Reading from Funny Papers, shortly after it was published, at an arts center in Margaretville, Delaware County, New York.

Reading from Funny Papers, shortly after it was published, at an arts center in Margaretville, Delaware County, New York.

In my mind, Funny Papers is the novel of my career, the really significant one, the most personally satisfying one, the enabling one, the novel I’m most proud of having pulled off. To this day it amazes me that I did it, that I could do it. While writing that monster, a near-four-year project (my contract had stipulated 18 months), I was certain, and it was a painful daily certainty, that eventually I’d throw in the towel, admit to my editor, my agent, my family, and myself, that I didn’t have the skill or the scope, or the sheer doggedness, to write a novel like this. But once it was done, and I knew that it was done well—with many flaws, of course, but still done well—I finally started to say “novelist” whenever somebody asked me what I did; before that, even after I’d published a couple of books, I’d say “writer” or  “writer and editor.” But after Funny Papers I’d say I was a novelist and not blush and feel pretentious. I figured I’d earned the right.

To sell the book, or rather the idea for the book, I’d said Funny Papers would be an “American generational saga” (those were big back in the late 1970s with doorstopper novels by popular writers like Belva Plain and John Jakes) “but not a generational saga about a family, about a daily comic strip, following the lives and careers (loves! triumphs! setbacks!) of the different cartoonists who worked on it throughout the 20th century. The story would be set in the worlds of big-time newspapering and professional cartooning, and like E.L. Doctorow’s magnificent Ragtime, would feature real-life as well as fictional characters.

I thought it was a great idea when I’d first had it, right around the time I was finishing up my graduate work in creative writing at Bowling Green State University in late 1972. I’d always been interested in newspaper comics, but I’d also been interested in the history of the comics and biographies of cartoonists, so I considered a novel about all of those things to be a properly ambitious project—once I felt I had the chops to do it. Which in 1972, ’73, I most surely did not.

Besides, back in that Vietnam/Nixonian era, I felt that to launch any kind of a fiction career, a literary career, I needed to write in a more contemporary vein. It was the era of metafiction, the birth of the post-modern aesthetic, and writers like Donald Barthelme and John Barthes, Leonard Michaels and John Hawkes were what I’d been imitating. What all of us in our graduate class—except for the great Jean Thompson, who never followed trends—were imitating. But my imitations had been pale, pale ones, and I was just showboating. I didn’t even like the stuff I was reading or writing. It’s funny, but not unusual; I’ve seen this same tendency for decades in the young MFA fiction students I’ve taught: they rarely read for pleasure the kinds of stuff they write for workshop. What saved me from keeping on that most unpromising path was my discovery of “new wave” science fiction, and in particular Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthology. Here were sophisticated narratives and characterization in the service of genre fiction, and I knew I’d found the way to turn my imagination into prose stories (gripping, transporting stories, not game stories) that were indisputably mine.

But I still wasn’t up to the task of tackling a long historical novel, so I wrote two relatively short novels in a row, Freaks’ Amour and Jersey Luck, the first a futuristic fantasy/horror novel, the second a contemporary coming-of-age/crime novel, each narrated in the first-person because I’d never written fiction any other way. I’m not saying they were easy to write (well, Jersey Luck was, pretty easy, though Freaks’ Amour certainly was not), but they weren’t enormous stretches. Freaks’ Amour is what I would’ve written for Harlan Ellison if he’d asked me to contribute to Dangerous Visions, and was made possible by the inspiration and techniques I’d got from Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany, Philip Jose Farmer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Harlan himself, and Jersey Luck owed a large debt to Raymond Chandler, Raymond Carver, and John D. Macdonald.

Freaks’ came out in 1979, Jersey Luck in 1980, and then I had to decide what to write next. My new agent, Harriet Wasserman, sat me down in her office and asked me bluntly, and I blurted without even thinking, “I want to write a multi-generational American saga, but not about a family…”  Harriet liked the idea and took it to Chuck Verrill at Viking, and he liked it too.

At some point I must have written an outline, but I don’t remember doing one. I know for sure, however, that the novel was supposed to be complete-in-one-book and span the period from, roughly, 1895 to 1970. The advance I got wasn’t large, maybe $12,000, certainly not large enough to let me work full time on the manuscript. So right around when I started it—not knowing what it was going to be about in terms of plot, just knowing I’d base the major story line on the experiences of Richard F. Outcault and his creation of the Yellow Kid in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World—I started teaching. Six months as an emergency fill-in at a Catholic high school, and then, thanks to my good friend Julia Markus, who already taught there, a steady part-time gig at Hofstra University on Long Island, about an hour and forty minute drive from my home in Jersey City. I became an “adjunct star professor” of creative writing. Two days a week I’d drive out to Hempstead, the rest of my week I’d work on the Funny Papers project. Meanwhile, my wife Santa and I had two (toddler and baby) daughters to take care of.  Exciting time, it really was. Exciting and happy and stressful like you wouldn’t believe.

The invitation to the Funny Papers book-launch party in March 1985. The illustration of Pinfold and Fuzzy and the Awful Alley kids was drawn by my good friend Walter Gallup, the first drawing ever of my two characters here. I've been fortunate over the years that those two characters (either as Pinfold/Fuzzy or Derby Dugan/Fuzzy) have been drawn by a number of really superb cartoonists and illustrators, including Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Batton Lash, and R.C. Harvey.

The invitation to the Funny Papers book-launch party in March 1985. The illustration of Pinfold and Fuzzy and the Awful Alley kids was drawn by my good friend Walter Gallup, the first drawing ever of my two characters here. I’ve been fortunate over the years that those two characters (either as Pinfold/Fuzzy or Derby Dugan/Fuzzy) have been drawn by a number of really superb cartoonists and illustrators, including Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Batton Lash, and R.C. Harvey.

I used to trek (car to Journal Square, PATH train to Thirty-third Street, feet to Forty-First Street and then across town to Ninth Avenue) to the New York Public Library’s Newspaper Annex, and spend hours at a time there, a full day, cranking through microfilm machines, scrawling notes taken from 85-year-old newspapers and Sunday color supplements. I also roved the stacks at the Jersey City Public Library, bringing home every memoir ever written by old-time newspaper editors, histories of the Spanish-American War, biographies of Hearst, of Pulitzer, of John Sloan, of William Glackens. Anybody important in newspapers or the arts in the 1890s, I had to know about them. And I had to know about the first color presses, how they worked, and about architecture, transportation, the geography of lower Manhattan. Clothing, slang. I got lost back there for a while, it was weird. I’d sit and read news stories from 1895, ’96, ’97, ’98, international situations, national issues, local politics and politicians, murder trials, “The Katzenjammer Kids,” and then I’d get up and walk back outside into 1980, ’81, ’82, ’83. It was disconcerting. Weird and disconcerting. Where were the horse-drawn carriages? The long dresses on women, the men in derbies and top hats? There’s a definite kind of time travel involved in researching history and then writing fiction against it, and it’s very intoxicating. But it was also bewildering, and not being a practiced researcher, I over-researched and then I knew too much, far more than I needed for what was supposed to be only the beginning chapters of a novel. By then it was too late!

I don’t know where the name Pinfold came from, except probably I’d first heard the word back in the 1960s, when expert rollers could pinfold a joint. I was unaware of Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, and continued to be unaware of it for 30 years. I got Georgie Wreckage’s name from a guy I’d taught with at Marist High School in 1980; like Georgie’s before he changed it, the history and gym teacher’s name was spelled Reckage. Walter Geebus’s name I got from an embedded childhood memory of walking past the same scrawl of graffiti, for years, graffiti that read Geebus and was spray-painted on the side of a house, across asbestos siding. And I had a friend at the time named Walter Gallup, who was a cartoonist.

Besides doing the research, my biggest challenge was learning how to write an omniscient narrative. I had no clue how to do it, I’d never done it, and before I could even begin to do it, I had to take a crash course. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, reading Dickens as a writer, reading John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald the same way, but the clock was running. I should’ve had that skill by that time in my career, it was frustrating—and it’s why I pretty much insist that my graduate writing students work in third person at least some of the time, for some of their fiction.

Finally, to create my third-person voice, I spent about a month writing and rewriting the novel’s first paragraph—which I could still probably recite from memory, though no one, I’m thankful, has ever asked me to.

PinfoldProfileGallup“Down in Awful Alley”—I took that from Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Offal Alley—“many years ago when the sun was higher in the sky and a much brighter yellow, there lived a strange small boy called Pinfold.” Man, I like that sentence! Many years ago. There lived. I love that. “His mother was dead, and his father—who knows? Home was under a wooden stoop alongside a backyard tenement, and every morning out he crawled to take a leak and air his blanket, and then he was gone for most of the day, off selling condoms furtively as dope—at saloons and hotels and penny arcades, at City Hall Park, and at brothels, of course. Late in the evening he’d return carrying a pail of beer and a loaf of black bread in his wagon, and maybe in the crook of an arm some pushcart fruit or a fish wrapped in the New York World.”

I wrote out that paragraph over and over and over and over. Wrote and rewrote. And the next one, too, that starts, “But then one time on his way back home, he ran into the Homicide Flats gang, older boys in checkerboard suits who were killing each other like pirates with stolen rolls of wallpaper and oilcloth.”  That was all of my crazy over-researching coming in handy, after all. Homicide Flats, I loved coming up with Homicide Flats. From Monongahela Flats, a real tenement in New York City.

Anyway. I wrote and rewrote the first graf, then the first few grafs, dozens of times, in a spiral notebook with a yellow cover—this was a deliberate choice. I was (still am) either a geeky or a superstitious writer, but if I was writing about the days of yellow journalism, well, of course all of my notebooks would be yellow, and so would the freshly painted walls of my office. Once I’d written that first section, explaining why the street urchin Pinfold was bald (his hair had been set on fire and never grown back) while introducing the magic reality of the novel’s milieu, and Albert Shallow the condom maker, I was set to go.

And it went on for a long, long, long time. About four years, as I’ve said. Two and a half of those years I was delinquent, Viking could’ve cancelled my contract and demanded back the part of the advance I’d been paid. I started avoiding Chuck Verrill’s regular phone calls. I was worried sick that I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The novel kept going and going, but it wasn’t going far in chronological time. Oh shit, I realized deep into it, I’m coming up on page 400 and I’m just past the Spanish-American War of 1898. Obviously, this wasn’t going to be a complete-in-one-book thing. Chuck said he was good with that and suddenly I wasn’t writing a generational saga, but a novel set in the 1890s. Actually it ends around 1904, but that’s still far short of 1970. I thought about changing the name of the novel to Yellow Days, and using Funny Papers as the series title; by then I was thinking series, probably a trilogy. But Chuck and the sales people preferred Funny Papers, and I’m glad they did.

TomFunnyPapers2I recall one night during a period when the writing wasn’t going well, I became so furious at myself and my singular lack of skill, at my shallow talent, my amateurism, my inauthenticity that I laid down in despair on the floor and started thudding the back of my head against the floorboards, thud, thud, thud, like I wanted to beat my brains out. Suddenly I felt self-conscious. I lifted my eyes and looked across my office, and there in the doorway stood my two daughters, Jessie, around 4 and Kate, about 2, both in footed pajamas, Jessie’s bright yellow and Kate’s hot-pink, and they were staring at me wide-eyed. I felt like a fool, a big dope, and that’s where the memory stops.

To show you just how long it took to write this novel—I was typing (on my 50-pound office Smith Corona) the whorehouse banquet scene, during which Fuzzy gets shot, when my wife came up to my office in the middle of the night and said I had to drive her to the hospital, our second daughter was coming. And there she was as a curly-haired two-year-old looking at her father prostrated on the floor, and she would be almost four when the novel was finally published. It got reviewed in the New York Times Book Review (the first time I’d ever been reviewed there), and it was a favorable one, and on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle book section. It even got reviewed in the Comics Journal, with a spot drawing of Pinfold and Fuzzy by the critic and cartoonist R. C. Harvey. It got a lot of media attention, but didn’t sell all that well. Story of my career. But it was a good novel, I was proud of it.

I intended to go straight on and write the next novel in what I was then considering a trilogy, but I didn’t. Well, what I did was, I started writing it—the sequel was originally called The Pinfold Murder Case, and was going to be set mostly in Hollywood and include the Little Rascals, making the Little Rascals movies. But that went nowhere. So then I started writing about a middle-aged Walter Geebus and that didn’t go anywhere either, so I turned the Walter Geebus character into the Charlie Kackle character of “Clap Hands! Here Comes Charlie!” a novella in what eventually would be a collection of three novellas called Sunburn Lake. The idea was that I’d write short sequels to each of my first three books, and then move on to something else. Something completely different. I’d decided I wouldn’t finish the Funny Papers trilogy, and I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for Art Spiegelman, but that’s another essay.