Personal Canon 03/23/21

I got Stephen Graham Jones’s first novel, The Fast Red Road in the mail yesterday. It didn’t take long to get blood on it. A little ripped skin from a chewed fingernail and it was my book. I laid it open on the bed after reading a few pages, left it there a while, and went to go lay down, accidentally bending the cover’s corner’s back. The spine will soon be snapped. When I’m done with a book, you can tell. If you ever come over to hang out and look at my shelves, you’ll know which ones I’ve read and which ones are just there to look pretty.

The book whips. It comes right out the gate full force, chunky paragraphs that feel like waterfalls of action, description, and personality. Sometimes, when he’s describing something, Jones sounds like he’s going with the first thought that comes into his head, and it leads to a moment of pause while you figure it out, but it doesn’t take much time. Pretty soon you’re in his register, and the thing moves along at a brisk pace. It’s a book that teaches you how to read it as you go along. There’s a 30-page learning curve. It’s easy. And worth it.

I mean…check this shit out:

I recently became fascinated with SGJ’s body of work based on the success of The Only Good Indians, which I read and loved, and which caused me to go back and begin to read through his whole catalogue. How did someone so unique make it so far? I’m reading these books as much for the inspiration as for the books themselves. One of us made it through.

Stephen has always been cool to me. I remember when I first started Broken River Books, and asked him if I could publish one of his books, he responded to my Facebook message immediately with which one do you want?

He ended up sending me The Least of My Scars, which became BRB #1. But think about that for a second. The guy had books (plural) on deck and ready to go. This is the vibe, this is the energy. Going through his catalogue, I have a few goals, a few things I’d like to teach myself, namely:

  1. How are ideas presented within the book? What does a high-concept novel (Zombie Bake-Off, Demon Theory) actually look like once it gets on the page?
  2. How does the style evolve as the books go on?
  3. Where does he drop the ball? What doesn’t work? It can’t be a lovefest all the time.

Mostly I’m excited, because for the past ten years I haven’t really had an author who I looked up to. It was a key missing piece in my storytelling journey. When I was in high school and the early days of college, I looked up to David Foster Wallace (the internet is going to hell for the slander they’ve put on his name) and James Ellroy (nobody is brave enough to slander the Demon Dog). I frequented The Velvet, a message board community (I miss those) that built itself around a fandom to three authors: Will Cristopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones.

So, you know, I had people who I wanted to be like, trailposts and guides and para-mentors.

Then, over time, I became involved in publishing, I saw how the sausage was made, and most of the people I looked up to began to fade in my mind. The landscape became a bit grey and flat, more of a psychic office space than a world of heroes and villains. Everyone was just kind of trying to get that promotion. Which…that’s fine.

The next year, as I work on my novels, I’ll be going through the SGJ books, but I’ll also be going through Ellroy, Robison, Despentes, Houellebecq, Baker, Moshfegh, Butler, and folks who I know, who are good: Jeremy Robert Johnson, Kris Saknussemm, Autumn Christian, Jordan Harper, etc. It’ll be 365 days of going through stuff I know I like, with the goal of filling the tank to overflowing. I might even revisit WCB and CC.

This is the year of re-discovering what I loved about books. It will not be about reading the new shit, or caring about the new shit. Conversely, it will also not being about diving deep into literature history to read “the classics.” That might come at some point. Instead, I’m going to read “my classics,” and I’m going to remember what I love, and that will come out in mine in turn.

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