I have been involved with—dated, survived, whatever you want to call it—a number of writers. I don’t know why this is. It’s not that I don’t like men who are more excited by a grill than a fresh notebook. They can be nice, healthy people. Still, I trend towards the author. Perhaps it’s the perpetual air of self-hate, or the inability to ever be happy with their work, no matter how brilliant. I like the shared, hopeless mornings.
The writer I got farthest with, relationship-wise, was Jonny. We lived together; there was vague talk of marriage. Around the time we finished our books, things went south: bourbon, hacked email, a dog custody battle, Carroll Garden’s saddest sidewalk sale. I left and moved to San Francisco. He married a lovely woman who, as far as I know, does not have writing aspirations.
Now it’s almost five years later, and Jonathan Segura has published his first book. It’s called Occupational Hazards. Where to begin? The book is a trade paperback. The cover could be better. There are no acknowledgements. The copy I have is 247 pages long.
I don’t often review books. This is largely because I am a coward. If I say something bad, will you hate me? You will probably hate me. I remember the names of people who said bad things about my book, and I sort of hate them. I even remember screen names of people who left mean reviews on Amazon. (Ejsquirrel, I mean you. Fascist.) You see? No one likes to be hated.
That said, I feel as if I’ve earned the right to review Occupational Hazards. Jonny and I have already loved and hated each other. Plus, trust me. I’ve done plenty of worse things to Jonny than review his book. And vice versa. Did I mention that he stole my dog?
It took me a year to even attempt to read it. He sent me a copy last April, as we have cautiously ventured into friendship. It was exciting. A galley! But then I read the first line: “Could be I’m still drunk.” Immediately, I shelved the thing. I don’t need to read this book, I thought. I lived with this book. I probably read the manuscript six times while sitting on our stained Craigslist couch. I’d demand to see it every few months, just out of jealousy. I suppose I felt neglected. That happens, I’ve found, when you are with a writer. If they are any good, they will always love their book more than they love you.
Jonny, when he was in a decent mood, was an obliging boyfriend. He’d fix me a drink and pass over a mound of pages in Courier font.
“Why Courier?” I’d say. “The biggest font. The most paper. Do you care about the environment at all?”
“No,” he’d say, loping over to his computer to write more. “Drink. Read.”
That was what I remember most about living with Jonny, along with too much drinking and not enough reading. He was always writing more. He is originally from Omaha, and applied his Midwestern work ethic to novel writing. Forget careful sentences, screw the Thesaurus. When Jonny wrote, the Ramones were on up to eleven and black coffee festered in the cup he never washed. He wrote in huge quantities. Tsunamis of text. Then he’d print his pages, say fuck a lot, spin around in his chair and write some more. Always, always more. The result is a short, tight, evil novel which, after a completely non-objective, semi-fresh read, I am genuinely impressed with.
Occupational Hazards is about a reporter from Omaha named Bernard Cockburn. (The name is pronounced CO-burn, and serves as the books first joke.) Bernard’s a hard-boiled, bitter guy, around thirty, with a job he hates and a live-in girlfriend he doesn’t like much either. He’s a bit of a mean bastard, this protagonist. He spits out his words in ugly little sentences; it’s almost as if Bernard is throwing language darts in your face. Our anti-hero on work: “A dim, miserable place the office. Used to call it the orifice, but gave that up because its such a gimme.” Romance: “We were lying there and our faces were about six inches apart…her breath reeked something like a decomposing corpse in a sulfur mine, but I didn’t care.” Relationships: “Easier…than picking up trampy young things at the bar. Which would require feigned interest in someone’s life.”
Have I said how much I hated this novel when we were living together? As Jonny’s girlfriend, I loathed it. I couldn’t believe such vitriol was pouring out of my partner. The language offends, the sex scenes are cringe-worthy, the characters are hateful. But after giving the novel the ex-read, I find it’s the dogged unpleasantness that I admire the most about the book. Jonny’s influences were the lewdest bits of David Gates, Nathaniel West, and Richard Yates, and as a writer, he is committed to keeping us in the muck.
Jonny does a stellar job with the pace and plot. The book follows a classic noir arc: disgruntled reporter follows a story and stumbles across a hidden well of corruption. Tempted by the underworld, he walks the line between decent and not, while dealing with his whiny, pregnant, “chunky” girlfriend. The book moves quickly, so quickly that at times it’s a bit confusing. But again, it’s Bernard’s antics and language that keep the reader in.
(I know I’m not supposed to do this…it’s fiction, fiction. But no! Jonny never knocked me up. Also, if I was fat back then, it’s because you were frying the pork chops in butter, friend.)
I have only one thing left to say about this loud little novel. Oddly, I wish it were nastier. As I said, I read many versions of this book, so I can tell you there were many toxic scenes his publisher or agent must have made him cut. For example—and Jonny, I’m talking to you here—whatever happened to that scene where, out of self-hate, Bernard burns his penis with a cigarette? Or the one where he has dirty sex with a hooker in his car? What happened to the original title—Cockburn? Or how about the scene where Bernard sniffs coke off of his pregnant girlfriend’s belly? You read that one in front of my parents at our Columbia MFA Parents Night, you asshole. Don’t you remember how they squirmed? Your parents, my parents, a room full of agents, and you chose to read about coke and cunnilingus. It was horrifically glorious. You practically drove my dad to drink. And now you let your readers off?
But I’m giving a bit of hell now. Or waxing nostalgic. Which is why book reviews should not be written by one’s ex-girlfriend. Jonny and I had a good, poisonous time together, and things like that need to end. As for the book, it’s smart, brave, and filthy, and more people should read it. I’m proud to have Jonny on the shelf.