The Year of Endless Sorrows: A Novelby Adam Rapp
New York City, the early 1990s: the recession is in full swing and young people are squatting in abandoned buildings in the East Village while the homeless riot in Tompkins Square Park. The Internet is not part of daily life; the term "dot-com" has yet to be coined; and people's financial bubbles are burst for an entirely different set of reasons. What can all this… See more details below
New York City, the early 1990s: the recession is in full swing and young people are squatting in abandoned buildings in the East Village while the homeless riot in Tompkins Square Park. The Internet is not part of daily life; the term "dot-com" has yet to be coined; and people's financial bubbles are burst for an entirely different set of reasons. What can all this mean for a young Midwestern man flush with promise, toiling at a thankless, poverty-wage job in corporate America, and hard at work on his first novel about acute knee pain and the end of the world?
With The Year of Endless Sorrows, acclaimed playwright and finalist for the 2003 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing Adam Rapp brings readers a hilarious picaresque reminiscent of Nick Hornby, Douglas Copeland, and Rick Moody at their best--a chronicle of the joys of love, the horrors of sex, the burden of roommates, and the rude discovery that despite your best efforts, life may not unfold as you had once planned.
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The Year of Endless Sorrows
By Adam Rapp
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Adam Rapp
All rights reserved.
WE'RE FROM THE MIDWEST MOSTLY. We're from Lawrence and Davenport and Dubuque. We're from Kankakee and Oswego. We're from Griffith and Joliet and Mechanicsville. Platteville and Green Bay. And Altoona and DeKalb and Clinton.
We're from Joplin.
The words of the cities themselves conjure certain smells and songs. Eddie Rabbitt's "I Love a Rainy Night" and lightly buttered yams. Thirty-Eight Special's "Hold On Loosely" and the Fourth of July gunpowder drifting below the exploding purple girandoles at the speedway. Anything by Joan Jett and the sulfuric fetor of the steel mill. Stevie Nicks and the rancid, spoiled-fruit stench of the oil refinery.
Or they simply evoke the feeling of a rotisserie fork turning hotly in our stomachs.
Most of us grew up in well-heated, well-lit homes. Gabled houses with garages cleaner than grocery stores. Flagstone-laid, pinecone-spotted paths leading to the front porches. The black spruce bending toward the neighbor's Tudor like it's keeping a secret. A licorice-red swing set in the backyard. A small ceramic man with a Scottish hunting cap protecting the mailbox—stoic yet somehow noble.
Our towns have water towers. Great steel orbs and graffiti-smeared globes and flying saucers on stilts. An enormous iron aspirin tablet next to the high school. The Tin Man's inverted head with MAQUOKETA SUCKS in running spray paint.
ELKHART in all of its unscathed, civic propriety.
ELVON looming over several acres of unharvested wheat.
Some of us were raised on farms. We can talk about silos and combines and grain elevators and detasseling corn. We can talk about counting the beans and the fever itch of hay and how it can drive you to rinsing your arms with gasoline. We can talk about cow tipping and crop blight. We can talk about the pig doctor and how he swallows the viscous, worm-like, bluish membrane after castrating the hogs—how he plucks it out of the mutilated genitals with a pair of homemade forceps.
We can talk about highway driving and the solemn, solitary beauty of a fodder-filled silo receding in the distance; how it's there for miles and then suddenly disappears as if the horizon imagined it and then reclaimed the thought with a god-like whimsy.
We can talk about fishing.
A few of us grew up in trailer parks, and our rooms had lots of paneling. Infinite, impeccably grooved, pecky-pecan paneling. Long sheets of synthetic wood that we could drive a thumbtack through. Paneling that splinters and warps and chafes with a kind of sinister eczema. Paneling that is made to be unmade.
We are long-boned because we were well fed. We ate potatoes and barbecued beef. We drank milk by the gallon—two percent, with the royal blue cap. Some drank it whole.
Most of us have skin the color of a paper towel lightly dabbed in Wesson Oil.
In the winter, with the aluminum taste of frigid air in our lungs, we can look out over tractor-scarred fields of frozen mud and know exactly who we are.
We were raised with tornado culture and good dental histories.
When we came to New York we left behind pets. We left behind coaches and priests. We left behind friends who went to work for insurance companies. We left behind half-dead cars and VCRs and laminated baseball-card collections. We left behind two-lane, mercilessly straight, never-ending highways.
We didn't say goodbye to everybody. We couldn't possibly have said goodbye to everybody.
Some of us had never eaten garlic. To most of us, basil sounded like a prison town in southern Illinois. Ginger was that girl on Gilligan's Island. Some of us thought cappuccino was a cup of chino.
Most of us have some variation of blond in our hair. We're spaniel blonds. Rhubarb blonds. Cottonbox blonds. Peach blonds. We're soda-cracker blonds and bloodhoney blonds. We're Formica blonds.
We generally look like the people walking through the Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport on any given day.
We are Catholics and Protestants and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and we can recite the prayers by rote. Even though most of us have vehemently denounced our faith and want to be (or pretend that we want to be) Atheists and Marxists and Anarchists, we can still recite the prayers.
And at a pretty good clip, too.
The sofas back in our Midwestern homes smell like beef Wellington and forest rain and something not unlike the woodchip mulch used to bed gerbil terrariums.
We smell things on the street that remind us of the old pullout back in Manteno. The love seat back there in Fond du Lac. A vinyl record on the Second Avenue sidewalk between Fifth and Sixth can do it to us. A feather duster from the vintage shop on First between Ninth and Tenth can do it to us. The inside of an old bowler hat—something from an altogether different time—even that can do it to us.
Certain things always seem to send us back.
We have strong middle names like David and Matthew and Esther. Biblical names that followed us from the fishfly fogs of the Mississippi and the broken-bottle shores of Lake Michigan and the muddy, mosquito- misted banks of the Des Plaines River; middle names that quietly pursue us like private, invisible birds.
We have snapshots of our dogs. That's Waldo with a ten-gallon hat. This one here in the hand-knitted sweater is King, and look at the subtle pattern change there, see?
We keep our driver's licenses hidden from each other. We seal them in boxes and stash them in breast pockets. We slide them into old books and deny our late-eighties hairdos. That wasn't my hair. That wasn't my Ogilvie Home Perm.CHAPTER 2
MOST OF US WORK in book publishing. We work with lots of older white men who roll up their sleeves and wear seamless khakis. Jacks and Bobs and Todds. And Blakes and Steves. Men who find a kind of sacred nonchalance in the way they wear their ties.
And we work with lots of white women, too. Maryannes and Kathies and Pamelas.
We make sixteen or seventeen thousand dollars a year, but we tell each other eighteen or nineteen. If we make twenty, that's way too much. We survive on slices of pizza and ramen noodles. We eat a lot of flaccid hot dogs straight off the wagon.
We walk to work or, rather, we bound there like power hikers, in great vaulting astronaut strides. We voom to work. We alakazzam to the office in half-ruined shoes.
A few of us walk through the precarnival hours of St. Mark's, bank across Astor Place, and cut diagonally through Washington Square Park, where as early as eight-thirty a.m. the Rastas are out whispering smoke into your ear.
Smoke and sess.
It's good, Mon.
The pigeons have schizophrenia.
The office is fluorescently lit and the carpet incredibly gray and each employee has a cubicle that smells not unlike the inside of a bowling shoe. At some point, they (the folks from human resources) employed the term workstation as a replacement for cubicle. We call the big ones bull pens and the little ones Skinner boxes.
The housekeepers shellac the Skinner boxes to the point of a high, almost vinyl gloss. The sad chemical smell of lemon cleaning fluids creeps into our clothes and settles in our hair and a hint of it can be detected if we inhale deeply into the center of our pillows.
The iteration of Skinner boxes has a museum-like quality.
We are exhibits.
Earnest Midwesterner Comes to New York.
Will work for anything.
He's in publicity. She's in editorial. He tracks the bellwether titles and circulates an in-house report. She collates book briefs and talks to agents on the phone. He's in mass market promotion but wants her job in telephone sales. She's in production and walks around with these cardboard-pizza-box-bottom-type things called "mechanicals."
Co-op advertising and review easels are terms we use. Back order and print run and flap copy are terms we use.CHAPTER 3
Tenth Between First and A
IT WAS THE SUMMER OF REVOLT. Tompkins Square Park was a tattered, monster-movie militia of homeless men, crack whores, wild dogs, and dirty children wielding, throwing, and clinging to broomsticks, wainscoting, particleboard, refrigerator boxes, and other nameless excavated objects that constituted the hides, spines, and native totems of their beleaguered, waterlogged shantytown.
The fringes of the park were abundant with leather-wrapped rockers, tattooed superfreaks, wispy-headed, heavy-eyed heroin addicts, cops in riot gear, and articulate white kids from Connecticut with prolific facial hair and pierced eyelids, huddling Indian-style in ass-to-cement Kumbaya clusters and feigning poverty with their fashionably distressed Army fatigues and well-fed, thoroughly inoculated dogs.
After all, everyone had to revolt against something.
Feick and I lucked into a fourth-floor, four-bedroom walk-up in a prewar tenement on the south side of East Tenth Street between First Avenue and Avenue A. The apartment had been abandoned by Tokyo Stunt Pussy, a late-eighties speed-metal band whose big selling point was their penchant for gastrointestinal pyrotechnics. According to a fellow tenant who had been to one of their shows, at some sacred flash-point during their set each member of the band would push his pants down to his ankles, waddle over to an infernal- looking blowtorch, and fart with exceptional volume into the blue eye of the flame while hammering power chords.
Before I arrived in New York, Feick lived in the apartment directly below. Unit three was a funhouse- floored one-bedroom, complete with an elfin, nook-style kitchen and a bathroom so small and cramped we nearly performed inadvertent auto-fellatio each time our hams met the porcelain.
Feick paid $900 a month, which he could surprisingly afford, as he was cast in a play at Lincoln Center that had been running for twenty-seven consecutive months. His solvency amazed me because Feick is almost four years my junior and at the time he was an eighteen-year-old NYU dropout who couldn't even grow a beard and was prone to letting his laundry proliferate in the corner of his closet like some autogenous science-fiction monster.
In the play he spoke only four lines and his stage time barely totaled six minutes, but after taxes he still cleared over seven hundred bucks a week. That comes out to roughly $875 an hour.
His greatest moment came midway through the second act. It was a rant at his mother that was punctuated by the line "You're just a pathetic extension of my eighth-grade personality festival!"
I saw the show from the booth four times, and that line always brought the house down. Feick could somehow get underneath the words. He could unlock their hidden meanings and release the purple demon music. With that phrase he became a five-and-a-half-second avatar of parental hatred, an exploding prep- school brat stomping on the Tiffany sofa. The words came out in a slathering, tomato-faced lava. They seemed to erupt straight from his gums and incisors, volleying off the walls of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. The rant had audience members wiggling out of their seats with glee.
People would stop Feick on the street and beg him to do the line. They'd say, "Oh, man, you gotta do the line!" and he would heartily oblige, sending them across the avenue in chortling hysterics, limbs a-jiggle.
At the time, my best friend from college, Glenwood Ledbetter, was teaching English in Yamato, a small town in Kyushu on the southernmost island of Japan. He was bopping smartass seventh-graders on the head (apparently an Eastern scholastic custom wholeheartedly supported by the faculty), taking biweekly judo classes, and expending an inordinate amount of energy blocking his penis from the view of his colleagues while urinating in the men's bathroom.
And he was singing a lot of karaoke in the evenings.
Prior to going to Japan, he had held E.S.L. teaching posts in Kromeriz, a small agricultural hamlet in Czechoslovakia where they drink stout for breakfast; the north of Italy; Morocco; a fishing town in the former U.S.S.R.; and Las Vegas, New Mexico.
I had received a letter from him while I was completing my last semester of school at a small, vaguely accredited liberal-arts institution in Dubuque, Iowa. Glenwood said he was moving to New York to pursue a job in publishing and wanted to know if there was any room in Feick's apartment.
After the show at Lincoln Center finally closed, despite the one-line myth he had developed and farmed in the streets, Feick couldn't get another acting gig for a while and money was tight. He started collecting unemployment, and I was making almost nothing at my publishing job. I was making zilch, in fact.
And I had the wardrobe to prove it.
Upon his arrival in New York, Glenwood immediately landed a job in the art department of a prominent children's book publisher, and both Feick and I badly needed the economics of the three-way rent split.
It worked out fine. Feick got the bedroom and Glenwood and I shared the common area. I slept on a green canvas Marine cot I purchased at an Army/Navy wholesaler on Canal Street. Glenwood spent his nights on a small, corrugated camping pad that rolled up for convenient storage.
We got used to the close quarters. There was the perpetual, unpleasant odor of our breath communally filling the room; the random, slightly yellowed pair of underwear emerging here and there; the treble clefs, ampersands, and other strange cursive-like multitudes of pubic hair lining the rim of the toilet; and the sporadic, percussive score of our farts trumpeting out in the four a.m. gloom.
We needed a bigger space.
We had heard rumors about our building being run by fraudulent management, smoky, voice-filled rumors that hung in the sodium light of our stairwell.
We basically heard that the tenants in the other five units were rent striking, so we followed suit. Our building organized.
We held meetings. A girl who often wore welding goggles took notes (unit two). A fiftyish woman with orange hair and her thumbless husband (a fishing accident) made coffee (unit one). A guy with a beard that was so vast it seemed to be a continuation of his eyebrows, and who purportedly landed a book contract to write the unauthorized biography of Jack Kerouac's lost lover—that guy—brought doughnuts (unit three). Feick, Glenwood and I brought paper plates (unit five).
Which no one used.
So we just kept bringing them.
Whoever lived in unit four never showed up. Once I pressed my ear to the door of unit four and heard what I imagined to be the sound of someone playing a ukulele.
The meetings lasted anywhere from four minutes to three hours, depending on how things were going between the fiftyish woman with orange hair and her thumbless husband. Basically, if they were tanked the meeting would turn into a public performance of domestic brutality and the other tenants would sit around, voyeuristically watching, waving away the vodka vapors. If they were sober they could be expected to be well-behaved, pristinely mannered, articulate, hand-holding cohabitants. That usually meant we would get out early.
We met Sundays, on the roof. If it rained we'd call it off.
The meetings started out productively. We talked about city tenant support and squatter's rights and keeping rent money in escrow. We discussed changing the locks on the front door and opening an account with Con Ed to pay for the electricity in the common area. We talked about getting a lawyer.
The guy with the beard talked about a cricket bat he kept above his door that had human hair embedded in the grain.
On average, the girl with the welding goggles drank nine or ten cups of coffee per meeting and tried to be subtle about it.
Nothing happened. Ever. No lawyer. No escrow account. No new locks on the front door. Eventually, Con Ed shut off the electricity in the common area, so coming home at any hour of the evening turned into a kind of silent horror film. We anticipated rapists and stranglers and giant kidnappers on every landing. Our blood pressure skyrocketed to dangerous levels upon rounding each corner. Stepping safely into the apartment carried with it a historical, emotional weight. The light in our own units became wistfully precious.
Because of increasing frustration with regard to our lack of space (Glenwood eventually threw his back out going to the bathroom), when the apartment above us opened up (unit five; unit four was next door to us) we made our move.
We spent four hundred bucks changing the locks.
Besides my Marine cot and Glenwood's camping pad, we didn't have much to haul except for a few suitcases, a table, two chairs, a small desk, some dishes, a futon mattress, my three boxes of books, and Feick's color TV.
The abandoned apartment had a third-world quality about it. Tokyo Stunt Pussy promotional posters had been shellacked to the walls. Their choice of logo art was the crust edge of a ham sandwich on Wonder bread standing on end in all of its vertical, overtly vaginal simplicity, the ham particularly wilted and accompanied by a slim and equally wilted lettuce leaf.
Tokyo Stunt Pussy CBGB's June 15th
Excerpted from The Year of Endless Sorrows by Adam Rapp. Copyright © 2007 Adam Rapp. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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