headshot_smallWhen we last spoke, in 2011, you attempted to pass yourself off as an unlikely Rock Novelist. How did you go about making the transition to unlikely Surf Novelist?

It all started with a place. La Libertad is a bizarre and fascinating beach town on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast. It’s home to a world-class point-break, as well as a serious crack cocaine epidemic. I spent a lot of time there in my early twenties—back when it was still below the surfing radar and I was a Peace Corps volunteer about 50 miles away. The beauty and the grit of La Lib, with its mix of surfers, fishermen, drug dealers, and addicts is something I always wanted to write about.

K99_coverIt wasn’t long after I’d broken up with Alex, a few short months into my service, a year and a half before the earthquake. Some girlfriends from my training group talked me into a weekend at the beach. Four of us rented two rooms in La Posada’s cheap wing—which was the first time I ever saw the place. Once our backpacks were shoved inside, we all went to a shorefront restaurant for midday drinks.

I’d not surfed in years, and never outside of Hawai‘i. It hadn’t occurred to me that there might be waves in El Salvador. Straight away, I could tell a swell was running. The rocky point—which began at the restaurant—stretched far out to sea. It was longer than any wave I’d seen on Oahu, and had no closed-out sections. I studied it while the other girls smoked and chatted.

Soon, I saw a bearded gringo, prone on his surfboard, riding white water into shore.

I answered the door in my pajamas.  The taller of the two girls standing there asked for my roommate, Sheldon.

“He didn’t come home last night,” I said.

“We know you,” the shorter one said.

“I think I served you once.”

“That’s right,” she said. “In Montana. Like a year ago.”

The three of us nodded, pleased to have cleared up that mystery.

“Would you like to come inside?” I asked.

They called me Pelochucho. My best friends were Chuck Norris, Palo de Coco, and El Socio. Peseta gave us all our nicknames: mine for my hair, Chuck Norris for his beard, Palo de Coco for his height, and El Socio because he was Puerto Rican. Peseta was a local crack-head whose own name came from the Salvadoran twenty-five cent piece. At one time, he’d been the best surfer in La Libertad. Now he begged quarters from tourists and handed out nicknames.

For anyone waiting for the publishing industry to embrace the rock novel, 2011 has been a breakout year. First, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Then this past summer Ecco released Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, which was just named one of the New York Times‘ 10 Best Books of 2011. Scribner followed with Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, which has been reviewed well across the board, even by me, and it was also named a finalist for the 2011 Nobbies. Each of these novels takes seriously the idea that rock and lit can mix, and each succeeds in its way. Still, I couldn’t help but find something lacking in all of them. All three employ rock and roll as an effective prop or backdrop, but what about rock as the ultimate adolescent dream–the sex, the drugs, the backstage shenanigans–that motivated so many of my and other generations? Each these novels has elements of this, but none tackles it as head-on as Tyler McMahon’s debut How the Mistakes were Made.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again to present The Nobbies, the official book awards of The Nervous Breakdown.

Below you’ll find this year’s winners, our picks for the best books of 2011.

Congrats to the victors, and their publishers.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

-BL

 

This past spring, I found myself mixed up in a series of hiring and job application ordeals. My wife went through a rigorous string of interviews for a new position. I wrote half a dozen recommendation letters for friends. As a member of a departmental search committee, I read CVs from hundreds of potential professors, attended live teaching workshops, had drinks with candidates.

Born in the Ukraine but uprooted to the Boston suburbs after the KGB blacklisted her physicist father, Alina Simone is responsible for several great indie rock albums. Her 2008 all-Russian-language tribute to the too-short career of Siberian punk-folk singer Yanka Dyagileva, Everyone is Crying out to Me, Beware, was called “lovely and mournful” by Billboard, “mesmerizing” by Spin. Released simultaneously with her third full-length album (Make Your Own Danger), Simone’s You Must Go and Win is an essay collection that chronicles the author’s struggles with family, with her homeland, and with the elusive dream of success in the music world.

Continued from here

The Place

We woke up early the next morning to check the surf. It was smaller than yesterday and all blown out.

“Looks pretty shitty out there,” Marty said. “And the tide’s low. Maybe we should head south and get our morning session in someplace down the road.”

I agreed. I’d break my neck on that reef if the waves any shallower than yesterday.

The Pharmacy

“Let me get this straight,” the pharmacist said, “you have a drivers’ license from Virginia, an address in Orange County, and you’re here in Encinitas to pick-up a prescription written by a dentist from Utah.”

I didn’t mention that I’d been diagnosed by a radiologist from Louisiana.

“Here’s the thing.” Marty said, “The kid works for me. That’s the thing.”

It didn’t help that Marty held the biggest, cheapest bottle of vodka in the store with one hand, his credit card in the other hand.

I first saw a copy of Fishboy through the window of a Virginia bookstore. This was 1997 or so. I was walking through Richmond with Vincent, about my only friend in the state at this time, on a short break from college. He’d read the book; the cover stopped him in his tracks. He swore I’d love it. I went inside and bought a copy.

It doesn’t surprise me that I went back to Montana Snowbowl after Peace Corps. Many of my friends and former colleagues found jobs with federal agencies or NGOs. Several studied policy or took for the Foreign Service exam. Not me. I couldn’t get into that sort of thing.

This wasn’t long after George W. Bush usurped the presidency and squandered the goodwill and sympathy of the world. These were times that the historians of the future will look back on as “The Oil Wars”—when millions of poor people died to secure a soon-to-be-obsolete resource, just as they did for spices, slaves, and religious trinkets in Dark Ages past. The government color-coded our fear and gave us a list of products to purchase accordingly. Electrical tape for yellow alert. Batteries for orange. Rolls of plastic for red. There was talk of a draft.

Note: All names have been changed.

Trainer Howard explains that never, under any circumstances, are we to hug an inmate. Shaking hands is also against the rules. He recommends bumping knuckles, and asks one of the trainees to stand up. They demonstrate fist-bumps several times, to be sure that we grasp the concept.

We’re to keep hand sanitizer in our cars and apply it before and after each class—to fight off hepatitis and other contagious diseases that abound in the facilities. We’re not to discuss sensitive issues with the inmates—like suicide or Hawaiian sovereignty. If we enter the prison with a cigarette or a dollar bill, we might face felony charges. We’re not to allow physical contact between inmates during class (apparently, sex acts in larger classes have been an issue). We’re to have no contact with friends or families of inmates. In the event of a riot or hostage situation, we’re to remain calm.

Jazz Hands

I worked on a cattle-breeding farm in central Virginia for one summer during college. My first week involved long hours of bush-hogging—hauling a sort of heavy-duty lawnmower though pastures of shoulder-high brown grass, so that the cows could access the sweeter green shoots beneath. The tractor was top of the line, with an air-conditioned cab and tape deck. I’d listen to audiobooks and entertain myself by beheading black snakes and watching their decapitated bodies spout blood and slither in circles through the rear-view mirror. In the mornings, I’d often rouse families of sleeping deer that had bedded down in the tall grass. Spotted does and spindly-legged fawns would bound towards the trees like Olympic hurdlers.

Humping Gear

By Tyler McMahon

Music

The secret to rock and roll resides in the nose hairs. Years ago, a veteran bassist taught us to pluck them in order to stay awake during all-night drives. I remind Josh of this, as the sign for the last Truckee exit glows green and white in the van’s headlights then disappears into the darkness.

Eli snores from the back seat, wedged between amps, instrument cases, and the world’s heaviest Hammond organ.

“Maybe we should stop,” I say.

“Too late,” Josh says. “We passed all our crash pads.”