This “laugh-out-loud” novel looks at “the absurdity of journalism through the eyes of a (chronologically) grown-up Holden Caulfield” (Kirkus Reviews).
In North Carolina, reporter Kurt Clausen delights both women and his editors with his sense of humor—that is, until they get tired of him and dump him. Beneath his wisecracking exterior, he’s really just a lonely alcoholic who can’t seem to stay employed. He loves newspapers—when he doesn’t hate them. But now he has a new girlfriend, Janice, and a new job, and he’s trying to give it his all.
As he puts his unique stamp on stories ranging from a KKK march to a gay police chief to a possibly violent kindergarten teacher, Kurt might be turning things around—or he may be about to mess it all up again—in this novel filled with “hilariously on-target gibes at journalistic practice” that “admirably balances humor with serious feeling” (Kirkus Reviews).
“A cast of sympathetic characters and nearly nonstop wisecracks and one-liners highlight this spirited and appealing first novel.” —Library Journal
“Funny and touching.” —The New York Times Book Review
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A woman I was introduced to at a dinner party told me how she buried the wrong dead cat. This doesn't mean she was looking for the right dead cat. She wasn't hoping for a dead cat at all. But seeing a dead cat that looked exactly like hers, one that was exactly the same color and had precisely the same markings as her cat, she picked up the dead cat from the side of the road near her home and cried, knowing she'd never get to see her cat play again, or hold it. And after she found a spot for a funeral and dug up some damp earth, putting her cat down into the ground and crying again, she went very sadly home where no one could soothe her or end her pain. That's when she saw her cat sitting on a windowsill in the living room, staring at her disinterestedly, the way cats do.
The woman smiled during that part of the story.
"You mean your cat was alive all along, and you buried someone else's cat?" another woman at the party said.
She smiled and nodded her head.
"At least you buried a dead one. Some people aren't that discriminating," I said.
"Yes," the woman said.
None of us in the little audience had ever heard a true story like that before, and we sort of automatically tried to think of similarly weird and emotional things that had happened to us.
"I buried my little brother one time," I said, lighting a cigarette and then sipping some Royal Crown Cola.
"Kurt, that's grotesque," this woman I know said.
"It was ineffective, too. Mom and Dad made me dig him up. It was on the beach at the Gulf of Mexico near Freeport, Texas. We were playing Crab, which means we squatted along the sand and walked sideways with our hands held out like pincers. The crabs lived in little holes in the sand, and after a while I decided we needed some new realism in our game, so I looked at my brother and said 'I have to bury you, like a crab.' He said okay, or he said something, and then he lay down on his back and I started shoveling wet sand on him with my hands."
"Did you bury him completely?" some guy said.
"No. I had his legs, arms, and torso covered when I realized he couldn't breathe if I put sand over his head, so I said, 'I can't bury you all the way or you'll die.' He said okay. I think it was the only word he knew."
"I buried my sister in the snow one day," a woman said. "It was in Cleveland and we had a huge snowfall and when my sister and I went out to play in these magnificent snowdrifts, I had her get down on her hands and knees and just covered her completely with snow. I left an opening near her face where she could look out."
"And then did you leave and continue your education and get married?" a woman asked.
"I've never been married," she said.
"What about your sister?" someone said.
"She's never been married, either," the woman said.
"That's not so bad," the woman who buried the wrong dead cat said. "More and more women are postponing marriage."
"It's hard to find a suitable mate when you're buried in snow," I said.
"First we were talking about dead cats. I don't see why we have to get morbid and talk about marriage," a woman said, making everyone laugh.
"I guess we're all at the age where everything starts going wrong," this woman said.
"What age is that?" a woman asked.
"Anything right after birth," I said, enjoying the conversation as it flowed like a flash flood, swamping us all and killing no one.CHAPTER 2
The dinner party was held at a house in the relentless woods that inundate nearly all of North Carolina, a state so crowded with trees that children in the public schools have to be shown movies of the sky or they'd never see it. We were at Annie Strother's house north of St. Beaujolais in an area known colloquially as Hoot Owl Hill, which, based on my empirical studies, didn't seem to have any owls, just hills.
"Where are the owls?" asked Janice, the woman who buried the wrong cat. She was sitting next to me on the wooden steps at the bottom of the patio, where we looked off at the thick black outlines of trees crushed together in rural disorder.
"They don't have any," I said, cupping my hands over my eyes like binoculars in the garish moonlight as I scanned the treelines. "I've been here lots and I've never seen a single owl."
"A single owl? You mean an unmarried owl?" she said, sipping a glass of something that was probably wine.
"Yes. I've seen married owls, and some divorced ones. I'm doing a film for National Geographic. It's called Sex on a Swaying Limb. Actually, I've been here probably a few dozen times, here on Hoot Owl Hill, and I've never seen an owl. Also, I've never heard one hoot. A few times, when I was here for dinner or something, Annie and I'd be out on the patio talking and we'd hear some distant bird going hoo, hoohoo, hoo, which I always assumed was a barred owl, or maybe a great horned owl, since I didn't know anything and it didn't matter which owl I assumed it was. Then one day I found out it wasn't an owl at all. It was just a goddamn mourning dove."
"A goddamn mourning dove?" Janice asked, smiling at me with a little of the porchlight shining on her cheek.
"That's the particular variety," I said. "I looked it up in an Encyclopedia Britannica for authenticity. There are common mourning doves, and the ones we have out here that annoy me, birds known as goddamn mourning doves. Whenever I hear them now, I yell, 'Quit mourning! It irritates me.'"
"Are you a naturalist?" she said, and pulled out one of those extremely skinny cigarettes that women are supposed to smoke if they want to look like fashionable militant feminists who wouldn't do anything stupid like smoke a man's cigarette.
"A naturalist? No. A true naturalist wouldn't insult birds like I do. I just like owls. If I was an animal, I'd be an owl."
"You are an animal," she said, brushing her hair from her eyes and sipping some wine.
"Did someone spread rumors about me?"
"I don't know you well enough to be privy to your rumors. We're all animals. I didn't mean you in particular. Why would you be an owl?"
"Owls are so handsome. They're beautiful."
"They're predators," she said. "Is that it? Do you want to eat live prey, such as goddamn mourning doves?"
"I wouldn't eat anything that complains so much," I said, and lit a Camel Light, the kind of cigarette that men smoke when they're particular about which brand gives them cancer and heart disease.
"If I were an animal, I think I'd be a dolphin," Janice said. "I'd be playing in the ocean, jumping through the waves and chasing fish."
"You'd get caught in a tuna net," I said. "If you're going to be an animal, you should be one that isn't endangered."
"A stray dog," I said. Janice spit her wine out and rubbed the back of her hand across her lips as she giggled and choked on her wine. I tapped her back very lightly, as if that would help her quit choking, and said, "I guess you feel pretty comfortable around me if you can do something as intimate as spit wine. I feel as though we're close."
Politely, I looked away, allowing Janice time to suck in some air, clear her lungs, and wipe the rest of the wine from her lips and chin. When she had done that, she smiled at me with embarrassment and said, "I hope you don't think I'm a barbarian."
"My ancestors were Vandals. They sacked Rome and stole North Africa, so watching someone spit a little wine doesn't offend me," I said.
"Are you German? I'm sorry, but I can't remember your name," she said.
"That's okay. I remember it."CHAPTER 3
It was almost a full moon, low in the great dark night, with some Clash album playing on the stereo and the high-spirited, unintelligible background blather of voices coming from the patio above us, all sounding distinctly happy in their private lives except for one voice, a single, distressed male voice producing a brief scream as he fell backward over the patio railing into a holly bush.
"Do you think he's okay?" Janice asked.
"He's screaming. It means he's still conscious," I said confidently. "Holly must be an extremely painful bush. It's a good thing he's drunk, so he can't feel the thorns quite as well."
As two or three men ran down the steps by us to go inspect the shrill drunk in the holly bush, Janice tapped my knee with her finger and said, "You remember your name, but I don't." "And why should you? You only heard it once. My parents repeated it to me for months and months until I remembered it. I'm Kurt Clausen."
"That certainly is German," she said. "I'm Janice Galassi. Italian, I'm told."
"You don't know?"
She smiled at me and said, "We believe what we're told, don't we? My father says he's Italian and I believe him, which apparently makes me Italian, somewhat, even though I don't speak Italian and I was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa."
"You're the first person I've ever known who was born in Iowa," I said, and shook her hand, which made her giggle a little. "I've never thought of Iowa as actually having people in it. I've always thought of it as just this huge piece of land that was given borders and a name so you'd know what to call it when you drove through."
"I don't know. I only lived there until I was three. We grew up, our family, in Philadelphia. Where were you born?"
"Really? You're a Texan. That's neat."
"I'm only sort of a Texan, just like I'm only part German and you're apparently Italian," I said, sipping some Royal Crown Cola and taking a drag from my cigarette. "I was born in Odessa, in West Texas, and spent the first few years of my life in Brazoria, a relentlessly tiny town in East Texas in the swamps."
"You grew up in a swamp?"
"It's less expensive than a house."
"Were your parents poor?"
"Eventually the Texas Game and Wildlife Commission saw us children floating in the swamp and said nongame animals, such as children, weren't allowed in swamps, so my parents had to buy a house."
"What a fascinating lie," Janice said. "I might write that down for my journalism class for a feature story."
"Journalism? The one thing you can't learn in a journalism class is how to write a story. All they teach you how to do is spit up facts in an orderly fashion. Journalism is rehearsed vomiting."
"You seem a little displeased with journalism," Janice said cheerfully, touching her fingertips lightly on my shoulder.
"It's a noble profession, if what you do for the rest of your life doesn't matter."
"I'm sorry. Annie told me to be nice to you," she said, sounding amused and serious at the same time. She patted my knee and said, "Annie told me a little about your troubles at the paper."
"Annie's a real nice woman."
"I know. She didn't give me much detail on what happened at the paper. She said you might tell me about it, if you weren't too furious."
"I was too furious earlier. I'm tired of being too furious. It's exhausting and unhealthy."
"What happened?" she said.
"Oh, this stupid dickhead son of a bitch at work ..."
"Is that your editor's formal title?" she said.
I shook my head yes. "It's a pretty formal paper. Anyway, Justin, the stupid dickhead son of a bitch, whose skull I'm going to shatter someday if they make it a misdemeanor, is an Old School editor, meaning he believes that nothing that happens in life can be so complex or human or interesting that it can't be made sufficiently dull and sterile by a trained journalist."
"You're still furious. Annie said you were."
"He despises me because I refuse to imitate the Associated Press or the goddamn New York Times and write with that same lofty indifference to life and the blessed reverence for indistinguishable sameness, the stupid bastards."
"Yes," Janice said, as if accepting my furiousness. "And then what?"
"And then yesterday at work I had a routine traffic-accident story that's so tediously common I think it's beyond embarrassing that we even write them, since most of our readers don't give a shit who got drunk and wrecked their car again, unless it was Ronald Reagan returning home from a gay bar, or something uncommon like that."
"To make the story at least interesting to me, since I was sure no one else was going to be interested in it, I did what I routinely do, which was ignore the entire history of American journalism and write however the hell I wanted. That is, instead of taking the maddeningly stylized approach favored by nearly every newspaper on the continent and writing something like 'Police charged a St. Beaujolais woman with driving under the influence Thursday after the car she was driving knocked over a U.S. Postal Service mailbox, overturned, and threw the woman from the vehicle,' I wrote it differently, using the same facts. I sat at my terminal and wrote something like 'Mail spewed across Jefferson Street and a woman was disgorged from her car after she lost control of the car Thursday, knocked over a U.S. Postal Service mailbox, and inadvertently parked her car upside down, which is illegal.' It's true and factual, two qualities that didn't interest that fidgety bastard who oversees the paper to make sure that nothing of any interest accidentally gets printed. So he and I argued over the story. He called me into his office, held up a printout of the story and angrily said, 'This isn't good journalism.' I said, 'You're right. It's better than that.' This pissed him off. He said, 'I'm not sure I need you on my staff anymore.' I should've been quiet, but I said, 'No, it doesn't take a full staff to bore the public. Am I fired yet?' And I was. He told me to clean out my desk immediately. I said, 'Am I a janitor now? Wow, I've already got a new job.'"
What happened to me seemed funny, but also dangerous, since I knew that within maybe six or eight weeks I'd be broke, with only the slight likelihood that I could find a job before then, and I was quiet.
Janice laughed at my story and then she was quiet, too, looking at me and trying, I think, to care about me.
"What will you do?" she said.
"I don't know," I said. "That's one of the most honest, useful sentences I keep having to say in my life: I don't know." I smiled wryly, or at least I imagined I did, the way I always smile when something hurts me and I can't stop it.
"Do you dance?" Janice said.
"I don't think anyone would hire me to do that. I have a degree in English."
"I'm not recommending a career, dammit," she said. "I like this song and I'm asking you to dance." Someone had put on a Beatles album, and "In My Life" was playing.
"Oh," I said. "So instead of being my guidance counselor, you want to dance?"
I said, "Sure. I love this song, too. But let's not dance on the patio where everyone can make fun of us. Let's dance out in the grass, in the dark."
It was a slow song, and it felt pleasant to have a woman touching my back and leaning her chin on my shoulder and innocently rubbing her thighs against mine, the way people in love do, or the way, like us, that strangers touch and don't feel strange anymore. I wondered if I was going to kiss her. Her hands were flat on my back, and then she moved her hand so one fingertip touched the soft flesh between my neck and my shoulder. I tingled ecstatically, and my penis, having remained aloof until now, showed signs of movement. Those were things you couldn't conversationally tell a woman, so I remained quiet. I wondered, though, if something similar was happening to her but she was too civilized to abruptly describe the activities in her panties. You just don't know.
"You're right," she said quietly as we danced. "The sentence 'I don't know' is probably the most honest sentence in history. By the time we're twenty-one, we're supposed to have picked a career or a set of beliefs to last us all of our lives, although I think most people die without having known what the hell they were doing, really, or if they did anything that mattered. I'm thirty-two, and I hate my job, I'm going to night school, in case that matters, I don't have a husband or a boyfriend, and I buried the wrong dead cat. I don't know."
I laughed and rubbed her back, saying, "I don't know, either. We have that in common."
"You mean ignorance?" she said.
"Yes. It's something to share."
She hugged me and laughed. No woman had done that in a long time, and even though it might have just been a minor affection meaning almost nothing, I was happy. I wanted the song to keep playing so we could keep dancing in the dark in the grass, and then she'd kiss me on the lips and press her breasts harder against me and whisper, "Do you want to sleep with me?" and I'd stare in her eyes and say, "No. I want to stay awake with you." But I couldn't tell her that after only knowing her for about twenty minutes. Maybe after an hour. I wanted my life to work with this stranger, somehow.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Begin to Exit Here"
Copyright © 1992 John Welter.
Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This novel is so consistently funny, creative and original while at the same time, feels so real and familiar. The antihero, a journalist, manages to get the biggest scoop of his life while unknowingly screwing up his relationship with the best woman on earth-or at least the best he's met so far. You'll love the dialogue:witty, crisp and readable, filled with odd but somehow credible anecdotes. You'll find yourself rooting for this likable schmuck and his goofy but touching attempts to keep the love of his life and manage to make a living at the same time.