King of the Empty Kegs
by Steve Almond
Issue #31 • December 20, 2003•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
Now the trees threw on the skirts of autumn, maples in yellow, oaks in red, the sweet slashing smoke of leaf fires. Look at us, the foliage shouted. Are we not crisp? Are we not vivid? Such chromatic madness—it was like living in Van Gogh’s eyeball. Besides which: Ableman was back in town. We’d endured six years of his breathtaking hueristic skullduggery and prissy syntax and platform shoes and still we couldn’t get enough of him, his blaring humility, his tweed—what were they, jodphurs? My first thought was Sligo, getting him out of the country perhaps. But Ableman was in the bar, our latest bar, whatever it was called. How had he found us? Did he have bloodhounds with scraps of our clothing?
Ableman had with him a certain Sir Alexander Bimbleton, inheritor of the revered Bimbleton lineage, viceroy twice removed, keeper of the silk purse, the vast sheep-poopy estates and fleet of liverymen, a plump-kneed pilgrim to the rogue kingdom of Americer. “I imagined Sir Lex would relish the opportunity to tour the institution to which I owe final, shall we say, accreditation. On behalf of the Foundation, of course.”
Steve Almond’s collection, My Life in Heavy Metal, is just out in paperback. His stories have been anthologized in the Pushcart Prize, Best New Stories from the South, Best of Zoetrope, and elsewhere. Algonquin will publish his next book this Spring. It is an non-fiction investigation of obscure candy bars. Really. For more propaganda, check out www.stevenalmond.com.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
SA: It’s one of a cycle, which I refer to (somewhat ridiculously) as The Sligo Stories. In the first Sligo story, Sligo is at a party with Ableman, who is, quite naturally, rubbing Sligo’s nose in his own failure. And there was such chemistry between the two, that I knew I wanted to bring Ableman back. I’ve always seen Sligo as this fat-hearted maverick type, who can never quite succeed in philosophy because he lacks the necessary focus, and polish. So obviously, I wanted to slam him up against his opposite number. We all know that Ableman is going to do him in, not because he’s right, but because he’s powerful. And it seems to me—warning: rant approaching—that this is the way America works, especially in the current historical moment. The famous and the ruthless win, because we’ve agreed to operate not as a self-respecting democracy, but as a kind of popularity contest. So I think there’s a good deal of distress driving the action, which is really aimed at the vulgar people who run this culture, and the failure of academia to call them out on their shit. I realize this is tremendously idealistic, but I feel like the intellectuals of this country have really fallen down on the job. They’ve allowed themselves to be so marginalized that they act like groupies when one of their flock manages to blip onto the cultural radar.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
SA: Same as every story: trying to make it matter emotionally to the reader. The challenge with this one was twofold: to get past the parodic tone and the polemics. I mean, a lot of what drives a story like this is the chance to have some fun, to portray people in a more grotesque and vivid way. But if there isn’t some deeper human struggle introduced, than it’s all ironic vamping. So I worked a lot on trying to humanize Sligo and make it clear that he really believes in philosophical thought as a redemptive act, not just as a rung on the career ladder, or a publicity stunt. The other thing that’s tough is that this is just one story of several, so I feel like I know a lot more about the characters than I can squeeze into the story.
HT: Is the world of philosophy really this cutthroat?
SA: I have no idea. I’m not a philosopher. But I do know that academia can be a terribly vicious and circumscribed world. It’s a bunch of kept minds, basically. And the irony is that it’s the folks from the most abstract disciplines—philosophy, mathematics, and so on—who take it most seriously. They have to, because the academy is, for them, the only patron in town. It’s that old adage: the lower the stakes, the bigger the feud. The best literary example I can think of is from the John Williams novel Stoner. There’s an academic feud in there that’s just heartbreaking, because the whole dispute is so entirely foolish. The point Williams is making is that the academy is just a microcosm of the larger world, where folks are constantly seeking out emotional and psychological entanglements.
What strikes me as saddest about this sort of infighting is that it’s such a monumental waste of consciousness. Why are the finest minds of a particular discipline stuck in a little room arguing with each other? Why must they speak in this coded language? They should be bringing the fruits of their labors out into the world at large.
HT: Do you consider this a ‘loss of innocence’ story?
SA: Oh sure. In Sligo’s case, I wanted to reinforce this idea in a more ominous way by introducing this sweet little lamb of a coed, Daisy. So there are really two stories of innocence lost here, three if you count the narrator, who’s doing his best Nick Carraway thang. Actually, I can’t think of a good short story that doesn’t contain some loss of innocence. I take that as one of my jobs: someone’s got to lose some innocence. If not the characters, than the readers. Because otherwise, there’s no danger in the story. And every story, in the end, is about danger. I like to think about the final line of that remarkable Frank O’Connor’s story, Guests of the Nation: if you’ve dug deep enough, nothing should ever be the same again for the characters, or the reader.
HT: What do you think will happen to Sligo?
SA: Actually, I know what happens to Sligo, at least in the short term. And I’m happy to report that he winds up in okay shape. But the truth is he’s the kind of guy who’s always going to be at risk, because he’s never going to want to play ball with the money folks. I know a lot of guys like this, latter day Quixotes. They take it to be their calling, as idealists, to self-destruct. They mistake contentment for complacence, or simply mistrust success. Given the ways in which success is measured in this culture, I don’t blame them.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
SA: Gosh, no idea. I’m going to guess two or three weeks for a first draft. Then a lot of time here and there, revising. With these Sligo stories, I wrote them a couple of years ago, so I’m constantly going back and messing with them, seeing all the places where I was grandstanding, or avoiding the heart of the matter.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
SA: Probably to avoid giving out advice about writing. Seriously: the truth is that everyone’s got their process, and whatever works for you, that’s how you should kick it. I will say that I have certain little bromides that I’m always winging at my students:
Fuck style, tell the truth.
Love your characters at all times.
Slow down where it hurts.
But that’s stuff that I learned mostly from reading writers I love and thinking about why I love them so much.
One thing I can say, is that young writers learn the fastest by reading and critiquing other writers, not by cranking out their own stuff. This sounds weird, and counter-intuitive. But it’s held true for every student I’ve dealt with. You can’t really smell your own bullshit. But you can develop a good bullshit detector, by noting other people’s mistakes often enough (and hopefully with some measure of respect).
HT: What are you working on now?
SA: The short answer is: a novel. But that won’t be done for a long time and may be, like my last novel, a horrible mess. In terms of what the world will see next, it’s a non-fiction book called Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America
. Algonquin is publishing it in Spring. It’s a totally freaky book all about people’s deep and twisted connection to candy, and the history of candy bars, and all these weird regional candy bars, such as the Twin Bing and the Idaho Spud and the Goo Goo Cluster. There are lots of pornographic descriptions of candy being made and eaten and, maybe the coolest thing, when I do my reading tour, I’m going to have samples of the candy bars I’m reading about, so the audience can pig out. (If peeps want to see where I’m reading, I should be posting a schedule soon on www.stevenalmond.com
). Algonquin’s going to publish a second collection of stories, The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories