Bud wrote a new book! It’s out on Vintage, and everyone should be incredibly excited. It’s (unsurprisingly) great. In Teenager, Smith pokes and prods, deconstructs, and blows up a slew of “American Myths.” I love Teenager because you can describe it a dozen different ways to a dozen different people, and none would be wrong. It’s a road book. It’s about the death of the American dream. It’s a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a love story. Naturally, it is all of these things. Bud has crafted a superb novel that is fascinated with the question of what makes us American, but smart enough not to have a reasonable answer. Bud talks about it as a kind of loop: things are invented here, then tried out, exported, and refined, then brought back and tried again. And this repeats. Bud is part of this great tradition. Bud has brought it back and tried again. Bud has written the Great American Novel.
Below, we discuss the myth of America, the characters in Teenager, and influences that helped shape his book.
I really love the early scene with Kody and Teal smoking: “how do the women in the movies do it, how does Marlboro man do it?” It reminds me of Bruce Springsteen: girls comb their hair in the rear-view mirror and the boys try to look so hard. It really hits on the performance of youth.
I was just talking to someone about why the novel is called Teenager. About how when I was that age, I didn’t really know exactly what I could get away with, that time when you’re just stepping away from your parents and their home, their rules, and as good as home was or as bad as it was, you are yourself for the first time, often in those stolen little moments, often with your friends. You know, the girl combing her hair in the rearview mirror is doing it to be looked at, to see if she is admired by someone in the back seat, but she’s also looking in the rear view to figure out who she is going to be for the rest of her life. And the boys trying to act hard are going to find out how tough they are when they actually have to fight their first fights for looking tough. You learn who you are to the world pretty quick when you’re that age, and you spend the rest of your life fighting against it or surrendering to it. Being a teenager is new and seeing things for the possibilities there, your life can change for the better at any moment.
Can you talk about Kody’s seizures? What was the impetus for giving him this condition? The hallucinatory language of those scenes was almost startling, not just the imagery, but the way in which it is written.
I was thinking of those prophets who had visions, Moses with the burning bush. Maybe Moses had seizures, maybe his reality melted and when it melted, maybe God talked to him, but God was in his head. Once it starts to become like that, well maybe that talking snake in the Garden of Eden isn’t the Devil either, maybe you’ve just cracked your head open. The language in Teenager slips away as hallucination and fantasy opens like a flower. This is a realist work, with the door open for dreams, visions, nightmares, and the little hopes that keep people going. Teal imagining that if they get caught by the police, perhaps she and Kody can share a prison cell for the rest of their life, and have a family in prison, and the children will be born behind bars and eventually grow up in the prison and have their own children, making Kody and Teal happy incarcerated grandparents. To me, the unlikely miracles that Teal and Kody hope for are no different than any of those Bible stories.
Is there an American Dream? Was Hunter Thompson correct that it died in Las Vegas, or was it somewhere else? Is America an adult playground in the desert or a hamster wheel where every suburb and travel plaza and exit off the interstate looks the same?
The American Dream is just another thing that isn’t real anymore, or ever was. That’s why it’s called a dream, you’d have to leave your physical reality to find it. What we have is just another marketing campaign, for some nostalgic product that didn’t really exist to begin with. I do believe there is freedom for the individual in America, some parts of the globe don’t have this same level of individual freedom. That’s a fact. I love the citizens of this country, the roads that snake through it, the places on the wayside, the surprises. I’d feel that way of any country that’d accept me as a citizen. This earth is beautiful, in its own way, wherever you travel, if you look for the beauty of nature, you’ll find it. But you have to be looking. So really, the dream of the whole world is what I care about. Because it’s people that matter. Me, as an individual, all I can do in America is try to surround myself with friends and neighbors that I care about and try to do my part in caring for them. We do not have a utopia from sea to shining sea here. But it’s possible to make something close to a utopia in the room you are in now, with the people you care about.
Can you talk about Elvis as America’s Jesus? (an idea thrown out in the book) Who is the new Elvis?
We don’t have an American Jesus, either. Nobody is kind enough to match the storybooks. Nobody is magnanimous. There’s too much coverage, and all our would-be Jesuses are exposed for their human erroring right out the gate. There’s no way to maintain that facade anymore, the public relations can’t compete. When Elvis was revered, the information about him was as controlled as it ever was with any political figure. In Teenager, the Carticelli family has left the Catholic Church, for what they say has to do with the hypocrisy of priests and what the media has brought to light in regard to the molestation of small children, but that is happening in their own home. In reality, they have left the Catholic Church because the family had to get their daughter an abortion. The unspoken fear being: Is it the boyfriend’s child? Is it the father’s child? Which reminded me of Joseph and Mary and Jesus Christ himself. What child is this?