Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Writer's Chemistry Lab: Returning to my hometown with Fobbit

I grew up in Jackson, Wyoming.  Back then, it was a mid-sized town anchoring the bottom of the Jackson Hole valley--the Rocky Mountain Eden lined with the gray-blue teeth of the Tetons.  When I moved to Jackson in 1972, a good portion of its streets were still unpaved and drugstore cowboys still outnumbered the ski bums (though both of those elements were quickly changing).

My Hometown
My father was the pastor at the First Baptist Church, a congregation that doubled, tripled, maybe even quadrupled during his nearly three decades at the pulpit.  As most PKs (preacher's kids) can tell you, growing up in a parsonage makes you feel like one of those aquarium fish darting nervously from side to side in the tank.  People are always bending down for a look, tapping the glass as you swim by, expecting a tropical-fish performance when all you want to do is go hide out in the little porcelain castle.

I was a quiet kid, never finding my place in any of the cliques at school.  I didn't fit in with the rodeo/4-H crowd, the hippies, or the upper-middle-class kids.  I was skinny, stuttered, and just didn't have that "cool factor."

My "safe place" was books.  That's where I sought refuge all those years growing up.  Reading naturally evolved into writing and....well, here we are today.

Tomorrow night, I'll return to my hometown, a published book in hand.  Everybody dreams of this moment, don't they?  Living the local-boy-makes-good fantasy.  I plan to make the most of it when I read from Fobbit at the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts--in a room which is at almost precisely the same location where my high school locker was located thirty-three years ago.  The modern glass-and-steel arts center was constructed on the site of my former school--the symbolism of which does not go unnoticed.

A columnist for the local newspaper recently invited me to contribute my thoughts to what it feels like coming back to Jackson after all these years.  Here's part of what I wrote:
In March 1975, I burst into Art Lohuis’ sixth-grade Science Class, waving a copy of Jack and Jill magazine over my head.  “Guess what?” I squeaked.  “I got a story published in here!” Mr. Lohuis took the magazine, slowly read “Caring for Your Dog” (a how-to article with the valuable tip “Never strike your dog on the head—never!”), then he marched me down to the principal’s office.  Once there, he showed  Jack and Jill to the school secretaries to a chorus of oohs and aahs.  Somebody called the newspaper, and a reporter rushed to the school to take a picture of me with my drunk-on-early-fame smile.

This week, 37 years later, I’ll return to Jackson, waving a red-and-white copy of a book over my head and shouting: “I did it!  I published a novel!”  Okay, maybe I won’t shout—as all my classmates from Jackson Hole High School's Class of 1981 will tell you, I’m a shy guy—but I am proud of Fobbit and grateful to Grove/Atlantic for taking a chance on a comedy about the Iraq War.

Thirty-seven years is a long road and there have been lots of detours and side streets along the way—a false start to an “acting career” at Dirty Jack’s Wild West Theater, a marriage, three children, two college degrees, a 20-year-career in the Army as a journalist—but Jackson has always been there humming in the background.  All writers dip buckets into the well of their childhoods and I’ve often returned to the Jackson of my memory and imagination.  Though I didn’t always fit in and spent most of my years at Jackson Hole Jr. High and JHHS hugging the wall, keeping my eyes downcast, and suffering from a painful stutter when I was around members of the opposite sex, I wouldn’t change a single anxious moment of those years.  In my role as an outsider, I also learned to be an observer—a trait that would serve me well in my career as a writer.

When I think back on my Jackson years, I don’t think of all those dateless school dances, as much as I do the happy golden memories of my time in the Valley.

The local paper has been wonderful in helping to publicize the reading at the Arts Center--including an article by novelist Tim Sandlin (Lydia, Sorrow Floats, and several others).  With Tim's permission, I thought I'd share what he wrote for the Jackson Hole News & Guide (back when I lived in Jackson, there were two separate newspapers: the Jackson Hole Guide and the Jackson Hole News; my father wrote a weekly outdoors column for the latter):

Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow. —Oscar Wilde

Abrams’s debut is a harrowing satire of the Iraq War and an instant classic.Publishers Weekly

Did you see that?  Local boy — son of First Baptist pastor and long-time “Outdoors” column writer, Dan Abrams – has published an instant classic.  Rave reviews in Time magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the L.A. Times Book Review, and now the Jackson Hole News and Guide.  And he gives all the credit to Debbie Schlinger.

Most anti-war novels are so deadly earnest it is possible to get an ice cream headache just reading the first chapter.  The really good war novels, the books that change the way we look at ourselves and our stupid tendency to kill each other, are almost always comedies.  War is absurd, bizarre, and slapstick, so the classics — Catch 22, Slaughterhouse Five, M*A*S*H — are absurd, bizarre, and slapstick.  Now, we can add Abrams’ Fobbit to the short list of war books that can change the way we look at war.

Abrams’ war takes place in Iraq.  It’s the second Iraq War under the second President Bush, and Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. — basically David Abrams as fiction — is assigned to the public affairs office at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Triumph in Baghdad.  Soldiers who actually walk the streets and get shot at call the personnel who wouldn’t leave their air conditioned cubbies in FOB for any reason Fobbits.  It’s a derogatory term.

Gooding’s job is to turn gore into patriotism.  He takes a sentence — “A soldier was vaporized when his patrol hit an Improvised Explosive Device, his flesh thrown into a nearby tree where it draped like Spanish moss,” and he transforms it to “A soldier paid the ultimate sacrifice while carrying out his duties in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  Same meaning, different voice.

The plot is fairly convoluted but it can be boiled down to this: Everyone wants to go home without being killed.  Like the other great war novels, each character is insane.  Abrams is good at insane.  Even Gooding himself is nuts, but the insanity gets more bizarre and dangerous the farther up the chain of command you go until we reach the generals who are sociopathic whack jobs.  Army literature seems to work that direction.

Fair warning for readers.  The word choices are much closer to what you would expect for a 20 year Army veteran than the son of a Baptist minister.  Enough said.

I asked David how coming from Jackson, Wyoming, informed his world view and influenced this novel set in Baghdad.  Here is what he wrote:

“Every writer's 'hometown' is the chemistry lab for what they'll eventually be.  All those early experiences--those Big Dreams, those stinging disappointments, those moments of discovery--all of them can be found, one way or another, in every writer's work.  I can't think of a better place to grow up than Jackson — though I didn't always see it that way.  In junior high and high school, I pretty much hung out on the fringes of school society — I was a shy wall-hugger.  I had good friends, but for the most part I kept to myself.  By virtue of that outsider-ness, I was an observer, a quiet gatherer of material for future novels.  So, in the end, it was all good.

“Also: Every writer has good reason to thank the English teachers in his or her life.  For me, that teacher was Debbie Schlinger.  By the time I passed through her English class in high school, I'd already been noodling around with short stories for a few years.  But I think I really blossomed in her class--thanks mainly to her enthusiasm and encouragement.  I don't know if she ever said these words verbatim, but I seem to recall her handing back one of my essays and saying, 'You're going to be a real writer someday.'  She doesn't know it, but I started being a 'real writer' that day.  Debbie Schlinger was my first audience and I will always be thankful for the way she lit a spark in me.

Teton County Library, back in the day
“And finally: The other significant thing that happened to me in Jackson was when I got my first paying job.  I was hired by the Teton County Library when I was 13.  Jean Kirol was the Librarian then and I imagine she did some sort of under-the-table deal with the county because I was underage.  At that time, I was spending almost all of my time at the library anyway, browsing books, sitting in the 'adult side' of the library near the new releases and reading things like 'Salem's Lot and Arthur Hailey novels.  I was at the library so much I think they just took pity on me and decided to start paying me for the time I spent there.  I worked there for about two years--checking in books, shelving books, cleaning up spilled Cheerios in the children's section--and it remains my first and greatest job.”

Abrams graduated from Jackson Hole High School in 1981. After knocking around the west a few years, he spent twenty years in the Army, winding up in Iraq in 2005.  Now he lives in Butte, Montana.

He will be speaking and reading from Fobbit at Dancers Workshop Studio 4 on Friday, Nov. 2, at 7 p.m.  The next morning, he will conduct a workshop entitled "Write What You Know: Turning Your Life into Fiction," Saturday morning at 9 in the conference room at the Center for the Arts. Anyone interested in the workshop should contact Connie Wieneke at

1 comment:

  1. Actually David, all the girls thought you were cute and sweet growing up.