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Endangered Species

By Scott Spencer

It’s Christmas Eve and it has been raining all day in a kind of incessant Blade Runner post-apocalyptic way: a muddy Christmas! Gasoline is suddenly well under three bucks a gallon so it’s hello greenhouse and goodbye ozone. Hunting season upstate and my dog has found a bag of guts a neighbor has left outside after butchering his doe. Yet the main thing about today, beyond the appalling weather, my rancid mutt, my worries for the environment, and the anniversary of the birth of the Infant Jesus is that I finished reading a great novel and I am surging with energy and feeling the aesthetic thrill of having experienced something original and important.

The name of the novel is Preparation for the Next Life and the author is Atticus Lish, and though the NYTimes has been attentive to its publication, very few of the very few outlets for book reviews and literary criticism seem to have noticed it and unless some kind of cultural cavalry comes to the rescue I fear this brave, searing work will never get the attention necessary for any novel that hopes to gain an audience in today’s cultural climate.

The novel itself is a relentless immersion into parts of New York City that many people–particularly those in the book-buying class–do not have even a glancing acquaintance with. In Tom Wolfe’s Vanity of the Bonfires, the story is ignited by a rich (white) man getting lost and finding himself in what is to him Hell, where his wealth and position cannot protect him from the humans with dark skins who dwell in The Bronx, a place where he may as well be naked with a rose in his teeth. In Atticus Lish’s story there is no bourgeois character to act as a liaison between the reader and the world of no money.

Most of the novel takes place in a part of Queens where a handful of Irish dead-enders do what they can to hold onto their old small privileges while the borough absorbs more and more Asian and Latin American workers, most of whom are frightened, exploited, and tireless. In a landscape of slapped together fast food restaurants, immigrant housing worse than some squats, soul-crushing bars, auto repair shops, construction sites, water towers, and trim little houses, Lish’s characters do not shrink back in neo-Kurtzian horror, nor do they nurture illusory aspirations of somehow getting out. Most of them have climbed as far up the economic ladder as they are ever going to get, and are far more concerned with not being swept into the oblivion of illness, arrest, or deportation than they are with making it to Manhattan or the suburbs. Though some of them, it must be said, are also concerned with getting drunk, and with hookers, and theft, and violence (there is a scene of a beating in this novel that is so graphic and convincing that I fear I will never forget it).

The large compassionate heart of this remarkable book is the relationship between a Chinese/Muslim undocumented worker, a woman named Zou Lei, and a recently discharged physically and psychically injured Iraq war vet called Skinner. It’s a love story full of yearning and need and dependence and misunderstanding and grief and daring, rendered over the course of 400 plus pages without one sentimental assertion or turn of phrase. Here, in a characteristic paragraph, Zoe Lei has brought Skinner food from the (dreadful) Chinese fast food restaurant where she works (for uncertain wages):

She took meat from the steam table and made him a care package. She filled a Styrofoam shell with rice, beef, dumplings, and put it in a plastic bag and hid it on the shelf by the cornstarch and took it to him after work. She had only one plastic fork and he said, no, you keep that, and he ate it cold with his fingers, having done this all the time in the infantry. When it was her turn, she leaned down and ate in her own way, like any Asian working person using the fork as a shovel. The two of them had to take turns at the trough or their heads would bump. She prodded him with an elbow and he looked at her.


Is that good?

Yes. Tongkuai is warm. We are very warm here. She gestured at the
purple-walled basement surrounded by the cold black night outside
the window. (p. 133)

The consistently convincing manner with which Lish portrays these two unprotected souls and their search for love and for each other (poverty here is a kind of shipwreck, and the city is a turbulent ocean) makes his novel almost unbearably suspenseful, and a kind of exquisite agony to read. But the real story of Preparation for the Next Life is the secret underpinnings of a city that is in many respects a stranger to itself.

Here is Zoe Lei in East New York, with only shower flip-flops to protect her feet from the city’s devouring concrete:

The police van’s white, red, and orange flashers disappeared behind her as the road bent and she passed silos for sand and gravel, a diagonal conveyor belt against the sky, cement trucks nose to tail like elephants behind a fence. (p. 387)

And here is Skinner, who is living in the basement of a house in Queens, surveying his new world:

The house looked the same as always, the three layers of roofs rolled out like dirty tongues separating each floor. From here, he saw the shed in back, the attic window stuffed with yellow-gray insulation. He went around the yard’s faded Jesus and let himself in. (p. 365)

Much of the publicity around Atticus Lish has been contingent on the fact that he is the son of the renowned (or, depending on your point of view, the notorious) editor and writing teacher Gordon Lish (who was known in Manhattan and MFA circles as Captain Fiction). Lish pere will most likely be given his spot in literary history for his forceful (or, depending on your point of view, heavy-handed) editing of Raymond Carver’s work when it appeared in Esquire. It could be argued that between Carver and Lish a distinct school of short story writing was born. The socially marginal characters, the kitchen sink realism, the drinking and the despair and the general sense of malaise was Carver’s own, but the sentences–short, understated, avoiding lyricism like a matador dodges the horns of a bull–were clearly shaped by Lish’s confident red pencil. (In fact, toward the end of his short life, when Carver had had enough success to get publishers to bend to his will, many of the Lish-ized stories were restored to their original forms and re-published.)

The curious thing about the concentration on Lish’s connection to Captain Fiction and the worlds of corporate publishing and graduate writing programs (after Lish senior left Esquire, he worked as an editor at Alfred Knopf, and taught fiction writing in Columbia’s MFA program) is that Atticus Lish’s work gives no evidence that he has any particular interest in either of those worlds. Preparation for the Next Life is published by Tyrant Books, a very small independent house, whose owner, Giancarlo diTrapano, runs the entire operation out of his small apartment, where, according to a reporter from The Los Angeles Review of Books, he offers visiting journalists wine, Xanax, and cocaine.

Though Lish was admitted to Harvard (after prepping at Andover), he dropped out after a couple of years to join the Marines. This year’s National Book Award winner, Phil Klay, whose fine book of linked short stories offered a multi-dimensional portrait of our all-volunteer fighting force, also went to an Ivy League college–Dartmouth–but Klay made it all the way through and went on to New York City to receive his MFA, giving his life a certain similarity to the many other young writers who are processed through the scores and scores of writing programs east to west, north to south. (It’s become something of a rarity to find a published younger fiction writer who does not have an MFA and is not posted at some college somewhere, helping the next wave of aspiring writers get their MFAs. After Lish left Harvard he worked at a number of hard laboring jobs, compiling a resume reminiscent of the author bios of fifty years ago. He did not (for reasons he seems to be keeping to himself) make it through his four-year hitch as a Marine–“not even enough to be eligible for veteran’s benefits,” he said to a reporter for The New York Times–but early on, Lish began learning Mandarin, taking himself to lessons in Chinatown when he was just 12 years old, unbeknownst to his family. His knowledge of Chinese led him to a job as close to white collar employment as he has yet to come: translating technical articles from Mandarin to English.

He has not resigned that position. At forty-three his first novel (as of this writing) is in the mid-3000’s on Amazon’s e-book site, and in print (it has come out in paperback) it is now just under 2000. The disparity may suggest that those who have purchased it might be older, or more analog in their inclination, or have purchased copies to give as Christmas presents–but either way, these are not the kind of sales figures that will allow a writer to live on royalties. Preparation has been enthusiastically (if not widely) reviewed, and Atticus himself has received more than a smattering of publicity–he is a perfect profile subject, with his semi-famous father, shaved head, athleticism (martial arts, rock climbing) and his out-sized talent. Yet with all that, Lish is going to have to continue working his day job while he prepares for the next novel.

Maybe Hollywood will come courting, but selling out ain’t what it used to be–more novels are optioned for $1000 than sold for a million. Maybe the MacArthur Foundation will step in, or the Pulitzer, or maybe the Booker–nomination for that prize plucked Joshua Ferris’s brilliant recent novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, from the obscurity into which distracted and tone deaf book review editors had cast it. But the economic reality of being a serious novelist in a culture which shows less and less interest in doing the work of reading literature is that finding a safe place in one MFA program or another might be one of the few viable alternatives left. (The other is trying to write for the movies or television, a short term fix, one that creates as many problems as it solves–you can take that from me.) As far as I know, Atticus Lish has eschewed both of these paths, yet with a publisher running his business from a kitchen table and the readers who ought to be devouring his work somehow unaware of it, how is he meant to carry on? Preparation for the Next Life is a novel about immigration, war, endurance, and what it means to try to hold onto a shred of your integrity and individuality in a world which could not care less if you were dead or alive. In it Lish has imagined himself into the psyches of two characters who society can find no way to comfort or protect, two compassionately portrayed individuals who the reader comes to know and love. Unlike so many first novels, it seems to be almost ruthless in its exclusion of any material that might be construed as autobiographical. Yet upon closing Lish’s novel I began to wonder if there might be a third endangered creature in this story, indeed an endangered species–the serious novelist who wanders through our culture without the protection of a university or a foundation or any other of capitalism’s gentler manifestations. Preparation for the Next Life is a high-wire act without a net and when I closed the book I was filled with admiration for its author and a great uneasiness over what happens when, like his characters, he is forced to look down.

From January, 2015

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