January 09, 2014
Drew Perry’s new novel, Kids These Days, is hilarious. I don’t say that about too many books. As Edmund Gwenn said on his deathbed: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Good comedy, above all, takes great pathos, along with a high degree of vulnerability, brutal honesty, a capacity for ventriloquism, and a uniquely skewed world view. If you don’t possess all of the above, you won’t be able to pull off the sort outlandish set pieces Drew Perry pulls off.
Walter and Alice are expecting their first baby, but their timing is a bit off: Walter, once a successful loan officer, has been unexpectedly downsized. They’ve had to relocate to Florida so that they can live rent-free—in Alice’s deceased aunt’s condo. When Alice’s brother-in-law Mid offers Walter a job, he literally can’t refuse. But what he doesn’t know—about the nature of the job, about the depth of Mid’s shady dealings, about what he’s really supposed to be doing—far outweighs what he does know. And soon enough, things escalate so out of control that Walter is riding shotgun with Mid in a bright yellow Camaro—chased by the police.
Here’s a meandering conversation I had with Drew while I was hungover. Be warned, there’s bound to be spoilers.
JE: Here we’ve got two men, one an expectant father, the other an unhinged father of four girls. I’ve gotta confess, I wanted to strangle Walter (expectant) for not manning up, and yet, I never actually lost patience with Mid, who is bat-shit crazy, and makes the worst possible decisions at every juncture. Why do you suppose that is? Is it because Mid is actually doing something about his situation, albeit doing really stupid things? Is it because he’s optimistic? And how is it significant that all the children involved are female, including the unborn baby, assumed to be female?
DP: I love that you said “manning up” — that’s what’s got Walter so tied in knots. He’s living in a world, he believes, where one is supposed to Man Up to the extent that one has to Become A Dad. As in, his man card is going to get revoked if he can’t figure out how to do it, and do it with the exact right mix of backyard beers-by-the-grill manly exhaustion and then also quickly-proffered bent-edged wallet pictures of the child one has of course come to adore. I’m on his side, frankly — I think we operate, for whatever reason, in a culture that wants frenzied, unquestioning procreation, and wants holiday cards filled with beach scenes of the family in matching oxfords to prove it. (I tell you this even as I have kids of my own whom I now adore, and a holiday card at least as vain and twee as anyone else’s.)
BUT, but but: yeah. Walter sucks a little (a lot?) at being in the world, even if I am on his side, and Mid — well, Mid’s failing universally, but he is in fact (at least?) trying. That’s the difference between them. Mid’s got it wired, if incorrectly, and Walter’s just staring helplessly at the instruction sheet. And Mid is optimistic — he just keeps believing he’s going to find some way out, whereas Walter rolls along pretty sure a plague of frogs is in the forecast. As for all the children in question being female: I liked the idea of Walter fearing that he was falling into a world he could not possibly understand — a world of babies, of children — and also into a world of women. This is in no way to say that child husbandry belongs somehow to the feminine (though I fear it too often does) — but rather that I wanted to make Walter’s onrushing world be as absolutely foreign, and therefore frightening, as possible.
Also, let us discuss, generally, masculinity in crisis. This is a continuing theme in my own work as well. I’m tired of hearing critics and readers complain about “ineffectual,” and “whiny” male characters (usually a misdiagnosis to begin with). Whiny? My protagonist Ben is whiny because he lost his children and feels responsible for it? He’s ineffectual because he’s not sure how to proceed? Because he can’t move on? Because he wishes his wife would take him back? Because he wishes he could undo the damage? It sometimes feels as though men aren’t allowed to discuss the fears and pitfalls attending masculinity without being labeled as something less than a man. Nobody seems to want to hear it. Often these complaints come from women readers, which begs the question: is there a double standard at work here? Because I read a lot of books where women protagonists explore at great length the complexities and expectations of being female, and nobody seems to be calling them “whiny” or “ineffectual” female characters.
Let us revise your question with your own line from The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving: “Few spectacles are more conspicuous and ungainly than the masculine figure in crisis.” I’m not sure how prepared I am to leap into the pile of hot coals that is the conversation about gender and publishing, but let’s go ahead and end my career: I want (some) novels to get to be about men (or women) freaking the hell out about the massive, crazy, and utterly domestic responsibility that attends to a thing like being married or making a kid. I want characters to get to do things other than board ships and chase whales, though I reserve the right for them to do that, too. And by the way: Who is Ishmael other than a whiny, ineffectual male character who’s just kind of losing his shit and quite literally along for the ride?
Maybe it’s this: Maybe men who are freaking out along a certain set of lines — men who don’t or can’t come to life-altering realizations right away, or who don’t immediately know which grand gesture might remove them from their current fate, get called whiny. I think that’s pretty unfortunate. I think rudderlessness, even as expressed in the male of our species, is a pretty universal human gig. Must we always have the conquering hero? Couldn’t we also have a not-that-tall guy sitting at a stoplight in a hazy panic, trying to decide whether to go home or flee? My guess is you feel this way, too — Revised Fundamentals orbits its planets around the question of which male might be more damaged: your wheelchair-bound muse, or his utterly paralyzed able-bodied caretaker. Or do you think of all this differently?
I guess it comes back to expectations. Traditional gender roles dictate that dudes are supposed to be decisive, and logical, and action oriented. Well, Mid is decisive and action oriented, and his logic is consistent, if not hopelessly flawed, and look at the fucking mess he makes. With each grand gesture, he only digs his hole deeper. How much of this expectation to act, to solve, to not “whine” do you suppose is self-imposed, and how much do you feel is imposed by societal pressures in 2014? And is it me, or does this conversation seem to be moving backwards in recent years? Are women wearying of narratives in which men assume non-traditional roles—caregivers, stay-at-home dads, etc?
There seem to be some corners of the culture that want your 2014 male to be a Bravo-TV-watching Marlboro Man who can change diapers and whip up a preserved lemon/quinoa salad in a single bound. Or: If our idea of maleness or manliness runs from Duck Dynasty to Matt Lauer, then it’s clear we don’t, as a culture anyway, have any idea what we want or need men to be. I, by the way, suffer from this: I change, as happily as is possible, diaper upon diaper, and I know what quinoa is, if not how or why to make it, but I also want to be able to heroically fix the water heater when it goes, and reap the Viking-like rewards afterwards.
Mid is without a doubt a reflection of these kinds of pressures, if they can even be called that. One of the odd things here is that we’re talking about the difficulty of men having to become actual people in a post-Mad Men universe — in other words, people who do stuff but also have to have, and report having, actual feelings. Mid’s hidebound by the need to be the hero, to fix things quietly and painfully—a bumbling John Wayne in a borrowed sports car. Walter knows he needs to be better than that, and that the question’s not as easy as that, but he has no idea how to proceed. And as for the question of women being weary of the Mr. Mom narrative—aren’t men weary of it, too? When we bring the baby home from the hospital, isn’t that, in 2014, the kind of catastrophe that requires full participation from every Viking on the ship? And, man, let me tell you: I have sat on the back porch, having no idea at all how to solve the screaming, inconsolable baby in the house, and I have done some whining.
But being a dad, it’s the best, right? It changes you in such a fundamental way. Sometimes, I worry that my work will suffer from a lack of heart, because when I go downstairs to write, I leave so much of my heart upstairs with my kids. Really, they steal from my art, the little turds, because they are clearly the most important works-in-progress in my life. Novel writing takes a back seat. If it didn’t, I’d be an asshole. And there are already plenty of asshole dads out there. And moms, too. What about you,
how have you dealt with the work dynamic since having kids? Did you have kids yet when you wrote Kids These Days? If not, and you wrote it again, would your perspective be different?
Oh, God, fatherhood is the best thing ever. It is destroying my entire life, and laying waste to my new novel-in-progress, and I would not hand it back to anyone for anything in the world. I was so delighted, after I read Revised Fundamentals and then looked you up and discovered you’d built some sweet cabin and lived on an island — all of that seemed from a land before kids — to discover that you, too, had kids. That you could write that book and have kids.
There’s a half-day school in a church behind my house — you can see its steeple from my writing shed window — and we put both kids over there so that we can have writing time (my wife is at work on a first novel) and so that they don’t suffer from our desperately antisocial tendencies, and might come into contact with other humans their age. That walk back home on school mornings — in winter I’ve already lit a fire in the shed; in spring and fall I’ve already opened all the windows wide — is when I get my head together, try to leave the world of being this dad and husband and enter the world of whatever I’m working on. It’s hard as hell leaving one to go to the other, but necessary. I’m a better dad to these boys if I can also somehow remain a working writer.
I didn’t have children when I started Kids These Days, but my wife was winning the argument about it, and I was utterly terrified. I always write towards what I’m afraid of, and this is the novel that arrived. I don’t think I’d do it differently now, though — while I love these boys more than I’ve ever loved anything, I have no real trouble remembering being petrified of their coming into the world, and I think that’s something we don’t talk about enough — that kids, and having kids, while amazing, is also scary and awful and deeply impossible.
Do you even remember the days of, say, getting to write in the mornings and then go back to the desk in the afternoons and evenings to revise? Do you remember having whole days and weeks of time that was all your own? Do you remember sleeping in?
Well, lucky for me, I’ve never been much of a sleeper. Thank goodness, my wife is really cool, and respectful of my writing time. When I’m not touring, like the past few months, I go out to the cabin myself for a couple of days every week, and work about twelve hours a day. Then I go out in the garage and drink beer for a few hours, daydreaming the story and listening to records, then I wake up (hopefully in a bed) and write for twelve hours, again. As you know, these large stretches are extremely valuable. It’s hard to get in a rhythm when you’re fighting for a few hours here and there. I start to feel pressure, like the clock is ticking. So, the other thing I’ve been doing lately is getting up at 4:45 a.m., and getting a solid three hours of writing in the morning before anyone wakes up—and you’re absolutely right, I’m a better parent and a better person for getting this work done.
With regards to parenthood being scary, yeah, it’s terrifying at times. There are so many ways to fuck up a kid. God knows my parents found a few. I make mistakes all the time, but on the whole, like writing, I feel if I’m giving it everything I’ve got, heart and soul, then things will turn out okay. Or not. Ask me again in ten years.
Switching gears, let’s talk about Florida. What a weird fucking place. I love reading stuff set in Florida. What has been you experience with the sunshine state?
My family’s vacationed at the same half-shabby weekly rental condo in the same town where the novel is set for the past thirty-ish years, so Florida, and that part of Florida, feels very much like a kind of home. And I think the great thing about Florida, or about beach towns in general, is that they feel like America, but more so: more brightly lit, more desperate and more laid-back at the same time, odder, chancier—nothing says more about the American experiment, or more quickly, than the sunglasses-and-bikini gas station/liquor store. Right? So there’s that, plus the older narrative of the ocean—the idea that one might hop a boat and just sail away, with or without the patronage of the Spanish crown (why can’t I stop talking about seafaring in this conversation?). I don’t know—I didn’t make a conscious “Hey, let’s set it in wacky Florida” kind of decision. I’m a writer who needs to know landscape intimately, so the stray details might come together to draw the whole, and that string of beaches south of St. Augustine is an area I know without need for map or photo. Plus the weather. Plus roadside orange stands. Souvenir keychains. Biker bars serving fish sandwiches. Endless elections for sheriff and register of deeds. I love it all completely, and without prejudice.
I’ve been to the coast of the west coast, and it feels familiar, if somehow a little more watchcapped—but you know these beach towns, no?
Yes, I think I know these beach towns, mostly from being a fifth generation Californian. Up in the northwest, where I’ve lived the majority of my life, we have a much sadder, grittier variety of beach town than say, Pismo Beach. We have economically gutted lumber towns, forever socked in rain. Not so many bikinis. Plenty of guns, though. I guess you could say that feels like America but more so, too. What I do recognize in the Florida you conjur are the wide open spaces and dashed optimism of unfinished developments on the way, way outskirts of town, places like the development in which Mid builds his castle, that have names like Heron Cove. And I also recognize the rugged individualism of people who pedal around in hand gliders, and build giant billboards in their yard and cover them with Libertarian dogma. I feel like both corners of the country, SE and NW, fly the freak flag higher than most places in America. So, I can see that Walter’s doubts must have grown somewhat out of your own doubts, but what about Mid? Was Mid inspired by anybody in particular? He’s a great character. I love loose cannons.
Heron Cove: No herons, no cove. And always the loonies next door, too — you’re right. We in the southeast tend to think we’ve got it all all over everywhere else for crazy, but it’s just not so. There’s plenty of crazy to go around, which is often enough how I think of my own work: Why invent from scratch when I can steal, albeit carefully, from the ever-stranger world around? If I see a guy in the middle of the street beating a yield sign with a chain, doesn’t he have to make an appearance?
Mid, in answer to your question, took over the book a little bit. I had him in mind as a kind of hybrid study of folks I’ve known who are forever chasing the next big idea (as though that’s somehow different from what novelists do), and I had him as a kind of straw man for corporate avarice, but then he landed on the page so fun to write that I kept finding scenes to put him in. He’s a televangelist, or a conversion van salesman — except he’s also a pretty damn good father, and a man with a real heart. (Sorry, van salesmen. Didn’t mean to do that to you.) I initially wanted (spoiler alert) to keep him in jail, but then the book wasn’t as interesting without him. I love that he really, truly believes that he can solve the world, and we know for certain that he can’t. He took over the book in the way he takes over Walter’s life, and that little funhouse mirror was one of the engines that drove things. That and Delton, who had much the same effect.
Finally, why do you do it—write novels, I mean? It’s a thankless occupation, and you’ve many empty folding chairs awaiting you out there, in Barnes and Nobles across this great land. Why go forth?
You know, even as I invent ways and reasons to get up from the desk — to go over to the side yard to split firewood, to check and see if that sound is squirrels getting into the eaves of the writing shed again, to hang and rehang hooks on the walls for hats and coats, to check my damn email a seventeenth time — I write because I have to. Because I’m not whole without it. For the reasons you and I talked about a minute ago — because I can’t be a dad or a spouse unless I’m also writing. Because I want to find new ways to twin up comedy and tragedy. Because there’s so much I don’t understand about being alive, and writing stories lets me figure one or two more things out each time—and the hope is, I guess, that it does the same for those readers out there. It works that way for me when I read. It’s a system of being, right? Narrative? It’s one more way to try to learn the world.