Since Chicago writer Kyle Beachy’s first novel came out in January, I’ve had the opportunity to publish his work both online and in the latest edition of THE2NDHAND, and I read with him at a dual release party (with Amelia Gray’s AM/PM, about which more later) in Chicago in February. I picked up a copy of his book, The Slide, and on the strength in my mind of his past work in THE2NDHAND, I looked forward to reading it but, frankly, wasn’t prepared for the great power of the narrative within its covers.
It tells the story of Potter Mays, just out of college in California and at the tail end of a failing relationship (his prime interest is off backpacking in Europe w/ a friend). Mays establishes a base of operations back in his parents’ place, takes a job as a delivery driver of bottled water, and sets off on a roundabout tour of his home city. Along the way, he toys with parenting/returning to childhood, talks with the ghost of his brother in their childhood attic. He finds himself taking with several grains of salt the “professional” advice of his well-to-do friend Stuart Hurst, his de facto life coach at this stage in game (who drives for much of the book a Volkswagen Beetle emblazoned with the insignia of the St. Louis Tan Company, affectionately/derisively referred to by Potter as “the ad”). Turning the standard coming of age piece over and over and over again, the book offers much more muscular stuff as Potter’s life unravels — or entertwines itself with increasing levels of desperation — against the backdrop of his father’s St. Louis Hooray! program of urban revitalization. Beachy’s treatment of all, and particularly of this program, begins with a sort of mildly satirical feel, but by the end of the novel the stakes for Potter Mays and all parties on the edges of his life are high; the denouement sees him at the birth of something fascinating, new. I talked with Beachy in late March/early April about these and other issues. That Q&A follows.
TD: You grew up in St. Louis. Where exactly and what’s the character of the neighborhood?
Kyle Beachy: My childhood neighborhood was called Godwin Lane, a curving, looping street full of large but not ostentatious homes. We had a trampoline and a swimming pool out back and a front yard large enough for me and my best friend (who lived up the street) to play a two-man variation of baseball (ghost runners) with one of those tiny novelty bats from giveaway night at the ballpark, a tennis ball, and the back wheel of a kick-stood BMX bike for the strike zone. This was in the City of Ladue in St. Louis County, which if you Wiki it right now you learn, “has one of the highest median incomes for any city in the United States.” There was money about, and certainly my family wasn’t immune to it.
How closely does Potter Mays’ experience of St. Louis hew to your own? I’ve heard reports from current residents that the feel of the place, at least, in the book is quite spot-on.
In terms of socio-economic issues, Potter’s experiences and expectations run parallel to my own at that age. There is a lot going on in St. Louis — it is a big sprawling diverse city full of pockets of culture and divergent walks of life. For most of my own life, though, my version of the city was bubbled into a small circumference running from my school to the mall to the Steak N Shake. The bubble was white and upper-middle class. It was Jeeps and BMWs. In the book, the water delivery job effectively sends Potter on a sort of self-guided tour of his own hometown. And there’s a certain alienation here, realizing that this place you thought you knew is in fact much bigger and more interesting. For me, returning to St. Louis after time away allowed for a shift in my view of the city, and this new perspective served as one of the primary seeds for this story. Because it’s perspective that defines adulthood, I think. To see people and places and institutions in a new way. To open them up and peer inside, or pick them up and rotate in your hands.
“Returning to St. Louis after time away.” You live in Chicago now — what time away are you making reference to there, and what did you see differently coming back that showed up in the book? The Cardinals fairing better in the National League, perhaps?
Writing this book took a damn long time. So the time away I refer to was college and the following year, when I lived in Colorado. I moved back in 2002 before coming to Chicago in 2003. And the emergence of Albert Pujols and the title runs were nice, but I suppose what I saw differently was the city through the eyes of a young, still stupid adult. Living alone, working my restaurant job, making mistakes of all sorts while trying to focus on this new thing, the writing. So creating my own home gave me a better angle to reflect on the reality of living with one’s parents. Having an apartment made me realize the scale and mystery of a childhood home. These sorts of things. Plus I was driving everywhere at all hours. Exploring.
That 2002-03 time period in St. Louis: was the “writing thing” germinating seeds even then of what would become The Slide? (And speaking of which, how many different slides are in this book? I think I marked four or five specific references as the end of the book approached: I guess what I’m really wondering in that regard is where the title came from, or how it came about — chosen after one draft or several drafts, or known and worked into the text all along?)
It was this novel even back then, same main character and same basic narrative thrust, though in drastically different clothing. There have been short things in the meantime, other little projects, but I’ve worked primarily on this book for nearly seven years. The problem was this: I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I learned by failing, and there was a lot, lot, lot of failure along the way. And also a lot of titles. I wanted to call the book “Yellow, Not Yellow,” and then “The Opposite of Blind,” and there were others. But what I like about “The Slide” is that the slides were in there; I never wrote to my title. It was an 11th-hour decision.
What exactly happened during said 11th hour — did it come to you in a flash reading through a certain passage? Did your editor at Dial notice the sliding motif, perhaps? Friend suggest it?
It was kind of a train wreck for me. My editor, a hell of a smart young man whose opinions I value immensely, didn’t love the titles I was tossing around. Neither did my agent, whose opinion I likewise respect. But they were very calm and confident that something would emerge. I wanted to avoid irony, avoid claims to hugeness and importance, avoid allusions to other works of art, all these things to avoid. I would be in the car and call my agent say, “how about this?” And she’d say no. And I’d agree. I wanted something small that would open up as you got deeper into the book. Then the pressure was building and I was getting anxious, until one afternoon I took my dog for a walk and it was there and it was simple and I called my friend Margaret to share because Margaret’s a genius of a very wonderful sort. And she liked it, and there it was.
“The Slide” as an overarching metaphor in the book holds within it that sense of learning by failure — a descent into a wizened perspective via stumbles and bumbles. The life of Potter Mays as allegory for Kyle Beachy’s artistic process in creating said life?
If you push on the metaphor enough then yes, my own education as a writer fits into this model. But then things veer toward the circular realm of Paul Auster or John Barth, and if that sort of thing was in fact happening it was going on at a level that I didn’t dare acknowledge. I’d have been paralyzed. Instead, I think of the final slide in the book, when Potter remembers the lessons he learned about the mechanics of swinging a baseball bat. Simplifying his motion, steadying his hands, letting muscle memory take over. This is writing, to me. Simplicity and trust are key to my artistic process.
You were in grad school for some of this period, if I’m not mistaken, yes? Was the book also your grad thesis, then?
I turned in the first 100 pages as my thesis in 2005, then I took the entire draft as it stood at that point with me to Bread Loaf [writers’ conference] and tried to push it onto agents and editors. They very politely and unanimously declined. At that point it was a third-person narrative and included a five-legged cow. Breaks my heart that the cow didn’t make the print version. Little guy never stood a chance.
And since you mention Barth and Auster (I loved Leviathan, among his work I’ve read) — any particular models you may have consciously borrowed from in terms of structure? I realize influences often come out of a writer simply by virtue of his/her experience and a kind of rightness of feeling, though at times when reading your book, particularly as the tension ratchets up toward the end, the doom conjured was reminiscent of some of the great stuff in the American first-person tradition, for certain.
I owe many profound and varied debts to Don DeLillo. I read White Noise right after I finished college then went immediately back to read it again. His sense of rhythm, language, dialogue, and the way he handles Jack Gladney’s breakdown toward the novel’s end … all of these were in my head as I wrote. Early on, I wanted to do everything I could to carve some little hole for myself inside of a triangle of Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Haruki Murakami. These were my guides as I was beginning.
The various creeping tensions between individuals and ideas in the book are reminiscent of DeLillo to a degree as well, I think. One in particular, that between individual loneliness (exemplified by our hero Potter Mays) and the return of people and money, essentially, to the crowded urban landscape envisioned by his father, Richard, lies at the center of my thoughts about one of the book’s primary achievements, which is that it very passionately takes on a defining trope of your (and my) generation, the slow return of the white middle class to the centers of American culture — the cities. Though of course not without its definite class-politics considerations, the book does this so well, I think, by transcending the “gentrification” politics of that trope toward something larger and more elemental to human life. Nobody I know of has done this quite so well. I was curious as to how much you thought about that tension and broad trope in that context as you were building the book or how much Potter’s situation may have simply brought it from the background. What’s the real-life corrollary to the St. Louis Hooray! program Potter’s father heads up?
That’s very kind of you to say, Todd. And I agree that re-urbanization has become as much a trope as suburbia. My personal approach was to treat the city itself as a particular kind of unit, which for a place like St. Louis is easy enough. In 1876, the City of St. Louis seceded from the County because the City wanted tax revenue to stay urban. Today, that pattern has reversed, and the County sort of holds the City hostage, since the majority of the region’s wealth lives well outside the city limits. So there’s a simmering tension there that I wanted to connect to the other prevailing unit in the book, which is the family. And, as you point out, it’s these tensions between individuals and their varied connections to larger groups that serve as the primary source of much contemporary drama. So for me to write about downtown St. Louis was to come at this larger issue of units, groups, systems, and networks while staying true to the broader theme of homecoming and its many iterations. As far as SLH! goes, I interned one summer for a group called St. Louis 2004, which wanted the centennial of the 1904 World’s Fair to serve as a goal for citywide revitalization. Though it might have taken longer than people wanted, it’s worked. And this fact, this success, is kind of an amazing thing to consider. That change on this scale is in fact possible.
This kind of change is evident in so many American cities, and on a megascale in the place you call home now, eh? I scarcely recognize, for instance, the South Loop when I take the Orange line into town from Midway, and I’ve only been gone for a couple years. Other than distance and time allowing for perspective on your hometown, which we’ve talked about, how did living in Chicago contribute to this book and your work generally?
Well there’s winter, for one. There’s just no better excuse to get work done than the marathon shitfest of weather here. More broadly, if I’m going to spend three or four hours alone, staring at my computer, I need to be able to open my door and step outside and confront things happening. I need noise and conflict and colors and the smells of human beings. The city itself, churning. And Chicago is just so obviously full of people doing interesting things: journals and readings and theater productions and hybrid art and music shows and so on. So part of living and making art in Chicago is keeping up with everyone around you, which for me provides a kind of gentle, steady murmur of competition.
How are you paying the rent these days, and what’s next for you on the writing front? Potter Mays seems a perfect character to revisit from time to time a la Richard Russo.
I teach part-time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and pick up various freelance writing assignments. There are essays I’m sort of always writing, and I’ve got some work finished on a second novel, but at this point I can’t say much more than skateboarding, fear and bones. And I like connections between books, though Potter Mays himself might not be the best contact point. I will say I like the idea of telling multiple stories within the same world that share common…things? Ideas? Automobiles, perhaps?
Your version of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County for the new century, built over years and places and automobiles and stories?
I think I’d focus on a different definition of world, here, linked by central ideas and images more than location. I’d like to linger in this world for a bit before moving out of it into someplace drastically different.
So “the ad” won’t necessarily make a reappearance in the next book, but the individual’s sense of herself against the backdrop of her community might?
That’s closer, yes. The ad is in there as a piece of period evidence from the book’s year, 2001, and for highlighting Stuart Hurst’s particular mixture of characteristics along with certain ironies of Potter’s world. Whether readers treat it this way or not, I see the ad as having a definite task in the narrative. The same goes for the delivery van, and the other white vans in the novel. Maybe as an example for what I’m thinking, see the work Bolano gets out of the black Peregrinos in 2666, how they overlap the book’s sections and provide a kind of unity for the world he’s created.
It still gives me a little chill just to read a mention of a black Peregrino, I do say! Harmony of ongoing symbolic structures sounds like what you’re talking about a bit. In any case, looking forward to more. What have you thought about Bolano’s work as it’s become available in English? For me, reading him over the past few years has eventuated several of those sort of wonderful kick-in-the-pants moments, when a book really drives me onward with my own work.
I own two copies of 2666, the hardback and the three volume paperback set. I did this so I can save the hardback for posterity and go back into the paperbacks with a pen. Basically tear the text apart. It’s amazing. Such a massive beautiful project. And also the only Bolano I’ve read thus far, mainly because it’s difficult to escape — there’s just so much there and it’s all provocative, it all drives. I go back and read a page, a paragraph, sometimes just a sentence, then have to close the book and find my laptop. Is it all like this, his writing? Or would you call it his crowning achievement? People I speak to are split between “read it all” or “read 2666 and you get it all.”
I’d probably fall into the “read it all” camp — he’s versatile enough that you get different things from different books, and the comprehensive approach is my favorite for writers I really love. My least favorite of his, perhaps, is Nazi Literature in the Americas, but it’s got a lot to recommend it, too. (The Savage Detectives might be a personal favorite, though the reasoning there has less to do with quality of the work than with the fireworks of writerly exuberance held in every sentence.) Anyhow, any other work of recent vintage that’s had particular effects on you as well?
[Denis Johnson’s] Tree of Smoke blew me away. He’s had so much success on the small scale, sentences that wind around your head then punch you in the ear, but up until now his longer stuff hasn’t really panned out. Richard Price’s Lush Life taught me major lessons in plotting and pacing and straight up narrative forcefulness. Patrick Somerville‘s The Cradle is just damn lovely, as is Light Boxes by Shane Jones. I’m currently reading a paper-clipped collection by my friend Odie Lindsay, stories of the south and loneliness and turtles. I’m so impressed by my friends. Everything Chris Bower writes or says. Oh! And Dave Snyder has written what’s hands-down my favorite poem of all time and I read it at least once every few days.
Got a copy of Tree of Smoke here I’ve been meaning to dig. Maybe now’s the time. My final question has to do with your recent St. Louis readings: how was it for you being home and delivering the work? Any sense of completion, fracture, both at once?
The St. Louis events have made me happy as hell. Doing the first reading to a crowd inside Left Bank Books, a store I grew up with, had the effect of closing some nature of very pleasant personal loop. I’ve read on four or five occasions since the release. I sat and sweated in the very shiny local Fox News studio. I’ve seen former neighbors and classmates and my old baseball coach, people to whom I’ll remain grateful until I die. And it’s all completion. That’s the prevailing feeling: that I’ve curved the pole into a circle and glued it shut; or of that last pie slice of steel dropped into the gap at the very top of the Gateway Arch, how they had to pry the two curved legs apart to fit it in, men in hardhats on cranes, unsure if the thing would stand. And then they all backed away carefully, wiping their hands on their thighs, thinking, “There. Done.”
We’ll be tabling next weekend at the Alabama Book Festival in stodgy yet decidedly artsy-fun Montgomery, the state capitol. If you’ve never been there it’s worth a trip if only to wander around in the weekend-deserted downtown and feel as if a Confederate general visiting a vanquished former capital or to visit one excellently famous Flea Market on the edge of town that’s, yes, very much like a mini mall. Which is, indeed, what I did the last time I was there, passing through on my way to the coast a couple years back. Sammy Stephens, owner of the mall last I heard, is a gracious host.
As for the Festival, I participated last in 2007; last year a coincidental fest in Montevallo an hour or so north where I was scheduled to read kept me away; but in 2007 the general vibe was upbeat, cool, and festive, no doubt.
Visit our events page for details, likewise of the DC/DC Spring Crafts Fair in Tuscaloosa the following day, at which I’ll also be tabling with our latest issue, THE2NDHAND soap by folks at The Left Hand, who’ll also be there, and sundry books. Hope to see you.