Giller-longlisted fiction now in trade paper
Joe, a 36-year-old advertising copywriter for a slick New York agency, feels disillusioned with his life. He starts dreaming of a mysterious man, seeing him on the street, and hearing his voice. Joe decides to listen to the Man and so he waits on his stoop, day and night, for instructions. A local reporter takes notice, and soon Joe has become a media sensation, the centre of a storm. When the Man tells Joe to “go west,” he does, in search of meaning.
A surreal journey of a man who is searching for purpose and for happiness, Waiting for the Man is about the struggle to find something more in life. The paperback edition includes a bonus BackLit section with a reader’s guide, Q&A with the author, and more.
About the Author
Arjun Basu is a writer and editor. In 2008, he published Squishy, a collection of short stories that was shortlisted for the ReLit Prize. His stories have been published in many literary journals, including Matrix and Joyland. Arjun lives in Montreal, Quebec.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
Here Comes the Sun
It was as if I were floating. This was what I first noticed. The original thing. This floating business was a sign. Of something going on inside my head. I would find myself off the ground, hovering, and then moving, slowly, effortlessly, seeing my own self encumbered by the normal laws of physics, everyone and everything still governed by the rules and regulations that make things run. I was part of it and was apart. My floating self felt new and improved. Smarter. Fresher. More alive.
But it would never last.
I would be in a meeting, again, thinking up ideas and products, dreaming up the inconsequential things that make the world go round. Thinking up the reasons and pathways and trajectories of desire. Creating desire. And I would leave the meeting. And then I would return. I would hover above myself and observe my own ticks and mannerisms and then return to the normal operations of things. This began happening with an alarming kind of regularity.
It was the floating that started me off. The dreams didn’t come until later. And by the time the dreams took over, I was well on the path. My road. To wherever. To this place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m a simple person. Everything follows from this truth. Simplicity is a state in which my life has been lived. I grew up in a fake Tudor home in the deepest suburbs of New Jersey, the only child of immigrant parents. I went to a good high school; achieved good grades; attended college; got the degree; landed a safe, conventionally challenging, well-paying, and vaguely sexy job in advertising. Our next-door neighbor knew some people at a boutique agency and helped me get the position. I moved to Manhattan. I was creative. I could make people laugh. I was sufficiently cynical. Engagingly sarcastic. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. The only one I remotely wanted. My father never made me work while I was in school. He wanted me to get good grades. I missed out on flipping burgers, working as a lifeguard, selling shoes, rites of passage in my community. Learning exploitation as a child is a license for abhorrent behavior in the future, I think. I missed that. Being exploited. I worked long hours at the agency, the kind of schedule that precludes a social life. I jumped into this thing and I never thought much about it. I was relatively successful. I was good at thinking up ways to sell things to people. To consumers. To instill want where there had been none. To make the essence of a brand match the core of your being.
I wasn’t the kind of person who defined himself by his work. I didn’t know many people who did and the ones who did were all older. There is a generational divide in this kind of self-definition, though the quality of the work has more to do with it. Perhaps in our age, there are more jobs but more bad jobs as well. When asked, I did not tell people I was a copywriter or in advertising. Even to the question of “What do you do?” I would describe myself as a frustrated Mets fan, as a drinker of a particular beer, as a lover of uncommon passion. I was sarcastic. I answered this question, as common in this city as “Hello,” with sarcasm. I’m not sure if that was shame or a defense mechanism of some sort. It was a sign, surely. What else could it have been?
My work was something that should have offered more. Perhaps I should have accepted what it had to offer. For a long while I did. And it rewarded me very well. And this sense of reward, and the obviousness of it, protected me from the real world. From the real world as it existed around me. I worked within an energy, the kind of energy that came from satisfaction, youth, and the knowledge that we were going to survive the recession, or whatever it was being branded lately, because we were small and nimble and successful.
I was without a plan, I did as I was told, I showed the proper level of ambition. I drank with the right people. I received promotions and raises and these things made me work harder. I figured this was the key to the system. To how things functioned. The circle of life. It’s an instinctual way to live. We live unimpressive lives in order to be impressive. And we do impress people. That’s the thing.
[. . .]
The problem was I didn’t believe anything. I didn’t want to pin my melancholy on age. Because that’s what it was. Melancholy. I was listless. I lived my life without living. Without feeling alive.
And that night alone in bed, regretting what had never been with her, drunk most certainly, I started floating.
And then, more alarmingly, I started having these dreams. I don’t know what else to call them. Visions maybe. Nightmares. This thin black man in a floppy straw hat, dressed right out of the seventies, looking for all the world like a TV pimp. Like Huggy Bear from Starsky & Hutch. I never watched that show, it was before my time, but I remembered the character and now he was haunting my dreams. And this man, sometimes, later, would ride in on a white horse, a gigantic white horse with a mane that looked combed and neat and clean. A good-smelling horse. Bathed. It smelled supernaturally clean. And the Man had a smile you couldn’t outrun. It was the size of the world. I fell into it.
I had the dream every night.
In different permutations. We would talk. Sometimes he would watch me. Stare. From across the room. In one dream, he watched me as I sat in the office and listened to a colleague debate the sexiness of his new iPad. One of my colleagues kept repeating that he didn’t need human companionship anymore. His biological imperative had been fulfilled. In another dream, I walked with the Man along the banks of a foul-smelling stream and we debated something archaic, like the reasons behind the British Invasion, or McCarthyism, things I knew little about and cared for even less. Things from another era.
And then I stopped floating. And the dreams came to me at all hours, a bully astride me whenever I closed my eyes. And then, after a week of this, he spoke to me. Or, I stopped speaking to him. He became a kind of monolith. Dressed like a black pimp from the seventies. He was the speaker and I the listener. I absorbed. I saw him walking toward me, slowly, strutting more than walking. I’m sitting on my front steps talking to some neighborhood kids about the inanities of the latest Mets fiasco and I see the Man walking toward me. The kids scatter and he leans close and whispers, Wait. And his voice has reverb and echo and sounds vaguely like Isaac Hayes. With that gentle smile, he just tells me to wait. I ask why and he says, Because. I could smell the horse on him. I’m not sure I knew what a horse smelled like then, let alone a clean one.
And I kept dreaming. Longer dreams. I touched him. And when I did I felt myself falling into him, being crushed and embraced by this good-smelling man. He told me to wait on my front steps and he would come and things would get better. Things will get better. That’s what he said. Better than what? I asked. But he did not hear me. Because our relationship had changed. My role was not to speak.
I lived close enough to the World Trade Center to think he was talking about life in the most general way possible. I didn’t think he was speaking about me. I could see him imparting in me the wisdom for some major civic improvement project. I saw his instruction through the lens of my workspace. Because I never considered my own life. I figured I was living. Even though I knew I wasn’t. But that WTC thing, with all the fighting and the politics. I mean, the site was still a tourist attraction. My neighborhood had been through a lot. I breathed in that dust. Somewhere inside of me, I could still taste the burning embers of those buildings and everyone and everything inside of them. That dust lives on in all of us. And through the crazy times on Wall Street right to the crash, that dust lingered, never changing, resilient in its own sad way. I didn’t think I needed anything better. I hated my job but everyone hated their job. No. In the dream’s promise, I saw something larger than myself.
The next night I had another dream. And then the night after that I had it again. And for another week I had this strange dream of the Man walking up to me and telling me to wait for him. Promising a better world. And one night I was working late, alone in the office, trying to finesse the overall theme for a series of ads for a car company out of China launching an ambitious but poorly planned invasion of America, and I heard the Man’s voice. Over the office intercom. I walked around the empty space. Past the light boxes with the black and white photos of the staff. The whiteness of the space. The glassed-in conference room. The rows of blank, humming computers. It was after midnight. And then I heard it again, as clear as if he was sitting across the desk from me. And again, it told me to wait by the steps. It commanded me. Over the office intercom the gentleness of the dream had been usurped by a tone of authority. And the next day, as I lay in bed wondering if I should hit the snooze button for the seventh time, he came again, not in a dream but as a voice that seemed to come in through my window, carried by the wind.
From Chapter 2
In a Big Country
I walked here.
And here is nowhere even by Montana standards. That’s not to be insulting. It’s just true. It’s not New York. And that’s a part of this place’s charm. It’s a selling point. If the concepts of “somewhere” and “nowhere” are human constructs, or at least must be considered in relation to human activity, then this is, indeed, nowhere. Or irrelevant. We’d be considered off the grid if we didn’t have electricity. But the power lines come here. They reach this place, webs to a civilization far beyond. In the literal sense, we are very much on the grid. In many other senses, too.
Here is a luxury guest ranch. A five-star spa. In the midst of sky and mountains playing host to wealthy people with a nostalgia for the Old West that only goes as deep as their rooftop plunge pools. Where just running out to go to the store means hopping in a car, or a pickup truck more like it, and hoping your tank has enough fuel to drive a little while. The idea of walking to anything isn’t stupid, it’s impractical. There’s nowhere to walk to.
I didn’t walk all the way here from New York. Let’s get real.
But I walked here.
I spent three days walking here and despite my Grizzly Adams appearance, or maybe because of it, I don’t know, and my smell and the dirt on my clothes and my shit-covered hair and even though I admitted to walking here, which should have made someone nervous, I managed to talk myself into a job in the kitchen. I found myself a simple job. Peeling. Apples, potatoes, onions, carrots. Edible flora that need peeling. That was my job.