The other day a really nice guy I know told me he had just read my book of stories Next to Nothing, and he seemed taken aback and perplexed. He said that the characters in the stories were really the bottom of the barrel. Really, he emphasized. He said that back in the day characters like the ones I write about didn't seem so nasty. All the drugs and sex and alcohol, he said. I mean, they're just sad. No way out.
So why do I write about those kinds of people?
I don't know why I write these stories except that the bottom of the barrel has been a focus since I started taking writing seriously. That's because for most of my life I have had proximity to the Nothing people, direct access through working with them, being related to them, and being one of them. I write what I know: gay, working-class, Appalachian/white-trash, etc. And while I'm not a dope addict or anything, I still am often coded as that because of the gay, working-class, Appalachian/white-trash-ness. So the bottom of the barrel I write about is not titillating or stylized or embossed with disgust or conveyed with a distant splendor or even love. I convey the lower level of human existence (for those who think in levels, and I guess that's all of us) without any sense of judgment or disdain or weepy sense of social justice. The debauchery is just there, like anything else about people. Therefore the debauchery gets blanched into banality. Maybe that's what is so horrifying and depressing to a lot of people (the few that actually read what I write)? That sense of scrambled morality, that in that universe I write about and from, "sin" is just another element of character, not a code of destruction or a broken commandment. It's just life.
When I was a kid I always went to vacation bible school in a backwoods Baptist church, and one summer I memorized the most Bible verses than any other kid. I was awarded with a construction-paper crown and a giant candy-bar. The verses still come into my head sometimes, Jesus non-sequiturs that actually provide possible clues into what and why and how I write those bottom-of-the-barrel short stories.
Here's one that is often on repeat inside my skull. Suddenly I'll just be driving around and ka-boom:
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." Matthew 7:1.
Could that be the reason the stories I produce come out the way they do? They are born outside of judgment. When I was a kid, just about the only intellectual stimulation I got outside of school was going to church, and I took that church stuff seriously, construction-paper-crown and all. I wanted to find meaning in those verses. I'm still trying. When you try to be moral or whatever, morality sinks you. But when you try to figure out how morality works without using morality as a map, when you're all on your own out there, imagining a world bereft of meaning so that feeling usurps reason, then suddenly you can look at sin and sadness and drunkenness and perversion (maybe all those should be in quotes?) without cringing and without wanting. And then maybe the Bible verses become flashlights?
You just see the human in that beam, and once you see that the horror shrinks into comedy and then a sort of love might inconspicuously sneak in.
So I write about freaks and low-lifes and perverts and so on, and while they never transcend those earthly statuses they do become truly human I hope, not disconnected from those bottomless-pit identities, but also not condemned by them. Just living that way. God help them. And God helps us all.
I'm not judging. I'm just seeing. And the only judge at the end of the day is God, and I have no fucking idea who or what God is. I just know that I'm not God in any way shape or form. I do know, however, that these people I'm writing about are somehow God's own.
Another verse that keeps coming back:
"For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23.
One of the stories in Next to Nothing I like the most is called "How to Get from This to This." It's about a raging alcoholic's last day of life on earth. He basically has degenerated into what he has feared most about himself. And he's drinking himself into the oblivion that he craves. Even though I never intended it, the last few lines of the story read like a series of Bible verses to me now:
"This is the secret nobody ever tells you: there is so much happiness when you finally give in, a kind of happiness you can't imagine until you hit the very bottom. It's a magical pond you slip into headfirst, drowning quickly, though you take your time. There's quiet, and then there's not even quiet. It's just like that. And you're grateful."
I followed that poor guy to the end, and I kind of found out, at least in my imagination, his end wasn't about torture or damnation or the gnashing of teeth. It was about a freedom he was grateful for. What we're all trying to chase outside of ourselves, anyway we can.