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Joseph Guiteau is a working actor who moved to New York to escape a tragic family history in the Midwest. Wandering through a city transformed by the attacks of September 2001, he frequents gatherings of conspiracy groups, trying to make sense of world events and his own personal history. Looming over his life is a secret that threatens to undermine his new marriage to Del, a snake expert at a city park, whose work visa is the only thread keeping her from deportation back to her...
Joseph Guiteau is a working actor who moved to New York to escape a tragic family history in the Midwest. Wandering through a city transformed by the attacks of September 2001, he frequents gatherings of conspiracy groups, trying to make sense of world events and his own personal history. Looming over his life is a secret that threatens to undermine his new marriage to Del, a snake expert at a city park, whose work visa is the only thread keeping her from deportation back to her native Greece.
The new marriage influences the lives of those around them: William, a dark and troubled actor whose sanity is fading as quickly as his career, leading him to perform increasingly desperate acts; Madi, a young entrepreneur who will have to face the moral complications of a business made successful by the outsourcing of American jobs to India; and her brother Raj, Del’s former lover, a promising photographer whose work details the empty rooms of an increasingly alienated city.
Christopher Bollen’s first novel captures the atmosphere of anxiety and loss that exists in Manhattan. It is a story of the city itself, and the interconnected lives of those attempting to navigate both Manhattan and their own mortality.
A quartet of isolated personalities drift the streets of post-9/11 New York in Bollen's debut literary novel.
Joseph Giteau graduated high school in Cincinnati, immediately left his reclusive, conspiracy-obsessed mother and moved to New York. Delphine Kousavos left a tiny Greek island and entered Columbia University. Madi and Raj Singh left a fractured biracial Florida home and found success in the Big Apple. The four characters' stories intertwine in this postmodern tale, seemingly random and chaotic on the surface but layered with existential malaise and good intentions gone wrong. Joseph found success as an actor, mostly in commercials, and mostly because of his good looks. But Joseph believes, though he admits his fear to no one, that he will die this year, his 35th, of heart failure, as did his father and grandfathers. Del drifted into a job as a reptile curator at the Bronx Zoo, a profession she dislikes enough to persuade Joseph, her lover of 10 months, to marry her so that she might stay in the country without a work visa. Madi, Del's closest friend from college, is the most successful of the four, a vice-president of a company outsourcing jobs to India. Raj, a talented photographer and Del's former lover, has fallen into an unidentifiable depression. Circling the group is William Asternathy, also an actor. William's looks are fading, and his career has been derailed by drugs and the party scene sparked by "that fast live-wire current circulating through the city." Another narrative opens when Joseph meets Aleksandra Andrews, widow of a suicide, a man embroiled in utility-deregulation fraud. Told in third person, there is symbolism to be contemplated, internal dialogue to define character and flashbacks that make Joseph the most sympathetic of the four. Nevertheless, in this realistic tale of love and loss, love and ambivalence, angst and anger, death deliberate and accidental, there are no heroes.
A dark character study rife with paradox and indirection.
We had lightning strikes all summer but no blackouts. Through May and June lightning came without rain, rising out of New Jersey like a laser concert and slicing east in white tracers through Manhattan. Storms were a huge attraction for those of us who moved here from the Midwest. We'd climb up to the rooftops as ritual to watch them roll in from the west, feeling momentarily connected to the cereal-grain prairies and humid river valleys that we had worked so desperately to escape. For a long time we did this without worry or risk. After all, in the years when we were still new to the city, rooftops served as our twenty-four-hour parks. They were our unpoliced drug lairs, our water-tower jungle gyms, our love nests for random hookups with enough of a romantic panorama not to feel ashamed when groping through underwear near a bed of moldering trash. Every building had one, junked with cables and rusted lawn furniture and billion-dollar views. For many years we were drunk and happy, loitering on these hot tar gardens, adding our slender bodies to the skyline. The storms, however, were different. They were a private matter, a religion best observed alone, and maybe only for the Midwesterners, because they were the ones who were killed.
First it happened to a twenty-three-year-old from St. Louis on a rooftop on Broome Street, then to a twenty-seven-year-old from Indiana on a sixth-floor tenement on the Lower East Side. Another lightning death occurred a few weeks later, also to a Midwesterner. The victims were all young men and women who had moved to the city within the last few years, scrounging for jobs or fame. And they had all been struck by a single bolt that ripped the shoes off their feet and melted the coins in their pockets. Although the newspapers never bothered to draw more than a cursory connection, each victim was described as "happy" or "ambitious" or "starting to make a real home in New York." "I don't know why the weather would take her," one grieving mother was quoted as saying. "You expect murders or burglaries. But you don't think your daughter is going to be killed by lightning in the middle of Manhattan. It makes no sense."
Most people will tell you that such deaths don't make sense. Lightning strikes contain all of the inexplicable characteristics of coincidence, no reason, just a dice roll—like a tornado rummaging through one house and leaving the next unbothered. Then there are tougher cynics like Del, who says that because crime is down, New York has to find creative ways to stay dangerous.
But I know the real explanation for these deaths—there is one for those who are willing to listen. The answer lies in the landscape itself. The Manhattan skyline has changed since I moved here from Cincinnati at the age of eighteen. What no one seems willing to mention is that before the World Trade Center fell, lightning rarely struck any parts of Manhattan other than the towers themselves, as they were the highest conductors in the city. But they are gone, and now we have taken their place, little conductors in our tight jeans and unwashed T-shirts, easy targets in a city that was supposed to hide us.
Tonight I poured whiskey into two glass tumblers and watched snow fall across the television screen. Outside, taxis sped south toward the bridges, and Del and I kissed on the bed as close as we could to the air-conditioning. Her tongue was dry and her neck heavy, our faces blue in the television light. After she smoked her last cigarette, we took our clothes off. We did not have sex. We were nervous, and Del was tired. "Get the lights, will you?" she said, as she reached over and set the alarm clock for 8 am. I thought the final moments of our single lives might turn us into feral sex partners, but we stuck to our routine. Tomorrow morning we are getting married at City Hall.
I wish I could say that I am marrying Delphine Kousavos, a beau?tiful Greek woman with long black hair and a bad smoking habit, only out of love—that we bumped into each other on Seventh Street near Tomkins Square Park eight months ago and, clinging to each other's arms and sentences, are about to spend thirty dollars for a two-minute ceremony. That also isn't the correct explanation of events. It's just the easiest story to tell.
Many of us came to New York to get away from the stories of our childhoods, hoping here they would no longer apply. For a long time I thought I could shake the predictions told to me about my family, the ones my mother raised me on in a darkened house in Cincinnati that took each death as evidence, each year as a clue. There is a pattern that runs through the generations, a conspiracy in the bloodstream that kills with perfect timing. For many years, I thought nothing from back there could find me. Those stories could be wrong. But they could also be devastatingly correct.
If I am right, I won't live to see our first anniversary.
For a while I was very young here and didn't need to give in to the paranoia. I remember a lot of first days in this city: how a morning could lead to a fist fight with a homeless woman, a request by a model scout on Broadway to come in to an agency for pictures, an offer of a part-time job cater-waiting for a group of Chinese diplo?mats, or a four-milligram Klonopin shared with a failed child actor hiding from Hollywood before riding bicycles around an empty loft in Tribeca until our minds became unglued at dawn. All of those first shiny details told us that we had gotten very far from where we started, and that there was good reason to expect more.
We still go up to the rooftops. We still look at the storms dragging in from the west. At some point, we stopped thinking of our time here as an open story that would only end well. Lightning doesn't strike the same place twice until it does. Behind every senseless tragedy there is a careful logic. At some point, the weather changed when no one was looking, and we were no longer so young in New York.
Joseph Guiteau married a Grecian snake charmer.
Not from Greece immediately, not by a long shot. There was hardly an accent to her vowels. She was a woman with a penchant for 1970s American rock, two credit cards in her wallet, and an alumni library card issued from Columbia University. She didn't carry her United States work permit with her, but she had it to show when necessary. It was never necessary. The Bronx Zoo ("world's greatest animal park in the world's wildest city") made sure to keep the noses of their Bengal tigers, adult Congo gorillas, and white alpine owls clean as far as the INS went by staying up to date on their employee files. Delphine Kousavos, sanitizer of anaconda cages, nurse to the irritable copperhead, specialist of the western diamondback, loved Joseph Guiteau. She had real feelings for him. As a child on her tiny island of Amorgos, she'd never dreamed of marrying a star of shaving cream commercials in a foreign municipal building at the age of thirty-two. But Del understood the facts as they were dealt. She had lived with Joseph in their Gramercy apartment for five months. She handled beasts far more venomous than actors. She married him on the morning of June 14, 2007.
Joseph was so nervous he couldn't get the ring on her finger. Quiet seconds passed inside Marriage Chapel #2 as he shifted his weight on his left foot and then his right, jamming the ring against Del's knuckle. The silver-haired Puerto Rican court official, who must have seen every combination of man and woman that ever existed swea?ring eternal love before her, swallowed hard and closed her eyes. "It's not . . . " Joseph stuttered, glancing up at Del and then back at her hand, his hairline breaking in green sweat beads under the ticking green fluorescents. Del suppressed a small laugh and fixed her eyes on the New York City emblem painted on the wall behind him. A pilgrim and an Indian stood side by side, staring blankly inside a ring of wheat; the two looked very much like a lonely immigrant couple taking their chances on matrimony just like everyone else.
Del's finger started to swell.
"Let me," she said quickly. Before Joseph could stop her, she grabbed the ring and slipped it cleanly over her knuckle. The judge clenched the edges of the podium and, in a mangled Spanish accent, pronounced them man and wife.
"You shouldn't have done that," Joseph said later, when they walked through the metal detectors and out into the downtown sidewalk frantic with bike messengers and secretaries in the noontime rush.
"Done what?" Del replied. "I hope you don't mean marry you."
"I mean the ring. You shouldn't have had to put it on yourself."
"Did you notice the poor girl who came in after us was eight months pregnant and bawling her eyes out? I think it went beauti?fully. Considering."
Joseph reached for her hand and held it for a second as they crossed through the stalled traffic on Centre Street. Office lights glared faintly in the windows surrounding City Hall Park. The sidewalk was cano?pied in magnolia branches, hanging low from the weight of brown buds. Joseph unknotted his necktie, and Del pulled the white gardenia from her hair, loosening a braid that unraveled in a tangle down her back. She made only a perfunctory attempt at working out the knot. Her fingers were still shaking, and she saw that Joseph's were too. Her heels on the cobblestones were as loud as their breaths, and neither of them spoke or looked at the other. She threw the gardenia into the park's dry fountain well and scanned Broadway for a taxi that would take them the thirty blocks home. Del noticed that nearly every bench and tree in this part of town was decorated with a small chrome plaque, a few engraved with commemorations of the dead, others blank and shining in the sun, waiting to be filled with the names of future ghosts.
"It's going to be impossible to get a cab," Joseph said, stepping out into the traffic with his arm raised. "We should have booked a car."
"Why don't we take the subway? It's only six stops, and we can pick up some wine at Nico's—"
Joseph cut her off with an aggravated sigh.
"I'm not bringing you home on public transportation."
Now that they had gotten married, they were suddenly talking to each other like strangers. Del watched Joseph try and fail to flag down an off-duty cab. Right then, he looked less familiar to her than he had in all the months that they had been living together. His blue eyes seemed lodged in deeper sockets, and the sunlight located hidden strands of red in his dark blond hair, which matched the color of his lips. His face was tired and more angular than it had been that morning, but his body jerked restlessly in his pinstripe suit. She noticed his skinny ankles peeking from under his pant cuffs. She stopped herself from telling him that he was being ridiculous to care about how they were getting home—what about the convenience of a ceremony at City Hall did he not understand?— but she knew that his pride was at stake. First the ring and now the likely prospect of no ten-dollar fare to see them back. Del followed him into the street and slid her arms underneath his suit coat. She rubbed her lips lightly against his neck, until an erection grew in the pants she had hung in the bathroom that morning to smooth the wrinkles with the shower steam.
"Come on, Joe. It doesn't make any difference to me." She turned in her blue crepe de chine dress to start off for the entrance to the 6 train, leaving Joseph no choice but to stumble after her. As Del reached into her purse for her pouch of nicotine and rolling papers, she smiled, indulging an old habit for generalizations that she had worked to control over the years. Americans, she thought, those consummate tourists even in their personal lives, always needed their photo ops and rented limos with streamers icing the hood to ensure that an event was marked by happiness. But as soon as this thought crowded her mind, she realized her own people were far worse when it came to weddings—perhaps the guiltiest on earth in celebrations of love.
"Fine. We'll do it your way," Joseph grumbled as he searched his wallet for his MetroCard.
"Believe me, you're getting off easy. If we were married in Greece, you'd want an annulment after four days, and my family would still be parading around drunk, pelting you with rice every time you stood up to use the bathroom."
"Please don't tell your parents I took you home like this," Joseph pleaded, pausing at the steps leading down to the subway platform. The whole day was greasy with June light, and he pinched his eyes to acclimate them to the darkness underground.
"Only you couldn't get an annulment," Del continued, lost in the imaginary picture of her relatives dressed in white linen to the backdrop of the Aegean Sea. "Because my grandfather is the only judge on the island. So at a certain point it would stop being rice thrown at you and start being stones."
"Christ," he laughed uneasily. "Exactly what kind of family have I married into? Is there anything else you want to tell me?"
Del shrugged, left her cigarette rolling for Gramercy Park, and passed through the teeth of the subway turnstile. Her muscles relaxed in the cool, dirty winds brought by a train coming through the uptown tunnel.
In the comparatively modest month of wedding prepara?tions in the Kousavos-Guiteau household, Joseph had suggested early on that they rent out a bar on the Bowery to celebrate. They could invite a hundred friends, serve crustless triangle sandwiches smeared with anchovies as a hat tip to tradition, and encourage everyone to speed dance and drink gallons of champagne for maximum elation—"until we're all just one pile of melted plastic by the end of the night," he had said enthusiastically. "That's how you make it offi?cial." Joseph had tried to sell this plan to Del in part to ensure that their post-wedding lives wouldn't be a descent into the particularly agoraphobic form of hibernation new couples tended to take on. But Joseph also suspected that there was a reason for receptions. They provided the necessary distraction from realizing that you had just entered a binding legal contract with one of its chief clauses stipula?ting eternal unity. Too much time alone with the eternal leaves even the most dedicated wanting to jump through the nearest window, eyes on any escape route.
He remembered Del's response. "No," she had said flatly. "That sounds so exhausting."
"Well, how do you suggest we mark the occasion?"
Del hadn't answered him. She had let the plan drop and for weeks had avoided the issue. Now, alone in the silence of their apartment two hours after the ceremony, Joseph felt justified in the wisdom of his instincts. He slowly took off his coat and hung it in the closet off the bedroom. He walked back into the living room and leaned against the windowsill to pull his shoes from his feet. He rubbed the indentations that the leather left on his ankles and looked out the window, where a crew of undernourished skateboarders sped under the fire escape. Del was locked in the bathroom, removing her dress and makeup, as she had been for the last forty minutes. He occasionally heard the click of a lighter followed by the smell of smoke to indicate that she was in no hurry to return to him. He sat on the sofa to stare at the afternoon light slanting across the floor and then stood up to find the bottle of wine that they had bought on their walk home. He unpeeled the foil but didn't open it.
Joseph didn't know what he was supposed to do to fill the hours after the wedding. The nervousness of the morning continued to hang over them. As soon as they unlocked the front door, he felt like they were moving awkwardly around each other, touching only by acci?dent as they passed down the hall. As a professional actor who earned his money by the amount of repeated airings of his commercials rather than by the hours it took to film them in the first place, Joseph was accustomed to filling up free time. Hell, it was an art form the way he could transform an unaccounted day into a nonstop rush of errands, phone calls, Internet searches, masturbation, and previously uncharted routes through side streets in the East Village to discover novelty bookshops and second-hand stores whose only purpose was to distract the armies of artists and drifters who made up much of the city's rudderless population. Even before they had agreed to get married, Del took on the tone of a disgruntled wife a few weeks into their cohabitation. "What the fuck do you do all day?" she'd ask him with her arms crossed over her chest in judgment. He'd always provide the same answer: "I've been thinking." Del seemed to regard "thinking" as an activity equivalent to playing the lottery—lots of irrational hope with no net results—but it was true that in the last year Joseph consumed whole hours lost in thought. He thought on a bench in Madison Square Park about his family, about the people who had lived and died before him in Ohio, about the coincidences that ran through his bloodline. Sometimes, to waste an hour, he even attended certain meetings filled with paranoid cases who thought out loud about government plots and impossible cover-ups. Those voices made his own thoughts seem less crazed, almost normal by comparison. Joseph never shared what he was thinking with Del. He guarded those secrets the same way that he protected his most personal possessions when Del first moved into the apartment: in small closed boxes as if to say, some items are just mine. Even though we live together, you aren't allowed in.
He stood as still as he could in the middle of the living room. He heard the shower run in the bathroom and Del's voice humming along to a song stuck in her head. For a second, as his fingers began to undo the top button of his shirt, he wondered if it was fair to marry a woman whom he couldn't let in completely. Jitters too late infected his mind: You, Joseph Guiteau, wearing a pinstripe suit, are only an actor playing the part of a happy groom. What right did he have marrying a woman whom he blocked and shielded from his worst secrets, who had only learned scattered pieces of his life edited and scoured of their grimmest details? He often went silent when Del threw her hands on her head in exasperation and said, "Doesn't anyone in this city have a nine-to-five job anymore? Am I the only person who has to wake up in the morning?" Work had been her signal complaint since they met. He knew she hated her job at the zoo, stuck giving tours and cleaning snake cages to stay in the country on her visa. But as of today she wouldn't have to worry about that anymore. She could be free now. Joseph loved her enough to give her that.
"It's just jitters," he said out loud to drive them away. He inhaled deeply and walked to the bathroom door. "Del, you almost ready?"
"A minute," she yelled.
He returned to the sofa, unbuttoning his shirt and wiping the sweat from his chest. A bleating car alarm in the street mixed with the muffled motor of a garbage truck, all the ordinary echoes of the city telling him that it was still a normal day, and soon the nerves would pass and he and Del could go on, living like they had, in their rented apartment five flights above the sidewalk behind the matted branches of the elm trees.
It occurred to him to call someone with the news. Isn't that what someone was supposed to do when they married, tell the ones they loved? Joseph reached for the cell phone in his pocket, unsure of whom to call. He hadn't spoken to his only relative in nearly fifteen years. He was amazed that he still remembered the ten-digit number of the house in Cincinnati and was so taken with his immediate recall that he only regretted dialing when he heard the first ring. After three more rings a voice answered tiredly, distrustfully, like the vocal chords were out of practice.
He had not heard that voice since he left Ohio, and he remem?bered it now, how it had deepened in pitch after his father's death. He struggled to return the simple greeting, but his tongue shut down against his teeth. His mother was the last person who would celebrate the news of his wedding. She had already given up all belief in the value of such eternal commitments. That low Midwestern voice had been the one to tell him all through his childhood that there was only one thing he could count on with certainty: ending up like his father, and the father before him. Maybe she had changed, he thought, as he tried again to say hello. But he waited through the silence of the receiver.
The bathroom door opened, and Del walked out with a towel knotted over her breasts. A wet rolled cigarette hung clumsily from her mouth. She smiled and then squinted her eyes when she noticed the phone at his ear.
"Who are you calling?" she asked as she tapped her cigarette into the ashtray on the dresser.
There was no reason to tell his mother the news. There was no reason after so many years to tell her anything. Maybe he just wanted to know that she was still there in the house in Cincinnati, with power lines connected to the utility poles along the street as if keeping the whole house moored to a world that his mother had long given up. Joseph closed the phone and dropped it on the coffee table.
"No one," he said with a smile. Del picked up the wine bottle and rammed the corkscrew into the bottle. Her hands were wet, and the handle slipped from her grip. He grabbed the bottle to open it for her, and she walked past him into the bedroom. She returned a minute later pushing a pair of faded gray jeans over her hips. A black bra hung over her shoulders, unfastened in the middle, and her breasts slapped her thin freckled arms as she fought the unwilling zipper.
"Hey," he said, "We're married." Del looked up at him with her eyebrows lifted, and in that moment Joseph no longer felt waylaid by the anxiety of the morning. Yes, they really were married. The day had happened. He just needed to say it out loud to someone.
Del laughed and pointed to the stereo on the dresser.
"Put on some music then," she said. She patted his left cheek as she made her way toward the kitchen. "I'm sorry I didn't agree to a party. I guess you're just going to have to forgive me."
He was relieved to see her easy, ungraceful walk in the shadows of the hallway. Maybe love was the closest thing to feeling safe in the world. As safe as two people can be anymore.
"You love me, right?" he yelled to her. He didn't want to stop talking now that they had found their foothold in each other again. He knew it was stupid to ask that question on the day of their wedding, but the sound of his mother's voice had brought too many doubts to circle in his mind. "You're happy. About today, I mean."
As he put one of Del's favorite records on the stereo—an erratic '70s rock ballad that reminded him of drilled cavities and reminded her always of molten romance—she stepped back into the hallway.
"Of course I love you. More than anyone ever. Christ, what a fucking question."
But was that the absolute truth? The day had been filled with questions, but they only asked for answers in the present tense: I do. Not I will. Not I did. Del made moussaka for dinner from the recipe her mother had given her, a list of ingredients and baking directions typed on a piece of paper that proved its merit in its thick wax of ancient, corroded grease stains. They ate the meal at the table under candlelight, where Del made excuses to return to the kitchen to splash cold water on her face and take sips of whiskey from a glass on the counter. At the table she drank wine and reached her hand out to stroke Joseph's arm with her knuckles. When there was nothing left of the moussaka in the pan, nothing left of the day but the last hour to midnight, she followed Joseph into the bedroom. They kissed on the bed as her fingers dug below the waist of his pants, tracking the scant hairs of his stomach until they flowered around his penis. Enough light from the street shone through the diamond grates of the window for Del to see Joseph clearly. His straight white teeth and the solid architecture of his face always managed to astound her. She appreciated how handsome, how disturbingly and un-menacingly Midwestern those features were, how they matched some old idea of what American men looked like when she had imagined them at night on her bed as a child. She pulled herself away with a final kiss and told him she needed a glass of water. The temperature was nearing a hundred degrees in their apartment tonight.
She loved Joseph. More than anyone. But the unconditional "ever" might have been a bit of a romantic leap. In truth, there were other men that filled up the dark island in her head reserved for those names and faces she had once felt certain she had loved. Del had a habit of returning to that island, of sitting with those ghosts for concentrated minutes, desperate to resurrect details—accents, dinners, states of circumcision, arguments, intimate conversations that felt like walking over a cliff together—that made remembering them worth the price. What was the value of holding on to someone if she couldn't hold them again later in her mind? As she walked quietly through the apartment on the night of her wedding, slightly drunk on the combination of whiskey and wine, she allowed herself to remember the first time love had inhabited human form to unbalance the contents of her heart.
Dash Winslow had been as striking and ridiculous as his name implied. Dash had seduced Del at Columbia on the grass lawn next to Rodin's Thinker simply by standing before her one afternoon, cutting a shadow over her Anatomy of the Human Brain reader. He had long red hair that descended into brown as it reached his elbows and a thick red beard that brought out disturbing green eyes, which made him look possessed by a marauding homicidal Viking. What he was possessed by, in their senior year at Columbia, was a family who had the audacity to name their second son Dashiell, owned a huge chunk of commercial real estate on Long Island, and bankrolled an entire hall in the Islamic wing at the Met. Thus Dash's ripped heavy-metal T-shirts and piled-on silver chains and even the yellow daisy that he tucked thoughtfully behind his ear could easily be written off as an attempt at low-grade rebellion while attending a middlebrow Ivy. But Dash really was possessed. His pupils held a dilation that could only be seen in others during the peaks of an intense acid trip. He brought Del back to his off-campus apartment and fucked her three times in two hours. He spread a bedsheet out on his balcony and, naked, they watched the sun cinder into New Jersey and the home?less build their tents in Riverside Park. They drank whiskey and smoked pot as they leaned against each other. That was the night she first fell in love with single malt scotch, a lasting indulgence, and also with him.
Like someone who came from extreme privilege and unlike someone tied to the responsibilities it obligates, Dash carried a reckless confidence that she had never seen in a man her age. She was used to settling for the occasional half-hearted orgasm with one of the cerebral loners who didn't have her work-study obligations, waking up at seven on weekend mornings to pack bags of fetal pigs in the biology freezer, which she favored to churning out collated color copies for the junior faculty. Dash claimed her as his girlfriend right away, picking her up most nights in front of her dorm on 114th Street, placing his gray wool fedora over her head, and taking her to underground clubs on the Lower East Side that he had frequented since he was thirteen. She couldn't believe this side of New York had always existed without her ever tapping into it. Somehow, like most Columbia undergrads, Del had been left stranded inside the wrought iron of the Upper West Side, living on the cool sophistication of subway rides down to Soho for student-teacher cocktail parties in renovated lofts with Abstract Expressionist prints the color of urine on the bathroom walls.
Dash was naked so often when they were together, the red curls covering his nipples and matching the flaming tuft above his hooked erect penis, a part of her felt detached when running into him on campus and seeing him dressed in camouflage pants with absurd yellow handkerchiefs tied around his wrists—like he was dressing for a world outside of the one they shared. Yes, she considered herself a feminist. Yes, she held a lit candle on the march down Amsterdam Avenue to take back the night and attended seminars on the brutality of fashion magazines and female genital mutilation in remote West African villages. But Dash could hand her a blade of grass that he picked on his way to meet her and she'd keep it preserved in the gold locket she wore around her neck. He played bass in a band called Splatter Pattern. She had briefly tried out as a backup singer, but, as Dash himself said, "You sing like you're being electrocuted for a crime you didn't commit." Instead she sat behind the curtain at their shows smoking a dozen cigarettes and throwing death glances at the girls who assembled around the stage—models or junkies or wannabes of either camp who looked pretty and lost under the colored lights. Alas, she'd found her type: He was an artist. He bought Marcel Breuer metal chairs and twisted them into useless piles of junk.
Del and the red Viking had fallen so hard for each other that the morning after they graduated—she magna cum laude in biology, he a "walking degree" until he finished a full summer semester of classes and a mandatory gym requirement—he asked her if she would consider living with him and having a baby. "Isn't that what all this money I've got is for?" he asked, while kicking a combat boot toward the ceiling fan that circled slowly above his bed. "Let's make a child because we have so much love it needs to spill into something else." What he didn't know—and what she did—was that her stomach was already carrying a dark secret. What she didn't know—and what he did—was that he was about to embark on a two-month tour with his band. They were both twenty-one.
Her parents were a furious chorus of answering-machine messages. She tried to stop drinking the scotch in his apartment for the baby she hadn't yet told him about. She had moved her clothes into his closets and spent evenings camped out naked on his balcony when she received the news that Dash had been with his two bandmates in a blue Mustang at 12:30 am on Summerlick Highway outside of Boston when they were hit head-on by a semi traveling at seventy miles per hour. The driver was alive but in serious condition.
The man in the front seat had been beheaded by the truck's grill. The passenger in the back had sustained such grave injuries that he bled to death as the police tried to cut him out of the Mustang's chassis. Dash had not said anything to the officers as they worked to pry him out of the skeletal backseat, but one of them got the sense that he had, for a while anyway, been conscious. Del's college roommate and best friend, Madeline Singh, held her hand for twenty-eight days. Madi held it when Del was not invited to the funeral by the Winslow family, held it as Del agonized about whether or not to have the baby, tried to hold it as they waited on the plastic bowl seats at the Planned Parenthood clinic, and used every inch of her hands to clasp on to Del at John F. Kennedy Airport before her flight back to Greece, to go home, to get away from New York, to be embraced by a family that had already framed her diploma over their living room clock, encased in glass to keep the sea salt from infecting the gears.
Del spent a year on Amorgos before returning to New York. In those four seasons drifting in the quiet Aegean she gained pounds and invested her afternoons in her own studies, first in the heart muscles of the human anatomy and then, with a strange interest in toxins and circulatory structures, in herpetology, reptiles, the cold-bloods. The western diamondback drew her particular interest, fangs on one end, a rattle on the other, swerving through the deserts of America, reminding her of the country she missed. Madi kept a bed waiting for her return in an apartment on the edge of the East Village. By the time Del climbed out of a taxi on Avenue B with two pieces of luggage and a box of vinyl records—the only item she took from her dead boyfriend's apartment before she slipped the key under the door—the pain of losing Dash Winslow had pretty much dissipated into the heartbreak of failed possibilities. Or rather, Del saw him for the distortion he had always been, a gorgeous kid who had been amplified in the head of another as the perfect, all-answe?ring, money-backed future. He had finally been consigned to a blade of grass hidden in a locket at the bottom of her jewelry box.
Eleven years later, she stood at the kitchen counter filling a glass with water from the faucet, and she could actually blame Dash's death as the reason she had tumbled out of permanent citizenship in the United States by leaving that summer for Greece. If she had stayed, gone to graduate school or landed a job in biology research, she would have been granted one of those passes that the INS bestows on students who remain in the beneficent kingdoms of the educated working class. Instead, she had to apply all over again for visas, collecting letters from employers and friends on her merits every few years, paying cash for immigration lawyers who said "the chances are good, Ms. Kousavos. You work at one of the city's top tourist attrac?tions. Now when are you going to get that panda pregnant? My son loves pandas. Do you think you can swindle free weekend passes?"
The last thing her father had said to her when she was home for Christmas three years ago was, "Don't you do something drastic, young lady. Don't go marrying some fool American for the papers, for the citizen card. You do a wedding here with your mother. We decorate the whole town for you." She hadn't phoned them yet to give them the news, and part of her wondered if she needed to tell them at all. Families far away are allotted such small windows into the lives of their children, wasn't it best to let them imagine her world the way they wanted to, as if every day the Statue of Liberty drifted behind her shoulder and cops cleared her path at night until she was safely locked behind her door? It amazed her that she had survived fifteen years in the city, for much of that time staying out late enough to see dawn break through the yellow night sky, and still her parents cautioned her to be careful if she told them she was visiting a friend in Brooklyn. "Take a taxi," her mother would plead. "We will send you the money if you cannot afford it." (This from a woman who felt spending more than twenty dollars on a dress constituted financial delusion.)
Her parents would not have approved of the scant fifth-floor apart?ment she and Joseph called home. The ceiling in the kitchen had turned a septic brown from water leaks, and scabs of paint dangled over the table, ready to drift like dandruff over their meals. The dark oak floorboards in the living room were severely warped, sprouting loose nail heads that left the soles of her feet in a constant callus. But the worst was the heat. Even when she moved into the apartment in the bitter January cold, carrying box after box up five flights and tracking snow across the wood until most of her belongings sat in puddles, the rooms hung to their fever. That winter the windowpanes shriveled until they no longer sealed out the wind. But a few feet from the frosted glass, Del and Joseph danced to her collection of old records, sweating in shorts and stretched-out T-shirts, as if they alone had fallen into a billboard advertisement for a tropical time?share while the rest of the city was submerged in ice.
They used the air conditioner sparingly all summer. The mayor and the evening news warned of tri-borough blackouts. "They'll pull the power whether we use it or not," Joseph said, fingers threatening to engage the on-switch. "They're telling us this because Con Edison's already worked a few well-timed blackouts into their yearly budgets." "Don't be stupid," she replied. "They are afraid of mass revolts in the street. Can you imagine what crimes would go on if this city were left for a night in total darkness? Do you want to be stuck in an elevator for ten hours? It's serious, Joe."
She carried the glass down the hallway and into the living room, where she noticed the stereo's needle skipping on the last grooves of a record. Her stereo. Now theirs. The stereo had been one of her chief contributions to the mingling of appliances. She wondered how long it would be until those distinctions would dissolve, possessives failing to modify, his and hers being ours without the slightest impulse to claim. They never argued over drawers or closets or cabinet shelves. The fights they had about the heat or his juvenile actor friends could hardly be classified as arguments. Often when her voice hardened into the first signs of irritation, Joseph would draw a slow smile, nod his head in quiet concession, and let her opening assault be the last words on the issue. Madi always said that silence was the male form of hysteria, "All that quiet is just another way of screaming their dicks off." But Del couldn't help but be impressed by Joseph's composure, and usually her highly charged rage would suddenly transform into a hungry adrenaline, her lips guiding toward his mouth and her hands wrapping around his ears, and then she'd go hot for him, because he was so attractive when he didn't realize he had done anything to stop her dead in her tracks.
"Del," he called from the bedroom.
It amazed her how quickly the evening had returned to normal. The night she asked Joseph to marry her almost a month ago, she walked into the living room ready to supply him with a list of incen?tives. She had spent her subway ride home from the zoo merging love with legalities—"You see, I don't have to be tied to a working visa," she rehearsed, "You see, they can't kick me out of the country just because I feel like quitting. You see, I'd only be tied to you"—until those words almost reduced her to tears. She imagined him looking at her like an extinguished bulb, two eyes with popped filaments, skin the shade of gray glass, and her teeth chattered and her throat went dry. Why the hell would he agree? Why would anyone get married if they didn't have to? She asked him while she straddled his lap on the couch, unable to keep a cigarette from her mouth, and for the first time in all of their months as a couple, Joseph answered immediately without a single pause coming between them.
She entered the bedroom, letting go of that island where Dash still dwelled, climbing on to the warm, open stretch of their mattress. Joseph pulled off her clothes and lifted her pale, skinny body with its moles and snakebite scars on top of him. He put on a condom before he went into her, and she shifted her weight to trigger the little beast that goes loose in her brain. She wondered what made her think of Dash Winslow from eleven years ago, because he hadn't been the only love of her life. At one point, that had been Madi's older brother, Raj, who was even more disposed than Joseph to prolonged silences. It didn't matter who found her first or who claimed her the hardest. What mattered was who stayed on.
She watched Joseph's face contort, and she pushed her tongue between his teeth to fill his mouth with thanks. This is home, this is my husband, this has been decided, she thought.
Questions for Christopher Bollen
Did you set out to write a "9/11" novel?
No, not in the sense that I set out to capture the madness and sorrow of that event or day. My novel is set in the summer of 2007, six years after 9/11. But I did want to write a novel about New York, and I think it's safe to say that 9/11 does haunt the book just as it haunted the city in the years after the World Trade Center fell. I wanted to describe the city in a way that I wasn't finding in other books or films, which, I thought quite eerily, more often than not, portrayed New York as this safe, glamorous upper-class playground for endless shopping excursions and speed-dating. It seemed to me that the creative minds of our time had internalized President Bush's command that we all go shopping as our response to such a tragedy, and that didn't sit well with me. It wasn't the New York I knew or experienced. I wanted to write about a city that was rife with a soured optimism, a feeling of constant panic and uncertainty, a place that people had come to for maximum dream fulfillment only to find that those dreams had turned very dark. New York is still a hard, tough, dangerous city, where it takes a lot of bruising to survive. I think that has a great deal to do with what happened on 9/11. We were constantly being told something could blow up at any minute and yet we went on living here, trying to move forward as normally as we could. So in a sense, Lightning People is really a story about the consequences of the past decade. But New York has always had both sides of the dime: the hopeful and possible as well as the desperate and unpredictable.
What is it about New York that makes it such a compelling setting for stories?
New York is a character-study paradise. What other city has so many different kinds of people packed so tightly together? It really is a city of émigrés—whether they are coming from the Midwest or from the middle of India—and it always has been. It's Ellis Island with twenty-four-hour public transportation. It's also a street city, which means its citizens are forced to interact everyday without any protection whenever they leave the house. That offers a lot of writerly opportunities that wouldn't necessarily be possible in car towns and suburban sprawls like Cincinnati. I've always appreciated New York's innate geographic abilities to level out classes and kinds. The rich and poor, the old and the young, the new and the long-established not only live in the same neighborhood but often in the same building. That gives the sense that nothing is set or restricted. Writers, whether its Wharton or McInerney, have always seized on this melee. And, let's face it, New York is one of the few places that prizes its living artists. So writers naturally set up shop here. And writers like to write what they see.
Who lives in "your" New York?
The gutter punks who sleep in front of my building with their spotless German Shepherd puppy; the middle-aged brothers from Somalia who pour my coffee at the deli and talk of the blockbuster films they watch at night; the billionaire's son who enters my elevator at work; the artists who are back from a show in Switzerland with sore necks from the red-eye flight and are starting a new series of paintings for another show next month somewhere else in Switzerland; the crack addict playing chess in the park; the photographer who sleeps on friend's sofa which is so much easier now because everything is shot in digital so there are no more fees on film; the college interns with homemade clothes approximating the designer clothes they carry in garment bags through Soho; the crying friends who call about their jobs and loneliness from other offices; the heavy-set man who stands on the corner at night asking for change and then always makes sure to say "god bless" as you pass whether you put a quarter in his empty fast-food cup or not.
Is it important to you that your characters find a sense of redemption? Why or why not?
I'm against happy pat endings. In fact, I'm against endings, since they seem so unreal and artificial. I especially don't like the sense that characters learn some magical, beautiful epiphany in the final pages that makes the reader understand they will be better, happier souls sailing into oblivion after the end of the book. It's actually quite Catholic, the novelist's love of last-minute redemption, so maybe I'm rebelling against all those year at all-boys Jesuit. I think mostly people keep falling into the same patterns, try as they do for a sense of redemption, they end up repeating their behaviors again and again. We're too complex as people to be satisfied by a sudden lightning flash of reason or meaning and then our pasts no longer tear at our arms like little cloying children. But of course growth isn't necessarily redemption, and we can grow. Characters do learn and get wiser and maybe realize themselves a bit more fully, and that, for some characters, is important. Others never do. I have to say I've always secretly liked Jacosta in Oedipus when she begs the king not to dig deeper, that they will be happier if he doesn't search out the truth. He, of course, does and they aren't redeemed but ruined by what he uncovers. That seems entirely more likely in such quests for wisdom: the possibility that what you learn about yourself doesn't necessarily save or rescue you.
Who have you discovered lately?
Two writers I've discovered in the last month are Paula Fox and her hard-as-nails realist novel Desperate Characters, which was published in 1970 and somehow eluded me until now. And I'm halfway through a non-fiction account of journalist Stephen Kinzer's time in Nicaragua during the fall of Somoza, the rise of the Sandinistas, and the Contra war in his epic Blood of Brothers. Kinzer manages to take in the country with such a vast panorama and yet covers the country with so many dazzling details. I'm more than a little jealous that I didn't spend my twenties as a foreign correspondent. Maybe New York counts.
Posted August 23, 2011
I was intrigued when I read the synopsis of this book and decided to pre order a copy. I had high expectations and not only did this book meet those expectations, it exceeded them! Lightning People is by far the best book I've read all year. Lightning People could be called a New York novel but that would be doing it a disservice as it's so much bigger than that. It's an epic, plot driven, character piece that grips you from beginning to end. The central characters - Del, Madi, Joseph, Raj and William - will haunt you for weeks after you finish reading. I still can't help but think of them each day. In fact, I miss them! The plot continuosly twists and turns. It's one of those books that are impossible to put down. It's about paranoia, love, loss, friendship, rattlesnakes, multiculturalism, marriage, green cards, murder.....and that's just part one! I was surprised to see that this was Christopher Bollen's first novel. He really knows how to craft complex characters and place. I live in Tampa and for one week I was completely transported and engulfed by the gritty and seductive streets of New York City. Not only is Bollen a sophisticated writer, he is obviously a great observer of people and life. I really think he has communicated something important about the human condition with this book. I'm excited to see what he does next. It's rare to find a book that is so entertaining and edifying. A MUST READ!
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2012
I kept waiting for this book to get better. Maybe I'm out of touch or
maybe I just wasn't getting what the author was trying to convey but if you read this book, be prepared to get depressed. To say that almost all
of the characters in this book are "undirected" is a gift to Bollen. They lie, cheat and steal and even murder with no real consequences other than the frustration of the fruitlessness of their miserable lives. There are no heroes and everyone is incredibly flawed. A bad story well written.
Posted September 19, 2011
Hard to put down. Great characters, with great depth, that you really care about. Bollen's a great writer, hard to believe this is his first novel. I can't wait to see what he does next.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 6, 2011
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Posted October 17, 2011
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