Sometime in the first week of August, Cafe Pinfold disappeared/crashed/skipped town leaving no forwarding address/went into the Witness Protection Program–something happened, and it’s taken one helluva an effort to track it down and drag it back. But here it is again, finally, and I hope it stays put. My sincere gratitude to the generous people–Chad Luibl, Elizabeth Farschon, and Tim Freund–who helped retrieve it. For sure I was distraught that all of the work I’d published here over the past going-on-four years had vanished and might be lost forever, but what drove me the craziest was the fear that I wouldn’t get to post the conclusion of my serial novel, King Touey. Before the blog went AWOL I’d posted 11 episodes, with just one left to go.
But now I will post the finale, and I promise it’s coming soon.
The 12th episode–“Hangfire”–is three-quarters completed and will run about 40,000 words, easily the longest section of the story, and it would’ve been finished by my self-imposed deadline of September 1 if last summer hadn’t been such a royal pain in the ass–calamity followed by interminable crisis-management. In late June, a monster storm blew through Richmond, particularly through our section of Richmond, Northside, and when it was over, we had a lot of damage to our property, including a tree-wrecked garage. Dealing with insurance companies, banks, appraisers, and contractors wiped out a lot of novel-writing time and scotched my completion plans, to put it mildly. The financial cost to us from the storm has also scotched my plan to retire from university teaching at the end of this academic year, but hey, at least I have a brand-new garage that we decided to insulate, to add ac/heat to, and turn into my new writing studio. I’ll keep my tiny Philip Marlowe-type studio in Richmond’s Fan District, at least for the time being, but it will be convenient to have an at-home-but-not-in-home place to work, as well.
Besides finishing up King Touey, I’ll be resuming work now on the series of essays (at BOOKS) that I’ve been writing about each of my published books; there are just 5 more to go, and the next one up will be about It’s Superman!
Anyhow: Cafe Pinfold is back.
Tom De Haven
November 15, 2016
MEANWHILE, BACK IN BAYONNE…
With the posting now of two new long episodes of my serial novel King Touey (Episode 10: Armored, and Episode 11: Lily of Labor), the end, at long last, is in sight: the next episode is the last one, and I’ll be working on it throughout the rest of this summer and hope to present it here at Cafe Pinfold by the end of August.
I began the novel in the spring of 2013, and posted the first and second episodes three years ago this month. At the time I started, I wasn’t seeing King Touey as a particularly long story, but these things take on a life of their own, as I’ve learned over a very long career, and as of right now the word count is approximately 125,000, which comes out, in old-fashioned double-spaced manuscript form, to roughly 425 pages. Seems like it’ll run to about 500 pages before it’s done. For a novel of that length, and especially one that requires research, three years, for me at least, isn’t particularly long; the longest books of mine, Funny Papers and It’s Superman! each took well over four years to write.
The biggest challenge in doing a serial novel has been to make as sure as I could that each episode built on the previous one and never contradicted anything already posted, and while there have been a few changes in direction that I’ve taken (originally Mrs. Touey was dead; later, I decided to resurrect her and have her run away with her loutish husband’s business partner), and a few names have been altered during the novel (Kinkead to Kinkaid for the Sheriff, and Jack Cure became Bruno Cure), but for such a lengthy and complex story, it’s been surprising how few shifts I’ve made from the original plan. Which is not to say that once the serial version is completed, I won’t be making some major rearrangements, cuts and additions for the final version that I hope to publish eventually as a book.
Anyhow, for those of you who’ve been following my fictionalized story about the great 1915 Standard Oil Strike in Bayonne, New Jersey, I hope you enjoy the new episodes. They’ve been the most fun of them all to write.
Tom De Haven
July 17, 2016
COMICS AND CARTOONISTS
Since I was 7, since 1956, I’ve been unreasonably passionate about comics and comic art, and fascinated by the lives and careers of cartoonists. I don’t recall reading (or even being read) children’s books when I was a kid, and it wasn’t until I was about 12 that I got interested at all, and not all that much at first, in prose fiction. But comics? Newspaper comic strips and comic books? That stuff talked to me, delighted me, made sense to me, made sense of the world to me, and I just devoured it. Still do, though a lot more selectively than I once did. (Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading Bill Griffith’s Invisible Ink, Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Dying, and Rutu Modan’s The Property; hardbound collections of Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” pages from 1939-1940 and Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” strips from 1946-1947, and a collection of Alex Toth’s Zorro comic-book stories from 1957-1958, all of which I highly recommend.)
If you know me well, or even not all that well, you know that I wanted to become a cartoonist myself. Some days, still, I regret I never did, that it never happened, although I’ve been fortunate to have met and got to know a slew of working cartoonists, to have taught college courses about comics and comic books, and occasionally to have scripted comics and graphic novels for others to draw. Not as many of those as I would’ve liked, but still a significant number, and of all those that I did script and were published, my adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s long detective story “Goldfish,” which has appeared now in several different editions over the last 15 years, is a real favorite, in large part because of the astonishingly beautiful noirish art by the British cartoonist and designer Rian Hughes. A brief essay about that project is available here at the blog now, at BOOKS.
It’s gratifying, and pretty amazing, how comics, a long-despised, or at least denigrated and considered-disposable mass medium, has, over the course of my lifetime, risen in esteem. Some have been awarded Pulitzer Prizes and many have been displayed in great museums and art galleries; new graphic novels and memoirs are widely distributed and respectfully reviewed, and nearly all of the classic newspaper strips have been collected into handsome archival editions; comic books–both contemporary and old-school–have been, and are being, adapted for Broadway shows and musicals, for both network and cable television, and for huge-budgeted blockbuster movies as well as small independent films. And, too, comics is now a bona-fide field of academic scholarship with an increasing number of universities offering degrees in comics making and comics studies.
In just the past few years, here in Richmond where I live, Robert Crumb, Kim Deitch, Gabrielle Bell, Anders Nilsen, Lynda Barry, Stephen R. Bissette, James Sturm, and Scott McCloud all have lectured in packed auditoriums and theaters, under the sponsorship of two of the city’s universities. It wasn’t always like that, to say the least.
A couple weeks back, Art Spiegelman came down to Richmond to give a talk at the University of Richmond, and as I was sitting in the fourth row listening to him talk and watching his slide show, which included several images from his masterpiece Maus, now considered a canonical work not just of comics, but of literature and history, my mind cycled back to the first time I met Art, in early May of 1985, and I remembered the stories he told that afternoon about all of the rejections, many of them flat-out insulting rejections, he’d gotten when he’d first brought Maus to literary agents and publishers. A comic-book about the Holocaust with Jews depicted as mice and Nazis as rats? Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out, Mr. Spiegelman!
But while the general status of comics and cartooning and cartoonists has risen enormously since the mid-1980s, still there’s some lingering contempt among certain literary, academic, and media elites, and I’m made especially aware of that whenever an important cartoonist passes away and either there’s just a teeny squib of an obituary in major newspapers, or none. The New York Times is especially egregious when it comes to that. They’ll publish thorough obits of sitcom co-star from the 1950s, singers from practically any swing orchestra of the 1940s, and, it seems, every inventor of any widget or food coloring whatsoever, but time after time after time completely ignore the death of major cartoonists whose work was read by tens of millions of people over the course of decades.
It happened again last June when Leonard Starr passed away at the age of 89. For 60 years Starr produced illustration-style comics of the very highest quality, working first for the major comic-book publishers in the 1940s and ’50s before launching, in 1957, his magnificent newspaper strip “On Stage” (later retitled “Mary Perkins On Stage”). That strip, an intelligent and realistic soap opera/adventure about actors, producers, directors and agents in the theatrical and movie worlds (which Starr wrote as well as drew; finest comics dialog, ever), is often cited as the last of the great story strips. It won Best Story Strip awards in 1960 and 1963 from the National Cartoonists Society, and Starr was awarded the prestigious Reuben Award in 1965. He discontinued “Mary Perkins” in 1979. (Over the past ten years, the complete run has been published in a series of quality paperbacks by the Classic Comics Press.)
The same year “Mary Perkins” ended, Starr revived Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” strip (which had been in reprints since 1974). Retitled “Annie” (because the Broadway musical was still running at the time) he wrote and drew it, beautifully, till his retirement in 2000. All told, Leonard Starr had his work syndicated for 43 years!
In 1985, Starr developed and wrote the series bible for the animated cartoon television show, “ThunderCats,” which I used to watch with my daughters when they were young, and which led, by a stroke of good luck, to my once meeting Leonard Starr in his home in Westport (or was it Weston?) Connecticut.
My friend Chris Rowley got a magazine assignment to write about Starr and his involvement with “ThunderCats,” and when I heard that he was driving up to Connecticut, I begged to come along, desperately wanting to meet the man whose comic strips I’d been reading every day in the New York Daily News since I was eight, and while it’s always dangerous to meet one’s idols, meeting Starr remains an indelible memory: he was smart, witty, generous, articulate, and as handsome as a movie star. He welcomed us graciously into his beautiful home, served us drinks, and then talked for hours, answering every question Chris asked, but also asking Chris and me questions about ourselves and our own work. The man was living the cartoonist’s life that I’d imagined for myself, and it sounded just as great as I’d always hoped it would be! A fantastic evening till…slowly, gradually, I realized things seemed a bit out of focus, and then I realized I was burning up with a fever, and then I realized I’d come down with the goddamn flu in Leonard Starr’s living room! Gracious as ever, he went and got me a blanket and I wrapped myself up in it, shivering, teeth chattering, while he and Chris continued the interview. I can still remember arriving at Starr’s front door…but have no recollection of leaving the house or driving back to New York; I suppose I was delirious by then. The next day, of course, I was mortified, and chagrinned that I’d faded out and missed half the conversation, but geez, at least I’d heard the first half, and I’d met Leonard Starr, one of the most indispensible and important American story strip cartoonists of the twentieth century, and one of the most influential.
Or maybe there just wasn’t room–maybe the guy who played a garage mechanic for one season of “The Andy Griffith Show” died the same day.
Tom De Haven
February 16, 2016
DUGAN UNDER GROUND… AND HEROES ON THE WALL
From the start, already three years ago this month, one of the (pleasant, solipsistic, or as my grandmother might well have said, “vainglorious”) tasks I’ve set for myself here at the blog has been to write a short essay about each of my published books, and with the posting now of “Notes on Dugan Under Ground” (at BOOKS), I’m heading into the home stretch, just five more to go.
Doing the pieces has been an exercise in memory and recall, the nearest thing to a “memoir” that I’m likely to tackle, and a small stab at contextualizing my work and career in time and life circumstances. But it’s also been a way to think, with distance and dispassion, about how I wrote individual books—inspiration, strategies, and style—and to remember the large debts that I owe to so many other creators, the teachers and the heroes I’ve learned and swiped from over a span of 50 years. On this bus we’re all sponges and thieves.
I’ve had three great writing teachers in my life, whose impact is incalculable: Philip F. O’Connor, when I was a graduate fiction-writing student in Ohio at Bowling Green State University: Phil taught me about story structure, voice and voice consistency, the importance of detail, and he pushed me hard to write dialog when I was convinced I had a tin ear; Everett Meyers, when I was working in New York City for the Lopez magazine group: Everett taught me how to edit others’ prose and so how to edit my own, how to cut judiciously and quicken pace, and how to write for an audience; and Craig Nova, when I took a fiction workshop he moderated in Manhattan at the Academy of American Poets: Craig, more than anyone else, taught me what a scene is, how to craft scenes and test them, and he showed me through his own example just how dead-serious, sustaining, and worthy this profession, this calling, truly is.
But I’ve also had dozens, maybe hundreds, of artist-heroes, whose work—whether in prose fiction or film and TV scripts, in cartooning, in song- or libretto-writing, in photography, in singing, acting, monologing, painting, printmaking or graphic design—has nourished and informed my own work and, more importantly, my life. Which is why, ever since I was a kid in Bayonne, I’ve habitually papered the walls of my private/work space with pictures of my heroes or their work; I’m still doing it at the tiny writing room in Richmond that I’ve rented the last couple of years. The walls are pretty much covered—cartoonists and comics images up there, movie actors and singers back here, and novelists, screenwriters and playwrights over there. I like sitting down every day and glancing around—at Hank Williams, at Harold Gray and Elsie Segar; at Patti Smith and John Wyndham; at Dennis Potter, Louis Armstrong, Raymond Chandler, and Chip Delany; at Chester Gould, Frank King, Harold Pinter, and Iris DeMent; at Bob Dylan and Horton Foote; at Laurel & Hardy and Harlan Ellison, and Betty Smith; at Robert Crumb, Dale Messick, and Tom Waits; at Frank Sinatra, Spalding Gray, Jack Kirby, and Jack Schaefer; at Bessie Smith, Jesse Winchester, Harvey Kurtzman, and Kim Deitch; Stephen Foster, Ramona Fradon, Willie Nelson, and John O’Hara; at Elvis Presley, Billie Holiday, and Thornton Wilder; at Fred Astaire, Ursula LeGuin, Audrey Hepburn, Gary Panter, and Art Spiegelman; at William Powell, Elmore Leonard, Leonard Michaels, Alfred Hitchcock, and Collette… I like their faces, their auras, their fixedness.
Hanging on the wall directly in front of my desk is a big framed print under glass of a bizarre, playful, and endlessly fascinating 19th century allegorical oil painting by William Holbrook Beard officially titled “Wall Street Jubilee, or The Bears of Wall Street Celebrating a Drop in the Stock Market,” although it’s commonly known as “The Teddy Bears Picnic.” I spotted it in an antique store some time back and just had to have it, and despite seeing it every day I still regularly discover some new, near-hidden anthropomorphic vignette. While I need solitude for writing (no coffee shops for me!), and near-absolute quiet (no music, either, and I’ve been known to work for hours while wearing demolition-site ear-protectors), truth is I can’t work without visual stimuli. A window would be (has been) too much temptation to world-watch, but a wall covered with pictures, especially with pictures of artists, and art, that I hold in reverence—well, it’s generally been enough, so far, to get the synapses sparking.
Tom De Haven
January 14, 2016
The ninth episode of my serial novel, King Touey, is finally here, taking the cumulative word count to just shy of 100,000. There are at least a couple more episodes left, and probably 30,000 more words. When I started writing it (I’m not sure exactly when now, but well over two years ago), I’d imagined it as a short novel, even a novella, and a prolog of sorts to a very long novel set in the 1920s called Patsy Touey that I’d drafted some years ago and never revised but surely intended to. Funny, how this fiction stuff surprises you. King Touey is shaping up to be one of my longest novels, with one of my largest casts of characters, and with the exception of Dugan Under Ground, the novel of mine with the most complex shape, yet the shortest time span. (So far, over the course of 335 manuscript pages, the story has spanned a mere two days.
Surprise, though, is what keeps me coming back to the computer; surprise at what actually happens, how scenes turn; surprise at the rhythms, the vocabulary, the syntax of individual sentences; surprise at the bulk or the brevity of paragraphs and sections, the episodes themselves. Before I start a new episode (I prefer to call them that rather than chapters, because I’m deliberately writing this as a pre-modern “melodrama”), I carefully outline it in a notebook (I’ve filled four already), roughing out what should happen, and who the players are, and then I go over it and over it, sometimes reordering the scenes.
Finally I begin to write…and within a week or at most two the sections have changed their relative positions, I’ve inserted new, spontaneous ones, and a few that I’d prepared get tossed out, or pushed back to a later episode. (For instance, “Episode 9: Truth” originally included a scene between Bill Harrigan and the real-life strikebreaker Pearl Bergoff, and a scene at the St. Charles Hotel with Charlie Gillick and Sheriff Kinkaid (both are now part of the next episode), and was to conclude with a long reunion scene between King Touey and his brother Patsy, which is now the first section Episode 10. All of those changes and bumps came as huge surprises. But I was more than good with them, and glad for the new ideas (Mad Marion) and events (the fate of Mrs. Iron), little bits of business (the golf bag used to collect snipers’ rifles), even characters (The Swede is one example; Uncle Henry is another, and Bill Harrigan’s mother is still another–I’d mentioned her in an earlier section, and said she was a novelist, but I hadn’t intended her to appear in the story, much less at her typewriter) that arrived suddenly in my workday and demanded consideration, insisted upon inclusion.
I’ve always known where King Touey is going, and how it will end (a lot of that, of course, has depended on the historical event–the Great Standard Oil Strike of 1915–that I’m basing my story on), but from the beginning I’ve let it, I hope, unfold with what I’ve often referred to in fiction workshops that I’ve run as “the messiness of life.” Life is messy, God knows, and people don’t always (or even often) behave as you’d expect, or want, them to. It’s why, I suppose, my plots are not precise and beautiful contraptions. I can live with that. And in the case of this particular fiction, which fundamentally is about the price you pay (and maybe, too, the zest you get) from living your life impulsively, designing a carefully wrought and shapely plot (as if I could!) wouldn’t have done me or the reader any favors.
And speaking of surprise…imagine mine, several months back, when my younger daughter Kate (who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband Tim Freund) informed me that she’d decided to get a new tattoo (her first was a small pineapple on her ankle; this second one, she said, would be on her calf) and that for the image she’d chosen my characters Derby Dugan and his dog Fuzzy as drawn and colored by Art Spiegelman for the dustjacket of Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies. (When the novel was published in 1996, Kate was not quite 15.) A Derby Dugan tattoo! Well, that was flattering! (I’d serously considered getting a Dugan-inspired tattoo myself–a small high-crowned yellow derby–after I finished the Funny Papers Trilogy in 2001, but chickened out.) It took a couple of inking sessions, a color touch-up session, and some tweaks (by Dana Jones of 717 Tattoo, Columbia, PA) but when Kate finally showed me the finished tattoo late last fall, I was amazed, admiring, and very touched. It’s a beauty, and since Derby Dugan’s original name was Pinfold, I thought it more than appropriate to post a picture of my daughter’s new tattoo here at Cafe Pinfold:
Since the last Derby Dugan novel (Dugan Under Ground) was published in 2001, I’ve been asked often (most recently by Mike Curtis, who writes the Dick Tracy comic strip, and twice now–talk about flattering!–has dropped references to Derby Dugan into Tracy’s storylines) if I’d ever considered doing another book in the series. I’ve always said no, the story is finished. But then last summer, while prepping a new university fiction-workshop on comics-scripting, I spent a week or so reading through several different sequences of 1930s, 40s and 50s Sunday-supplement comic strips (“The Phantom” by Lee Falk and Wilson McCoy; “Johnny Hazard” by Frank Robbins, “Alley Oop” by V. T. Hamlin, “Mickey Mouse” by Floyd Gottfredson, “Flash Gordon” by Alex Raymond, and “Captain Easy” by Roy Crane) and gradually started kicking around an idea for a brand-new Derby Dugan story that would involve the scriptwriter Al Bready, who narrated Depression Funnies. I’m still kicking it around six months later.
In a nutshell, the idea was/is this: a couple of years before the events in Depression Funnies–say 1934–Al takes a transcontinental train trip from New York City to Hollywood to work for a month or so on a series of low-budget Derby Dugan shorts, and sends back weekly Sunday-page scripts to cartoonist Walter Geebus contained in the bodies of chatty, cranky, funny Pal Joey-type letters: I’d get the chance not only to write about Al’s adventures in the movie business during its “Golden Age” but also to write a complete 6-to-8-week Derby Dugan comic-strip adventure. So I bought a new large-size yellow-cover Moleskin notebook (I’m always looking for an excuse to buy another notebook), and ever since August have been jotting down ideas for a long story called “Dugan in Dreamland.”
This winter and spring I want to finish up King Touey and then spend the summer revising the serial blog-version and make it into a “proper novel” (serial pacing is much different from novel pacing, I’ve discovered), and I’m determined–determined, I tell you!–to finish up my long-gestating sequence of linked novellas called “Standard Six” (you can find those incomplete stories here at “In Progress”), but, man! to revisit the world of Derby Dugan and Depression-era America, and to work again in the snappy voice of Al Bready sounds like so much fun. So. Much. Fun. With so much potential for surprise.
We’ll see what happens.
Tom De Haven
December 29, 2015
JULY 1915: KING TOUEY’S STRIKE
I’m from Bayonne, New Jersey, a long peninsula that dips south from Jersey City for a couple of miles in-between Newark Bay on the west and Upper New York Bay on the east, and ends at the Kill van Kull, the navigable waterway (spanned by the beautiful Bayonne Bridge, destroyed by Steven Spielberg in War of the Worlds) separating the city from Staten Island. For a long time, from the 1880s through the 1960s, Bayonne’s economic, political, and olfactory histories were dominated by the oil refinery industry; when I was a boy and a teenager, a great number of my friends’ and my classmates’ fathers, and many of their mothers, worked either at the Standard or the Tidewater plants whose huge tanks squatted on a great chunk of swampy land called Constable Hook that bulged out into New York harbor.
Although I’d never heard about it growing up (local history was not taught in parochial school, but I’d never heard anyone talk it, either), during the second decade of the twentieth century, first in 1915, then again in 1916, two brutal labor strikes broke out and raged for days over at the Hook, pitting foreign-born refinery workers against the indomitable, colonizing oil giants, of which the Rockefeller family’s Standard Oil Company was the most powerful. When I finally heard about those strikes, in a college history class at Rutgers, I was amazed–how had I not heard about them before? Over the years–the decades–since then, both strikes, but especially the first one, the strike that broke out in late July 1915, have been fascinations of mine. I knew early on that I wanted some day to write about the 1915 strike; the situations, and the main players, were utterly compelling to me. So when I decided to serialize a new novel at Cafe Pinfold, I felt it was finally time to cull all of my old research, do some more, and get on with it.
As I’ve mentioned here before, my plan was to finish the novel by the centennial of the strike, but since that hasn’t happened (there are eight “episodes” posted, with two more to go), I thought I’d write a short essay about the real strike King Touey is about. For the novel, I’ve compressed the time, a little, rearranged some events, and tinkered with geography; for the most part, though, everything “strike-related” in the story, is true enough. I’ve changed some names of the actual persons involved in the strike; the Sheriff’s name in King Touey is Kinkaid, not Kinkead, the real name of the sheriff of Hudson County. After I finish the novel and revise it for publication, I intend to change his name yet again. While much of the “Kinkaid” biography is similar to “Kinkead’s,” I feel I’ve fictionalized the man too much for my story purposes to keep the character’s name so close to the source’s. But I haven’t changed the name of my “strikebreaker king.” Pearl Bergoff in my novel is pretty much Pearl Bergoff in life, and while I’ve certainly made up things he didn’t do during the strike, I don’t believe I’ve violated his historical persona.
Anyhow, here’s my short centennial essay commemorating the great and tragic Standard Oil Strike of July 1915.
Tom De Haven
July 20, 2015
LONG, LONG SLEEPLESS NIGHT: KING TOUEY RETURNS!
Finally, my serial novel King Touey resumes with the super-long (28,000 words) Episode 8: Sleepless Night. I’d never imagined this section would take as long as it has to complete, though I’d known it would be a tricky one to put together—not only because of the many plot elements that had to click into place to set up the big-budget finale, but also because my characters’ interlocking pasts had to be revealed, which meant providing a lot of backstory and flashbacks. Those are two species of narrative I’d mostly avoided in my earlier work, but which deliberately I wanted to use in this one.
Beginning with my second novel (with my first, I just wanted to get the sucker done!), I’ve always set myself some technical or stylistic or structural challenge, in addition to trying to tell a good story. When I started King Touey, I took up three challenges: to compose a novel in long sentences that didn’t seem long, and that landed properly; to alternate dramatic scenes with blocks of exposition that were lively and specific, not information dumps; and, finally, to interrupt the on-going narrative with frequent flashbacks to earlier times in my characters’ lives without confusing readers or trying their patience. I’m not sure whether I’ve successfully, or gracefully, pulled off any of those challenges, but for sure I’ve met them, especially with Episode 8.
The third week of this July marks the centennial of the 1915 labor strike in Bayonne, New Jersey that provides the backdrop of King Touey, and while I’d aimed to finish the story by then, as a commemorative, that, obviously is not going to happen. There are two more episodes left, and I don’t figure I’ll be done writing and revising Episode 9 till sometime in September. But I will try to write a short non-fiction account of that violent and bitter strike during the coming weeks, and post it here on Café Pinfold by the end of the month.
Tom De Haven
July 6, 2015
GRAND REOPENING (Under Same Management)
If you’d been a regular or even an occasional visitor here, by now you’d probably supposed that, like the great majority of blogs, Café Pinfold had become frozen in time/gone defunct because the proprietor ran out of things to say or simply lost interest. Well, I can assure you this proprietor has done neither, but I apologize for the miserably long gap between the last posting, way back in the old year, and this one. What happened, beyond the usual life and work exigencies, is that I bought a new house and moved, a major event (I’ll say: it’s the first time my wife and I have changed our address in 23 years) that has consumed pretty much every free (and not-free) hour since early last November.
In the summer of 1990, my family and I moved from Jersey City to the suburbs south of Richmond, Virginia, a decision that seemed sensible but which has never been a good fit. After our daughters grew up and moved away, Santa and I started talking about moving into the city; it’s where we’ve always spent most of our time—I teach there, and we both have studios there—and I was desperate (you can’t imagine how desperate) to live again in a place with sidewalks, theaters, museums, political and cultural diversity, botanical gardens, non-chain restaurants, and friends. But we’d look around at all of our stuff (to give you an idea of just how much stuff: I still own the first paperbacks I ever bought, back in grammar school: Zacherley’s Vulture Stew, M Squad, and Fahrenheit 451), and realize what a nightmare it would be to pack it up, so we’d go on living where we’d been; it was hardly ideal, but it was…comfortable—you know?
Then one Sunday last fall, while driving through Richmond’s Northside, on the street that I’d always considered the most beautiful in the city (Seminary Avenue), we spotted a For Sale By Owner sign staked out in front of what we both instantly decided was a very, very cool old house. Considering the neighborhood, we figured we’d never be able to afford it, but thought oh what the hell, and made a phone call. (We’ve always been suckers for old houses—we used to own an 1888 rowhouse—and this one pushed all our buttons: it’s a Sears-Roebuck kit house, built in 1923, with ten-foot ceilings, oak and heart-of-pine floors, built-in bookcases, windows galore with most of the original wavy-glass panes intact, big trees on the property, and light—light!—like you wouldn’t believe. Within two weeks, with paling faces, sickeningly clenched stomachs, trembling fingers, and visions of penury, we signed a paper and plunged into Moving Hell. Eleven full weeks of it.
Giving away/getting rid of lots of furniture, clothing, CDs, VHS tapes, a home gym, and about a quarter of my books (the new house has half the square footage of our previous place, and a helluva lot fewer places to just stick stuff). Packing, packing, packing. Packing! And then, once we took ownership of the house in mid-December, schlepping boxes, book cases, framed art, my comic-book collection, and every other conceivable damn thing, day after day. After day. And calling, hiring, paying locksmiths, floor sanders, painters, electricians, and the furnace repairman (who’s been there, during this coldest of cold winters, four times already). A lot of our larger furniture, it turned out, wouldn’t fit through the doors or up the stairs, and a huge amount of our belongings are still in boxes down in the basement and out in the garage (thank God, both of those good-sized), but, after a month of living there, it’s fixed up enough to feel like home, and what a terrific, perfect home it is. And I ain’t moving again. Ever.
So with some routine, and air, coming back into my life, my attention has returned to my work as a writer. It’s been brutal, it’s been murder, tell you the truth, not having the time (or, let’s face it: the energy) to do the thing I most love. Café Pinfold will continue, and in the coming weeks and months you can expect to see the completion of my serial novel King Touey (Episode Eight was near-ready to post when all this insane house-buying business came along, so it’s just a question of rereading, tinkering, and finessing the manuscript), as well as further installments on the three novellas that constitute Standard Six (you can read the stories-so-far at IN PROGRESS) and new essays at BOOKS, beginning, very shortly, with one about Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, which of all my novels is my personal favorite.
One of the few pleasures of packing up was the discovery of still more “lost” writings, some published, some not, and I’ll be posting the worthiest of those here, including a year’s worth of monthly essays that I wrote for a magazine called Good Life. Something I’d been hoping would turn up but haven’t are my scripts for the serialized graphic novel Green Candles, but I’m still hoping to unearth them when I dig through those garaged and cellared boxes this spring and summer.
Well, that’s it. I’m back, and so is Café Pinfold. Please drop by from time to time to see what’s new. Many thanks.
Tom De Haven
March 7, 2015
LATE AGAIN/KING TOUEY EPISODE 8: AN EXCERPT
Back in the mid-to-late 1980s in New York City, I had an occasional writing partner (we worked together on songs, and a screenplay) named Brant Mewborn (1951-1990), who was a Senior Editor at Rolling Stone magazine, as well as a rock musician, and an interviewer of sheer genius; he had that very rare and enviable talent for putting anyone, absolutely anyone, at complete ease. (“The Brant Mewborn Collection,” an archive of all his interviews–and his subjects ranged from Ringo Starr, Annie Lennox, and Dusty Springfield to Tennessee Williams and Tom Wolfe–can be accessed online from the New York Public Library/Library of Performing Arts.) I think of Brant often, and still miss him, and just recently, while working my way through the eighth episode of King Touey I thought about him yet again, this time because he was the original editor of Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfires of the Vanities, when it was published serially (in 27 bi-weekly installments throughout 1984 and ’85) in Rolling Stone. And what I thought about, primarily, were two things: how insane-making the deadline pressure was for Wolfe, according to Brant, who had to hector him constantly for new manuscript, and how different the book-version of the novel was when it was finally published in 1987. I totally empathize with the first of those two things, and can easily see, now, the reason for the second.
When I began King Touey, my expectation was that I’d post a new episode every month or so, maybe even–if I were really inspired–more than one a month. Well, nothing of the kind! All and all, though, I’ve been pretty steady both with the composition and the postings here, even though it’s taken me at least twice as long to draft the serial as I’d intended, or hoped. Ordinary life for a novelist who supports himself primarily by means other than writing can really swamp you sometimes. Which is what’s happened to me this fall. I teach, primarily graduate writing students in an MFA program, and the past few months have been an especially intense period; a good time, mind you, just…intense. Swamping. Nonetheless, I’ve managed to get to my writing studio at least three, often four days a week, for several hours at a time, and when I’m not able to, I work every day, somehow, on the serial. (Which, I’ve realized by now, will be quite different in structure, and contain a lot of new/different scenes, once I’ve revised it after the last episode is published here at Cafe Pinfold. It’ll be the same story, but likely a much-changed novel. As was the case with Bonfires of the Vanities.)
The latest episode I’m working on, number 8, is very long, and contains five sections and includes all of the major characters; it’s called “Sleepless Night,” and I hope to have all five sections completed and polished by early December. In the meantime, I thought I’d post–for those who’ve been following the serial here and who check back from time to time to see if there’s a new installment–a short excerpt, hopefully to whet your appetite and assuage any fears that I might have abandoned the story, and my characters in mid-stream.
Speaking of characters, this excerpt focuses on one who has been glimpsed regularly, but not till now given a section of his own: Patsy Touey, King’s older brother. Patsy, and his Cat of Ashes, are central to the narrative, and in fact, are the reason that King Touey exists in the first place: four years ago I drafted a long novel called Patsy Touey, set in the 1920s, which I hope to get back to and revise one of these days (God willing and creeks don’t rise). In that manuscript, King Touey was alluded to, but never appeared (you might wonder why), and I thought it would be a good idea to write King’s story before going back to Patsy’s.
So, without further ado, a short excerpt from King Touey, Episode 8, “Sleepless Night”:
In his stuffy attic room, below a single weak incandescent bulb suspended from the ceiling, Patsy Touey, joint pain notwithstanding, fretfully paced the floor. He was barefooted, and wearing cotton pajamas, the white pair with the vertical black stripes that Lizzie always groused about because they made him look, she insisted, like a penitentiary convict. “All you need,” she’d say, “is a pillbox hat and a ball and chain.” But all that Patsy truly needed then, at half three in the morning, was his Cat of Ashes, who’d gone out prowling before the storm and not returned.
When he thought he heard a scritch, Patsy hobbled to the unscreened window, knelt carefully on the shallow window-seat, and peered out, looking first to the stinky ailanthus tree that he could touch if he reached, then to the clothes pole whose wash lines connected to the kitchen window, then down to the small backyard badly in need of weeding, then to the top of the plank fence, and over that to the Inces’ larger, more kempt yard next door with its tool shed, rain barrel, and small vegetable garden. No Cassius. Where was he? His cat almost never stayed out overnight, and what with the fierce rain and lightning, Patsy was afraid the poor gaunt animal had been injured. He felt certain, though, that he hadn’t been killed; surely Patsy would’ve known if that calamity had occurred; surely he would’ve felt something.
He closed his eyes, pressing them with thumbs till he saw wriggling purples and flashing greens and luminous molten golds, whereupon he reopened them and the attic looked rinsed, miraculously rinsed and brighter. His low spirits lifted somewhat. He went and sat in his cot, and while he maintained his vigil for the Cat of Ashes, he let his sharpened vision, which would last only a minute or two, graze the motley collection of things in his room that Lizzie tartly had dubbed the Patsy Touey Museum.
The pine board walls were trimmed with colored funny sheets he’d cut out with scissors from Sunday supplements, and with his certificates of perfect attendance for kindergarten, and for the first and second grades; with several handbills for prize fights that had featured his brother on the card, and with a variety of double-view postal cards of national parks and American battleships—there was the Maine, the Missouri, the Oregon, and there was the quarter deck of the New Jersey. Also pinned to the walls were many years’ worth of florist, barber shop, and parish calendars not in consecutive order, but each one displaying a large numeral that Lizzie had made in grease pencil, the numeral corresponding to the age Patsy had attained during that particular year: 1901 (16) hanging beside 1913 (28), and that one beside 1906 (21), and so on. For some reason, and Patsy couldn’t recall what the reason was (his memory, poor and unreliable, was the most fitful of all his faculties), he had hung eight different calendars for the year 1909 (24), tacking them up in two rows above his maple highboy, where he’d finically arrayed a painted plaster statue of the Blessed Mother, two small white souvenir cups (“DON’T FORGET TO PRAY” next to “KESSLER’S SIZZLIN’ WEINERS), a box of his father’s blue roofing tacks, a conch shell holding nine green pennies and five baby teeth, a framed wedding picture of Liz and her husband Michael, his mother’s silver rosary beads (turned black), and a coil of jump rope that King had used for training…
—But how could he be certain he’d have known it, have felt it, if Cassius suddenly had died? He’d always presumed as much, but, really, how could he be certain? Suddenly all fussed up again, and with an occipital headache coming on, Patsy Touey rolled off his cot, stepped into his carpet slippers, shuffled across the floor (his gait as hitching as the missing cat’s) and opened the door to the hall. He closed it softly behind him, took four steps (it always took just four) to the attic door, and then opened that. Slowly, mincingly—because his joints smarted, yes, but also because he didn’t want to wake up Liz—he crept down the twelve steps to the upstairs hallway door, opened it, left it open, and stepped out.
It was very dark, but Patsy made his way with confidence (eleven steps) to the longcase telephone mounted on the wall outside of Lizzie’s bedroom. No electric light seeped from around or under his sister’s door, but he held still anyway, held his breath, listening. Often on Fridays and Saturdays she stayed up reading or writing till three or four o’clock in the morning, but this was a work night, and surely she was fast asleep. “Surely.” There he went with his surely again. Patsy listened for a good two minutes till at last he detected the low, regular burr of her snoring (she insisted she did not snore, had never snored, but she did), and then removed the earpiece from the telephone box and gave the crank a precise half-turn.
Patsy listened for the alarmed and confounded voices of the newly dead, hoping if there were any on the wire tonight they would be jabbering or wailing in English, so that when he told them what to do before it was too late they could understand. So often the voices were in foreigners’ languages, and then it was hopeless—there was no way to help! He shut his eyes because sometimes he could hear better that way (his ordinary hearing was poor enough, nearly as poor as his eyesight), but there was only a vague sibilant hiss that coiled around in his ear, and he was about to replace the instrument on its hook when he thought he detected the very faintest…sound, a sound-that-might-have-been-words, trembling and interrogative. Leaning as near to the mouthpiece as possible, lips touching cast-brass, Patsy whispered, “Can you speak in English? I can only understand English.” He listened harder, to silence, but finally the sound returned, clearer but also seeming farther away, and Patsy, frowning, whispered, “Just listen, friend, listen—you don’t have much time. If you can still see anything, look around, look all around you for a bird, or a dog, or a cat, and—”
“Patsy Touey, is that you again?” blatted a voice into his ear so clear and so loud that he flinched and drew back in wild alarm. It was an exchange operator—always a young man during the wee hours, and this was the mean young man, the one named Mr. Hourican, Mr. Hurricane. “How many times have you been told? This is not a toy, you little halfwit—halfwit! And do you have any idea what time it is? Do you?” Quickly, Patsy pressed the earpiece to his chest, to muffle the cross scolding, but not before he’d heard the first part of the familiar, inevitable question: “Do you want me to tell your—” He clipped the earpiece to the side hook, his body thrumming, his mouth gone bone dry, and his eyes wet. He was apprehensive now that his sister would fling open her door any second and discover him standing there, as she’d discovered him half a dozen times already. She wouldn’t scold him—not Lizzie, his Liz would never do that, she was too kind—but the fearful look in her eyes, the slack expression that would come onto her face, her round-open mouth, the paling, would be worse, far worse. It harrowed her whenever she found Patsy in the gloom of the hall, in the middle of the night, muttering into the telephone, and it was painful to him, excruciating, that it did.
He wished (creeping up the hall) wished (climbing the attic stairs) wished (going into his room) wished (kneeling on the window-seat again, searching the night for his Cat of Ashes) wished—ardently wished wished wished that he was regular. That’s all, just…regular. Just a regular feller in the world. But as far as Patsy understood anything, he understood that since he never had been, he never would be.
He was the second-born of the Touey family, Patrick Daniel (named after his mother’s two seaman brothers who’d drowned in the North Atlantic), delivered during the noon hour on the fourth day of December, 1885 into the rough hands of a Gaelic-speaking midwife; he was born at home, of course—home for the Toueys in those days being two dark and smoky rooms (especially in winter) on the top floor of a crowded boarding house in the village of Constable Hook. It was a birth so effortless, so painless, for Mrs. Touey, her mild labor lasting no more than half an hour (Liz had nearly killed her mother, and had taken two days to struggle out), that the event seemed preternatural; and it seemed almost supernatural, or at any event fantastically weird, when the baby—a speck of a thing, scarcely five pounds—glided serenely into this world with a wide, pleased grin mustered on his wrinkled face, and then, instead of howling bloody blue murder after being slapped on his hindquarters, he broke into peals and peals of comically squeaky laughter. Here was a lad happy to be here, and no complaints!
In the first weeks and months of his life, Patsy Touey, the Laughing Baby, took delight in everything, and in turn delighted everyone, including his father, who’d been deeply disturbed at first—offended, it seemed more like—by the boy’s feeble scrawniness; he was a burly man, Hugh Touey, a cooper in one of the small refineries dotting the Hook before the arrival of the imperial, colonizing Standard, and he’d expected any son of his to be a replica of himself, just, for the time being, in miniature. To his mother and to his sister Liz, scarcely five years old at her brother’s birth, Patsy was a little sun that splashed their dingy lodgings with sweet, healthful light and whose spontaneous high giggles and throaty chortlings, coming at all hours from the blanket-lined soap box that served for a cradle, seemed musical, golden-toned, and a lively, a likely promise of better, happier times to come. And, indeed, not long after Patsy’s birth, Hugh Touey was promoted to foreman at the cooperage, with a significant pay increase in Saturday’s envelope, and the family was able to take a third room in Mrs. Farnam’s establishment.
But by his first summer, Patsy was ailing; every week, it seemed, brought another high fever, some with spots and some with a lacy red rash, some requiring only a sponge bath, but others calling for the candles and chrism and Latin prayers of Extreme Unction. From that time forward, with but one brief stretch of fairly good health, beginning when he was about six and ending before he turned nine, Patsy was the Sick One, the Sick One in the family: head colds and ear aches, chicken pox, bronchitis and the whooping cough, impetigo, asthma, colitis, the mumps; rheumatic fever, scarlet fever, German measles, esophageal ulcers, hemorrhaging ulcers, pneumonia, double pneumonia, pneumonia practically on a semi-annual basis; pleurisy, influenza, and a bewildering variety of different musculoskeletal disorders. Meningitis, acute bacterial meningitis—twice. The first time he’d nearly died, the second time he actually did.
Tom De Haven
November 17, 2014
KING’S TRAMP, GREEN CANDLES, & NIGHTMARE ALLEY: THE COMPLETE SCRIPT
Since launching Cafe Pinfold, already coming up on two years ago, I’ve been working my way through a series of short essays pegged to each of my published books, and I’ve just posted two more: “Notes on Chronicles of the King’s Tramp,” and “Notes on Green Candles,” both of which you can find by clicking the BOOKS tab.
Chronicles of the King’s Tramp is the umbrella title of a trilogy of fantasy novels I wrote over the course of three years, 1989-1992 (which is why there’s just one essay covering all three books; you can click on Walker of Worlds, The End-of-Everything Man, or The Last Human, and that’ll bring you to the essay). One of the real perks of having done the series was having it picked up and published by a then-new science English fiction and fantasy imprint called Roc Books, and being flown over to London with a couple of other American novelists (Robert A. Salvatore and Robert N. Charrette) to go on a week-long book-tour-of-England-and-Scotland-by-train (the “Roc Roadshow”) with a group of British writers, among them Neil Gaiman, who, right about then, was hitting his stride scripting the great Sandman comic-book series. The photo below was taken in August 1991, at a nightclub called The Gardening Club in Covent Gardens, London: that’s me standing in the back row on the right (in the black shirt); and that’s Neil Gaiman kneeling in the front row whispering something in a woman’s ear.
Green Candles was my crack at writing an original full-length graphic novel; it took about six months to do the script, and it took the artist Robin Smith (an Englisman, whom I never met) about a year-and-a-half to draw the book. It’s a private eye novel, a murder mystery, and a bit of a satire about the “recovered memory” mania of the early 1990s. It’s also one of my very favorite side projects.
And, finally, as promised, I’ve posted the second and concluding installment of the script that I wrote for a comics adaptation of William Lindsay Greshman’s macabre and existential 1940s-era noir novel, Nightmare Alley.
I’m half-way through the eighth episode of my serial novel, King Touey, and expect to post that at the end of this month or the beginning of November.
Tom De Haven
October 3, 2014
King of the Strikebreakers
Thanks to my tiny but perfect writing office in Richmond–and thanks as well, I suppose, to the lamentable fact that this past summer has been so personally and emotionally miserable that my fiction studio became a blessed refuge from real-life assaults; I couldn’t wait to get there every day!–I’ve done a hell of a lot of work (some of my best, in my opinion) since early last May when I hunkered down in earnest. Just three weeks ago I posted the longest episode so far of my serial novel, King Touey, and now another episode, the second-longest, is up and available–Episode 7, “Breaker Bergoff,” which deals almost entirely with Pearl L. Bergoff, no figment of my imagination but a bona-fide historical figure of nearly grotesque proportions (and I don’t mean physical proportions, either, though God knows he was no George Clooney.)
In his heyday, the first three decades of the twentieth century, Bergoff was the most notorious, feared, and vilified strikebreaker in the history of American Labor, and became a millionaire many times over for amassing brutal armies at the beck and call of Industry and by taking on, and brutalizing, coal miners, stevedores, refinery/steel-mill/railroad/streetcar/steamship workers in half the states of the Union, as well as in Canada and Cuba. Because of his flaming red hair, he was known as the Red Demon, but preferred the title “King of the Strikebreakers,” and he liked to be addressed as “General.” You couldn’t make this guy up, really, and I certainly haven’t, and while, indeed, he was the man in charge of smashing the oil workers’ strike in Bayonne, New Jersey during the summer of 1915, which provides the background for King Touey, his appearance in various scenes of my story, and his role in the story’s plot, are entirely fabricated. The short narrative biography of Bergoff that appears in Episode 7, however, was informed by my readings in any number of reference books, and in particular by a magnificent book by Edward Levinson called I Break Strikes: the Techniques of Pearl L. Bergoff, originally published in 1935. It’s available for free online, but if you’re interested, I believe there’s a paperback edition still in print. Read it and weep, or read it and gnash your teeth, or just read it and dread the day when the Supreme Court, in its infinite wisdom, decides that Corporations, as “people,” have the inalienable right to bear arms. On that day, P.L. Bergoff, his minions, and the havoc and tragedy they caused, all the pain they inflicted, will seem suddenly like children’s play.
I’ve also just posted another of the brief essays I’ve been writing from time to time about each of my published books; this one (like all of the others so far, you can find it in BOOKS) is about Pixie Meat, the limited-edition art-book showcasing a portfolio of jam-drawings created by the great comics artists Gary Panter and Charles Burns, to which I contributed short accompanying blocks of flash-fiction.
Tom De Haven
August 17, 2014
KING TOUEY Returns / NIGHTMARE ALLEY
It’s been a while, I know, since I’ve posted a new episode of my serial novel, King Touey, but at long last “Episode 6: Bagatelle” has arrived at the café and taken a booth near the jukebox filled, appropriately, with the Greatest Hits of 1915, including “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” (The Peerless Quartet), “If We Can’t Be the Same Old Sweethearts, We’ll Just Be the Same Old Friends” (Irving Kaufman), and “Goodbye Girls, I’m Through” (Raymond Dixon). Tunes that King Touey himself, along with Olive Ince, Charlie Gillick, Liz Landrigan, Bill Harrigan, and all the rest of my characters would’ve been familiar with. At over 17,000 words, the new episode is roughly three times the length of the previous ones, and with its completion the novel is well beyond the midpoint, hurtling (I hope) toward its conclusion.
Although “Bagatelle” features each of the main players, it’s predominantly about Olive Ince’s long-time friendship with the filmmaker Bill Harrigan, and I thought I’d point out here that, while Bill is a complete fiction, it’s no fiction that Bayonne, New Jersey, beginning in the first years of the twentieth century, had a prominent role in the development of American filmmaking. In 1907, two Englishmen, brothers David and William Horsley, who owned and operated a pool hall in Bayonne at 900 Broadway (about 5 blocks from where I grew up in the 1950s and 60s), went into the movie business with Charles Gorman, a New York City scenic artist. Converting that pool hall into an independent movie studio, and constructing their first motion-picture camera out of some old telescopes that David Horsley discovered in his father-in-law’s basement, the “Centaur Film Company” was soon turning out three, four, even five short films every week, including newsreels, Westerns, sentimental melodramas, and comedies based on two popular newspaper comic-strip features of the era, Harry Hershfield’s “Desperate Desmond” and Bud Fisher’s “Mutt & Jeff.”
When, in 1911, the Horselys bought out Charles Gorman’s stake in Centaur, they renamed their operation the “Nestor Film Company.” Eventually running afoul of Thomas Edison’s “Motion Picture Patents Company,” a monopoly that refused to grant Nestor a license to distribute it products, the Horselys relocated to the sleepy California town of Hollywood in 1911 and opened a new studio in a former roadhouse; there, David Horsely founded Universal Pictures (yes! that Universal Pictures) in 1912.
In 1913, David returned to Bayonne, revived the old Centaur company name, and opened a huge movie-production facility at 686-88 Avenue E, and, slightly later, a second facility at 670 Avenue E (just a few blocks north of where my grandmother, Mary O’Hare and her brother, Patsy Ahern—Liz Landrigan and PatsyTouey are very loosely based on them—lived for many years).
David Horsely eventually left the motion-picture production business and bought a circus menagerie with the intention of renting animals for use in other people’s movies; he went bust, alas, but his place in the annals of film is a secure one. In Episode 6 of King Touey David Horsely makes a brief appearance, directing schoolgirl Olive Ince in a Western picture shot along the Morris Canal, which once upon a time was the dividing line between Jersey City and Bayonne.
Along with the new “King Touey” episode I’ve also just posted the first (of two) installments of the script I wrote back in 1993-94, or thereabouts, for a graphic novel adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s magnificent noir novel Nightmare Alley, originally published in 1946, and then made into a memorable film starring Tyrone Power in 1947.
This is yet another of those recently rediscovered “lost” manuscripts of mine; it was my first book-length comics script (Neuromancer predates this, but that was only 40-some-odd pages, and anyway, it wasn’t a complete adaptation of the novel; see my Notes on Neuromancer.) The script was intended for a then-new line of original trade-paperback-sized graphic novels published by Avon Books under the “Neon Lit” imprint. The series was edited by Bob Callahan and designed by Art Spiegelman; two titles were eventually released, Perdido Durango, based on Barry Gifford’s novel (the sequel to Wild at Heart, which was filmed by David Lynch), and the magnificent, now-classic version of Paul Auster’s City of Glass by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli. In addition to Nightmare Alley, The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov were also scheduled for the series. I don’t know whatever happened with the never-completed Lessing and Nabokov adaptations, but I can tell you what happened with Nightmare Alley.
I wrote the script, which runs to about 250 manuscript pages (for 138 comics pages) at the same time that I was writing a film script for director Alex Proyas based on Freaks’ Amour and the second novel in my Derby Dugan trilogy (Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies); I was also writing two or three book reviews a month for Entertainment Weekly, as well as teaching a 3-3 load at Virginia Commonwealth University (I started working there in 1990). It was a pretty intense time in my professional life—in retrospect, it’s just a blur of work—but it was also a great and satisfying time.
When Art and Bob offered me the chance to adapt Gresham’s novel, I hesitated at first, afraid that one more job might push me over the edge—but then I realized what an opportunity it was; in the early 90s comics were exciting, and the sky, it seemed, was the limit: I wanted to take a shot at making my little mark in the art form that I’ve been most passionate about for all of my life. So I took the job, which included reading the novel three or four times, highlighting dialog and descriptive passages and filling a notebook with panel breakdowns as well as prose. It was exhausting, but exhilarating. When I finished the script, I was immensely proud of it. I’d updated the story a little bit, moving it from the 30s and 40s to the 50s and 60s, rearranging some incidents, but essentially “doing” the novel straight, in comics form. Shoot me for arrogance, but I still think it’s a damn good script. And a readable one, too.
But no sooner had my collaborator, the great illustrator and cartoonist Mark Zingarelli started drawing the book than he suffered a terrible family tragedy and had to drop out of the project. The script was then offered to Spain Rodriguez, who decided that while he wanted to draw the novel, he also wanted to write his own script, and so my version went into a folder and the folder went into a file cabinet, and that’s where it’s sat for 20 years. By the time Spain finished his take on Nightmare Alley, Neon Lit was no more, and his book was eventually published around the turn of the century by Fantagraphics Books
While I’ve stayed in touch with Art Spiegelman, I lost track of Bob Callahan (whom I’d never met in person; he lived in San Francisco) after Mark’s and my Nightmare Alley book didn’t happen. Besides his work on Neon Lit, Bob made a significant contribution to the advancement of serious comics, editing The New Comics Anthology and The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories. He passed away in 2008.
I’ll post the second, and final, installment of Nightmare Alley next month.
Tom De Haven
July 28, 2014
School is out and summer’s here—in May, no less: despite the corporatization of academe (where almost daily everyone is asked to welcome the arrival of yet another assistant associate vice-provost for…something or other), there’s still a lot to be said for being a university professor, especially one on a 9-month contract. I’ve moved all of my reference books, notebooks, and manuscript folders from my school and home offices to my writing studio in the Fan district of Richmond; the CD player’s working, so’s the a/c, and I’m all set to be a full-time writer again. In fact, I’ve already been at it, arriving on Strawberry Street every day in the late morning and working straight through till about 4, then driving to the gym to go swimming for half an hour before heading home. I’ve had a few small writing projects I wanted to finish up for the blog before turning my complete attention back to my serial novel; now they’re done and posted here at Cafe Pinfold.
At BOOKS, you can find my essay, NOTES ON NEUROMANCER, about the trials and tribulations of scripting the graphic novel version of William Gibson’s great cyberpunk novel, and at OPRHANS, I’ve posted SELF-CARICATURES 1973-1979, a selection (plus an explanation) of the cartoon drawings I’ve been doing for more than four decades—this particular batch dating back to my post-grad-school years working as a girlie-magazine editor in New York City. (The more recent self-caricature posted right here is one I did last November as my contribution to the thinksmall biennial show that hung for two months at Artspace Galleries.)
From here on out, though, it’s KING TOUEY all day, every day.
One final thing—actually two things, both pertaining to this blog’s namesake. I’m really grateful that the great cartoonist and comics critic, R.C. Harvey has given me permission to post what was the first-ever drawing of my character Pinfold: Bob Harvey reviewed Funny Papers for The Comics Journal, illustrating his review with a mighty fine cartoon of my derbied orphan boy (before he became Derby Dugan) and Fuzzy “his dog that talks.” Thanks, Bob!
And below Bob’s 29-year-old cartoon drawing is a photo of a mere one-year-old pewter statue of Pinfold and Fuzzy, made by master pewter smith Dan Booton; it was given to me last May as a gift from the hugely talented members of my 2012-2013 novel workshop at Virginia Commonwealth University. When I first saw that statue, I was speechless: absolutely it’s the coolest present ever. I mean, come on—could anything beat it? No way.
Tom De Haven
Café Pinfold: Winter’s End
The complete (roughly 60,000 words) manuscript of my long-lost and never-before-published non-fiction novel Painters in Winter (written in 1987-88) is now available here on the blog. To those readers who’ve been following it in serial chunks, I hope you like how I (my 38-, 39-year-old “I”) have brought it to conclusion; and to those readers who’ve told me in person or by email how much they’ve been enjoying the narrative, thanks very much. That’s meant a lot. To have rediscovered this work after so long was/is an indescribable delight. (The full story of Painters‘ genesis and travails is posted as part of the introductory essay at BOOKS.) Retyping it for Café Pinfold over the past several months allowed me to become reacquainted not only with my younger self, but also with those remarkable artists known as “The Eight,” and to live vicariously, again, in a New York City long, long vanished.
I added nothing to the original manuscript, except for the postscript dedication: to the artists, everywhere, who push on despite all of the injuries.
It was a very busy winter for me (as well as for those painters), and I regret that I’ve been able to post just one new episode in recent months of my serial novel, King Touey. But the novel will resume in a few weeks and shortly be back on a regular schedule. Since last December I’ve been renting a small–but perfect–writing office in Richmond, and that’s where I’ll be plonked every day this late spring and all summer long working exclusively on King Touey. I’m hoping to finish it sometime in mid-fall.
Earlier this month (April 2014), my friend Andrew Blossom kindly invited me to join him in celebrating the book launch of his first collection of short stories, I Have A Message For You And You’re Not Going to Like It (Makeout Creek Books; get hold of a copy, it’s really good); together we did a reading at Richmon’s indispensable Chop Suey Books a few weeks ago. Andrew read one of his stories, and I read from Chapter One of Painters (John Sloan on New Year’s Eve, 1907) to a gratifyingly large, standing-room-only audience. For me, having only typed up the final three chapters of the book at the end of March (all told, I changed less than two dozen words in the entire manuscript, and dropped maybe three paragraphs), it was a perfectly timed event. I’d never read from the book before—never imagined I ever would. Many thanks, Andrew.
Thanks as well, and a fond farewell, to Chad Luibl, who has been doing all of the heavy lifting for me here at Café Pinfold since we launched this thing a year and a half ago. Chad recently moved to Brooklyn after taking job at the Janklow & Nesbit literary agency in New York City. I’m going to miss him like hell, as are his many, many friends in Richmond.
Tom De Haven
April 24, 2014
Café Pinfold: Year Two
It was exactly this time last year—Christmas season 2012—when I started pulling things together that I thought I’d like to put on a writer’s blog I had in mind, deciding on the name for the blog, figuring out the categories, and planning the new material I wanted to write. And looking back on Café Pinfold now, looking over all of the posts, all of the various content, I’m pretty damn pleased with myself—good job, Tom! And great job, Chad Luibl, who has assisted me since the start. Without him, the work I’ve posted would be the same, but the environment would look like sheer hell. Thanks again, Chad, thanks a million.
My intentions for Year Two are simple and ambitious:
- To publish in its entirety my “lost” non-fiction novel (written in 1987-88) called Painters in Winter. Until recently I had no idea whatever happened to the manuscript (you can read more about it in the introduction to the BOOKS section); my wife Santa discovered it in a folder when she was helping me look for an old book contract which we suspected might be in a box in our storage locker. The contract wasn’t there, but the manuscript for Painters was. At first about 40 pages were missing. Then, miraculously, she found a manila envelope containing every single one of the missing pages. Anyhow…because of the awful circumstances surrounding the original project (again, see BOOKS), I’d built up this dire mental vibe around the book. It was the only full-length work of mine that was never published and despite recalling how proud I’d been of it at the time, I was afraid it might, you know, suck. It doesn’t. Au contraire! I’m a pretty vicious critic of my own work, but with complete and unsentimental honesty I can tell you it’s one of the very best things I’ve ever done. It’s good, if I do say so myself, and sorry (but not really) if I sound, well, immodest. It’s damn good. I wrote it right after Funny Papers and Sunburn Lake, two of my strongest and favorite books (it actually works as the non-fiction companion to Funny Papers since all of the “real” people I write about in Painters appear re-named and fictionalized in Funny Papers). When I wrote Painters in Winter it upset my editor because it seemed to him I’d taken too many narrative liberties—which is precisely why, I think, it seems so contemporary in 2014; in fact, what struck me upon rereading it is how close it is in approach and intention to some of my favorite work of narrative non-fiction, especially But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer (originally published in 1996) and 1913: The Year Before the Storm by Florian Illies (originally published in 2013). The unearthed typescript (a dot-matrix printout!) runs to 254 pages, and I’ll be posting the book in increments of 3 or 4 short chapters at a time, every 2 to 3 weeks throughout 2014. The book is about the eight painters who exhibited together in February 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York City: Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, George Luks, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Arthur B. Davies. But it’s also about, just as much about, their friends, their families, and Manhattan itself in the first decade of the twentieth century. (Since “publishing” the book here is in no way a for-profit endeavor, I considered posting images of the paintings referred to throughout the text, but finally I decided not to do that, much as they’d anchor and enliven the posts, and I decided not to because I felt it might be an exploitation of the artists’ work for my own ends. That being said, God knows you can easily find on the internet images of all the paintings mentioned.
- To finish writing and posting my first serial novel, King Touey. So far, I’ve posted four “episodes,” roughly 25,000 words. As I’ve written elsewhere about the novel, the aim is to finish it in 12 episodes and then to write a non-fiction Afterward about the 1915 labor strike at Standard Oil in Bayonne, New Jersey, which provides the background for the novel. As those readers who’ve been following the serial know by now, King Touey isn’t a “strike novel,” not really, it’s a story set against that backdrop; my models, sort of, are two films, Haskel Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980). Wexler’s film was actually shot during the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, but it’s a fiction film with several storylines playing out during the chaos of those days; Malle’s film (one of my favorites) is crime story shot in the “Boardwalk Empire” city just as the once-grand-but-now-gone-to-seed old-time hotels were being demolished to make room for the first gambling casinos. (You can see the wrecking balls doing their work in the background.) I wanted/want King Touey to be something like those two films, a multi-character, multi-plotline novel that takes place during a chaotic and transitional time in an American city, in this case my hometown. When I was growing up there in the 1950s and 60s, I never heard a thing about either of the two violent, bitter strikes at the Standard (the second one happened in 1916); it wasn’t until I was at Rutgers-Newark and in a political science or sociology class that I became aware of them, but once I did, all kinds of things that had seemed mysterious and inexplicable to me when I was kid in Bayonne—the subtle/not-so-subtle animosities between Polish- and Irish-Americans, for one thing—suddenly made perfect sense. I should point out, especially to readers who may know Bayonne or be familiar with Hudson County history, that I’ve taken some liberties with geography for the sake of storytelling, and I’ve conflated some of the real-life events, also for the sake of storytelling, and while some of my characters are people who actually lived and participated in these events—most prominently Pearl Bergoff, the “King of the Strikebreakers,” and Eugene F. Kinkead, the Sheriff of Hudson County, my versions of them are fictitious, though I’ve tried, and continue to try, not to violate their fundamental public personae. My aim at this point is to finish the novel during 2014 and then to revise it completely and publish it in a limited edition book of 100 copies in time to mark the centenary of the strike in July 2015.
- To continue writing short essays about each of my published books; I’ve done 5 in the first year; there are 15 to go.
- To continue posting ephemera that I like, including—first up!—a selection of cartoon self-portraits culled from the dozens I’ve done/doodled since I was 23. I got into this habit when I was an editor for a group of men’s magazines and used to sketch on the backs of square rejection slips whenever I was bored. (I’ll be posting those at ORPHANS.) After I’d been doing these little cartoons for a while, Art Spiegelman asked me to write a series of short vignettes for an issue of RAW, and one of those vignettes turned out to be completely autobiographical: “Whenever he’s on the telephone, he has to have a pen in his hand and a pad of unlined paper nearby so that, talking business or just shooting the shit, he can doodle heads. Say he gets a call and there’s no pad and pen within easy reach, he’ll say wait a sec, could you? and then go look. He’ll come back, say thanks for holding, and start right in drawing his tiny little heads–heads only, in profile, with thick brows, googly eyes, blobby noses, mouths wide open, tongues hanging out, spittle flying. He does left-facing profiles, right-facing profiles, he’ll put wild hair on his heads or scratch a little fringe over the ears. Sometimes he indicates a neck, sometimes he even sketches in a sport shirt collar. But that’s as far as he goes, body-wise. He does heads only. Beyond that, he lacks all confidence.” (You can also find the complete series of vignettes at ORPHANS.)
- To return (after yet another long hiatus) to the three linked novellas I’ve been writing under the umbrella title “Standard Six” that are currently posted, incomplete, at IN PROGRESS. My promise to myself is to finish at least one them in 2014.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ve found some things you’ve enjoyed at Café Pinfold, and I hope you find a lot more in Year Two.
Tom De Haven
Café Pinfold: Eight Months On
In January 2013, I started to make a list of work that I wanted to post on a blog I had in mind, and it’s also when I came up with the title. (“Cafe” because a good cafe is an unpretentious, casual place you can drop into at any time for a quick cup of coffee or a full–though not a fancy or sumptuous–meal; “Pinfold” because of all the many characters I’ve created for novels and stories and scripts, Pinfold–the 1890s street urchin from Funny Papers, my third novel–has always been, for me, the most important; having created that character and written that novel, I knew that I was in this profession, a profession I love, for the long run; I knew that I could do this over the course of my lifetime, that I had the talent, the training, and the discipline.)
With the indispensible advice, guidance, design skills, and computer savvy of Chad Luibl–currently a third-year graduate student in the MFA creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, where I teach–I began putting material up on the blog in February. Through the winter and spring, I kept passing stuff–manuscripts and images, even a video–along to Chad, some of it older work, some of it works-in-progress, some of it new and written exclusively for Cafe Pinfold, including short introductory essays to each of the sections and each of the postings, as well as the first episodes of the serial novel King Touey. The blog has been accessible since mid-February, but I deliberately didn’t make any formal announcements about it until the spring when, finally, each category could offer substantial material.
Although I’ll still be posting work–fiction and essays–that I’ve created and published over the last several decades, and lectures I’ve written and delivered for specific occasions, from here on out the main focus of Cafe Pinfold will on the series of short autobiographical essays I’m writing about each of my published books (two have already been posted, for Jersey Luck and U.S.S.A., 16 to go) and the continuation of King Touey. (The plan there is to conclude the novel in 12 episodes with a non-fiction coda to follow about the 1915 Standard Oil strike in Bayonne, New Jersey, which provides the background for the novel.) I will also continue to add new chapters to each of the three linked novellas that comprise Standard Six. Eventually, I’ll start posting sections of another novel I’ve finished called The Unlighted Place.
The reception so far to Cafe Pinfold has been gratifying, but a number of writer friends have been a little disconcerted, too, even annoyed, that I’ve decided to “give” my work away. Believe me, I understand their concern. Writing is a profession and its practitioners ought to be paid for what they produce. No argument from me! But as I said in my original “Welcome” post, the current situation in book publishing has become unpleasant, frustrating, insulting, and essentially pointless. It’s dispiriting to realize how many terrific writers of my acquaintance have published novels over the last few years that a) never made it onto a bookstore shelf, b) never were reviewed, anywhere, and c) disappeared–instantly!–without a chance or a trace. I just got tired of it and decided to opt out, simple as that. Sure, I’d like to earn more of my living from what I write, but I like being in complete control of my career now, and of my work; I love writing, especially writing fiction, and I enjoy making it available for anyone who wants to read some of it. And while I don’t think it’s ideal for any writer to publish without a good editor’s input, I’ve been writing long enough–and I’ve worked as an editor myself–that I feel confident anything I’ve posted, or will post, on Cafe Pinfold is the best I can produce. Promise you, it’s all been finically edited and extensively revised. (Also, I’ve been known to go back and tinker.) To everyone reading this, and to all those who’ve dropped into the cafe over the last several months, many thanks. Please come again.
Tom De Haven
August 25, 2013
Café Pinfold: The Beginning
I’ve been a professional writer–mostly of fiction, but of other things too–for a long time; I sold my first story–and earned $30 for it, five bucks a published page–to The Carolina Quarterly while I was in grad school, so it was probably 1972. Approximately 41 years ago. Jesus Christ, that is a long time.
I used to tell myself that I loved publishing stuff, but lately I’ve come to doubt what I believed since I was 23. I’ve always loved writing the stuff (well, let me qualify that: I’ve always loved writing it when it’s going well, and I love finishing)–and I’ve always loved seeing my stuff in print, but the process of publishing and the business of writing? Hmmm, not so much. It’s a joy seeing galleys, and it’s indescribably exciting to see a finished book for the first time, to hold it in your hands, to flip through it, fondle it, open it up and start reading.
But then there’s all the other shit.
I won’t go into that, however, I’d just sound cranky, and that’s not why I’m doing this blog, to complain or express opinions. I’m doing it because I realized (and it came as a big shock, really) that I didn’t care if I commercially published anything ever again. But it might be fun, I subsequently realized, to make some of my work–old work and new work–available online for anybody who cared to read it.
I also thought a blog would be an impetus to me to accomplish a few things that had snagged my imagination in recent years. I’ve always enjoyed serialized fiction, so I figured a blog would give me the opportunity of writing some SERIALS myself. And while I have no interest in producing a book-length memoir, I thought I would like to write short essays linked to the circumstances surrounding, and the strategies involved in, the composition of each of my books–which is why I’ve put up the covers of all of them, under BOOKS; the text currently connected to each cover is merely a placeholder; the idea is to gradually replace every “publisher’s blurb” with a short memoir and some appropriate photographs.
That’s what’s coming; currently, Cafe Pinfold offers essays I’ve published and lectures I’ve delivered (COMICS WRITINGS), plus (in FILM) a few embedded videos (I did the scripts) as well as the complete film scripts I wrote (for Susan Seidelman and Alex Proyas, in the late 1980s, early 1990s) based on my novels Freaks’ Amour and Jersey Luck ; IN PROGRESS consists of the opening chunks of three linked novellas that I’m still working on. Soon, I’ll be putting up chapters from a novel called “The Unlighted Place,” my stab at a ghost story. (Somebody told me years ago that every fiction writer ought to write at least one ghost story.) I’m also working on a novel set in the nineteen-teens called “Patsy Touey,” but I’ve decided for the time being not to post any excerpts; however, one of the first stories in Serials will be a related piece called “King Touey.” The ORPHANS section is a hodgepodge of stuff–short fiction I did 25 years ago, stuff I did last summer, stuff I did in between.
So there you are. I hope you find something here that you like.
Tom De Haven
February 21, 2013