The Correspondenceby J. D. Daniels
The first collection from a Whiting Writers’ Award winner whose work has become a fixture of The Paris Review and n+1
Can civilization save us from ourselves? That is the question J. D. Daniels asks in his first book, a series of six letters written during dark nights of the soul. Working from his own highly varied experienceas a/b>/i>/i>
The first collection from a Whiting Writers’ Award winner whose work has become a fixture of The Paris Review and n+1
Can civilization save us from ourselves? That is the question J. D. Daniels asks in his first book, a series of six letters written during dark nights of the soul. Working from his own highly varied experienceas a janitor, a night watchman, an adjunct professor, a drunk, an exterminator, a dutiful sonhe considers how far books and learning and psychoanalysis can get us, and how much we’re stuck in the mud.
In prose wound as tight as a copper spring, Daniels takes us from the highways of his native Kentucky to the Balearic Islands and from the Pampas of Brazil to the rarefied precincts of Cambridge, Massachusetts. His traveling companions include psychotic kindergarten teachers, Israeli sailors, and Southern Baptists on fire for Christ. In each dispatch, Daniels takes risksnot just literary (voice, tone, form) but also more immediate, such as spending two years on a Brazilian jiu-jitsu team (he gets beaten to a pulp, repeatedly) or participating in group psychoanalysis (where he goes temporarily insane).
Daniels is that rare thing, a writer completely in earnest whose wit never deserts him, even in extremis. Inventive, intimate, restless, streetwise, and erudite, The Correspondence introduces a brave and original observer of the inner life under pressure.
In this collection of six essays, loosely styled as letters (though not addressed to anyone in particular), Daniels investigates a series of personal subjects and experiences. In the first letter, written from Cambridge, Mass., Daniels details the years he spent training and competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He enjoys the fighting, for reasons he can barely identify, but there are costs to his personal life. The next letter, written from Majorca, explains how an Israeli ship captain recruited Daniels to work on a boat just as Daniels’s relationships were falling apart at home. His “Letter from Kentucky” is a conflicted but passionate personal odyssey through the region where his family has lived for generations. Here he realizes he can’t help but write about his father: “His aim was to protect me from the darkness all around us, using the darkness inside himself.” The other letters feature profiles of a disturbed, paranoid man, a couple enmeshed in a love triangle, and Daniels’s bizarre experience with something called a “residential group-relations conference.” Throughout the book, Daniels masterfully hints at other stories just off the page, revealing much about himself but never too much. Although the essays mostly lack traditional qualities of letters, they comprise a fascinating correspondence from his world. The letters here represent a bold and daring contribution to belles lettres; Daniels is an essayist to watch. (Jan.)
“[A] stunning debut . . . Delivered with the storytelling talents of John Jeremiah Sullivan and brimming with the folkloric, true-life tales of Breece D’J Pancake, these tales are funny; unrepentantly realist; and, in their way, awfully elegant . . . With careful wit, an attention to emotional nuance that reaches down to the gut, and an astounding ear for dialogue, Daniels writes with a kind of brutal authenticity that is not easily faked, whichever side of auto-fiction’s hyphen he’s writing from.” Diego Báez, Booklist (starred review)
“A fascinating correspondence . . . Throughout the book, Daniels masterfully hints at other stories just off the page, revealing much about himself but never too much . . . The letters here represent a bold and daring contribution to belles lettres; Daniels is an essayist to watch.” Publishers Weekly
"An essayist who writes like a rattlesnake, his sentences coiled yet always ready to strike with venomous impact . . . [Daniels's] spare, elemental prose conjures old haunts, old hurts, and old friends who are dead or are in prison . . . extraordinary . . . An uncommonly auspicious debut.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"The Correspondence is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time, a whole new music that changes the score of masculinity, and a new kind of writing too, one that pushes form and sentence into radical, contemporary shapes. The word ‘honesty’ has become something of an irritant in contemporary literary culture: J. D. Daniels does something more moral than be simply honest. He invokes the grandeur and abasement of experience with a tactility of language that makes a psychological landscape of it, rather as the ancient Greeks did, and his notions of justice and truth are as richly textured as theirs. I have lent this slim, meaningful book to one person after another, and received the confirmation that it has changed their view of the world with its economy, its potency, its different fall of light."
Rachel Cusk, author of TRANSIT
"Masculinity as vulnerable, smelly smackdown, personal failure as syntactic delight: In this volatile, brilliant collection, Daniels recollects in not-quite tranquility a series of synesthesiac rearrangements of the self. The riveting swerves of his sentences and of his geographic and spiritual wanderings will make you keep asking what “here” might be. These essays pay tribute to 'the world… our common property.'”
Lisa Cohen, author of ALL WE KNOW
"The Correspondence gives off the unmistakeable crackle of an original writer who has found a new form. It's hard to say who or what is meant to be on the receiving end of these "letters," but if you care about modern life you need to read them."
John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of PULPHEAD
"Daniels sees what others don't, feels what others won't, and writes what others can't. He is a blazing virtuoso of the English sentence, an oracle with a vulnerable and willing heart, and he has produced a shockingly perfect book."
Sarah Manguso, author of ONGOINGNESS
"J. D. Daniels's The Correspondence is an epic in fragments: masterly, comic, wise, daring. It is a book for everyone, from Kentucky to Cambridge to Kathmandu, though as a reader you may feel that Daniels is trafficking in secrets, meant for you alone. It is occult. It is so strong, it will melt the books on the shelves around it. This is a book that will become a legend, introducing one of the very best writers in the country. If I could thrust it into every true reader's hands, I would."
Mark Greif, author of THE AGE OF THE CRISIS OF MAN
“What a nutjob! Increasingly these three words constitute my highest praise for – almost my ideal of – a writer, and in this regard J. D. Daniels takes the biscuit. I love the way he throws out everything, both in the sense of throwing it all at us, and the opposite: discarding everything that might be deemed necessary to the seemly construction of narrative. So The Correspondence gives us the best of both worlds.”
Geoff Dyer, author of WHITE SANDS
“Questions that occurred to me as I read this brilliant, baffling book: What the hell is this? Who the hell is this? Is this poetry? How can that sentence be so good? Can I steal that later? In 130 pages, Daniels shows you just about everything great prose can do. Books like this are why I read.”
Tom Bissell, author of APOSTLE
"Through the speed and shocking cuts of his prose, Daniels shows us what it is to be a writer now. Each of these six letters is a modern expression of Baudelaire's tortured prayer: 'O Lord God grant me the grace to produce a few good verses, which shall prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.'"
Michael Clune, author of GAMELIFE
"J.D. Daniels is a scourge to an America drunk on fraudulent images of masculinity and to a literary scene enamored of dainty exhibitionism. A writer so rigorously on guard against complacency that he's likely to take any compliment paid him like a slap in the face."
Marco Roth, author of THE SCIENTISTS
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Read an Excerpt
By J. D. Daniels
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2017 J. D. Daniels
All rights reserved.
LETTER FROM CAMBRIDGE
A couple of years ago I joined one of those clubs where they teach you how to knock the shit out of other people. The first lesson is how to get the shit knocked out of yourself. The first lesson is all there is. It lasts between eighty and a hundred years, depending on your initial shit content.
* * *
There is no diamond as precious as a tooth, so I shoved a boil-and-bite mouthpiece into my backpack with my cup and jockstrap before I headed for Allston to begin studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu. It was 5:00 a.m. on a January morning in 2008.
The gym was under a laundromat and it smelled like a sweat sock. I looked around and saw an octagonal cage with its door hanging open, a boxing ring, four heavy bags, kettle bells, medicine balls, a rowing machine, interlocking mats on the floor, and a sign in the bathroom that said HEY GENIUS, DO NOT PUT PAPER TOWELS IN THE TOILET.
I signed a standard waiver promising not to sue the management in the extremely probable event of my incurring an injury. I was thirty-three years old, five-ten, one-sixty.
We ran laps and did five hundred sit-ups, a hundred of this, a hundred of that. Then Big Tony knocked me down and sat on my neck for two hours.
Tony had been fighting on the ground for three years, he said. He'd gone to college to be a high-school social-studies teacher, but the job market was unforgiving and he'd adjusted his plan. He was now owner of a successful dog-walking business, not a bad way to spend your days, plenty of sunshine and fresh air.
"Everyone I work with is always happy to see me," he said. "How many people can say that?"
Tony talked about walking dogs while he pinned me and strangled me, until I tapped him to signal I'd had enough. Choke, tap, release, resume.
"Good grief," I said, coughing and snorting.
"Three years," he said.
My neck felt funny and I took a week off to recover. The next Tuesday morning, as I waited in the snow while he searched for his key to the front door, Cristiano said, "Where you been? You standing up today." He threw me in the cage with Brian, who dragged me by my arm into a side headlock. I slipped his hold as I started to see the twinkling lights, and I cranked his bent arm up behind his back in what my friend Russ used to call a chicken wing. The cops call that a hammerlock. The Brazilians call it a kimura. "Nice one, man," Brian said, surprised. Then he stomped on me for a little while.
* * *
Ten years ago, after we'd been shooting nine-ball and drinking all day, my old friend Jay insisted on getting into a scuffle with half a defensive line in an empty lot outside the bar where my grandmother used to work at Third and Gaulbert. This was in Louisville.
"You're all right," one kid said to me, "but if your friend keeps asking for it, he's going to get it."
We'd already made it to my car, safe. Then Jay opened his door and charged at them. He got knocked flat, and the big boy he was tangling with crawled on top of him into what the Brazilians call the mount: sitting on Jay's chest with his knees up under Jay's armpits, Donkey Kong–ing on Jay's face while his confrères egged him on.
All right, I thought, what kind of friend am I, anyway, and I pushed my way into their circle and grabbed the kid on top of Jay by one of his shoulders.
"That's enough," I said.
"Tell him to say uncle," the kid said.
"Say uncle," I told Jay, and Jay said, "Uncle?"
"Are we straight now?" I said to the kid.
"Yeah. Okay," he said, and he got up and lumbered back into the bar.
"Open your mouth," I said to Jay. Two of his teeth were chipped. I put him back in the car and drove him to María's. I never did know what her story was. I think she loved him and she wanted to marry a U.S. citizen, both of those things.
"Oh God. What you do?" María said, while I stood there propping her boyfriend up on her porch, his bloody face print on my shoulder and chest. "Give him to me. I take care of him."
Jay called the next morning. "I don't know what happened, and I don't want to remember," he said. "Just tell me one thing. Do you look like me?"
I had to admit that I didn't. He hung up. I put the phone down and poured half a can of beer into half a glass of tomato juice as the back door opened.
"There's blood all over the inside of the Pontiac," my wife said.
And it was more or less in this manner that my wife became, as the years passed, my ex-wife. She moved to Nigeria and took an Islamic name, Djamila. It means beautiful.
* * *
Brazilian jiu-jitsu comes in two flavors. There's the gi, that heavy cotton jacket you may have seen competitors wearing in judo, and there's no-gi, which is just what it sounds like. You use the gi's collar to choke your opponent, and you hold his pants or sleeves to control his movement. It's hard to escape from the grips and the friction. I wanted to learn about that, too, so I went to a Friday-night gi class.
I had expected my gi to be plain white, but it looked like a cross between subway graffiti and a full-page ad in Cigar Aficionado. On its back was a picture of a pit bull encircled by these words: Gameness means that neither fatigue nor pain will cause the fighter to lose his enthusiasm for fighting contact. I put it on and got to work. We did calisthenics and drilled chokes and armbars for an hour, then we sparred with one another.
At the end of the second hour, the head coach came by with a clipboard and a sign-up sheet. He had gray in his Afro and braces on his teeth.
"How long you practice?"
"This is my third day."
"You fight at tournament? End of February."
"If you think it's all right."
"Listen," he said. "After three days, is not like you try to kick nobody in ass or nothing. We go. Fight all day. Then big party. Okay?"
* * *
I chose the gym because the fittest guy I knew — boxer, former NCAA gymnast, marathon runner — had gone to check it out and had gotten a couple of ribs broken for his trouble. That must be the real thing, I thought, that's the place for me.
It was on my fifth day of training that I realized how high the attrition rate was: many people do not like to get beaten up. I'd expected to be unremittingly dominated for at least six months, but there was a steady supply of beginners each weekend, and a mere eleven hours of experience was enough to provide a slight edge.
I rolled with a big kid and was surprised to find myself in control of the situation. "Come on, mate, get him. What did we just talk about?" his friend yelled from the sidelines.
"But he's a spider monkey," the kid said, gasping.
That was me: I was the spider monkey in question. I wrecked him. Then we changed partners and I got crushed by Noah and Courtney and Darryl — rear naked choke, armbar, arm triangle — as if I weren't even there. I went home and showered and searched for pictures of spider monkeys on the Internet.
* * *
At or around this time I began to become David. I don't know why. It's my middle name, but that seemed to be a coincidence.
A lot of people turned around if you said David: David the software designer, Lebanese David, Speedy Dave the ex-boxer, Big David with his big smile and his shaved head, also the other big David with his own shaved head.
There were a lot of bald guys named David, and a preponderance of people named Big — Big Jim, Big John, Big Tony — not in order to differentiate them from, say, Minor Jim or Small Tony, it was just that they were so gigantic it was difficult not to mention it.
I wasn't big or bald. I was skinny and hairy. People said, "Hey, David," and I didn't look up — I didn't know who I was supposed to be, I didn't know who they were talking to.
I saw Cristiano again. "So you David now?" he said. "When this happen? Okay, David. Why you don't training in morning, David? Miss you in morning."
"Sleep is bad habit, man."
"Just wait for the summer."
"Is summer now, already. Come see me in morning, David."
I had often wondered, filling out government forms that required me to disclose other names by which I might have been known, how a man acquired an alias. We began to get calls at the house from my new friends, wanting to train, looking for Dave.
"How long do you expect to be involved with this crap?" my girlfriend said.
"Go ask Jacob why he wrestled with the angel," I said. She rolled her eyes.
* * *
At the tournament I fought no-gi, novice class, at 154 pounds. My opponent was five inches shorter than I was, thick and stone-jawed with a silver flat-top.
I scored a smashing single-leg takedown but dropped inside his closed guard and fell victim to his guillotine choke: he looped an arm around what one coach had called my giraffey neck and began to uproot my spine the way you pull a weed out of your garden. It was quick and painful, and I tapped out. I had been training for two months. The forearm I wiped under my nose came away slick with blood.
"You all right, David?" my coach said.
"I'm fine," I said. And it was true. I mean, I wasn't David, but I was all right.
Medic to mat four, medic to mat eleven: I had already seen a kid get choked unconscious. I had seen a guy pull on his foot to tighten a figure-four leg choke until he'd sprained his own ankle. I had seen a dislocated shoulder — maybe it wasn't technically dislocated, but I can promise you that is not where it's supposed to be located. I had seen a kid go out on a stretcher, his neck strapped to a board. I had seen a broken arm and some broken ribs and plenty of broken toes.
I shook my opponent's meaty hand. "Good luck," I said. "Now beat them all. I want to tell my friends I lost to the guy who won this whole division."
He blinked. "Hey, thanks, man," he said. Then he beat them all.
I decided not to fight in the next tournament.
* * *
I needed better wind. I had to stop smoking cigars. It's amazing, what you'll have to give up in this life. I used to think my uncle Charles was joking about waking up in a Dumpster in Tucson until I woke up in the bed of a pickup truck humming down I-64 in southern Illinois.
No more whiskey, no beer, no vodka, no gin, no wine, no brandy, no pot, no acid, no cocaine, no mushrooms, no opium, no nitrous, no Xanax, no Ritalin, no Thorazine — it's hard to believe that we ever took Thorazine for fun — no Vicodin, no Percodan, no Flexeril, no kidding.
I thought about not smoking while I sat on the pavement and smoked before my evening lecture. A bearded man in his late fifties, wearing a tattered safari vest and pushing a grocery cart down the street, turned and said, "Want a little booze? I don't mean no harm." He parked his cart and sat next to me. A pretty coed ran past us. "Slow down, girl," he called after her.
* * *
As I put on my tie and jacket one day after practice, Big Jim said, "Are you really a professor, Professor Dave? Did you have to go to school for, like, a long time?"
When Jim wasn't getting paid to beat people up in a cage, he had a part-time job delivering hot wings.
"Is being a teacher a good job? Do all the little schoolgirls sit on your lap?"
"I used to work down at the trailer plant with my dad," I said. "It's better than that."
"Where'd you find a place to go to school in Kentucky, anyway?" Dennis said. "I-eat-a-lot-of-fried-chicken University?"
"He went to KFCU," Steve said.
"Professor Dave went to F-U-C-K," Jim said.
"That's funny, man," Dennis said, not laughing.
* * *
At the next tournament I fought in gi and no-gi, and made it both times nearly to the end of my rounds before being submitted, as they say. I got triangled — caught in a figure-four choke that pressed on my carotid artery, cutting off the flow of blood to my brain and threatening me with unconsciousness — and I got knuckle-choked, a painful vise-grip in which the neck is crushed between the opponent's arm and opposite fist.
I sulked for two days and decided my main problem was general physical fitness. If you can't run, you're not fit. My knee hurt then and it hurts now. It's hurt for twenty years. I guess it's going to hurt for the rest of my life. Cambridge is lousy with runners, and every time one of those scarecrows breezed past me and my knee brace, I thought, I'm glad you can run, because when I catch you the ER nurse is going to pick your teeth out of my elbow the way Mamaw picked raisins out of her slice of cake. That impressed my knee for about four slow miles before the ligament I'd torn twenty years earlier turned back into garbage.
I went to the running-shoe store. "Can I help you find anything?" the kid at the counter said.
"I don't know," I said. "Where do you keep the shoes that when you buy them you actually go running in them? Because that's not the kind I bought last time."
He smiled. "I hate running so much," he said. "You have no idea."
* * *
And then one day my friend Jamie said, "Are you still doing your Brazilian thing? I'm giving a talk at a conference in Porto Alegre in September, and they comped me a double room."
Jamie is a biostatistician and an epidemiologist who writes papers with titles like Adaptive Nonparametric Confidence Sets: "Consider an observation X(n) distributed according to a law P(n) depending on a parameter ?," and so on. I don't understand it, and I don't need to understand it. What makes sense to me is a man who would rather do his work and eat a jar of mustard than interrupt himself with a trip to the grocery.
We touched down four minutes before Jamie's talk was due to start. He took a cab from the airport to his conference. I bought a ticket for another taxi, dropped our bags at the hotel, and headed to the gym. My driver looked around the neighborhood in question with some alarm.
Tudo bem, I said, and I got out of the cab and said Boa tarde to the nice young man who spent the rest of that week kicking me in my ear.
"Okay, now I angry dog. Where a snake looks? Look my eyes. His will in him eyes. Okay, I punch your face. Punching your face! No, no, okay, better, good. Vai! Loose hip. Don't previewing, take what he offering you. Okay. Slip and turn, hooks in. Espalha frango, break him down. Surf. How you don't surf?"
Off the mat, he was calm and kind, that young man. He gave me a lot of good advice.
"Fighting make my life," he said. "You know what you feel in fight. Excite, scare, now I kill him, oh God, don't hurt me, I win everything, I never win nothing, you know? And without fighting, when you feel this in your life? For someone else, is once in ten years, when he get marry, when son is born, when his father die. Two, three days in life, he feel this. Here you feel every day. Fear, happy, anger, strong, can I do it. No, I can't do it. Yes, I did it. It make you a more major person — is this right, major? It make him have his life."
He was ashamed to ask for money. "Mas eu quero pagar," I said. "Eu vou pagar."
"Yes," he said. "I am not a mercenary, you understand. But we have to keep lights on. Why it is so expensive, you may wonder. You cannot teach to just anyone. Not, how do you say this, pit bully, fight unfair when he know he will win, stab you, hit you with a bat. Not this person. No. And this is why it is so expensive, it make him understand the value. I am sorry." Finally he asked me for fifty reais, about twenty dollars.
* * *
There were two things on television in Porto Alegre: pretty girls in bathing suits singing and dancing, and solemn panels discussing José Saramago and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. In the display window of the average bookstore were Sontag, Baudrillard, Borges, and Heidegger. I saw men and women of astonishing beauty and self-possession in that city, and I saw people as poor as stray cats, not merely homeless but without clothing to wear, on Avenida Goethe and Rua Schiller. I bought some Cohibas and a cafezinho and the nice old man behind the counter wanted to know what I was doing in his country. As little as possible, some tourism, some sports, do you like Brazilian jiujitsu, senhor? He put his hands up as if it were a robbery and said in Portuguese, "Listen, we're all friends here."
Every day after practice I had feijoada and collard greens for lunch, and in the evenings, after more practice, I went out with Jamie and his colleagues to fancy restaurants. One night a long blond New Zealander in a short black dress asked me why, if I wasn't an epidemiologist, was I sitting next to her at a table of epidemiologists while taciturn gauchos fed us heaps of meat shaved from skewers. I made my usual mistake of telling the truth.
"Really," she said. "And when I was a little girl I wanted to be a Brazilian ballerina. Do you hear this? He says he's doing something called Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Go on, you're just ashamed to be an epidemiologist, like all the rest of us. Now tell me another one," she said, moving closer and putting her hand on my arm, but I didn't know another one. It still wasn't altogether clear to me what epidemiology was. An accordion wheezed. On a stage in the center of the restaurant, men began to dance with knives.
Excerpted from The Correspondence by J. D. Daniels. Copyright © 2017 J. D. Daniels. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
J. D. Daniels is the recipient of a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award and The Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His “Letter from Majorca” was selected for The Best American Essays 2013. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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