Saturday, March 19, 2011

From the Cutting-Room Floor: the Norman Mailer of Iraq

It's been several months since I posted a slice from my work-in-progress--Fobbit, the serio-comic novel about the Iraq War which I have been working on, in some fashion or another, since 2005.  Ten months ago, I typed the final period on the first draft, then rushed, giddy with sweat, to post the news at this blog ("Done.  For Now.").  Since then, I went through what I consider the least-desirable aspect of writing: the gut-twist agony of revision.  Some writers love this part of the process, some can't wait to get to this point, some rush hastily and sloppily through the first draft in order to get to revision as soon as they can.  Not me.  Once my words are on the page/screen, it's hard for me to take a reasonable, balanced, judicious, tough-love look at them.  I have no problem with the cleaning-up, the tinkering, the "I-know-shit-when-I-smell-it" editorial decisions, but I have a hard time with the long view, the wide-angle criticism every writer should level against his or her own work.  I fully recognize this as my biggest flaw as a writer and, with the help of some very good editors over the years, I'm learning how to turn myself into a one-man MFA writing workshop (complete with the interior voice of an insufferably-bored fellow workshopper who says I'd be better off working in a meatpacking plant than I would in trying to get anything published and who quotes Truman Capote at every available opportunity: "That's not writing, that's typing.").

And so, for the better part of this past year, I've been as hard on myself as possible.  Shortly after Christmas, when I thought I had Fobbit in reasonably good shape, I sent the manuscript off to my agent.  Within a week, he responded: "David, This is great--don't change a thing--I think we have a good shot here--I'll start shopping it around--Stand by."

Of course he didn't say any such thing.  What?  You think I'm friggin' Joyce Carol Oates who can make a grocery list sound like a friggin' literary masterpiece?  Get real.

What my agent, a seasoned and very wise individual, actually said was: "Cut 200 pages--take out anything that's not funny--change the ending--then come back to me with this."

So, after a month-long drinking binge and a few more weeks of warily circling my keyboard like it was growling, snapping wolf whose leg was caught in a trap, I've come back to Fobbit and started listening to that grad student in my head.  Since the local meatpacking plant wasn't hiring, I turned my butchering skills on the novel.  About 50 pages fell to the floor pretty quickly, but now I'm faced with some sections I'm waffling on--portions I personally like, but am unsure how well they serve the novel as a whole.

On the advice of my agent (a phrase I try to work into conversation whenever I can), I'll be posting a few excerpts here at the blog in the weeks to come, using you as a test audience--though I realize it's hard to judge fragments out of context.

The following fragment is one portion which has the editorial knife hovering over the page.  It comes early in the novel--which, if I haven't already mentioned, is a satire about a public affairs office headquartered in Baghdad in the early days of the war.  This character, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., is one of those public affairs "Fobbits" (a hybrid term which blends "Hobbit" and a soldier who rarely ventures outside the safety of the Forward Operating Base, or "FOB").

*     *     *

He never wanted to be a soldier.  Still didn’t.

A writer.  That was more like it.  Someone like John Cheever or Raymond Carver or the great F. Scott F.  But without all the drinking and early death.

He didn’t belong here.  Chance Gooding Jr. had a bachelor’s degree in English, he’d published a sonnet praising the bedroom flexibility of his (now ex-) wife in a literary quarterly called The Polliwog Review.  He’d brought an entire footlocker on this deployment filled with the novels of Charles Dickens, Emile Zola, and William Faulkner.  He took notes on his co-workers in headquarters, hiding in the bathroom stall and pulling out his wallet-sized notebook and pen to write character sketches:
Capt. Zendower—first name Agatha???—Bitch on Wheels, has a wart next to her right nostril, hates it but won’t get it removed because husband says it’s “sexy.”  Husband is Maj. Zendower (first name???) in 3-1 Cav.  He’s also an asshole.  They make a great pair.
Bashir Moakes—translator assigned to G-3 Ops.  Breath smells like a fried-oyster-banana milkshake.  Walk past him and the gag reflex goes into overtime.  Homeland—not sure, Syria maybe?  Been here in Baghdad 18 months and has sent two company commanders to sick call—one when a sheik threw a punch at Bashir who ducked and the captain took it on the chin, the other when the commander got too close to Bashir’s breath.

With his hand-lotion-soft skin and literary ambitions, if anyone looked, felt and acted less like a soldier than him, then Chance would like to shake his hand.

A thin-but-thickening man in his late 30s, Gooding had skin the color of paper with a complexion still haunted by the ghost of teen acne.  His brown eyes were large and rolled beneath his brows with the restless pop of pinballs.  He liked to think they were writer’s eyes, always darting, probing the faces he saw, the rooms he was in, gathering details which he’d later pull into his imagination and set down in his stories.  He prided himself on his role of chronicler of this sandbox scuffle, the Boswell to this war's Johnson, the Mailer of Iraq.

So what were he and his Muse doing in the Army?  Why was someone like him—teeming with literary potential, accustomed to the softer things of life, nervously adverse to physical exercise all his life, bookish as the nerdiest kid in the high school Humanities Club, genuinely disdainful of those aspects of masculinity which bespoke locker-room swagger and drinking simply for the joy of inebriation, and equally scornful of professions which featured dirty fingernails and knuckles skinned from working on engines—why was someone like him walking around Iraq toting an M-16 rifle, prepared to kill (if it really had to come down to that)?

Good questions, neatly answered with two words: Student loans.

Sixteen years before he set foot on the sand here, Chance Gooding Jr. was working double shifts at Speedy Meat (flipping burgers, dousing fries in hot oil) and Groomingdale’s Pet Salon (shampooing less-than-thrilled cats and snipping shit-clots from the fur below dogs’ tails) while supporting an unappreciative wife and son.  He was newly-branded with a bachelor's degree, but also freshly-saddled with student loans coming due.  He signed checks in his cramped handwriting and clipped coupons for Coco-Puffs and powdered formula and, in his dreamiest moments, sketched "career roadmaps" where he thought his English degree would take him.  He went to bed, feet throbbing and back knotted, with the word "Someday...someday..." tumbling over and over in his head like a load of underwear in the dryer.  He’d come home smelling of grease and wet dog, eat his dinner in silence, then head down to the basement where he spent the rest of his waking hours writing stories about Carveresque losers who spent their waking hours in dimly-lit basements instead of coaching Little League.  He was clever with words and, if he said so himself, pretty good at inventing characters—dull and sullen as they may be—who burned on the page.

Most editors thought otherwise.  He’d been rejected by The New Yorker, Esquire, and Atlantic Monthly, but had been published in McWhirly’s Review, The Southern Alabama Quarterly, and Garglemouth.  He had dreams, he had aspirations, but Chance Gooding Jr. also had bills.  And a wife who was increasingly tired of finding recipes in 101 Ways With Velveeta and hand-washing diapers.  He had a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of North Dakota, he had the warm wishes of his professors (“Go forth and write good things, young man”), and he had a box full of his term papers (chief among them: “James Fenimore Cooper: American Prophet?” and “Bestest Friends: The Erotic Subtext Between Nicholas Nickleby and Smike”).  What he didn’t have was something to show for it.  The 2,000-word “Loserville” in Garglemouth didn’t exactly qualify as “something.”

From behind a drift of her chain-smoker smoke, his wife watched him with the kind of eyes that would stare at the three-toed sloth hanging alone in his cage at the zoo.

“Look,” she’d said one morning, stabbing the classifieds with her cigarette-fingers.  “The Army says it will pay back your student loans.”

He leaned across the crumb-strewn table and looked.  And read.  And didn’t like what he read, but he nodded at his wife all the same.

“It will also,” she took a suck from her cigarette, “turn you into a man.”

That was it.  He’d been stabbed to the heart by the last straw.

He looked around his squalory kitchen that morning and realized, though it provided good material for his oft-rejected stories, this was no way to live.  His family deserved better than Speedy Meat and Groomingdale’s, even if he was okay with burgers and shit-balls for the time being.

She was no longer his wife, but back then she’d had a point.  Yes, she may have packed up their sons (two by that time) and lit out with another man six years after Chance had joined the Army, but she had a point.  It was time for him to man up and take care of the family (the same one that would desert him after he’d gone and done what it asked).  The Army was a quick remedy and, for a time, it eased the monthly stomach-knot of bills and Velveeta.  It gave Chance an occupational specialty uniquely tailored to his skill set, according to the battery of exams and questionnaires he filled out in the recruiter’s office: Journalist.  And, for a time, as long as he didn’t think of himself as a soldier, he could make do with the job on the post newspaper staff.  Writing commentaries supporting the post commander’s walk-to-work policy and feature stories about the Officers’ Wives Club Halloween bazaar, he could almost imagine himself out of the role of soldier and into something resembling Cary Grant in His Girl Friday.  Yes, there was the unflattering green-brown-black uniform and the daily physical fitness training which left him gagging on mucous and the twice-yearly trips to the firing range and the conformity of marching in formation and the necessity of calling nearly everyone else “Sir,” “Ma’am,” or “Sergeant,” but those were all things to which he could adapt.  He was the farthest thing from gung-ho you could find, but Chance figured he could chameleon his way through the military for at least the initial hitch of five years (and then, when it came time to re-enlist, he moved the finish line to the midway mark of ten years; and then, when that day came, the downhill tumble to twenty).  He hated soldiering, but he bore with the job with the same resignation he did slapping burgers on the grill and lathering Fido way back when.

He could do this, he told himself.  As long as he, you know, didn’t have to go to war.


  1. Certainly difficult to judge a fragment out of a larger context, but I like your development of the misfit character. (one of many 'Fobbits?")

    As someone with 'hand-lotion-soft skin and literary ambitions' myself, I can relate to the alienation from roughneck, blue-collar types. Yet, it struck me as a little inconsistent that a burger-flipping / dog-grooming (huzzah for Groomindales!) drone would look at dirty fingernails and skinned knuckles with scorn. Though a lofty writer at heart, it seems like your character might've developed an empathetic (though possibly begrudging) relationship to those professions.

    Forgive the nitpicking.

    On a more important note, you captured the writer/loser/seeker perspective and immediately established a sardonic wit that balanced well with the necessary expository stuff. The section seems like a keeper!

    Great idea. I'm interested in reading future excerpts.

  2. Hi David. Great work! I love it. Funny, original writing with vivid character portraits.

    "From behind a drift of her chain-smoker smoke, his wife watched him with the kind of eyes that would stare at the three-toed sloth hanging alone in his cage at the zoo."

    That is brilliant. Says it all!

    I'm wondering if, rather than cut great scenes, you can just tighten them. For example, the paragraph that reads "Sixteen years before..." and ends with "...burned on the page" occurs to me as one that could be tightened to good effect. There's some great stuff in there. But some could go, I think. Then again, it's always so easy to see it OTHER people's work!

    But, here's the kind of thing I think you might consider doing with that paragraph, by way of example:

    Sixteen years before he started shaking Iraqi sand out of his shoes, Chance Gooding Jr. worked double shifts, flipping burgers at Speedy's and snipping shit-clots from dogs' asses at Groomingdale's. He had a wife, a son, a bachelor's in English, and student loans coming due. He clipped coupons for Coco-Puffs and sketched career roadmaps--bridges to nowhere traversed by the dreamy damned. He took his throbbing feet to bed each night with the word someday... someday... tumbling over and over in his head like a load of wet underwear in the dryer. His evenings he spent holed up in the basement writing stories about Carveresque losers who spent their waking hours in dimly-lit basements instead of coaching Little League. He was clever with words and, if said so himself, pretty good at inventing characters, dull and sullen and burning on the page. Most editors thought otherwise.

    That cuts the word count from 200 to 146 (and moves the transition line up from the previous paragraph).

    Just something to think about. You might be able to tighten the whole work and grab those 150 pages that way. Write on, and thanks for the great blog! Fabulous work!

  3. I think this read a little uneven. What you might try doing is putting the various fragments in chronological order - start with the money problems, move into the enlistment, then the divorce, then the deployment. I'm not saying that's the way to go but it might smooth it out a little - seems like the passage is going in fits and starts, back and forth.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone. These are all very, very helpful. Thanks to you, this section might just live to see another day, albeit in a rearranged, tightened fashion.