Recently I’ve been corresponding with a man on death row. I work for a newspaper which covers sports at the Ohio State University, the main focus being football and the continuing endeavors of the OSU Buckeyes. The condemned man who wrote to us is a self-described “displaced Buckeye” in a Florida prison. He wanted to know if he qualified for a subscription discount as his funds were “limited.”


Having been a fan of David Goodwillie’s excellent 2005 memoir, Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time, I was a bit apprehensive when I heard he was publishing his first novel, American Subversive. I feared the worst: the dreaded second book bomb. It’s almost a cliche, to follow a great book with a flop. Then I read the book.

American Subversive, a tale of contrasts, is no disappointment. The book’s main characters are Aiden Cole, a self-absorbed entertainment blogger in NYC, and Paige Roderick, a southern Belle turned eco-bomber.   They meet after a bomb explodes in Midtown at the Barney’s on Madison Avenue. The intended target, an oil company, is not immediately discerned; the bomb has been detonated on the wrong floor by mistake.
The usual suspects are reigned in.  Aiden receives an anonymous email, along with a photo of a woman fleeing the scene. The woman is identified as Paige Roderick. This is the woman behind the blast, the email tells him. But who in the hell is Paige Roderick?  Should he go to the cops or break it in his blog?
What follows is the melding of two lives, in what struck me as a cross between Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang.
I caught up with Goodwillie as his book tour came through Ohio and asked a few questions. I followed up later on the phone.

What attracted you to this subject matter?

I was interested in the idea of people with a broader view of society. Americans grow up with a somewhat narrow mindset of how to proceed in the world.  There’s always a good guy and a bad guy, and capitalism is the only way to go. I grew up in Europe, and when I was in Paris there were always Communist demonstrations and nobody was ever alarmed. I think in America we grow up filtered from political events and sheltered from democracy.

Communist was a bad word when I was a kid. I didn’t even know what it meant until I grew up!

Exactly. I wanted to explore this theme via Paige and Aiden and bring two sides of their generation together.

Was there any autobiographical aspect in the character of Aiden?

No, not at all. I saw myself as neither of the characters in the book, but rather somewhere in the middle. I’m not apolitical and tend to be an avid news watcher, but I tried to keep the book agenda-free.  I didn’t want it to be any kind of a liberal screed. I wanted readers to make their conclusions.

In your book, Aiden works for a fictional website called Roorback.com, a sort of Gawker-like venue. Are you going to be putting up a real life Roorback soon?

Yes, I hope to have it up and running in a few days. It will have the same name and be run by professional NYC bloggers who will be assuming the identities of the characters in the book. It’s part experiment, part promotion.  We don’t know where it’s going yet.

You’ve been accumulating some accolades lately, including a nice mention in Vanity Fair. I was reading David Lipsky’s recently published conversations with David Foster Wallace, and Wallace speaks often about how praise and publicity really put the pressure on him to make every word he wrote bear the mark of a genius. Do you feel any similar pressure when your work is praised?

I don’t feel pressure in the sense that David Foster Wallace did. Wallace was in his own realm of genius and I can see him feeling the need to live up to that. My pressure comes from simply getting my book read and having it out there. Writing is my career, so I have to make sure readers know about my work so I can keep on writing. I think Wallace felt that art should speak for itself. The writer needs to be in the wings and let the world focus on the art and not the artist.

Did you have trouble switching from memoir-mode to fiction?

Novels are harder to write.  You have to pick and choose your characters.  You have to invent their world and keep the suspense going. Part of being a literary writer is to challenge yourself over and over—unlike a guy like, say, Dan Brown who basically writes the same book again and again. Joshua Ferris, who’s a friend of mine, recently came out with a new book [The Unnamed] which was completely different from his first novel, Then We Came to the End, which had a lot of comic schtick. And people were surprised when his second book was nothing like his first.  But I think in the long run Ferris will be much more appreciated for making this move. It took a lot of courage.

Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to know when to stop writing, too. I think Harper Lee knew she had said all she had to say in To Kill A Mockingbird.

That too. Salinger included. Hard to stop though, if you are a compulsive writer!



David Goodwillie is working on another novel while he follows the Mets in what he hopes will be an amazing season of victory.



The best discoveries are made by accident.

I was in the Knox County Courthouse, researching an obscure mystery writer (Delano Ames 1906-1987) who shared my hometown. I was taking a break from surfing through the Ames family documents and perusing their births, marriages and deaths when I noticed a wall of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with cream colored volumes. What, I wondered, could contain so much information? Land deeds? Criminal cases? Government overthrows?

It’s a piece of history that was neglected, I suspect, diminished by a daily barrage of war news, economic up and down turns and celebrities acting poorly. It would be a footnote, obscure as some inscription in a Pharaoh’s tomb or the answer to a thousand dollar question on Jeopardy! Even I barely heard the rumors. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them. I ask them to look it up.


My friend Ron called from Savannah last week. It’s a ritual in which he reports from the Deep South where he lives with his partner Jason. Ron wanted to tell me about a new Web site he’s discovered, one which shows men and women masturbating live, all over the world. I can tell he’s excited by the discovery, perhaps not just from a sexual view point but from a sociological stance as well. Maybe.

“It’s amazing,” he tells me. “Everyone is beating it, all over the world! Czechs, Muslims, Koreans. Everyone’s doing it live, and on camera!”

I take a moment to drink this in. I’d been to enough porn shows in NYC to know that most of the people who take off their clothes do it because they need the money or they are the type that should leave them on. People who want to share this private moment with you are most likely the ones you don’t really want to view in their onanistic private ecstasies. It doesn’t really appeal to me, this cyber exhibitionism; some things should be left to the privacy of your own noir. But perhaps this is just me being a prude in my old age. I would certainly cause trauma to most viewers if I participated myself.

“But get this,” he continues, “do you know what the crazy thing about this site really is?”

I don’t. It seems like fairly cut and dried content. No subplots, no post-modern deconstruction or Marxist diatribes.

“I give up,” I say, “what is so crazy about your jack-off site?”

“Everybody beats it the same way,” he says. “Everybody.”

Again, I was taken aback. You mean I do it like you and you do it like me and we all do it the same way? Then I thought, Could this be it, could this be the one great thing, the common denominator that unites men and women all over the world? Men who believe in Allah, men who kill for a living, men who calculate taxes, women who live in nunneries, patients in mental hospitals, those who don’t believe in God? Could this be the one deep and running thread that stitches us all together regardless of whether we speak Swahili, Esperanto or Norwegian, the unity of keeping a common beat?

Believe it or not, this started out as my holiday blog, but I went astray somewhere. My intentions were good. I wanted to write about the great men and women, Lenny Bruce, Martin Luther King, Mother Jones, your mom and dad and mine and how they all sought to bring us together by celebrating our commonality rather than our differences. And once we accepted our common bonds, we could grow and learn to love our differences down to the minutest details, including whom we rooted for in the Super Bowl.

I live in a neighborhood populated by Somalians. I have tried to to take this theory of commonality to my streets. I have often wondered what mutual bond we share, the Somalians and I, what fat we might chew should we decide to sit down and share a brewski.  Or whatever native drink they might imbibe. Frequently, I encounter one of my Somalian neighbors in a line at UDF or Speedway and I try to see what they might be be buying so that I might relate and perhaps use as a way to slide a foot into their somewhat impenetrable door. A Red Bull maybe? Or some jalapeno Doritos? A quart of Millers?

No.

Try Lactaid. A gallon of distilled water. A jar of decaf. What do these people live on?

I stand behind them and compliment their colorful garb which is so vibrant as to send me into a brief spin of blotter acid flashback. Suddenly the walls are breathing and I’m inside a giant amoeba which is slowly digesting me. Just as quickly, I snap out of it.

“That’s a beautiful scarf,” I say with my friendly Midwestern howdy-bub smile.

“Nejezulblezookskalomboomyha!,” replies my fellow shopper in what seems to me a cross between a mild rebuff and a distant thank you. Somehow I have the feeling that my compliment  was returned to sender. I think to offer them a bottle of Yoohoo chocolate drink from my basket but think better of it. Such beverages might violate a deep cultural code. They may worship the cocoa bean and vow never to drink it, I don’t know.

They probably said something like it’s against my honor to talk to foreign dogs. Who knows? What would Lenny Bruce do? Mother Jones? I don’t think a bond of masturbation techniques is going to help us here. Common global denominators seems an elusive phantom.

Perhaps masturbation could be just a first step in dismantling our differences. No matter how we do it, online or off, we are just a planet of rabid self-abusers. While wallowing through another holiday season, it’s nice to think of the bonds that draw us together rather than those which separate us. There are bonds and we need to exercise them. Come on people! We share DNA, a love of beer and cable TV and watching Tiger Woods unravel. And now, with this news flash from my fried Ron, we seem to march to the same beat, at least on the Internet. With such common interests, can we overcome our differences? I believe we can. Get busy.

Happy holidays.

It’s been a slow encroachment, subtle, like the onset of age or the shot that divides the casual user from confirmed addict. Perhaps it has been ticking inside me, like some DNA time-bomb waiting to release its gas, infecting me in increments until finally, I awake one day to realize: I have become a cranky old fart.


Never expect a good literary critique from a federal agent. I learned this the hard way, through a roundabout lesson via a maze of fear and loathing. These guys aren’t readers, they have other things on their mind. Seek your feedback elsewhere. They don’t hang in bookstores.


It’s December, 1988, a few days before Christmas. The Lower East Side is undecided between becoming an ocean of slush or a frozen plain of icy glass. It settles on cold and damp and stays that way into the new year. The invention of Prozac is still years away but if we had any we would be tossing them back like M & Ms.

I’m en route from NYC to Ohio to visit my ailing father. My mother had died the year before, followed by a sixty day stint I did in rehab to mend a massive predilection for alcohol. I was back in NYC now, not drinking, healthy and properly feeling the delayed grief my boozing had bottled up.

If I’d been with David Foster Wallace on the last day of his life, I might have offered him a chocolate bar and put some Prof. Longhair on the CD player. Chocolate’s always good for getting the Dopamine flowing and enlivens the “reward center” in your brain. As for Prof. Longhair, well, who can be depressed after hearing his Rum and Coco-Cola or Big Chief?


I kicked my last dope habit in federal prison and I can tell you, there’s nothing romantic about it. Whatever you might imagine the experience to be will probably not be far off the mark. Picture hellish monotony, cramps that never vanish, months of sleeplessness and of course, that special craving. Making art out of this experience is difficult. My own recollection of the episode is dank and foul. As Dante said of his Inferno, death is hardly more bitter.


In 2000 I had the opportunity to write a 10,000 word bio/crit piece on James Purdy for Scribner’s American Writers Series. Jay Parini, who was editor of those tomes at the time, gave me the green light when I suggested a piece on Purdy. James was always on my mind as a great writer who was under read. This would be my chance to champion his words.


Fourth grade, 1968. Ohio. It’s February and my hands are dry and caked with that elementary school paste we all love to smell and eat. Piles of red construction paper. Scissors. Scraps are all over the floor. We are making valentines for the whole class and a stack of crudely cut hearts was growing atop my little desk which doubled as a Duck & Cover shelter in case the Big One ever dropped.


In 2005 and 2006, I spent a year in federal prison for the alleged crime of “illicit sale of archaeological artifacts.” It’s not my case that I want to write about but the people I met while serving time. I was sentenced to a prison in northern Ohio on the Pennsylvania border near Youngstown, a one-time crime family capital of the state where a once strong steel industry gave way to corruption and gangs. It was, I suppose, a suitable location for a prison.

The unit where I was housed was over an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) block that contained mostly Hispanic inmates but also black, Dominican and Mexican prisoners along with a smattering of Europeans. It was from this unit I made my best friends. There was Andrew from Poland and Thomas from Germany and there were, of course, the Russians. Most of the latter were from Uzbekistan.

As one who had a passion for reading and writing, I spent most of my free time doing so. It doesn’t take much to earn a reputation in lock-up and I was soon dubbed the “Professor.”
Damn Professor, you reading another book? Haven’t you read every book by now?

I was often the deciding vote on many a prison debate. Hey Professor, is the moon a planet or a star? And even (this was a serious question, I swear), do brown cows give chocolate milk?


In his last novel, An Unfortunate Woman, Richard Brautigan wrote that no place is more surreal than the Midwest. He was right. To explore this issue further you should read Chuck Klosterman’s new book (and his first novel), Downtown Owl. In his amazing story you will meet a small band of inhabitants from a fictional North Dakota town called Owl, circa 1983. This crowd includes a transplanted teacher, a high school coach who impregnates students, students who make and don’t make the football team, alcoholic farmers, retired geezers, barflys and other sundry characters who not only make up the nuclei of our small towns but our larger metropoli.

If you grew up in a small town you have met these people, if you grew up in a large city you have probably still met them. Maybe one married your cousin or coached your nephews or nieces. Perhaps they drove into your brother’s car on a drunken Saturday night or gave you grandchildren. The characters in this town are Everymen and Klosterman paints them in their glaring humanity and vulnerability – he does not look down upon them at all. Klosterman is one of them. He grew up in North Dakota.