My old pal Peter DeMarco has published his first novel/novella, and it’s a really strong piece of work. My over-the-top blurb (you might think) has been ratified by the nomination of one of the chapters for a Pushcart Prize (the novella unfolds in not-quite-discrete stories or story fragments), and for my money, the annual Pushcart Prize anthology is one of the best ways anyone serious about reading good writing can get just oodles of it.
But back to Pete’s book, which you can find on Amazon here:
(You can read more about it by downloading this pdf flyer from the publisher, Pangea Books.)
Fiction about white middle class male anomie has the potential to be dull as standing in line at Walmart, or it has the potential to be riveting—like any subject matter, I suppose. There is a reality we sometimes see touched upon on TV in shows like Breaking Bad, if somewhat sensationally. And there’s the sort of “white trash” element of some so-called reality shows. BACKGROUND NOISE is like none of that.
What fiction like Peter DeMarco’s does is get us inside the heads and lives of people we might know. People we might live next door to.
You might just live next to a guy like DeMarco’s Henry, a kid-turned-man who still lives in the house that his dead parents left him. The institutions that might have offered guidance—the church, his family—have deserted him, and he sort of pokes his way along through life. The story, as you might guess from its structure as stories, is episodic. A priest—who might not be the most trustworthy person in the world—comes to Henry’s house to swim in the pool, which he used to do when Henry’s parents were still alive. If he has ugly ulterior motives, we will never know because they’re snuffed out when the priest dies of an apparent heart attack in the pool. Henry horrifies another priest with a made up story about running over a kid on Halloween, and then steals his shirt—which just happens to be one of Henry’s father’s shirts that Henry donated to the church for the poor.
Throughout, Henry is pining for connection, and often, that’s sexual connection. Forever told by his family that he has movie star blond hair, he never seems to be able to cross the gulf between him and the girls and later women who interest him. He does the wrong thing a lot—as when he’s helping out at the church and gets caught by a nun masturbating in the girls bathroom. And he [maybe] beats the neighborhood bully, who is the son of his own generation’s neighborhood bully, mercilessly with a baseball bat during a little league game.
DeMarco’s prose is both confident and fearless, and if it sounds like Henry is a little creepy, he is, but he’s also a character whose creepiness is entirely understandable, given his environment. And he’s way less creepy than I’m probably making him sound here. There’s a little bit of Travis Bickle in him, but not the politician-stalking part.
BACKGROUND NOISE is a “strange” story in the sense that it doesn’t remind me of any writing I’ve read in a long time. That’s to its credit. In a way, it almost reminds me of something in translation, like a German novella. There is a kind of – for lack of a better word – flatness to it: the very plain diction, the unconventional story, and the characters—that seems somehow European to me. It doesn’t draw obvious conclusions for you—if it even draws conclusions or closes caesurae, at all.
And it pretty much throws convention out the window. It’s really not a novel in short stories. And it really doesn’t have a conventional narrative arc. It’s like a French or German movie that just throws you in, in medias rez, shows you moments in a person’s life without really giving you the usual sort of contextual stuff. There’s a quality to it – the nihilism and surreality of parts of it – that reminds me a bit of John Cheever’s story “The Swimmer”.
Get yourself a copy. You won’t regret it.