Book Passage of the Week – Everyone is Dead

I read The Moviegoer in 2011. This quote occurs to me from time to time, especially when I’m on Facebook. Could I adjust to life off-the-grid? I think so. A home, a typewriter, a bookshelf. What else do I need? The complexity of a human being. But some people are nothing more than a few emojis and an empty reaction to this month’s fashionable outrage.

For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead.

It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death. There is little to do but groan and make an excuse and slip away as quickly as one can. At such times it seems that the conversation is spoken by automatons who have no choice in what they say. I hear myself or someone else saying things like: “In my opinion the Russian people are a great people, but–” or “Yes, what you say about the hypocrisy of the North is unquestionably true. However–” and I think to myself: this is death. Lately it is all I can do to carry on such everyday conversations, because my cheek has developed a tendency to twitch of its own accord.

The original ending to The Seven Year Laowai

Expat Jimmy comes out May 11, available for pre-order now. It’s about James’s first day in Wuhan, China, as he’s shown around by Adam, a jaded seven-year laowai.

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I’m at the end of a two-week trip to China. I found the original typescript for Little Red King, the source material for The Seven Year Laowai. Much changed from draft 1 to publication, but looking at it again, I was surprised at just how much it had changed.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting some excerpts from the original draft, unedited. You won’t find anything *completely* new below. Different wording, speculation to John Ingram’s fate (Little Red King’s main character)…in the context of Little Red King, The Seven Year Laowai becomes a richer tale. It also provides an impending sense of doom — we know what Keith did to Walter and Tom, and that it got worse with Tom. How will he show John Ingram out of China, and how much worse will it get? Add in his developing romance with Michelle, a local Chinese woman, and that she is risking being unmarriageable by dating him.

Images:

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Text:

I’ve already talked at length about how for a lot of people this is the place where they can succeed, where they can reinvent themselves into whatever they wish, sometimes constructing narratives so strong they come to embrace them whole heartedly.

In China, dirty old men from the West can indulge their fantasies and still be allowed to walk into a classroom. The lack of structure, the lack of qualifications, it allows these men a life. Jack ought to be in an institution somewhere, locked far away from daylight for the sun’s protection. But if his latest incoherent ramblings are any clue, this is the face representing a top five UK university: graveyard teeth, purple spider veins, red patches and eyes that when you look at them you know that whatever’s behind them is lost–and never coming back.

When one teacher leaves, often what happens is that teacher is not spoken of again. They’ve left, they’ve betrayed the unit, they’ve abandoned desperate KTV girls and cheap beer for the rat race in the West.

John Ingram did not do that, but don’t think he didn’t get that treatment. John was a young man from Tennessee, like Tom. One of Keith’s recruits, like Tom, and like Tom, and like Tom, Keith saw to it that John was given a special farewell.

Except this time, Keith upped the ante: he threw in a rape charge…a rape that lead the Hubei Finance Minister’s daughter to commit suicide.

Where was the evidence? What exactly did they have on the poor boy? Before I left, I did so some checking. Candy had referred to a “laowai”, and if she’s referring to a laowai, then she’s not referring to no one. She’s not making it up, in other words. Who could she have been referring to? I checked and found out that semester she had a foreign teacher.

Jeff.

Who’d gone crazy and shot someone, before killing himself.

Here’s what I think happened: Jeff was dead. What he did was a serious loss of face for Wuhan Computer University. They needed to cover it up somehow, while suggesting to people that although they had a problem, they remedied it. They harmonized it, and quickly.
John Ingram was already on the hot seat for accidentally reminding Keith of how inadequate he was. He was gone, and since he was going…why not send the problems with him?

And so they did. And if you check the local newspaper website at that time, you can see it for yourself. Rapist, sent home. You should know that they paid good money for that newspaper spot. You can bet on it.

Except…something happened, something off the record. Something they’d rather you not know about. I got this from one of the guys who used to work in the Foreign Affairs Office. I later got it from Jack, and other students I’d taught there. Much like the Tiananmen Square Massacre and the Cultural Revolution, the topic of John Ingram’s true fate had become something that everybody knows…and yet no one will speak aloud of, for fear of repercussion. That’s how it is in today’s China. You know the truth. So you shut the fuck up about it.

On that day the police took him to the station, John Ingram escaped. To this day, he has not been found. For every shot of the Great Wall they export, China is still very much a developing country. Mostly countryside, and there are just so many places for someone to hide. All that space. He could have gone anywhere.

Like the other teachers who left, John Ingram became something of an unperson. Jack found it shitty what they did, yet at the same time mocked his newspaper columns. “He’s just American,” Jack said with a heavy roll of his eyes while his barely legal jailbait girlfriend giggled on cue. Yes Jack, he is just American…which is so much better than whatever the fuck it is you are. John Ingram has left us.He could be dead, he could be alive, but whatever he is, I think he has the last laugh here. Keith wanted him gone, not just from Wuhan Computer University, but China itself. The borders of Keith’s playhouse extended far and wide. It had to cook his ass knowing that John was still in _his_ China in some capacity, as he lay in that cold hospital room, as he inched towards a forgotten death.

Now I’m gone too. I can only imagine what they say about me, when they bother to speak of me. No doubt Jack is cooking up some story about who he held me over a balcony and then threw me out on my ass, another fine anecdote to go with his past life as a worldwide hitman-bodyguard-lawyer extraordinaire.

I started writing this a day or two before I left and here I am, thirty-hours later, finishing it right before we touchdown. Strange how things work out sometimes. I spent seven years in that place, and now I’m coming back to a home that is in its own way as strange to me as China was when I first arrived. Will I be okay here? I couldn’t make it before. I hope I can now.

I think the first thing I’ll do when I arrive is to take a moment and look at the sky. Then I’ll check into my hotel. Then…

I got the numbers before I left. They’re sitting in my pocket. Several times I felt down there, just to make sure they hadn’t gone anywhere. Just to make sure they were real. I’ve never felt so nervous about anything in my life. All I’ve got is a couple hundred dollars and some phone numbers. It might be stupid, but so is going to China to teach English. So’s any chance, if you think about it long enough. Long enough not to take it.

Here is mine. I know I’d feel worse for not trying. And that is all I can do.

The rest is out of my hands.

Missed Connections – a review of This Modern Love by Ray Hecht

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It’s like real life, but better – Tinder slogan.

Apps like Tinder are a natural consequence of a world of pickup artists and pseudo-harems, where 10% of the men fuck 90% of the women and everyone else is left paying hucksters thousands of dollars to learn how to play a game they were never fit to play in the first place.

Datings apps play a big role in Ray Hecht’s new book This Modern Love. Everyone is connected but everyone is lonely and we follow four of these lonely lives in Los Angeles as they seek attachment.

Ben Weiss stands at the crux of this book. Ben is an introverted coder whose relationship coldly ends because his girlfriend discovered his profile on dating websites while maintaining such profiles herself. Ben comes off as particularly emasculated, lost in a world of text seduction. “Cuck” might be the going term, though I’d never advise you to use it.

The others fare no better, even Jack who understands how the game is played. As they seek meaning, Ben pays for a sensual massage, Jack goes through women, Andrea sleeps with a middle-aged man and Carla writes fanfiction and does drugs, and no one comes away satisfied. There is no app or social media website that fills the void in their lives and love, if it exists in this world, cannot be distilled into a few kb of data and remains elusive to these people.

Although I initially thought I couldn’t relate to the people in This Modern Love, I think I understand them. In college I tried my hand at dating, with terrible results, and while I can’t empathize with Jack, I do pity Ben. Like many young men, lost in an increasingly disconnected world and a contest of counterintuitive rules which no one ever wins.

This Modern Love is available at Amazon .

2008 Wuhan backstreet vs 2017 Wuhan highrises

This is my third trip to China since leaving ESL in December 2010. I’m trying not to less of one of those people who takes pictures of everything because in the States a street sign is a street sign but in Wuhan it’s something exotic.

What isn’t exotic, and what makes me melancholy is the constant urban renewal erasing places I cherished. The backstreet was the place I first visited on my own in China. It’s also the place where my wife and I had our first dinner together. I remember everything about the restaurant.

It’s jarring to see the changes when your memories remain so strong. Here’s the backstreet in 2008:

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And here it is today, new apartments charing an arm and a leg and probably a kidney per square meter:

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Where has the time gone? Wrecking balls and clouds of construction dust.

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Old Fiction: from Timber (2007-2009)

I don’t update this often, but I am writing and revising every day. New books are coming.

In the meantime, here’s a little sample, the opening scene from Timber, a novel I worked on from 2007-2009. In a small Tennessee town a black Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD deals with racism and a strained relationship with his daughter.

Two things to come mind when reading this: overwritten and trying way too hard. I had an idea back then of how writers are supposed to write.

Here is is, unedited from eight years ago:

The scent of tobacco rolled in over the plains and past the tractors and fields and trucks, past the railroad tracks sat a man on his porch. A leather jacket hung on his shoulders. A patch sewn into it, a smiling grim reaper. 1% cupped in its hand.

The fresh harvest. The onset of autumn and another cycle done. Jake sniffed it as you might the most noxious perfume, watching the countryside unfold into late afternoon. The fresh harvest at dusk. He missed the days when he smoked it and felt the warm end between his lips and the peace as the leaves burned to strong flavor and then yearning for more.

He pulled a beer from the cooler. He sipped it and the man beside him did the same.

“Why you wearin that?” he asked.

He sipped quickly. Runoff filled the crater around the top.

“Jake, why you wearin that? You ain’t one of em.”

Jake finished his beer and tossed it over the porchrail. He grabbed another and popped it. A frosty tip paused near his lips.

“It’s cold out.”

He drank.

 

 

Long after autumn passed and winter came, Jake lifted his beer from the holster and leaned back. Just twenty five bucks for this chair. A hell of a deal.

“I think it’s bout time to be callin it a night.”

“I guess you right. What’s goin on tomorrow?”

“Deidre’s in a play.”

“Really? What’s she doin?”

“She’s a…somethin or nother, I can’t remember. She does have to be at school early tomorrow mornin so she can practice and stuff.”

“What time’s this goin on?”

“Tomorrow night round six or so.”

“Man, she good at this actin stuff?”

“She is.” He smiled. “She’s a real good actress.”

“Thas what you say. How bout everyone else?”

“I don know.”

“Well shit, if I had me a girl who could act real good I’d be there all the time braggin about it to the whole damn world.” He finished his beer and chucked it at the trashcan. It bounced off the rim and dinged on the porch. “Aw fuck. Sorry bout that.”

Jake shrugged. “It ain’t nothin. Les see if I’m any better.”

He chugged the rest and his shot made it dead center.

“How about that? You ain’t changed a bit.”

“I reckon skill don’t change.”

“Oh man.” He grinned and stood. “You thinkin about goin out for varsity too?”

“From what I can tell they need all the help they can get.”

“Yeah, they sure do. Well Jake, I’ll be headin on now.”

“Okay.”

He lumbered to the door. The boards creaked and Jake watched his boots stomp. Then stop.

“One more thing for I go though. The jacket.”

Jake put his feet up on the cooler and watched the horizon. “No, we ain’t goin through this again.”

“Look, all I’m sayin is you might not wanna be wearin somethin like that. It might getcha into trouble. Thas all I’m sayin.”

“It ain’t no worry.”

“I’m jus sayin.”

“I just wear it around here’s all.” He pushed off the cooler and reached for another beer. “Ain’t no harm in whatcha do in the privacy of your own home.”

“Nope there ain’t neither.”

“When what I do on my own time on my own property becomes the world’s business then yeah, by all means I’ll take it off. But as long as I’m here in my own house on my own property then no, I ain’t takin nothin off.”

“Yeah, you got a point there Jake. I’ll prolly see ya tomorrow.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

Jake grabbed another beer and squeezed it. Cold water ran over his fingers. Little separate foam rivers to creeks to drybeds and off the edge, stinging and numbing his hand. He held it there until it warmed and sat watching the horizon. The familiar land and the unfamiliar one, and when you were away from the familiar one it stayed familiar in dreams but otherwise turned unfamiliar and that was all you had in this world. He had seen enough of both in his life to know what each one meant, and out of it all he preferred the familiar one. Though to be fair, none had treated him too well.

He drank half the beer and threw it away. He backed into the house, watching the porch creak under him and when he collided with the door he punched it and swung it open and slammed it shut. He went to his room, undressed and went to bed.