For our eleventh annual roundup of the summer’s best debut fiction, we asked five established authors to introduce this year’s group of talented debut authors. Read the July/August 2011 issue of the magazine to see interviews between Steve Almond and William Giraldi, Arthur Phillips and Eleanor Henderson, Hanna Tinti and Seth Fried, Rigoberto González and Daniel Orozco, and Kate Bernheimer and Vanessa Veselka. But first, check out these exclusive excerpts from the debut novels and story collections.
Busy Monsters (Norton, August) by William Giraldi
Ten Thousand Saints (Ecco, June) by Eleanor Henderson
The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press, May) by Seth Fried
Orientation and Other Stories (Faber and Faber, June) by Daniel Orozco
Zazen (Red Lemonade, June) by Vanessa Veselka
1. Antihero Agonistes
Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man. Gillian and I were about to be married and her ex-beau of four years, Marvin Gluck—Virginia state trooper, boots and all—was heaving his psychosis our way, sending bow-tied packages, soilsome letters, and text messages to the bestial effect of, If you marry that baboon I’ll end all our lives.
I, Charles Homar, memoirist of mediocre fame, a baboon?
Coercing him into kindness, Christian or otherwise, had already failed—large. For more than a year we had implored him to leave us be, appealed to the protector-of-the-peace in him, filed complaints with not-caring police here in our Connecticut town, suggested religion, yoga, even herbs as antidote to his crocodilian stance, his swamp of a heart: nothing worked. His threats were usually followed by some truly treacly pleas for forgiveness, a smattering of I’m sorrys all in a row. Regret is an acid; it pecked at his innards. Good. He wanted to be a better “humany person.” I wanted him dead. Seven thousand citizens die each day in our America—why couldn’t he be one of them? Traffic calamity, aneurism, lightning bolt: anything would have done, anything to keep me from doing this deed I wasn’t keen on doing and didn’t know whether I could do or not.
“I think he’s only bluffing,” Gillian said on the afternoon we received one of his murderous notes. “I know he can be really kind when he wants to.”
“Kind? Darling, that memo there says he’d like to impose trauma upon my person. He has the manners of a microbe.”
“I’m really sure he’s bluffing, honey. Let’s ignore him. He’ll go away,” she told me, but I could see that she was frightened, that all with her was not groovy. “Anyway, why don’t you write about it in your column?”
“Gillian, love, I don’t need extra material for my memoirs. They’re already depraved enough to warp the mind of any adolescent.”
“He’ll go away, Charlie.”
From Gillian’s pictures and videos I knew this vulgarian was a colossus of a gent whose voice and testicular presence could hush the human flotsam in any riled-up room. Furthermore, he had a face so uglified by his parents’ DNA that it recalled a clay-shaping exercise gone heinously wrong. Left eye like the oblong knot in a plank of pine. The kind of guy who eats a tomato like an apple. A disposition downright redneck. I’ve known fevered men like Marvin: they get a certain idea in their noggins or, worse yet, a funny feeling in their hearts, and nothing on earth can deter them from their channel. They go agog with havoc, get off on outlawry. Quite frankly, I was frightened, too.
Here’s the other end of it, and I have no shame: I couldn’t live with knowing there was a man out there who loved Gillian the way I did, who had swum in her sweet-scented flesh, who had eased apart her thighs and delved into her special center. Also, the bedlamite had her name tattooed across hi pectorals, from one fifty-inch side to the other, in large red Gothic letters, too. If her name were Jennifer or Michelle it might not have vexed me so; but Gillian is a rarity, and those letters on his chest could mean only her, always. It caused all the amino acids in me to swirl, swirl.
Insecure or homicidal: the adjectives don’t bother me one bit. Having to silence a single man for the sake of solace does not make one homicidal. Of course I am a Christian and know the program, but love and sex have their own sacred creeds and they burn every bit as much as the ten laws of the Lord. I’ve perused the Kama Sutra. Listen: I was not proud of what I had to do, but I had to do it just the same. Some will understand, and those who don’t know yet one day will.
All I have to offer in my defense is the mathematical truth: I wanted to love my bride in peace and tranquility but Marvin Gluck was not going to let that happen. The way I see it, he made the decision, not I. He just had to go and pledge an undying love to Gillian and couldn’t grab hold of the fact that such pledges are made every day and most don’t mean a damn. I’ll give him that: the idiot makes a pledge and sticks to it. In that I suppose you can call us kin. Still, his pledge was crowding mine. What a man feels for his woman can be all-out unholy. When Gillian tried on her organza wedding dress for me, I wept with the joy of the resurrected.
I met her on the Ferris wheel at the local bazaar held to raise money for a children’s hospital. I had volunteered to run the wheel because when I was a teenager, my kid brother Bartholomew was chewed up by leukemia, plus I thought I could add the charity-giving experience to my weekly memoir column for New Nation Weekly—circulation a hearty six hundred thousand—and thus come across as a guy who cares, a balladeer with heart to spare. It rained that night and hardly anybody came, but then in floated Gillian under a green umbrella, a tantric Mary Poppins, handed me a ticket, and said she wanted to ride the wheel ’round and ’round. This dazzling babe alone on a Friday night? I couldn’t even speak; her odd beauty was the injurious kind, radioactive—it had physical effects on me, my anatomy in quake—lovely hawkish nose, straight black mane dyed with streaks of red henna, flat-teated and thickish through the bottom, symmetrical toes showing through her sandals. She was as if the word gustatory had grown legs and got a dress.
For twenty minutes she rode the wheel, and I watched her with her head thrown back and eyes peeled on the sky, patches of light aglisten behind evil gray clouds. And then, horrors: the rusty wheel stopped turning—the organizer of the bazaar had saved a wad by renting only semifunctional equipment—trapping my lady at the top, and this despite my frantic punching of buttons and yanking of levers, consulting with the bazaar electrician and other bewildered passersby. Can you imagine? The damsel a hostage sixty-some feet up there? Well, I in my valor and Levi’s jeans could not very well let her stew in the drizzle, and so, with very little pause and a showy casting-off of my rainwear, I began climbing, lemur-like, up the steel links and bars of the Ferris wheel.
“You’re gonna break your skull, fella,” the gal kept shouting down to me, to which I replied, “I’d break that and many a more in the name of your safety.” She stressed to me that she’d just as well wait for the fire department—those valiant buccaneers of Ladder Company Number 5, skirt-chasers and wannabe samurai, all of them—rather than risk bodily damage straddled across my back. I’d hear nothing of that.
“That is not romantic,” I told her. When I reached her in the cage I thrust out my strong grip just as I had seen numerous movie heroes do—Errol Flynn and the like—and then, reassuring her of my brawn, flexed a bicep. I was in excellent physical condition, it’s true, and could have modeled for one of those home gym systems with all the pulleys and wires and whatnot. Likewise, my hair had Vitalis shine, was not thinning.
She appeared incredulous and who could blame her? “Just hold on,” I said, “and put some trust in me, Charles Homar. Others have done so and not been badly disappointed.”
“I’d rather not die, thanks.”
“Not a chance. I am neither bogus nor brash, just a citizen out doing his duty. Look into my eyes, miss. What do you see there? That’s right: I was a Templar Knight a few lives ago. Let’s meet the earth.”
“Why do you speak that way?”
“That weirdo way.”
“No comprede, chica.”
“Oh, Christ,” she said. “Are we really going to do this?”
And I said, “Really.”
Light as a bag of foam packing peanuts—I had once toiled for a shipping firm—she held on as I descended that metal mess Mr. Ferris would have disowned had he seen it. This feat of heroism came breezily and without much sweat, so jazzed was I on her pheromonal scent, the elements of lust just then coalescing into love, a single-celled splotch becoming a giraffe. Onlookers cheered, some clapped; one obese popcorn-eater, spellbound by the scene, had a swift back-slap for me and then mumbled something incoherent, though it sounded faintly congratulatory.
Soon the fireworks were done; boredom ensued and people dispersed. Gillian and I stood there, hands in pockets, not five feet apart, her breath still the nervous kind of the almost-harmed. Me: I was sweating, but not from the climb.
“Thanks for saving my life, fella,” she said. “I guess you’re a hero.”
“It’s just a job, madam,” I said
“But we could have waited for the fire department, you know.”
Where did her lips get their collagen pink puff? The last time I had seen lips like those in person was when unwise nuns had hired me to teach autobiography to a classroom stocked with teenage Catholic females. In my head now was a violin and organ ditty circa 1850. Something German.
“Local firefighters would have accidentally grabbed your breast while helping you down, believe me.”
“I see,” she said. “And your touching my breast was accidental?”
The record playing my dreamy German ditty scratched to a halt: you know the sound. “What? I touched your breast? No. I’m a gentleman. Really. No, I didn’t. Did I? What?”
“I’m kidding,” she said, and her teeth were so white! “Not touched. More like brushed.”
“Oh, shit, I’m sorry, really, this is an abomination, a breast-brushing abomination, I didn’t mean to, I mean, I was just, you know, saving you, and—“
“I’m just fooling with you. But I am grateful for your gallantry, so thank you. Tell me your name again.”
“Charles Homar,” and I proffered her my hand, a-tremble.
“Not the writer? New Nation Weekly?”
“The one and only, madam,” and I bowed here like a squire or some-such. Someone who owns property, fights criminals, admires estrogen.
“I like your columns. I don’t read them every issue, actually. But the ones I’ve read I like a lot. That silly one about how you almost burned down your house trying to kill the squirrel in your attic?”
“Oh, yes, that squirrel,” and I feigned modesty, looked bashful.
“They make squirrel traps, you know. Or you could have called an exterminator. You didn’t have to build your own flamethrower.”
“Right,” I said, her splendor slapping me sideways. “That makes more sense.”
The end of rain, some orange sky aglow, and the carnival got hopping again. All around us families and teenage kids—some on skateboards, some smoking, some with arm tattoos in advertisement of their parents’ bungling (even the girls! So unladylike and pubic)—scudded to and fro and fro again, clutching popcorn and cotton candy and the kind of acidic soda that makes lead vanish, all of them unaware of the enchantment happening right there in front of me, what the orange sky meant above.
Gillian said, “Is everything you write true, though? Sometimes I have a feeling you’re making things up.”
I must have been staring in silence, owlish, at those diamonds below her brows because she said, “Mr. Homar?
“Yes, yes. I mean, no, no, everything’s true, one hundred percent, absolutely.”
“But why is a, umm, kind of famous magazine writer working a Ferris wheel?”
“Charity,” I said. “Goodness. You know, Christian values. Hey, you don’t sound like you’re from around here. What brings you to the democratic state of Connecticut?”
“A job, what else? And I had to get away from my boyfriend.”
The overeager wolf in me, all woof and wow, couldn’t keep his jaw shut.
“So you don’t have a boyfriend still?”
She only shook her head ever so wanly and glanced down at my sneakers, new Nikes that made me feel younger by three or four wrinkles. Of course, what followed was an awkward, sweat-inducing pause, me trying to summon a sentence devoid of degeneracy.
“Well, thank you again, Mr. Homar. I look forward to reading more of your memoirs.”
She touched my shoulder just then before turning away, and I watched her leave, all the centimeters of me paralyzed in a way I had not felt before. But inside me: think Vesuvius. For many minutes I felt her hand still there on my deltoid, her scent lingering as if smoke from a much-needed flame.
Excerpted from Busy Monsters by William Giraldi, to be published by W. W. Norton in August 2011. Copyright © 2011 by William Giraldi. All rights reserved.