New York City: 12.08.16.
I met Kevin Barry in the fall of 2015. He’s an author and not exactly a recluse; certifiably Google-able. His personality, Irish, is warm, disarming, steeled. The result, perhaps, of the demands of publicity tours. Though in all odds, it was probably just an Irish thing.
That evening I was hosting a talk and reading at Greenlight Bookstore for Kevin to celebrate the American release of his novel “Beatlebone.” Accommodating yet garrulous, he held sway over the room and co-signed to my imprimatur to a degree.
That evening I was hosting a talk and reading at Greenlight Bookstore for Kevin to celebrate the American release of his novel “Beatlebone.” Accommodating yet garrulous, he held sway over the room and cosigned to my imprimatur to a degree.
Let’s place your coat here, sir. Kevin? All right, all right, I’ll call you that from now on — but would you like a drink? We have some beer and wine in the back. Yes, of course, the drink is in the children’s books section. Now, hey, Kevin, when you’ve a minute, let’s quickly go over how the evening’ll proceed…
Writing is a measured act, taking nuance in turn with frustration, anxiety, and emotive unspoolings. Still, Kevin — a Fab Four obsessed man in tweed from County Limerick — was an unabashed swearer. He asked coyly if the self-serious Brooklyn crowd wouldn’t mind if he let the expletives fly. “Yeah!” came a comparatively roaring response from a couple of bulky and bearded, thorough Irish lads in the third row. We sold a good amount of books that night.
That was perhaps the biggest surprise of my short bookselling career: It took a book release party to unearth the two south Irishmen in Fort Greene.
In “Deer Season,” a short story by Kevin Barry published last October in The New Yorker, I read a line that struck me instantly and with such force, that, for the first time in a relatively short life, I truly wished I did not live in this city: “The country was beautiful now that August was almost over.”
It was like meeting my conscience. Here, in plain sight, was someone who hated August (my birth month) as much as I did. Knowing I could now no longer write a more concise, direct, and emblematic expression of feeling, I felt my second best option was to have this tattooed on myself or make it my Twitter bio, something, to show my egotistical connection to this sentiment.
It’s a beautiful line in a good and eerie tale about love and obsession and macabre deaths. Read it if you get the chance. Just don’t get hung up on that one line. But if you do, there’s a chance that you’ll be drawn as if by faint magnetism on a strange trip towards your own interiority.
On the occasions when morale is low and inspiration needed, I dial up the catalog of screenshots of Good Writing™ that I keep on my phone and scroll through on the commute home. Revisiting the Barry line in this manner was spellbinding. The faucets of memory and guilt opened. It made me doubt the possibility of my ever being a writer of such talent and in this age of overfeeling (LOL) and underfeeling (lol), here was something that had actually floored me. I had met the author of the text. Had hung up his coat and cracked him open a cold one. That should be enough to dispel my writerly aims. Nah. I still had bills to pay and my 20s were already beginning to wear on. Since novels are hard I set myself a lower bar to meet and begun pushing my notes and missives onto Medium’s mobile app.
The app’s plain (some say minimal) look was like carrying around a Bauhaus bureau in my pocket where I could hide the halves of essays, assorted jots, and searching locutions. The cleanness of the app, the fact that it wasn’t a notebook and pen, made writing in public easy and anonymous. Mostly I was directionless, however. The routines were the same every month, yet my published output was middling. Then, around the time when spring disappears seemingly overnight, I’d started writing about the weather. An exercise so pursued after I read a post on the Hairpin by Kelly Conaboy, “Blog, You Idiots,” which suggested we all (maybe) blog more.
Her blog wasn’t necessarily directed at me but I took its directive all the same. Write a bit, but often, and something, not necessarily talent, but something (!) may come out of it. So, then: the weather. It was constant and variable. Summer ’16 in New York City was dreadful. Sticky and hot, the L train suffering more than its stereotypical share of breakdowns. It felt like everyone was wilting, sockless, and unnervingly distracted by Pokémon Go. Oh, and Trump—already a scourge—kept lighting the febrile Twittersphere aflame with his rancid person and happenings.
If I at some point in my life had written “The country was beautiful now that August was almost over,” that would have been reason enough to quit blogging. It would have been a way to measure my health and happiness rather than by adjusting myself to whatever state of fade or verdancy the plant that I impulse-got at IKEA was currently in. Sure enough, I let the weather posts lag and filled the time writing a bit about other things and reading a lot. Meanwhile, Kevin Barry’s innocuous phrase tugged at me from the part of my brain that keeps quotes for safe-keeping. By safe keeping I mean holed up in my apartment for a couple of weeks before Christmas, rereading notes and screengrabs I accrued over the past year.
I opened up a new document and wrote the title “New York City: 12.08.16.” A couple hundred words of rumination later and the thoughts were put on hold. An embargo on writing for 10 months. Committing to the story of how the ritual revisiting of a line of prose by Kevin Barry eventually got me to reckon with what I wanted from myself — a writer, supposedly — would have to be done under the hot breath of summer evenings in New York. The outcome was this essay, jigsawed into place through recursive ellipses; in my prolonged consideration of the topic, I elided the congruent for a past that could be reassembled into a contemplative story.
Reading and writing, two acts that aren’t always satisfactory. Reading can be boring or, as often seems the case lately, triggering or behavioral. Our eyes scan the text, and something distressing or alarming begins to envelop us with ennui. Writing, to be fair, can be an unremarkably taxing practice itself. Or, it can never meet expectations. But sometimes reading and writing, however divergent, is transcendent. My amassed screengrabs of Good Writing™ suggests a batting average to that degree around the .300 mark. A lone stat of hyperbole but suggestive nonetheless.
The rip-roaring, solo longball of “The country was beautiful now that August was almost over,” was a line that, after reading it, filled a certain lack. That place where, unbeknownst to us, a part of ourselves vanishes so we can inhabit the stories of other lives and places. Call it empathy or imagination, but lines like that meet or exceed our understanding of how we can interact with the written word. Especially if you’re me and your default position with people is distance. Just far enough to aggravate my continued farsightedness.
I happened to be back in the neighborhood where I met Barry recently. My life was logistically different — I no longer sold books or talked about writing, rather, I freelanced mostly — and apropos a book reading, I went for a walk. Meandering the city streets is a steadfast habit for some New Yorkers. (My father was a walking man as was his father before him. And, if the stories are true, great-grandfather Rocco practically walked his way from Naples to Ellis Island.) There are reams written about this walking city — it’s preternatural. And the warm evening air encourages a good bit of strolling for some of us.
On this night then, waiting for the light to change, I acknowledged the emotional liability in propping a forced distance between myself and others. A personal lack of fully engaging with things out of fear or laziness or not wanting to fail when all eyes were on me. A reluctance to give up on my skepticism and self-absorption; delayed achievements and love. It was, without a doubt, liable for at least one failed relationship. And, for the sake of the good folks at Medium, despite my poor posture, my reluctance to lean in was half-heartedness, and it derailed my commitment to writing.
In the hanging, humid air, drafts fled from briefly opened doors of restaurants and bars. August had come, left it’s heavy humidity here like a poor houseguest, and I could cry. By the eighth month of the year, the heat losses its charm and all everyone wants is to wear sweaters and move the calendar forward to the months with holidays again. Or, depending on the day, that’s what the Kevin Barry line seemed to suggest at least.
But there was something else in his notion of August as a 30-day plod towards a portal where life, in its broadest sense, could be beautiful again. This I knew intensely. The screenshots on my phone were a salve to a certain jadedness. It leached so slowly, however. And to know fully what Barry meant was the process of literally carrying the line of prose around with me for a year before realizing its full effect. This wasn’t distance but the proximal point of where knowledge becomes understanding.
When August was on the horizon the country wasn’t beautiful yet. That would have to wait even though impatience is virtuous in New York. Rounding a corner and turning onto a public green space, I noticed a ritual beginning. It would be helpful to think that here was where I left Kevin Barry behind and took to writing for myself.
Sunset was happening and the phones were out. It looked good even on the 5-inch polycarbonates I spied on. New York has a decadent glaze to it now and seems like everyone I know wants in. But sunsets remind me of the apocalypse. New York never feels like the end of the world but it often is the site of the world’s end. A city so ugly it makes the sky puke, the cynic in me thinks.
Still, I post to social media too and apply for salutary clicks and likes for witnessing the sun’s slip into somnombulance. It is beneath the glaze now. This sunset of violets, auburns, and fuschias, is moments later the gloaming and then, finally, darkness. In the night — I noted once during a period of intensely pursued college-style binge drinking — New York becomes a different city. I’m less sure about that now as every day offers perverse difficulties in the same grotesqueries.
Can’t hate the city for its secrets, however. The advertised specials tapped to smudgy storefront windows are especially alluring. You know the ones. They’re written in fonts varying from 16 to 72 with the smudged tips of Crayola markers. Breaking bread with my thoughts in a cheap, empty-enough restaurant is an unshakeable habit. It’s a preferred way of engaging with the world. Which is why I found myself treating a bowl of veggie pad Thai like spaghetti.
So we get old and I still wear the bottom of my jeans rolled. I begin to take a purposefully long walk to the subway. On a street of identical chunky brownstones and meaty trees, two dogs hop out of the trunk of a nearby car. Their owners, a couple in their 30s, bear pained faces and three blue bags from IKEA burdened with home stuffs. The dogs are large-sized; one of who is tan and the other a mottled white. They eagerly sniff the steps up to their home — intimately recognizable in the orange glow thrown from the streetlamps. Instinctively they whip their ears back and forth and wriggle their bodies with enthusiasm from nose to tail tip. Looking into their perceptive, unclouded eyes is a cheap vacation. Their smiley energy a rebuff to the emotionally guarded. Eventually, after protracted trips up and down by the couple, the dogs are let in and the intersection of our night’s over.
The subway platform for the G train is empty and mundane. I’ve either just missed it or am the first to the nonsense purgatory of late-night subway rides. My phone is unlocked and open to a lengthy interview with a recent literary celebrity. It’s good but dense; certainly worth mining for inspirational passages to screenshoot. The night yawns on and the underground tunnels are vacant and dark. Tired of reading, I tilt my head back and wait for the train.