January 22: “Mike’s Song” by Justin Taylor

I don’t know a whole lot about how the big, New York-based presses work. I’ve never had an agent, don’t know which press is a subsidiary of another, and don’t know how much authors on these presses get paid or how many books they have to sell to be considered a success. I know about them only as an outsider, from anecdotes I read or overhear, though I’m not sure what’s true and what’s not. I relay what I can to my students, admitting this isn’t “my area.” I know a few facts that are important, like to never pay an agent up front, that they get their cut when they sell your book—if they ask for money up front, it’s a scam. It’s a large but strange part of the writing world, though I admire books on these presses as much as I like the books on small, independent, and university outlets. I know there’s more money involved with agents and contracts and such, but that doesn’t mean those books are going to be better, or that I’ll like them more, than a book for which the author is paid in copies or food rations or alcohol or whatever.

One thing in particular that used to puzzle me about the big presses was that they never went to AWP, sold books at the book fair. Sure, if an author on Knopf or Random House was a featured reader, there would be piles of their books for sale before and after, but that had more to do with the conference and its chosen local bookseller than the press. With ten thousand writers or more attending these conferences, most walking around with money to spend on books, these presses were notably absent. The larger independent and university presses would have two or three tables’ worth of merchandise, maybe a booth, moving mass amounts of product, showcasing their writers, and spreading the word about themselves. The big NYC presses, though, sat it out. Was there some kind of pact between them and the small presses, designating AWP as small press turf? Did they make enough money through sales the rest of the year that a big weekend just didn’t matter? Have I just never noticed them before?

I was really happy this past year in Minneapolis, then, to see Harper Collins displaying at a booth at the book fair. As soon as I saw them, right across the aisle from the Moon City Press table, I felt redeemed, relieved even, to see them there, for one of these big, mysterious presses to acknowledge this conference—so vital to my press for exposure—as worth their time. While me and my grad students handed out submission information, free books, and smiled our way into people’s consciousness, Harper Collins simply hosted book signings for their authors. They were writers with big, shiny, new hardcover books, names I recognized, lines wrapping around the row during their time slots. Not going to AWP, greeting thousands of writers over the course of weekend, made these presses seem standoffish to me, perhaps aloof. But Harper Collins had broken through. They were in the trenches, reaching out to the little people, bumping shoulders with the masses. Harper Collins was all right.

One writer signing books that weekend was Justin Taylor, there promoting Flings: Stories, his brand-new collection. Justin and I were FB friends and I think I’d corresponded with him at some point, maybe liked a picture he’d posted, something like that, but not enough to be like, “Justin! My man! High five!” I got in the line to buy a book and have it signed, and to my delight, HC was giving the books out for free. What?! Hey, that’s what I used to do with Mid-American Review and still do with Moon City Review; the strategy is, the more people who walked out of the fair with your book in hand, the more the word would spread, and in general, the more writers that like you. But Harper Collins? Everyone knew who they were. They were just being nice, I guess, using the same strategy. I took two. Justin signed one for me and one for my friend Jen Murvin, who was teaching my classes that week (yeah, Jen, that was, um, free, in case I forgot to mention that before …) back in Springfield. I told him congratulations, he said thank you, and I ran back to my table and put the book in a box to ship home.

Today’s post is about a story from Flings, “Mike’s Song.” I have to admit, I skipped ahead to this story (after reading the first story, “Flings”) because it had “Mike” in the title; my name is Mike, and yeah, I’m just that easy. Mike (in the story) is a soon-to-be divorced lawyer living in South Florida, and things are going pretty well for Mike. Mike is not bitter about his divorce, he’s moving to a neat little condo by the water, and he’s spending the week, New Year’s week, with his grown children, Angie and Ken. The kids seem to like him—he is taking them to see their favorite band, Phish— hanging out and cleaning out their childhood bedrooms so Mom and Dad can sell the house. Right away, I liked the characters in this story, because of all this, because of how fresh it felt. I can’t remember the last time I read a story about an adult and his/her adult children, most stories reflecting on kids as kids or as whiny teens. Angie and Ken don’t even complain when they have to spend their vacation cleaning out their rooms, throwing most of their memories away. Mike, too, seems upbeat—he has a new, young girlfriend—and everyone is moving with forward motion. There’s a positive vibe to this story, the conflict not coming from the characters fighting or hating each other. I liked Mike and felt happy for him, even though he’s a rich lawyer who cheated on his wife with a woman half his age, and that’s hard to do. Taylor pulls it off.

Stories need conflict, though, and the author again continues to show a steady hand. It seems like obvious foibles could befall the trio at any time, from undercover cops outside the arena, to the hazardous drive home, Mike stoned out of his mind. But “Mike’s Song” finds its controversy elsewhere, the confidence that Mike had once worn like armor slipping away, doubts about himself, his new relationship, and his children slipping in as the night progresses. Maybe it’s the weed. Maybe it’s the Phish pounding in his ear throughout the story. Or maybe it’s what happened at the Rosen house, which the family passes on its way out of their gated community. As positive a tone as Taylor sets, everyone happy to be with each other, it can’t last. At least not in Mike’s head.

A couple of similarities between the two stories that I read stand out. One isn’t that odd, as Taylor uses music a lot, naming artists, songs, a constant soundtrack buzzing through the paragraphs (and in my head, if I knew the songs). The other is a bit weird: In each story, something a person does is compared to a Satanic ritual; there’s a fear that what happened happened because of an intentional homage to Satan. Maybe this only occurs in these two stories. Or it could be that Taylor’s mom was like my mom, whose biggest fear when I went off to college was that I was going to get involved with Satanists (I think there was a story about that on 60 Minutes right before I left). Anyway, yeah, music and mistaken devil worshipping.

I like the stories in Flings a lot, as I’ve liked the other stories I’ve read by Justin Taylor. I still associate this book with AWP, with meeting him and him being so nice. I also associate it with that breakthrough, a major press coming to AWP, hanging out with us fly-bys, just one of the gang, just trying to get everyone to see their books, to read them, to know how great their authors are. It’s what we all want in the end.

Justin Taylor