on it. The book’s characters will all spend their airless-spotless hours griping perfectly about Mel Rojas or some other doomed Mets relief pitching hump from the 1990s, and will do so from impeccable high-def renderings of the shredded pebbly booths in a couple of East Village bars that closed before the weather even got cold in 2001.
There are less dark outcomes — for instance, the long present, in which I write all the time about various things, mostly enjoy it and can barely imagine what it might feel like to have the air, space, time or inclination to write a novel. But a novel that never gets finished, or barely gets started, haunts a lot less than the closer-to-real thing. The novel I finished is called Days of Awe, after the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The book is set during that week, with nine years separating each of three sections. I don’t imagine that it’s giving much away to point out that the Mets stink out loud in each of those thirds. I think I prefer the unfinished one, at this point.
So, the unfinished one is the non-haunter. It’s a goofy zygote, if it’s that. Such as it exists it consists entirely of a smudgy page of notes on a legal pad, some-odd hours of insomniac brainstorming, and a couple thousand words of beginning — a drunk kid wiped out on a college quad next to a capsized campus-security golf cart, with a camp sec dude standing over him; their interaction. From there… well, that’s the relief of it: it’s all still, quiet, white space.
Or not entirely, at least to the extent that I know what it was going to be about. It was to be a sort of thwarted revenge story, with a family and a multinational corporation at the center of it, and also something something the queasy impunities and dozens of absent accountabilities and slow, doofy-brutal inevitabilities that defined the year 2005. The title I picked for it, Majestyk, was a play on an Elmore Leonard novel about a watermelon farmer and Vietnam veteran who is Pushed Too Far by the local mob; that Charles Bronson played the watermelon farmer in the 1974 movie adaptation Mr. Majestyk should be a good hint as to how Majestyk handled the Pushed Too Far thing.
The joke in that title was that the revenge-seeker would be a young n’ conflicted fuck-up who had been freshly suspended from college — thus the capsized golf cart, and write what you know and so on. The joke, further, would be that the revenge-ist would not do anything in the squinty-brutal-Bronsonian mode so much as he would just get himself a temp job at a corporation that had wronged his mother, and then do some anxious scotch-dulled creeping around and dork-o espionage, and then some other things would happen — the fax machine at the office breaks, or maybe our protagonist has a romantic relationship, or both if there is time — and then our protagonist and our reader would ultimately confront individual futility and the ways in which permanence and unaccountability and influence insulate and isolate and pervert people, and make justice slow and difficult.
This is — even in the parts that don’t involve being a twentysomething doofus with big, defective ideas — me sort of writing what I know again. My mother did work for a big corporation, which did some illegal things and paid-and-pled out of trouble, leaving my mother and another mid-level person who worked on the deal to face actual jail time and damages in the millions of dollars, which my family of course did not have. The case went on for two years, and happily my mother did not go to jail and my family did not go bankrupt. This, as you might imagine, stays with a person in a way and at a depth that the gentle and increasingly sporadic dude-gloominess over finishing a novel does not. You can probably see why I’d want to write a novel exorcising or re-imagining this whole episode, and you can probably see why I decided not to do it, beyond having to write a bunch of columns about how hilarious the New York Jets are.
I’m not sure about how the book was supposed to end, although I remember that it was supposed to involve a potently symbolic instance of trespassing in suburban New Jersey. Or it seemed potent to me, then: actually entering the empty home of one of those unimaginable and untouchable boss types who left my mother — a symbol in the book, as you can guess, if obviously much more than that to me — out there and then just sort of carried on; going through their personal effects, looking for some trace of boring human truth in the lives of people who went on accumulating and rising and excelling while other people did not. I still think it’s interesting, that ending, and that it could work. But as time goes by I think it’s maybe something I’m better off just thinking about than writing about, and even then only when I have the time. Invite that all in, and it just hangs around, getting dustier and somehow getting louder.
Previously in series: My Extremely Dead Zombie-Vampire Novel
David Roth writes “The Mercy Rule” column at Vice, co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, and is one of the founders of The Classical. He also has his own little website. And he tweets inanities!