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The Night Ocean

The Night Ocean

by Paul La Farge

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From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals,  psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.

Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror


From the award-winning author and New Yorker contributor, a riveting novel about secrets and scandals,  psychiatry and pulp fiction, inspired by the lives of H.P. Lovecraft and his circle.

Marina Willett, M.D., has a problem. Her husband, Charlie, has become obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft, in particular with one episode in the legendary horror writer's life: In the summer of 1934, the "old gent" lived for two months with a gay teenage fan named Robert Barlow, at Barlow's family home in central Florida. What were the two of them up to? Were they friends--or something more? Just when Charlie thinks he's solved the puzzle, a new scandal erupts, and he disappears. The police say it's suicide. Marina is a psychiatrist, and she doesn't believe them.

A tour-de-force of storytelling, The Night Ocean follows the lives of some extraordinary people: Lovecraft, the most influential American horror writer of the 20th century, whose stories continue to win new acolytes, even as his racist views provoke new critics; Barlow, a seminal scholar of Mexican culture who killed himself after being blackmailed for his homosexuality (and who collaborated with Lovecraft on the beautiful story "The Night Ocean"); his student, future Beat writer William S. Burroughs; and L.C. Spinks, a kindly Canadian appliance salesman and science-fiction fan -- the only person who knows the origins of The Erotonomicon, purported to be the intimate diary of Lovecraft himself.

As a heartbroken Marina follows her missing husband's trail in an attempt to learn the truth, the novel moves across the decades and along the length of the continent, from a remote Ontario town, through New York and Florida to Mexico City. The Night Ocean is about love and deception -- about the way that stories earn our trust, and betray it.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - D. T. Max
The Night Ocean is a book full of pleasures…La Farge is a capable mimic, capturing everything from the talk of prewar science fiction fanboys to the language of modern internet trolls…Dashing, playful and cleverly imagined, The Night Ocean emerges as an inexhaustible shaggy monster, part literary parody, part case study of the slipperiness of narrative and the seduction of a good story.
Publishers Weekly
★ 12/12/2016
Reviewed by Peter Cannon Was H.P. Lovecraft, the great American horror writer, gay? That’s the question at the start of this ingenious, provocative work of alternative history from La Farge (Luminous Airplanes). All the evidence, including Lovecraft’s voluminous correspondence and the firsthand accounts of those who knew him (notably the woman to whom he was briefly married), indicates that he was not. In his letters, he called homosexuality a perversion, but then he dismissed human sexuality in general as a lower form of animal activity. But what if this was all a pose? Lovecraft, who lived most of his life in Providence, R.I., did spend the summer of 1934 visiting a teenage fan, Robert Barlow, at the Barlow family home in central Florida. Barlow, who would later become a professor of Mexican ethnography, committed suicide in Mexico City in 1951 to escape blackmailers who were threatening to expose him as a homosexual. In the present day of this novel, New York freelance writer Charlie Willett, an avid Lovecraft fan, manages to locate a copy of the Erotonomicon (a play on Lovecraft’s fictional Necronomicon), which purports to be the erotic diary Lovecraft kept during his time in Florida. Coded prose using names from Lovecraft’s invented mythology records his sexual exploits (“did Yogge-Sothothe in my room”). While retracing Lovecraft’s steps in Florida, Charlie learns that Barlow may have faked his death and could still be alive. In the end, Charlie secures a substantial advance for a book about Lovecraft as a closet homosexual. Unfortunately for Charlie, he gets some critical facts wrong. He becomes a pariah and later disappears from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires, which is where the book’s action begins. Lovecraft’s novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward likewise opens with the disappearance of a major character from a psychiatric hospital, a connection made explicit by La Farge naming the first five section titles after those in Ward (“A Result and a Prologue,” etc.). The whole novel is framed as the account of the efforts of Charlie’s devoted therapist wife to find her husband. Like Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” the novel consists of several sub-narratives, ranging widely in time and place. But instead of a revelation about humanity’s diminished place in an impersonal universe, La Farge delivers insights into the human need to believe in stories and the nature of literary fame, while consistently upsetting readers’ expectations. Other notable recent Lovecraft-related fiction includes Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, a redo of Lovecraft’s racist tale “The Horror at Red Hook,” and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, in which a black family contends with racism and supernatural forces in 1950s America. La Farge also touches on racial themes (Charlie’s father is black, his mother white), but he outdoes his predecessors with this crafty mix of love, sex, and lies. (Mar.) Peter Cannon is a PW senior reviews editor and the author of The Lovecraft Chronicles, a novel.
From the Publisher
“A beauty of a tale…A book full of pleasures…Dashing, playful and cleverly imagined, The Night Ocean emerges as an inexhaustible shaggy monster, part literary parody, part case study of the slipperiness of narrative and the seduction of a good story.”— D. T. Max, The New York Times Book Review

“The plot unfolds like a series of Russian nesting dolls, and thrillingly so: Like the best of Lovecraft, this novel questions the capacity of language to describe reality with accuracy…The Night Ocean proves to be more than a great read—it’s a timely meditation on the challenge of separating artist from art and the limits of human understanding.” —Chicago Review of Books
“[La Farge] carries it all off with breathtaking skill and panache.…[S]pare yourself the trouble of trying to divine what’s true and what’s fiction in “The Night Ocean” and just go along for the ride.” –The Washington Post
“La Farge’s rabbit-hole mystery ranges from ancient cultures to modern chat rooms, but hangs together in one woman’s absorbing voice.” —New York Magazine, “8 New Books You Need to Read This March”

“With this intoxicating trip into the twin worlds of imagination and reality, La Farge gives new meaning to fan fiction in his exploration of the world of H.P. Lovecraft and the legacy he left behind.”  —Newsweek

“This is a formally and emotionally limber novel that pulls you in as a black lake might, except that it’s also funny, and transformative, and illuminating—it’s a book of spells if I’ve ever read one.” –Lit Hub 

“[La Farge] has surpassed himself. The Night Ocean is the ultimate crossing of the hazy boundary between reality and fantasy….A mighty boon to horror geeks like me who misspent a good portion of our youths reading the pulp fiction of Lovecraft and his unholy minions.” –BookPage

“What a great book…Highly recommended but be prepared.” –The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society

“Remarkable…The Night Ocean is a fabulous novel, in the quite literal meaning of that: it’s about tricksters and literary hoaxes and secret identities, but it’s really about the fables we make to construct, or discover, or invent ourselves, and about how much we can really get away with.” --Locus  
“This many-layered literary mystery is chockablock with surprise appearances.” —BBC.com, “Ten Books You Should Read in March”
“As we traverse a shifting narrative web that spans continents, decades, and spiritual dimensions, La Farge’s inventive and absorbing fifth novel reveals that questions relating to love and horror are not always mutually exclusive.” Chronogram

"For a novel about H.P. Lovecraft, The Night Ocean is surprisingly moving; for a story about the recondite back alleys of science fiction, it is surprisingly accessible; for a historical fiction, it is surprisingly contemporary; and for a novel about the unknowable and the mysterious, it is remarkably satisfying. The Night Ocean deserves the highest praise.”— Tor.com

“The universe of The Night Ocean is vast....In a complex, high-concept narrative littered with famous figures, La Farge leaves readers ever uncertain as to who’s telling the truth—and ready for the next twist.”

“Throughout, the novel wobbles between richly researched historical fact… and brilliantly imagined fiction. It will escape no reader that The Night Ocean is itself a work of passion, wordsmithery, and obsession — a kind of story within a story, if you will, of the sort that Lovecraft would have, well, loved.”
—The Week

“Intricately constructed…His sure-handed world-building [and] empathy…suggest a circle of La Fargeans will someday soon emerge.”
—Albert Mobilio, Bookforum

“Was H.P. Lovecraft, the great American horror writer, gay? That’s the question at the start of this ingenious, provocative work of alternative history from La Farge …Like Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu,’ the novel consists of several sub-narratives, ranging widely in time and place. But instead of a revelation about humanity’s diminished place in an impersonal universe, La Farge delivers insights into the human need to believe in stories and the nature of literary fame, while consistently upsetting readers’ expectations….[H]e outdoes his predecessors with this crafty mix of love, sex, and lies.”
Publishers Weekly, (starred review)

“The breadth of La Farge’s research and the specificity of his historical details are impressive: we enter the worlds of science-fiction fandom, internet trolls, literary hoaxes, and ancient Mexican civilizations as [he] deftly weaves in famous figures like H.P Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and William S. Burroughs. Only a virtuoso could pull off a story so intricately plotted and so full of big ideas about morality and truth…La Farge is this virtuoso, folding stories inside stories with ease…. An effortlessly memorable novel.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Magnificent. The Night Ocean is an impossible, irresistible novel, a love letter to the unloveable that speaks the unspeakable."
- Lev Grossman, author of the Magicians trilogy

“A whole damned hustling heart-broken double-talking meaning-haunted world it is a privilege to enter.”
– Peter Straub
“Paul La Farge has crafted the perfect novel – a work that constantly twists into unexpected realms, that illuminates the nature of love and deception, and that is as funny as it is profound. The Night Ocean is a gift to readers.” 
- David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z 
The Night Ocean 
had me from the first sentence. This immensely original, elegantly written and continually surprising novel casts a spell that keeps us enthralled until the book's brilliant conclusion."
– Francine Prose, author of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

"The best novel of the year, almost any year. Historical, hysterical, fanatically attuned to the nuances of language and character, its mission, in its own words, is to ‘begin the almost impossible work of loving the world.’ It succeeds and then some, but it does more than that. It opens the window and airs out our stuffy literature. It is a book of light and laughter." 
- Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story

"The Night Ocean is straight up brilliant. That's no surprise since it's written by Paul La Farge, one of the smartest, wildest literary talents in the game today….A sly, witty, but still loving send-up of H.P. Lovecraft and some of the grand anxieties of the American 20th century."
- Victor LaValle, author of The Ballad of Black Tom

“It has been years since I read a novel with so much joy, impatience and awe. The Night Ocean overflows with difficult love, not least of all that of our narrator, Marina, who indirectly reminds us of how we are pushed around by dreams, ghosts, chance, and history. I have long been a tremendous admirer of all of La Farge's work; this novel is my favorite.”
– Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

“This story delivers thrills, brews intrigue, and takes literature on a wild ride. The Night Ocean is genuinely fantastic.”
– Samantha Hunt, author of Mr. Splitfoot

“An electric exploration of horror, obsession, madness, and mystery. A novel that tunnels deeper into the thorny caverns of the human heart than most dare. To read The Night Ocean is to be plunged under a scary smart, morally labyrinthine, and wickedly funny spell. Paul La Farge is one of the most exciting writers working today.”
– Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me

Library Journal
In 1934, horror writer H.P. Lovecraft stays two months in Florida with a young fan named Robert H. Barlow. In this expansive tale, skillfully blending fact and fiction, the nature of their relationship becomes a subject of speculation after the discovery of an erotic diary that may or may not be Lovecraft's record of the visit. Only Barlow knows for sure, and the secret goes to the grave with him after his supposed suicide in 1951. Years later, writer Charlie Willett believes he has evidence Barlow is alive in Canada. He visits "Barlow," writing a book that reveals the truth about the diary. However, it's discovered that Charlie has been duped. With his reputation ruined, he also commits suicide. Four years later, his widow, Marina, a New York psychotherapist, meets with "Barlow," also known as L.C. Spinks, to learn the secret he revealed to Charlie on his last visit. VERDICT It can be difficult to tell at times whose story this is, moving as it does from Lovecraft to Barlow to Charlie and finally to Marina. Yet, in the end, it's clear this is ultimately about stories; how we shape them, and their power to shape us in return. [See Prepub Alert, 9/12/16.]—Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-12-07
A many-layered literary mystery about identity, obsession, and science fiction. Marina Willett's husband, Charlie, is gone. After a scandal involving a book he's written, Charlie leaves a mental hospital in the Berkshires and—presumably—walks into a lake to drown himself. But Marina, a psychologist, isn't sure he's really dead. For one thing, his body has never been discovered. For another, before his death, Charlie had become obsessed with an anthropologist named Robert Barlow—who Charlie believes faked his death after a scandal. And so begins the labyrinthine plot in which Marina narrates the back story of her marriage and explains how first Charlie and then she, once Charlie goes missing, became obsessed with an elderly Canadian who may or may not be Barlow in disguise. The analytical Marina is the ideal narrator to ground readers through the vertiginous narrative, which covers nearly 100 years and uses New York, Florida, Providence, and Canada as its backdrops. The breadth of La Farge's research and the specificity of his historical details are impressive: we enter the worlds of science-fiction fandom, internet trolls, literary hoaxes, and ancient Mexican civilizations as La Farge (Luminous Airplanes, 2011, etc.) deftly weaves in famous figures like H.P Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov, and William S. Burroughs. Only a virtuoso could pull off a story so intricately plotted and so full of big ideas about morality and truth and have the effect of not being ponderous. La Farge is this virtuoso, folding stories inside stories with ease. But even more important than the meticulous craft evident in each sentence is the depth that La Farge achieves in creating even minor characters. No matter how messy the moral choices, or how frustrating the character motivations, La Farge's gift is such that we feel we understand these characters as well as we understand the people we see every day. An effortlessly memorable novel.

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Read an Excerpt


My husband, Charlie Willett, disappeared from a psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires on January 7, 2012. I say disappeared because I don’t believe he’s dead, although that would be the reasonable conclusion. Charlie’s army jacket, jeans, shoes, socks, and underwear (though, strangely, not his shirt) were all found at the edge of Agawam Lake the day after he left the hospital. The police say Charlie’s footprints led to the edge of the lake, and nobody’s footprints led away. Even if Charlie could somehow have left the lake without leaving tracks, they say, it’s hard to see how he would have survived long enough to reach shelter. According to the National Weather Service, the overnight low temperature in Stockbridge was 15 degrees, and Charlie didn’t have an extra set of clothes: the girl who gave him a ride swears he wasn’t carrying anything. What’s more, no one denies that Charlie was suicidal. The last time I saw him, in Brooklyn, he told me he’d taken a handful of Ambien, just to see what would happen. What happened was, he slept for twelve hours, had a dizzy spell in the shower, and sprained his ankle. “My life is becoming a sad joke,” he said, “except there’s no one around to laugh at it.” He looked at me entreatingly. I told him there was nothing funny about an Ambien overdose. It could kill you, if you took it with another depressant. “Thanks, Miss Merck Manual,” Charlie said. “I’m still your wife,” I said, “and you’re scaring me. If you really want to hurt yourself, you should be in the hospital.” To my surprise, Charlie asked, “Which hospital?” I thought for a moment, then I told him about the place in the Berkshires.

Two days later, Charlie was on the bus to Stockbridge. He called me that evening. “I feel like I’m in high school again, Mar,” he said. “The food is terrible, and everybody’s on drugs. I nearly had a panic attack, trying to figure out who to sit with at dinner. Who are the cool kids in an insane asylum? The bulimics look great, but the bipolars make better conversation.” “Sounds like you’ll fit right in,” I said, and Charlie laughed. He sounded like himself, for the first time in months. What had he sounded like before that? Like himself, but falling down a well in slow motion: each time I saw him, his voice was fainter and somehow more echo-y. That’s something Charlie might have said; normally, I am more cautious with my descriptions. I have never heard anyone fall down a well. “Are you on drugs?” I asked. “I start tomorrow,” Charlie said. “Wanted to call you tonight, in case there’s anything you want to ask before they erase my mind.” “Don’t joke,” I said. I thought about it. “What’s your favorite nut?” I asked. “Oh, Mar,” he said, “you know the answer to that one.”

Charlie called again two days after that and told me they had him on 2 milligrams of risperidone—which was more than I would have given him, but never mind—and it made him woozy. “But the characters, Mar,” he said, “the characters!” He was taking notes in his ­journal, for an essay he planned to write about his downfall. “Take it easy,” I said. “If they think your journal is antisocial, they might confiscate it.” “I am,” Charlie said. “I’ve only got enough energy to write for, like, five minutes a day. The rest of the time I watch Lost on DVD.” He didn’t talk about his therapy, but I didn’t expect him to. We had always respected each other’s privacy. “How long are they going to keep you?” I asked. Charlie said, “They’re saying a couple of weeks.” I said I would visit as soon as I could, probably the next weekend. Then, afraid that Charlie would draw the wrong conclusion, I clarified: “I just want to know you’re all right, and that you aren’t making the doctors miserable.” Charlie said it was his job to make the doctors miserable. Then he said, “Just kidding. My job right now is to make a world I can live in.” I wondered if he’d picked that phrase up in therapy, and what dopey therapist could have fed it to him. What Charlie needed was exactly not to make a world. He needed to figure out how to live in the one that exists. All of that took probably two seconds. “I’m happy that you’re doing well,” I said, and Charlie said, “Thanks.” We hung up. 

That was on January fifth. On the seventh, Charlie forced the lock on his door with a bit of plastic, climbed a cyclone fence, and hitched a ride with a Simon’s Rock student named Jessica Ng. He told her he was meeting friends at Monument Mountain, for an Orthodox Christmas celebration, and she, the fool, dropped him on the shoulder of Route 7. He waved, cheerfully, she said, and walked into the forest. It’s all in the police report. For the police, and Charlie’s mother, and more or less everyone else, the last sentence of the story will be written in the summer, when Agawam Lake warms up, and Charlie’s body rises to the surface. Only I do not believe he is dead.

This, you’ll tell me, is pure wish fulfillment. I feel guilty that I didn’t save Charlie from suicide, so I’ve constructed a fantasy in which his suicide didn’t happen. It’s possible. Just because I am a psychotherapist doesn’t mean that I’m immune to delusional thinking, and I do feel guilty. I lie awake wondering whether, if I’d acted differently, ­Charlie would still be here. If I hadn’t pushed him away in that last conversation; if I had been more patient, more understanding; if I hadn’t moved out when I learned about Lila. Or, I tell myself, because I was patient, was understanding, maybe my mistake was to keep my thoughts too much to myself. When Charlie came back from Mexico City with evidence of Robert Barlow’s miraculous survival, I could have told him the evidence didn’t add up. When he went to see ­Barlow—the person he thought was Barlow—I might have said what I felt, which was, that the story was too good to be true. Even though I know what Charlie would have said: “Mar, you’re being mistrustful. I know it’s hard for you to remember, but there are people out there who aren’t crazy.” And I would have sulked, because I hated when Charlie called me mistrustful. It made me feel small, and it wasn’t true. My real mistake, I tell myself, when midnight comes around, and I get out of bed to drink a glass of wine and listen to the BBC, my mistake was that I believed Charlie too much. Then I remind myself that I loved Charlie because he was so unbearably easy to believe.



This is not the story of our marriage. Still, I want to note some things that happened early on, because they make what happened later easier to understand. Charlie and I were set up. His friend Eric was dating my friend Grace, and so, in accordance with the law that every young paired-off person in New York City has to pair off his or her friends, Grace threw a party in her Hester Street studio, and Charlie and I were invited. I didn’t want to go. This was in 2004, when I was doing my residency at Weill Cornell, and I reserved my free time for sleep or reading the novels that piled up on my little glass-topped table. Also, the night of the party was very cold. But then I thought, Marina, if you don’t leave the house, you’re going to spend the rest of your life alone, or, worse, you’re going to marry a doctor. So I put on about six layers of clothes, and, feeling like one of the old Star Wars action figures Charlie collected—I didn’t know about them yet, but now, eight years later, Charlie images are what come to mind—I took a cab to the Lower East Side. As soon as I got to the party, I wished I hadn’t come. Thirty of Grace’s art school friends were crammed into her studio, holding drinks close to their chests and shouting at one another over a mix CD. It was like being in college again, and I felt a kind of despair, watching all those people pretend that time did not exist. But it was so cold out that I didn’t go home right away, and while I was leaning against the wall, wondering if I had changed since college, Grace came up to me and shouted, “Marina! I need your help! I left my inhaler somewhere, and now I can’t find it.”

With a familiar mild irritation—Grace was always losing things, ­always asking for help—I headed toward the bathroom. My path was blocked by a large plastic rabbit, spray-painted gold, and while I stood before it, wondering what it was doing there, a boy asked if I knew where the rabbit had come from. “Probably from a gallery in Williamsburg,” I said, and the boy, who was, of course, Charlie, laughed. He told me he had seen a rabbit just like this one, once, in Memphis, and he’d discovered that it came from a chain of restaurants called the Happy Rabbit. The chain was founded by a Chinese immigrant named William Lee, and the amazing thing, Charlie said, although I didn’t know his name yet, the amazing thing, he said, was that Mr. Lee actually served rabbit, because he believed that, in the future, nuclear war would make it impossible to raise beef cows or even sheep. “Like many other people,” Charlie said, “he was preparing for a future that never happened.” “Or at least one that hasn’t happened yet,” I said. Charlie grinned. It was as if he’d thrown a football into some trees, and I had not only caught it but thrown it back to him. “Actually,” he said, “I’m not sure this is one of the Happy Rabbit rabbits. But it could be.” He was skinny and stooped, with a scraggly goatee and hair clipped close to his skull. His skin was light brown. He wore a green army jacket over a blue paisley shirt and red pants: a motley outfit, I thought, as if he were protecting himself by playing the fool. He wasn’t the man I had dreamed of meeting, but my dreams were confused, and the men I did meet were often good-looking jerks. And then it was midnight, and everyone else had gone out to a bar. We were still standing beside the rabbit. Suddenly, Charlie asked, “Is it all right if I kiss you?” I said he might as well. “What do you mean, I might as well?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “no one knows when that ­nuclear war’s going to show up.”

But this isn’t the story of our marriage. It’s not the story of how quickly Charlie moved in with me and stood Han Solo and Darth Vader on my bookshelf, in front of D. W. Winnicott and George Eliot. It isn’t the story of how we got married at City Hall, with Charlie’s mother and my brothers as witnesses, because my parents refused to come down from Connecticut to watch me marry a schvartze; or how we posed in front of a photomural of the Statue of Liberty, and Charlie remarked that the statue was exactly the wrong symbol for people who were getting married, and I punched him in the ribs. What’s important is that I loved Charlie because he made life lively. When I met him, he worked as a fact-checker at the Village Voice, and in his free time, he wrote profiles of people who could have been famous, or should have been famous but weren’t, because of some stubbornness in their character, or some flaw in the world. He didn’t make a lot of money, but that didn’t matter, because I was making enough. After my residency, I was an attending for two years at Mount Sinai, then I went into private practice, doing analytic psychotherapy, which I believe in, and which I’m good at. 

What Charlie was good at was immersing himself in obscure and beautiful facts. He loved the people he wrote about in a way that I sometimes envied but would have been afraid to imitate. As a therapist, you get to care deeply about your patients, but you can’t love them without sacrificing the neutrality that makes therapy work. For Charlie, there was no limit. When he was writing about an employee of the Oakland Department of Motor Vehicles who had invented a purely rational language and was, so far as anyone knew, its only speaker, he learned the language. He and the DMV employee conversed in it; I listened with amazement as Charlie clicked and clucked into his phone, scribbling notes on a steno pad balanced on his knee. But when I read his profile of the language inventor, I ­understood why he had put so much effort into the research: I could see the DMV employee standing at the breakfast bar of his bachelor’s apartment (he’d invented his language, he said, as a way to make sense of things after a bad divorce), eating a Baby Ruth, and licking chocolate from his fingers. “Was that what you were talking about? Candy?” I asked. “Uh, no,” Charlie said. “Actually, I intuited he was a Three Musketeers kind of guy.” “You intuited?” “Yeah,” Charlie said, “sometimes, when you get deep enough into someone’s head, you can kind of see things. It’s like you become them, and you’re seeing the world through their eyes. Of course, I asked him about it, after I wrote the first draft. Baby Ruth. I was pretty close, right?”

Why was Charlie the way he was? As we got to know each other, I couldn’t help coming up with some hypotheses. His parents were both professors at Columbia, his father in English, his mother in philosophy. When Charlie was ten, his father, who happened to be black, was accused of sexually harassing several of his female graduate students. He cried racism, but Charlie’s mother, who happened to be white, left him anyway. Charlie’s father died of a brain tumor before the charges were resolved. These events, coming one after another, sent Charlie into what I would have called a serious depression; he called it his passage through the underworld. He lost interest in doing anything, and in seeing anyone he hadn’t known before his father died. The only exception to this rule was Dungeons & Dragons, which he started playing when he was twelve and played more or less nonstop until he turned seventeen. “I had the little figurines and everything,” he said. “Even my nerd friends were freaked out. I had to play in the back room of a hobby shop in Midtown, with these Asian kids from Stuyvesant, and some guys in their thirties who were probably repressed sexual predators. But that was how I met Eric—he was as messed up as I was, or more so. We used to take the bus together, to D&D tournaments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and so on. We’d stay up all night, come back on the bus in the morning, and go straight to school. It was like we were on drugs, except that we didn’t even drink. And we did super well in the tournaments. There was this one time, we were playing through the Tomb of Horrors, and Eric and I were the last two survivors.” “So what happened?” I asked, trying not to smile. “I killed him,” Charlie said. “The first-place prize was a twenty-dollar gift certificate. A man has his priorities.” “I meant, why did you stop playing,” I said. Charlie blushed. “I went to Princeton,” he said, “and met a girl named Megan, who was into Pablo Neruda. Long story short, I turned over a new leaf and became the outstanding writer of nonfiction whom you see before you.”

Meet the Author

Paul La Farge is the author of the novels The Artist of the Missing (1999), Haussmann, or the Distinction (2001), and Luminous Airplanes (2011), as well as The Facts of Winter (2005), a book of imaginary dreams. His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, The Believer, McSweeney's, Nautilus, Conjunctions and elsewhere. He has won the Bard Fiction Prize, two California Book Awards, and the Bay Area Book Critics' Award for fiction. In 2013-14 he was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the New York Foundation for the Arts.

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