What would you do if you were a few months from collecting early retirement—a pension for which you’d sucked up and sycophanted almost twenty years—when your obscenely overweight and extremely crass boss told you that if you didn’t raise the company’s market share by the end of the year, you’d be out on your ass without a dime?
If you’re Sky Thorne, Senior V.P. of Tailburger—a fringe fast food chain whose specialties are batter dipped, deep-fried meat patties and 96-oz. beef-flavored shakes—you’ll get to work on as many harebrained, desperate schemes as you can think of. And if that means launching a marketing campaign that asks the public, “Why just abuse your body when you can torture it?” then damn it, that’s what you’ll do! Because Sky Thorne is ready to fight dirty and do anything necessary to earn the pension he sees as the reset button on life, liberty, and the pursuit of unadulterated deep-fried happiness.
Red Meat Cures Cancer is a hilarious and poignant romp through a world of excess, and marks the arrival of a great new satirical voice in American literature.
About the Author
Starbuck O'Dwyer, a native of Rochester, New York and a graduate of Princeton, Oxford and Cornell, writes novels, essays, short stories, screenplays and music under his given middle name. His critically-acclaimed debut novel, Red Meat Cures Cancer (Penguin Random House/Vintage Books), won two national writing awards for humor, appeared on several bestseller lists, and was a featured selection of the 2007 One Book One Vancouver reading program as selected by the Vancouver Public Library. His writing, which has been described as "comic genius" by Kirkus Reviews, has been published in forums as diverse as Entertainment Weekly, Flaunt, Toro, Japanophile, The Journal News, PW Daily, and The Boston Globe, and he has appeared on over 350 radio and television programs including guest spots on ESPN, WGN, Voice of America, and PBS. His collection of stories, How to Raise a Good Kid, a finalist in the 2012 Indie Reader Discovery Awards (parenting) and a finalist in the 2011 Foreword Reviews Book of the Year Awards (essays, humor), is a perennial category bestseller in China and has been translated into Afrikaans, German, Chinese, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian and Portuguese. Similarly, his second novel, Goliath Gets Up, a finalist in the 2012 Indie Reader Discovery Awards (humor), has been translated into Chinese and is presently being translated into Portuguese. His latest collection of stories, High School Dance, a gold medalist in the 2016 Global Ebook Awards (humor/comedy nonfiction) and a finalist in the 2016 Foreword Reviews INDIES Book of the Year Awards (humor), has been translated into Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. O'Dwyer is presently at work on a book about his time as a graduate student at Oxford.
Read an Excerpt
RAMADA INN, ROCHESTER, NEW YORK
"Good morning! I'd like to welcome all of you to the annual meeting of the corporate shareholders of Tailburger. For those of you who don't know me, and there can't be many of you, I'm Frank Fanoflincoln, founder and president of Tailburger. I gotta tell you folks, I'm tickled as a twenty-dollar whore to be here."
Frank Fanoflincoln, my boss, is a fat man. I'm not talking circus fat or freakish fat or the huge, if I eat three more pints of Ben and Jerry's they'll need to move a wall to get me out of my house, kind of fat. But he's working on it. He also happens to be the most ill-mannered person I've ever met. The day I interviewed with him nearly twenty years ago is one I vividly recall. We went to a Chinese restaurant called the House of Poon, where Fanoflincoln, or the Link as I refer to him, spent most of the time with his left hand firmly entrenched inside his boxer shorts. After ordering moo goo gai pan and a Pepsi, he leaned back in his chair, submarined his overly pudgy mitt below the beltline and left it there. If there exists a single better reason not to take a job, I haven't heard of it, which makes my own presence at today's shareholder meeting, not to mention my continued employment at Tailburger, a source of incredible self-loathing.
"When I started this company in 1962, I never dreamed we'd become a heavyweight in the fast-food industry. And you know what . . .? We haven't. But we do have the best fried hamburger on the market, and we've carved out a niche for ourselves as the burger of choice for the fringe element. Take a poll at any correctional facility in this country and the inmates will speak volumes. In Texas alone this year, our Tailburger Deluxe was the final meal of choice for no less than eight death-row inmates. What can I say? At Tailburger, we're talkin' proud."
The Link liked to wear bright-colored sweatsuits, preferably ones with comfort-guard waistbands made of industrial-strength elastic. Although he usually had food in his mouth, or at least in his teeth, he was a strangely effective public speaker, and as usual, his opening remarks were met with enthusiastic applause from the audience. A Civil War buff, the Link legally changed his name in his early twenties to Fanoflincoln out of his fondness for our sixteenth president. His weekends were spent standing in cow pastures with other out-of-shape fanatics, reenacting the battle of Vicksburg or Fredericksburg or Pittsburgh for all I knew. Too large for any of the uniforms available, the Link was an easy target in his vibrant athletic gear and had lately been asked to play a campground tent. Undeterred by this apparent demotion, he likened the competitive world of burgers to the epic struggle between the Union and the Confederacy.
"Don't think for a minute that I'm satisfied with our progress. 'Cause I'm not. Far from it! This war is in its infancy and we will fight many battles before we reach our Appomattox! So I ask you, as the great Abraham Lincoln once asked Congress, 'Can we do better? The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew!' You're damn right we do!"
The Link shouted at a bewildered crowd. His word-for-word recitation of Lincoln's 1862 exhortation was undoubtedly impressive, at least the first time you heard it. Once you realized it was the only quote from the Great Emancipator that he knew and you'd heard it countless times at various events, it lost a bit of its impact. For half the crowd in attendance, I'm sure it was inspirational.
"Now ordinarily we'd start this meeting by having some stiffs from finance come out here and tell you about the company's performance this past fiscal year. And we will do that later once we've finished cutting those bloodsuckers out of cardboard. But we're gonna start a little differently today. I'm just so damn excited about our new advertising campaign, I've asked Schuyler Thorne, our chief operating officer and senior vice president in charge of marketing, to speak with you first. Sky has been with the company since 1983, and he's a big reason why your dividend checks will soon be fatter than a welfare mother's ass. Get up here, Sky!"
The eyes of the stockholders were upon me as I made my way from the conference room's front row to the podium and shook hands with the Link. Three weeks before, he called me on the carpet and demanded a new marketing direction for our company and for the flagship sandwich of the franchise, known as the Tailpipe. Following our critically acclaimed, but commercially disastrous, "Get Away from My Tailpipe" campaign featuring various gay activists happily chomping on the product, the Link had assured me that I had better not "fuck the company in the ass" this time. Fortunately for me, I functioned well in a hostile work environment.
The Link wanted advertising that was high-concept, a campaign that would "boil the ocean," in his words. He picked up this phrase from a men's lifestyle magazine aimed at disenfranchised twenty-somethings, and though he didn't know what it meant, he sure as hell thought it sounded good. After tremendous growth in the late '80s and '90s, Tailburger was experiencing a bit of a downturn and the Link was getting panicky. Though it hadn't hit our share price on Wall Street yet, internally we all knew that society's curbing of excesses and insidious return to Subarus and sensibility was a killing trend for our company. No fat, low fat, reduced fat, artificial fat-each was anathema to us. When your main product consists of four batter-dipped, deep-fried patties of red meat and a bun, held together by five generous dollops of Cajun-style mayonnaise, you rely on the weakness of men and women. My job was to exploit that weakness. With per capita beef consumption at an all-time low and sales of Mercedes, liquor and guns down, we were looking at a bear market for Tailburger.
Once a lowly marketing executive, I had morphed into the Link's number one lackey, for want of a better term. My advancement to the top of the company had less to do with my business acumen and more to do with my ability to avoid getting fired. The Link shit-canned so many people left and right over the years eventually I was the only one he recognized in the hallways at our headquarters in Mendon, a small town on the southeast side of Rochester. Now he relied on me for everything from marketing campaigns to sales reports to advising him on our casual day policy. If all this wasn't enough for someone making $187,500, my new duty was to stem the tide of simple living. I was instructed by the Link to lead the middle (and especially the lower middle) class back to an era of crass commercialism, basement pot farming and if possible, the Hustle dance craze. "Bring it back, Thorne!" the Link insisted. "Bring it all back. I don't care how you do it." Like a robotic misanthrope, I accepted my tasking without question. Now I faced my first test: the shareholders. Time to spew self-righteous platitudes at the masses.
"Thank you, Frank. It's a real honor for me to have the opportunity to address our shareholders and owner-operators as a group today. You folks are the real reason for the success of Tailburger. This past year we opened up eighty-four new franchises across the U.S., and we remain extremely optimistic about our future growth potential. As Mr. Fanoflincoln said, and as you are aware, we have succeeded at Tailburger by attacking the fringe. Market surveys indicate that our penetration is deepest with groups ranging from alcoholics to deadbeat dads to skate punks with multiple body piercings. We're also big with people who believe exercise is an absolute evil. These folks have been loyal to us for years!"
I took a sip of water and surveyed the crowd. Our shareholders, "mostly trailer trash and former XFL football players," according to the Link, were paying rapt attention. Just my luck.
"So, like I said, these groups are our core customers and we need to cater to them, NOT to families. I fear we've gotten away from that. Some of you even approached me this year about adding a playground to the front of our stores. Now that seems like a harmless enough idea on its surface. I agree. But stop and think about it for a minute. If someone's outside using the slide, they're not inside eating a Tailburger. And that's no good."
Another sip. Nobody dozing off yet.
"Most disturbing of all, however, I was approached about adding something healthy to our Tailburger menu. Do you know what this tells me? Do you? This tells me that the propaganda machine in America is alive and well. Everyone, from the American Heart Association to Dr. Koop to Richard Simmons, is telling you all you can eat are sprouts and lentils. They say fat is bad and aerobic exercise is good. They say beef kills you. (Pause) Now does anybody here know someone who died from eating a delicious Tailburger? Of course not. These fascists won't be happy until every last one of us is wearing a Lycra bodysuit and jumping around in our living rooms to the worst prepackaged dance music from the eighties you've ever heard. The whole thing is outrageous! We've got to push back against this health craze. And we will!"
Another sip. First sleeping shareholder spotted. I was ready to ramble now-ready to preach the gospel according to Tailburger.
"Who are they to tell us what to do with our bodies? I don't know about you, but I'm sick and tired of it. We get bombarded by one shoddy scientific report after another. It's just not right, I tell you! At Tailburger, we're going to play up our image as fast-food outlaws. We'll continue to be a shining light amidst the darkness. The brand everyone loves to hate. And today, you lucky people will be the first to hear our new national slogan. Mike, will you get the curtain?"
Mike, the hotel's audiovisual guru, took his cue, pressed some button and revealed my marketing greatness on an enormous screen.
WHY JUST ABUSE YOUR BODY
WHEN YOU CAN TORTURE IT?
"That's right. We're going back to our rebellious roots. We will laugh in the faces of the health nuts. All the way to our graves if we have to."
The audience seemed a bit perplexed.
"Okay. All right. I can tell by your confused faces that you need the concept fleshed out. You're going to be seeing a full complement of print, radio, television and Internet spots. We're going to saturate the domestic market with a new theme song by alternarockers Blatherskite called "Torture Me." We're going to have a beverage tie-in with Scuz Cola to continue the theme of self-abuse and we have a tentative agreement with Jelloteous Junderstack, NBA superstar and major Tailburger fan, to endorse our product line. This is going to be the biggest marketing launch in the history of Tailburger and an emphatic statement about our company's rightful place in the twenty-first century!"
My rousing finish didn't exactly start a riot in the aisles, and the lukewarm response from our shareholders caused the Link's face to convulse as if he were receiving an enema. Though initially enthusiastic about the Torture idea, he met me with a forced smile as I left the podium. I was accustomed to his capriciousness, however, and I remained unfazed. Late for a plane to Washington, D.C., I didn't have time to worry, and I left for the airport temporarily indifferent to the experience. Not surprisingly, lobbying had somehow found its way into my job description, and a federal bill, calling for increased amounts of food labeling, more frequent safety inspections and stricter meat handling requirements, had been introduced in the Agriculture Committee. This bill needed to be stopped.
How I'd come to this point in my life was more of a disappointment than a mystery. I was six feet tall when I started with Tailburger right out of business school. I was now closer to five eleven, an angry inch of compressed spine the price I'd paid for bearing the weight of the burger world on my shoulders for two decades. My blondish hair had thinned considerably from its blow-dried heyday in the 1970s, my brow was a bit creased and the flesh under my chin was starting to show the not inconsiderable effects of gravity. Still, despite my physical deterioration, something ageless continued to churn inside of me. For as long as I could remember, I'd talked about breaking off on my own and doing something I would enjoy, maybe even love. No more answering to anybody. No more rat race. Sure it was hokey, this hairball of a notion I'd coughed up while reading a library full of self-help books written by the world's leading mind-fuck gurus. But I wanted it, whatever "it" was. Herman Melville said that within every man there exists an insular Tahiti full of peace and joy, something that lies at our very center just waiting to be discovered. Where was my insular Tahiti? Not only couldn't I find it; I wasn't sure where to look. While I saw others reaching this paradise in their own lives, content with their families and careers, I somehow remained stuck on one of the one thousand uninhabited islands in the St. Lawrence Seaway. My existence was tolerable, but hardly paradise. So, unsurprisingly, a certain sadness overcame me every December when the year would end without a change as my mortgage and an unending series of expenses piled up, and small raises and stock options kept me satisfied enough to stay the course-never any closer to that which allegedly lay at my core.
Though I blamed myself primarily (at least on most days), there was also the small matter of my do-nothing older brother, King, a man-child who had managed to go a lifetime without an identifiable job, let alone a career. His résumé, had he ever bothered to put one together, would have read like the perfect reply to the classified section of a Club Med resort circular. Part-time herbalist. Part-time Pilates instructor. Amateur nutritionist. From Amnesty International to Royal Caribbean, King had worked for every major activist organization as well as every major cruise line, but had lasted nowhere for more than three months. He said he had a problem with authority, but whatever the reason, so long as he stayed outside the confines of corporate America, I was under some kind of intangible psychic pressure to stay securely within them. A family could only have one fuckup, and we had King. It had always been that way, from the time we were young until now. The seminal event in my mind was King's decision to skip senior year of high school to work ski patrol at Stowe. Many similar choices, evoking a mixture of sympathy and bewilderment from me, followed. As the years passed, however, my pity for him evolved into envy as I considered all the free time he had at his disposal. Nevertheless, every time I had thought about quitting my own job, I couldn't bring myself to do it. One fuckup is tolerable, but at two fuckups, you unfairly sentence your parents to a life-time of shunning social events for fear of having to report what their children are doing. I decided long ago that my father would die a horribly painful death the day he had to tell his buddies I was a washroom attendant, or worse, a personal trainer at Gold's Gym.
Until now, it had all been academic really. My financial commitments, the same things that keep everybody at the grindstone, rendered the idea of quitting Tailburger useless. Some time back, having realized this, I accepted my fate as a salaryman, put my head down and began the final drive to retirement: a full thirty-year trek. But now, with only one year to go until I'd have twenty years vested with the company and could opt out early for a reduced Tailburger pension, and with my parents having both recently passed away, I saw my last best hope for a trip to Tahiti.
An Interview with Starbuck O'Dwyer, author of RED MEAT CURES CANCER
Q: Where does the name Starbuck come from?
A: Starbuck is my given middle name and my paternal grandmother's maiden name. The Starbuck family was one of the original families that settled Nantucket Island and was known for its involvement in the whaling industry. So much so that when Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick, he named the first mate on the Pequod, Starbuck. Years later, the company Starbucks took its name from Melville's book, leaving those of us in the original Starbuck family to wonder what might have been if only whale blubber had become as popular as coffee.
Q: RED MEAT CURES CANCER has a unique comic tone and style. How would you describe it?
A: The tone and style are highly irreverent but not for its own sake. Overall, the book is a black comedy and, more specifically, a comic novel about contemporary American life that spoofs countless topics including corporate greed, marketing, golf, plastic surgery, gambling, Civil War battle reenactments, Hollywood, local news, religion, politics, Silicon Valley, fast food lawsuits, pornography and on and on. It's fast-paced, politically incorrect and intended to make people laugh and think while taking them on a wild and unpredictable ride.
Q: What's the story about?
A: It centers on Sky Thorne, a middle-aged executive for an outlaw fast food chain called Tailburger, whose boss threatens his job and pension if he doesn't raise the company's piddling one percent market share to a healthy five percent by the end of the year. Since Sky has spent nearly twenty years working for the company, he'sdesperate to hang on long enough to get his retirement money. The story is primarily about the unraveling of Sky's personal and professional life as he struggles to reconcile all the morally reprehensible things he does to sell more deep-fried hamburgers and beef-flavored shakes, with who he wants to be as a person and as a role model for his children.
Q: Beef-flavored shakes?
A: Yes, Tailburger has a beef-flavored shake called the Tailfrap. They also have a baboon burger that they serve with ribs called "Bab on a Slab. It's a pretty food-forward menu.
Q: What interests you about using outrageous comical elements to create a morality tale?
A: Morality tale sounds a bit too serious a description given the book's over-the-top tone, but there's no question that the comedies I enjoy personally often have some kind of moral underpinning to them where the laughter comes in part from the discomfort we feel when characters face difficult decisions in their lives In this age of ENRON and other massive corporate collapses, we've seen how the unethical decisions of one or two people can bring down an entirecompany, and I find myself increasingly interested in examining the pressure that people feel to be successful in today's world, the reasons behind it, and the things they're willing to do to achieve and maintain their success. My writing reflects my attempt to create stories and situations that are first and foremost funny, but that also have substance and meaning readers can relate to and appreciate, and make their own decisions about.
Q: Whenever Sky Thorne reaches a fork in the road, he goes the wrong way--but you still find yourself rooting for him. Do you think of him as an anti-hero?
A: In many ways, yes. Sky Thorne is the embodiment of the modern man who finds himself caught between his desire to fulfill his material needs, including his financial obligations to his kids, and his desire to do the right thing. He sees earning his pension as the key to achieving the financial freedom he needs to lead a better life and to make better decisions but, until that pension is secure, anything goes, from encouraging people to gorge themselves on Tailburgers without regard for their health to advertising the company's fare on adult web sites to violating health safety laws. Sky's overarching desire is to find his "insular Tahiti" which is something Herman Melville described as the place within each person that is full of joy and bliss. After working in the corporate world for his whole career and destroying his own marriage, Sky's starting to realize that he's been looking for his insular Tahiti in the wrong places. Now he's anxious to start a new search.
Q: Where does the title RED MEAT CURES CANCER come from?
A: In the book, Traylor Hitch, an ally of Tailburger and the president of the National Cattleman's Association, informs Sky of a new study that shows red meat cures most forms of cancer. Of course, this finding has been fabricated by the Corral Foundation, the Cattlemen Association's affiliated red meat think tank, but Sky is so desperate to raise Tailburger's market share, he considers using this cancer claim as marketing propaganda despite the fact he knows it's a complete lie. The idea for this study and the resulting title was inspired by the bizarre and contradictory health claims that come out every day about the foods that are supposedly good for you and the ones that will end you. I felt these crazy claims were begging to be sent up because, like most people, I'm prone to believe anything supported by a study even when the study is paid for by the industry that stands to benefit from it. So the title is really my small way of settling a personal vendetta against the person who invented the all-prune diet, the author of "How to Survive on Carrot Shavings for a Year" and, of course, the guy who decided we all have to drink eight glasses of water every day.
Q: Ethan, Sky's son, works for a highly dubious Silicon Valley start-up and has a very different attitude toward work and money than his father. How would you characterize their differences and why did you want to write about it?
A: Sky is representative of an older generation and the mentality that you should stay with the same employer as long as you can physically drag yourself into the office To them, switching jobs is the equivalent of having a nervous breakdown and doing something you love for a living is a twist of fate or an indulgence. Alternatively, Ethan is representative of Generations X and Y, whose identity is not as closely tied to their jobs, and who expect to switch employers frequently. I wanted to convey through Ethan the real sense among many in X and Y that they are entitled to do something they enjoy and the pervasive attitude that their current position is just a temporary resting point on the way to much bigger things--like a spot on the next Survivor in Rwanda or selling their three-month old start-up company to Microsoft for millions. Technology has created jobs and career pathways that never existed before and it has allowed people to have many more choices and a greater ability to be entrepreneurs if that's something they want to attempt. Unfortunately, it has also created a feeling of restlessness and unrealistic expectations among the young who want to have it all right away and will choose to stay unemployed rather than take a job they see as beneath them. Last I checked, win American Idol or move back in to your mother's basement was not a career choice, yet you'll see five thousand people show up for these auditions and bawl when they don't get selected as if it's their only option in life. Because of the dot com era and the growing emphasis on a celebrity culture that values fame, money and instant gratification over all else, the contrast in generational attitudes toward work is sharper than ever before and thus makes it a great subject to skewer.
Q: Sky Thorne and Tailburger are faced with controversies related to childhood obesity, mad cow disease, meat recalls and fast food lawsuits, to name a few, all of which are in the news headlines today. When you first started writing the story, did you expect these topics to be so prevalent?
A: Not really. When I first started researching the beef and fast food industries five years ago, I was surprised by the number of stories I found in the major newspapers related to fast food. Tobacco litigation was all the rage at the time and I began to imagine how the fast food industry could eventually come to be viewed the way tobacco was already viewed--basically as a target for high-profile lawsuits because of the perceived negative health effects of using its products. Food safety issues, including mad cow disease, had already been big news in Europe and it wasn't hard to envision a day when U.S. beef suppliers and restaurants would be faced with similar problems and the potential legal liability related to them I was mostly interested, however, in finding a great vehicle for the story and what I saw more clearly than anything else was the way the fast food industry had integrated itself into our film, music and professional sports businesses, and how successfully it had placed itself at the epicenter of our American lifestyle and culture from the malls to the highways and everywhere in between. This positioning, along with all of the cracks in the vase that were beginning to appear, made the fast food industry the perfect vehicle for a black comedy or satire.
Q: Who is a writer that has inspired you?
A: When I was a graduate student, I went to the student union one night to hear Roald Dahl speak and was absolutely mesmerized. I'd grown up loving books like James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I found him to be as good a storyteller in person as he was on the page. His imagination was remarkable and his stories of being a repressed grade school student had everyone in the audience howling. To top it off, he regaled us with tales of his exploits with Ernest Hemingway and Ian Fleming, and made everyone in the room want to be a writer.
Q: Why did you set the story in Rochester, New York?
A: Rochester is where I was born and raised, so it obviously has great personal significance to me. Beyond that, I'm not sure if it's the weather or the relative geographic isolation or what, but there's something intangibly decent and distinct about the place and the people who live there that made it the perfect backdrop for this story of good intentions gone awry and the attempt by Sky to get his life back on track.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: A book about an underdog.