I was heading home from my girlfriend’s house and it was taking a while. She lived well south of San Francisco and it was a weekend so the trains weren’t running. Instead you had to go to the station and a take a bus but the bus didn’t stop at every station and I had been at the wrong depot so I had to take a bus just to get to the place where I caught the bus and that bus didn’t come for half an hour so I sat on the long pews with the other passengers and waited for my ride home.
I only saw my girlfriend maybe once a week because she lived so far away and when I saw her I was stuck there for 24 or 16 hours. But maybe stuck isn’t the right word. I was only happy when I was with her but she was so difficult, so intense, that once a week seemed like enough. It took me the rest of the time to recover. And often, after seeing her, I would lie in bed the whole next day, only getting up to eat, constantly hungry. It was like I had climbed a mountain or been beaten up.
I was in the middle of finishing my novel, Happy Baby, and I felt very emotional a lot of the time. She hated the book, at least the pieces of it I let her read, and she wasn’t at all afraid to tell me so. After telling me how much she disliked what she had seen she asked me to read other parts to her which I did while she ignored me. I loved her so much it made me ill sometimes.
At the time I was worried that Happy Baby was not funny enough. My editor had mentioned that to me, that if the book had a little more light in it there would be a wider audience. In fact, the book is not funny at all. It’s a very sad book about a man, Theo, who is molested as a boy in the detention center by a guard, Mr. Gracie. Mr. Gracie physically and verbally abuses him but also protects him from the other boys. In this way Theo learns to associate abuse with affection and searches out Mr. Gracie’s replacement for the rest of his life. I was wondering if anyone would be interested in such a dark book. My publisher didn’t think so.
It was during that long bus ride away from my girlfriend and with my sad novel coming due that I read “I Want To Live” by Thom Jones from his collection The Pugilist At Rest. In “I Want To Live” we meet Mrs. Wilson just as she is finding out she has cancer. It seems, on the face of it, a terrible idea for a story. Like it’s almost too easy to be good, a story about a woman who gets cancer and dies. But somehow Thom Jones pulls it off with perfect, beautiful minimalism. We rise with her highs and lows, though the dilaudid and the pain. We get brief, unexplained glimpses of her estranged daughter, her good for nothing son-in-law who turns out to be the unexpected hero when given a chance. Jones holds nothing back, guiding us through all of Mrs. Wilson’s small, terrible moments:
She began to nod. She was holding onto a carton of milk. It would spill. Like diarrhea-in-the-bed all over again. Another mess. The daughter tried to take the carton of milk away. She… held on defiantly. Forget the Shopenhauer–what a lot of crap that was! She did not want to cross over. She wanted to live! She wanted to live!
It’s an incredibly sad story. Perhaps the saddest story I’ve ever read. I leaned against the window and felt the bumps of the road through my forehead. There were so many passengers on the bus. I didn’t want them to see me crying. I thought my relationship had gone too far; I couldn’t keep going like this. We’d only been together a few months and already I was crying on the bus. I never knew if she was going to let me sleep in the bed with her or if she was going to let me go in the morning. Sometimes she told me to sleep on the floor only to invite me into her bed later. She was always angry with me; I had always ruined whatever was planned. She said the most awful things about my writing, about my relationship with my family: “I’m not your father. I’m not your mother re-incarnate.” I thought there was something really wrong with me. It was sunny south of San Francisco, the way it always is. Then I read the story again and cried some more.
Later I showed the story to others. Sometimes they liked it. More often they thought it was too sad. People don’t like to be sad. More people disliked than liked it. But somehow throughout it all Thom Jones had come to explain the meaning of life, why it’s important to enjoy what you have, what you mean and don’t mean to the people around you, why life matters, that it’s such a fleeting thing and you don’t get to do it again. Simultaneously he described the meaningfulness and meaninglessness of it all. He had written a story that was so perfect that it exposed some of the most basic truths of human existence. I now knew what it felt like to learn you were going to die and the process of that long, painful slide into nothingness. When I was younger, starting when I was eight years old, I had watched my mother go through it over five years as she fought her swift, losing battle with Multiple Sclerosis. For most of that time she was laid up on the couch practically paralyzed, unable to even make it to the bathroom. I had grasped nothing at the time. I was too young and selfish. And yet here, in this short story, there it all was.
And I remember thinking, almost in San Francisco where the bus would leave us at 8th and Mission Street and I would walk the mile and a half back to my dirty studio, that happiness is bullshit. Not on a personal level; a person should strive to be happy. But in a story happiness was irrelevant. People work too hard to make their fiction funny. There’s nothing wrong with funny but it’s not what matters. The most important thing fiction can do is teach the truth, illuminate something that couldn’t be discovered in any other way. I stopped thinking of ways to make Happy Baby funnier and more accessible. I cut every adjective, removed all traces of backstory. I wasn’t going to explain the unnecessary. I was writing a book about a man who equated abuse with affection. I was exploring, through fiction, how that could happen and where that might come from. I wanted my reader to understand this condition and I wanted to understand it myself. I will never write anything as good as “I Want To Live” (which was in the Best American Short Stories that year as well as the Best American Short Stories of the Century) but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to strive toward its virtue.
I stayed with my girlfriend for almost a year after that. Our relationship was unsustainable and that we lasted as long as we did is a tribute to how far two people can go on passion alone. Before I met her I began my novel. Ironically, or maybe not, she left me to pursue a relationship that was more stable. It took me a little while to accept that and let her go but eventually I did. A month before we broke up Happy Baby came out and she decided she liked it after all.