Never The Same Novel Twice: An Interview with Writer Tom Grimes

Tom Grimes

Tom Grimes is, for my money anyway, the greatest living underground novelist in America today. (A label which, at various points during the last hundred years, would’ve applied equally to Nathanael West, John Fante, even Richard Yates.) Throughout each of his novels--A Stone of the Heart (1990), Season’s End (1992), City of God (1995), (2003), and Redemption Song (2006)--Grimes has proven himself to be as jaw-droppingly, balls-out brilliant as he is outrageously authentic. His characters are lost souls, generously drawn--men and women (white, black, Latino; straight and gay) forced to the margins during the last days of the American Empire. A true writer’s writer, Grimes is often the subject of effusive praise from his contemporaries. In recent years, National Book Award-finalist Thom Jones has hailed Grimes as “one of the best writers of dialogue we have,” while Barry Hannah has declared Grimes deserving of “enormous prizes and a horde of wealthy sycophants.”

Perhaps most impressive, though, is that during an era when most writers seem content to parody themselves ad nauseam (if you’ve read one...) Grimes appears to have embraced the mantra: never the same novel twice. Case in point, features a loquacious, wise-cracking laptop computer named Spunky, while Redemption Song showcases a pair of ne’er-do-wells posing as doctors at a free health clinic in the East Village.

And when one is so heartbreakingly original that the Big Five Publishers no longer know what do with him--he’s arrived. He’s bona fide. Legit. At long last, for the ages. Like Tom Grimes.

Click here to read Grimes’ 2006 novel Redemption Song courtesy of Narrative Magazine.

Matt Okie: As a writer whose publishing career spans nearly twenty years, it would appear your major theme is that: in millenial America, disaffected, lower and middle-class whites can best be redeemed, or "saved" (if you will) from capitalism's rot, by forming multi-ethnic bonds, i.e., fostering relationships, both romantic and platonic, with African-Americans, Indian-Americans, Latinos, etc.

For example, at the conclusion of Season’s End (1992), one-time baseball star Mike Williams--his skills in decline, his marriage over, his season cut short by a strike--Cadillacs off into the sunset with African-American teammate Otis Armstrong by his side. (At one point, while sharing a “bowl,” Armstrong even reassures his white brother-in-arms that he won't "let nothing bad happen to [him].") Then in City of God (1995), a white female D.A. embarks on a risky romantic relationship with an African-American cop in the midst of a devastating riot. While in (2003), your psychically ill, white, college-boy narrator Will is healed through his sexual love for Arundhati, an Indian doctoral student who bears him a child. Even in your most recent novel Redemption Song (2006), the Caucasian protagonist, T, overcomes the trauma of his divorce by nurturing friendships with a failed African-American baseballer and Latina nurses.

Why this emphasis on racial reconciliation in your work?

Tom Grimes: I grew up in New York City in the ’60s and ’70s, and I remember the 1967 Bedford-Stuyvesant riots. After they ended, I would ride the J train from Queens into Manhattan and see miles of scorched, empty brick buildings. So, violence and race remain a vivid memory for me.

Also, while writing Season’s End, I reread Leslie Fielder’s book Love and Death in the American Novel. One of its chapters is titled, “Come Back to the Raft, Huck, Honey.” In Moby Dick, you have the friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Homoerotic, interracial male bonding has deep roots in American lit. And, often, the ghost of slavery hovers over it.

To me, Redemption Song is an updated Huck Finn, but I amplified the difference between race and class. After Hurricane Katrina’s, Kanye West said that the Bush administration didn’t care about black people, but he left out one adjective: poor. America doesn’t care about “poor black people.” If Denzel Washington had been trapped on a rooftop during the flood, he would have been rescued in five minutes.

As for Arundhati in, she reflected American imperialism, which from 1991 through 2005 seemed plausible. We “won” the Gulf War. At best, we escaped from Iraq without leaving behind total chaos--at least, not yet. Today, the notion of America as imperial power is history.

Given Obama’s election, my concern with racial reconciliation may fade and class may be more directly scrutinized. I don’t know. But every writer’s work will be shaped by our economic “Depression,” although this analogy is inaccurate. Chaos theory is the accurate analogy: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil; there’s a tsunami in Thailand; a bus driver in America earning $20,000 a year mortgages a $700,000 loan; Iceland goes bankrupt and ceases to exist.

Racism isn’t dead; class differences will simply become more transparent.

MO: If you would, elaborate on what Obama's electoral victory means for the United States. Is the election of this particular man of color the watershed event it's been depicted as in the media, or is it merely a continuation of hegemonies established over the last 232 years in this country? I’m aware, of course, that Obama’s modest upbringing and Kenyan father make him an unlikely Commander-in-Chief, especially when compared to the likes of, say, an overclass Kennedy or a Bush; however, Obama's Eastern-university pedigree (Columbia U., Harvard Law) is still markedly similar to JFK’s (Harvard), Nixon’s (Duke Law), Bush 41’s (Yale), Clinton’s (Yale Law), and Bush 43’s (Yale, Harvard Business).

Tom Grimes: Let’s say that anyone who attended community college will never wipe his or her shoes on the Oval Office carpet. As for “hegemonies,” we’re now--and have been for years--a fascist country. Fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” From 2001-2009, we lived with Bush’s excesses. But with Obama, I don’t see a huge change, as yet. In fact, he’s taken the worst of Bush’s executive privilege’s powers and increased them. He’s continued warrantless wiretapping; he’s created a policy of “preventive detention,” by which he can imprison anyone he was for as long as he wants without giving the person a trial; and he’s allowed brokerage houses and banks to continue ripping off taxpayers. Obama has a nice smile, which is refreshing after eight years of Bush’s arrogant sneer. But in terms of governing the country, they’re closer than we’d like to admit, which is disappointing and troubling. Watch this clip of one-time Obama acolyte Keith Olberman.

True, Obama inherited an economic disaster, but so far his solution fits this alternate definition of fascism: “As an economic system, fascism is socialism with a capitalist veneer.” According to the Library of Economics and Liberty: “socialism sought totalitarian control of a society’s economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the “national interest”—that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities.” The full text is here.

This isn’t to say that Obama plans to create his own schutzsfaffel when he’s not hitting threes on the White House’s basketball court. Culturally, Obama is, one hopes, a politically transformative figure. Plus, he’s been in office barely six months; his “cool factor” is off the charts, although his numbers are dropping. Also, in perfect irony, we’ve swapped our worst and our least eloquent President for someone with the potential to become superb President. (We already know he’s eloquent.) So, the situation isn’t entirely bad, although Obama’s stimulus package, to me, is half of what it should have been. I’m a 1.5 trillion guy. Paul Krugman’s a 1.2 trillion guy. But I’d factored in room for “compromise.” In short, to cop from Muddy Waters, I don’t think Obama has his “mojo working” yet. The question right now is if he ever will. This is probably more than you--and you’re no doubt snoozing readers--wanted to know. But hey, you asked.

MO: Many modernists--Wallace Stevens perhaps chief among them--sought to craft a literature that might serve as an alternative to the planet’s more dogmatic religious traditions.  And I sense a similar desire in your fiction.  After all, you’ve said previously that writing itself is like an “act of prayer.”  Similarly, in your recent essay “The Leash”--included in the 2008 Viking-published collection Woof! Writers On Dogs--you write that stories, and not some unknowable god, are what ultimately “connect…us” and that at the end of the day, these tales of connective experience are “the only stor[ies] worth telling.”  If you would, talk about how this impulse has shaped your writing life.

Tom Grimes: My resistance to “dogmatic religious traditions” and my belief that writing functions as a “sense of prayer” has evolved over the years. I was raised a Catholic; I was even an altar boy. But immediately after graduating from grammar school, I lost my child-like faith, and today it’s impossible to take any religion seriously. After the Vatican’s endowment took a huge hit during the October 2008 stock market crash, it began to pedal “indulgences” to refill its coffers. The practice is ludicrous and repulsive. And yet the rhythms of the Catholic church’s language instilled in me a longing for transcendence, which carried over into my prose.

MO: Perhaps more than race even, masculinity and its performance have dominated the American novelistic landscape. Ironically, however, this critique of the American male psyche has always borne with it a great deal of homoeroticism. You, of course, tackle this throughout Redemption Song. At one point, T and Ivan engage in a sexually charged wrestling match, which employs the words “jerked” and “facedown,” and which climaxes with T and Ivan “in the dark...twist[ing] around one another...gasping...staring at the ceiling.” In what ways is Redemption Song your send-up of this latent and not-so-latent tendency in American Literature?

Tom Grimes: Until recently, with exceptions like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Edith Wharton’s work, men wrote the bulk of major American novels. And since America had no national identity, we had to create one. Like most Western nation-states, war became our birth narrative. We massacred Native Americans to overtake the mid-western plains; we massacred Mexicans (with the exception of the Alamo) to annex what is now the American southwest and California. We even massacred one another to settle the question of slavery. Violence is a central trait of the American male “hero.” But to make this quality palatable to our national psyche, American writers deified it. Homoeroticism imbued our murderous heroes with a measure of pathos, and, at times, elicited a reader’s sympathy. So, as always, love and death are literature’s bedmates.

Redemption Song’s main characters, T and Ivan, have studied American literature, and while they don’t talk about themselves as American male archetypes, they know these archetypes exist and that, to an extent, each of them is playing a role. Consequently, Redemption Songisn’t realism. T and Ivan are “real” and “mythic,” which is why their “adventures” are over the top, yet fraught with intimacy. They’re American literary fantasies.

MO: You completed Redemption Song several years before Barack Obama’s 2008 electoral victory. How does America’s first black President alter your authorial perception of a literary creation like Redemption Song’s Ivan--an African-American, an Ivy League dropout, a failed ball player, and junkie? And more broadly: how do watershed events in human history impact our understanding of literature? 

Tom Grimes: Obama’s election turned Martin Luther King’s dream into reality, which means that Redemption Song is an historical novel. And, although its events take place only thirty years ago, 1979 through 1980, that era’s race relations seemradically different from ours. But, remember, in 1979 the Civil Rights Act was only fifteen years old, and “affirmative action” had become federal law two years before the novel’s actions take place. Since the writer Gore Vidal calls my country the “United States of Amnesia,” today Ivan (a character I named after Ivan Karamazov) mayseem like a grotesque stereotype. But in 1979-1980, he was no fantasy. What Ivan represented terrified white American. He was the angry young black man who had just burned Watts and Bedford-Stuyvesant to the ground.

MO: During a 1988 interview, writer Don DeLillo argued that “the writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government...[and that] American writers ought to stand and live in the more dangerous.” As an ardent admirer of Underworld, White Noise, etc., and as a writer whose support for progressive politics goes beyond the page, how has your own literary career been an attempt to champion this philosophy?

Tom Grimes: A writer can’t avoid politics. Where and how one prays political. Why else would Karl Rove have bombarded evangelical churches political tracts for deacons and preachers to read to their congregations? Bush’s regime wanted to erase the faint line that separates church and state. And Republicans are good at manipulating language, which, of course, is political. Take abortion: Republicans have framed its argument as “pro-life” versus “pro-choice.” But “pro-choice” has no linguistic resonance and therefore no political value. The argument should be “pro-life” versus “pro-liberty.” Force “pro-lifers” to argue with the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees our right to “life, liberty, and happiness.” Then, when they take the bait, accuse them of being anti-American. Even if a writer’s subject is what DeLillo has called “around the house, and in the yard” realism, a writer’s literary style supports or critiques racism, classism, or imperialism. In my work, political issues are often overt. But, in the end, all literature should defend the individual imagination, as corporate and political America attempt to obliterate it.

MO: I recently saw writer Andre Dubus III read at an independent bookstore in Tempe, Arizona. While introducing himself, Dubus recalled that during his lengthy teaching career, he’d taught roughly six hundred-fifty creative writing students. “And none of ’em,” he quipped, “have published.” Now, Dubus was joking, of course, and later, he did concede that a handful of his students--maybe two or three--had, in fact, published. As the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Texas State University, has this been your experience as well? And if so, what then does this portend for the future of the Master’s-level creative writing program?

Tom Grimes: No, it hasn’t been my experience. One of our fiction graduates was a 2009 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, another won the 2008 AWP Prize for the Novel, and another’s just had her second novel published by Little, Brown. MFA programs give writers a home, not book contracts. The writing life has too many shades of grace, too many unexpected ways it can defeat and elate you, to ever be reduced to publications. Once you’ve made the commitment to be a writer, you do the best work you can. Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you fail. But all writers are lucky. We’ve found something we’ll be passionate about for the rest of our lives. How many people can say that?

Photos Courtesy of Jody Grimes

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