by Colin Fleming
F. Scott Fitzgerald used to bemoan that a day might come where he’d be reduced to writing about children like poor old Booth Tarkington. Fitzgerald, as a reader, wasn’t prone to a lot of lapses in judgment, most of which in his life were confined to mis-evaluating people and thinking well of individuals whom, when you read a bio, you think, “my God, he/she sucks.” Tarkington had won the Pulitzer twice for his novels The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams, the latter a very gassy production that will bore you out of your mind in long stretches. But it was seen as properly serious, what we’d call social realism today—if you are in a writing program, anyway—and dignified.
But I never thought Tarkington liked it much, in part because his writing is a great deal more alive in books like Penrod and Seventeen, tales of young adults, woebegone love, and perceived tragedy, which has a way of cloaking actual tragedy that always asserts itself as far as its forward-marching complications go—or so I believe as a reader—after the final page is turned and our hero has more to face, reckon with, and either grow from or be overwhelmed by. I like that idea of a story continuing, in feeling, anyway, in your head, in your heart, after its journey as that thing in your hands is complete. And what’s interesting to me is that this happens often more readily, or at least often more potently, with stories about children.
It was odd to me that Fitzgerald would slag off Tarkington, especially as some of his own best writing had to do with kids. But the notion was that children weren’t highbrow enough for art, for the official canon, in the way, maybe, that comedies and horror movies never get chosen on those Sight and Sound polls. Fuck off, Buster Keaton, and sorry, no vacancy, James Whale. Which leads to a lot of samey-ness. Adults can have a samey-ness to them, in ways that kids don’t.
Check out Fitzgerald’s Basil and Josephine stories sometime if all you know is Gatsby. Note how they absolutely pop with life. All you need to do is read the very first sentence, and that sensation of “whoa, fuck me, damn that is good” comes over you. I rate a work based on its life quotient, that popping, that elevated-off-the-page-ness, the humanity quality, the resonant factor that makes a host of different people feel that this work has all but been written exclusively for them, to speak to them as directly as possible, and with the perfect timing of that moment in their life when it can speak the best and do the most good.
There’s a capacity for wonder at play here, which kids tends to have and adults can lose. We’re tasked, as we get older, to be more learned, or that’s the expectation, anyway. But I don’t think you can do that at all unless you take how you were as a child and carry it forward into adulthood. The adult tends to ask why, whereas the child asks why not? The latter frees you up for anything, for the great and mighty all-that-might-come, what might knock you on your ass and change how you go about your life, which you wouldn’t have even seen if you dealt strictly in the world of whys. The child is inchoate, but the child is always assembling the personage, and when this leaves off, in life or in fiction, you get that horrible samey-ness to bore you out of your fucking mind. And nothing is worse than that, save, I don’t know, betrayal maybe, betrayal being tough to beat whether you’re a pirate, spouse, friend, or art enthusiast whose favorite creator has undersold his talent and opted out of the game of being a true difference maker.
Think about how it is when you go to a reunion or some such. That guy you kinda, sorta used to be friends with has a gut now, and not much hair, and he’s been in his career for twenty years, been so long since college, etc. And you talk to him for five minutes. And what do you almost always think? You think he’s the same exact guy, save that he’s fatter and balder now and has two kids and some different responsibilities, but if you rigged up the time machine and went back to the dorm or the student section of the football game, he’s the exact same dude who is even using some of the exact same lines of yore. There is change, but no growth. Or not much, anyway. Big difference, change v. growth. The withering normative. And if you do just get the one go-round in this life, I think that’s a way to piss it down the toilet, even if you have the nice house and some bucks in the bank and the biggest threat of any given day is whether or not they louse up your order at the Dunkin’ and you have to contend with sugar in the coffee.
Which doesn’t mean one has to go out and be Evel Knieval, but it does mean that there’s a lot to be learned from good fiction about kids, because they’re kids in those pages, but they’re also better versions, sometimes—or instructive versions—of how we might live better as adults. So that was my thinking with “The Deuce” (in Issue 82 of AGNI). I wrote it in 2013, one of six stories I did that year, after writing fifty-two in the last nine months of 2012. Which was fucked up. But I had some life stuff happen, I nearly died, and if I didn’t write, I would have had one of those deaths worse than actual deaths. Death in life, in my view, is worse than the death in the box. In a way I was like a kid, with that capacity for wonder, that “why not” sensibility when I heard various publishing types say that a writer mustn’t write very much in what, to me, is the age of people having little talent, wishing they had talent, having cronies pretend that they have talent, and talking more about writing than actually writing anything. The age of pretending to be things rather than being things. When any artist I ever cared about—Mozart, Schubert, Picasso, Fitzgerald, Keats, Miles Davis—went fast and went good. They weren’t there to comfort those who couldn’t do what they could; they were there to let rip. To do their thing. “Why not” people through and through.
The story takes place in the South, in 1966, against the backdrop of those Beatles record burnings that were myriad on account of John Lennon—a guy who would be witch-hunted to death in today’s internet shaming culture (but who would, I suspect, overcome all comers, ultimately)—remarking that the band was more popular than Jesus. There are adolescent trappings we all recognize—a battle of the bands, for instance—but Fenner, the protagonist, is grappling with other challenges. Life stuff. The stuff that if you render it properly, if you sink the reader’s hearts in the minds of the characters, in their tugging emotions, conflictions, doubts, needs, you will make the page pop. That life pop. His father is gone, he looks up to his older brother Thale, and Thale, who is diddling the wife of a former friend of Fenner’s whose dad died in Vietnam, is leaving for divinity school at Harvard.
Fenner is also in love. Or thinks he’s in love. I think he actually is. And I’m not someone who thinks love is very common. Pairing up is common. Person X accepting person Y and vice versa and going forward less in thrall and more in a kind of partnership is common. But love—I don’t think so. What’s especially hard about love is that it has a devil of a time existing without trust, and trust can be its own devil because when it’s broken, you break, like the Devil himself stood over you with a hammer and chisel and cracked you down to a handful of pebbles. He puts his trust in someone, there’s a Hummel—you know, those statues you associate with mangers at Christmastime—and a bit about snakes in the trees and shenanigans at a dirt bike course—The Deuce of the title—that embed themselves into this guy in a way that, you hope, makes a reader think about a story after its final word is read, and also the reader’s own life, in what I think of as its then-ness—as a kid—and its now-ness, as a person who grows, or who wants to, or who thinks it’s best to, or who has had some measure here to do that in some way. Maybe an unknown, unspoken way, but a way is a way, whether we’re boxed in, or whether we’re teeming, daily, with new directions to try.
When I wrote the story, it was a little over 5,000 words long, I think. It’s over 7,000 now, and I thank the good people at AGNI for encouraging me to go longer. Rare these days in this age of the short-short and the MFA trope, those forms that must be taught as the regular archetypes, because if it came down to telling a full story, with characters so real that you can believe they’re out there somewhere living their lives as you are living yours, well, you’d not have a lot of people ponying up the cash for grad school because that’s a talent thing, not a wish-to thing. True storytelling. Which is what matters more and more to me as I go along, trying to evolve as I can.
As for Fitzgerald, I think he was just nervous about his own standing as a writer. Not in terms of his ability so much as how he was perceived, would be perceived. There is “Writing,” you might say, and writing. The former is super serious without being super meaningful, that social realism that often isn’t very real. It’s a pretentious person’s (which is to say, an insecure person’s) version of what’s real, which infrequently syncs up with reality, and gibes better with the reality they wish to impose on the actual one. The projection-fest. And let’s face it: reading is usually boring. It is. When isn’t it? When it doesn’t feel like reading at all. Writing and not “Writing.” When it feels like an experience, one of being transported, over-made, completely subsumed in something that has no then, there, where, or what, but simply is. The one picture show in town, town being the world, because that’s how it feels when you are reading that story or book or work that truly pops. Fusillade, baby. Pages like ships’ cannons in parchment. The rest of it has no more bearing than the clouds that scud out of the sky each time the sun comes up. Not really. Not in actual lives. And if it’s not actual lives that we always come for, it’s for actual lives that we stay.
Colin Fleming’s fiction has appeared in the VQR, Post Road, Black Clock, Boulevard, and Cincinnati Review, with additional work running in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Boston Magazine. He’s a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition, and is completing a novel about a reluctant piano prodigy called The Freeze Tag Sessions; a work of nonfiction, Same Band You’ve Never Known: An Alternative Musical History of the Beatles; a children’s book called Silas Beaverton: The Beaver Who Tried to Dam the Ocean; and Musings with Franklin, a novel told entirely in conversation in a bar at Christmastime between Writer, Bartender, and the guy from the suburbs who dresses up as Ben Franklin. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.