OUT FROM UNDER THE BRIDGE: ON DAVE FITZGERALD by K Hank Jost

OUT FROM UNDER THE BRIDGE: ON DAVE FITZGERALD by K Hank Jost

It is just after 10am in Kansas City. I am tired, hungry, and wound tight with hatred for flying. There’s a dread in my belly. I know what’s to come will amount to headachy hours under industrial fluorescent lights, repeating over upon over sludge-tongued summaries of the books on my publisher’s table—admittedly too few of which I have bothered reading—, the next three days dwindling into dehydrated exhaustion, erupting each morning with a hangover incurable with hotel coffee alone. It’s AWP Kansas City, baby…

Dave Fitzgerald pulls up to the airport in a blue Yaris as I’m finishing a wind-blown, fraggle-ashed cigarette. Inside the car, I am greeted by the squalling shronk of an early Joe McPhee record and Fitzgerald’s own all-calming, soft-spoken warmth. It is striking how little resemblance he bears in appearance and temperament with the heinous character he’s rendered in his near-monumental debut novel:

Fitzgerald is a mensch. Through and through. Not only for picking my nickel-and-diming ass up at the airport—he radiates a kindness, undespairing and even-keeled. As we weave through the interstate traffic toward the city proper, his voice barely rising above the volume of McPhee’s machine-gun brass-and-reed, Fitzgerald speaks fondly of the record, finding a way—as will become increasingly apparent as habit—to transmogrify his musical musings into anecdotes concerning his wife. Though, I find quickly that he’s more apt to ask questions than state facts. He tolerates with grace my acerbic, sleep-deprived ramblings and, an unselfconscious tick in his case, laughs easy at his own jokes when my diatribes give him room…

We’ve been half-roped-into/half-volunteered-for manning our publisher’s booth until she can get to KC from Vermont that evening. It is immediately obvious to both of us that we are in no way the A-team for this assignment: Two surly-enough white guys selling books published under the imprint ‘Whisk(e)y Tit’ is a tough look, if we’re to be honest. The self-conscious neuroses that generally plague my social interactions, caging my posture and speech toward hunch and grunt, are amplified ten-fold by this realization. Behind the booth I’m a dry-mouthed moron, incapable of describing even my own work to potential customers. Though Fitzgerald recognizes our shared predicament—we’ve both managed a chuckle or two at it—, he operates unfazed. He’s read the whole catalog, and when browsers show a lack of enthused interest in his six-hundred-page doorstopper, he shifts easily to a title more in line with their taste.

Like many books in our little indie-lit world, TROLL is a hard sell. A totemic volume of guaranteed abjection and foulness spewed a la Thomas Bernhard at his 21st Century worst. Cultural erudition flaunted by the most heinous of us. In the words of Charlene Elsby, “I know this guy; we all do… his breathy snicker, his feminist misogyny, the toxic social structures under which he came to be, and the continuous dread—that he’s going to hurt somebody…” All conveyed in an unflinching second-person accusation that straight-jackets the reader into a mind none of us would ever wish upon ourselves. 

But Fitzgerald’s not precious. He’s happy enough to sling copies of his compatriots’ volumes—what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and in this indie-lit game we could all use a bit more good going around. Outside of his own work as a novelist, he’s spent no small amount of writing time building his resume as a critic. Most of his by-lines are for book reviews, craft essays, and critique. It’s good literary citizenship, this engaging so intensely with the work of one’s peers. As I take generous nips from the bottle of Jameson we’ve snuck into the bookfair, Fitzgerald whole-heartedly recommends the texts from our table—summarizing the roiling strangenesses that the Tit traffics in with concision and grace: Thomas Kendall’s How I Killed the Universal Man is declared a masterpiece on par with Pynchon, David Leo Rice’s The New House a nightmare you’d never wish to wake from, Anna Dickson James’s Boys Buy Me Drinks to Watch Me Fall Down is the funniest sadness and the saddest comedy around, and my own MadStone is, to my surprise, the closest to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha rendered in contemporary English. Fitzgerald’s not fucking around.

The day begins to wind down—I’m tipsier than I ought to be, and we’re both starved. Being southern boys, we’re keen to see how what Fitzergald terms ‘the wrong kind of barbeque’ holds up. Relief has come in the form of our fearless leader Miette Gillette, proprietor and purveyor of all things Whisk(e)y Tit, and Fitzgerald and I retire to Arthur Bryant’s to get a taste of the allegedly legendary burnt ends. It is over a steaming, miraculously undiminishing pile of smoked-and-slathered meat, wonder bread, and French fries that Fitzgerald and I both relax enough to really talk:

“…The basic idea for Troll first came to me all the way back in 2002, my freshman year of college, when the term as it relates to life on the internet was still pretty new. I was hearing all these stories about people who just barged into chat rooms and message boards and comments sections for the express purpose of being dicks; saying horrible, hateful shit they would never dare say in real life, and then running away laughing, veiled in anonymity, free and clear of any consequence. I couldn’t wrap my head around it […]

But that was all it was, for a long time. I started taking notes for it at some point—just a massive file of dark thoughts, pop culture musings, meanspirited one-liners, gross puns—that eventually added up to a kind of character, but I wrote two full-length plays, three one-acts, half of a different novel, and more music and film reviews than I can count before I started writing Troll in earnest…”

Fitzgerald’s path to TROLL turned out to be one marred, forked, and muddled in the same fashion as many of us find our own. College suddenly behind and the ‘real world’ set out horizonward in its unmappable sprawl, Fitzgerald found himself falling into a host of piss-poor habits to which no artist has ever been a stranger. 

“…and then I met Jeanette, my now-wife to whom the book is dedicated and to whom I always give all the credit in the world. […] I talked a lot about wanting to be a writer, and then went home every night and got high and watched TV and didn’t do shit, until one day she just kind of called me out, saying something to the effect of ‘Look, I believe you can do this, but you have to sit down and actually do it. No one’s gonna do it for you. No one’s gonna care if you don’t do it. It has to be you.’ and for whatever reason, that small, heartfelt bit of encouragement, or permission maybe, was what I needed to hear. She believed I could do it, and suddenly I felt like I could.

[…] I was beginning to feel that I had wasted years of my life just consuming drugs and pop culture to no discernible end, and I held some small hope that I might reclaim that lost time by funneling it into a book. By this time, the meaning of the word troll had changed a lot—and would change even more in the time it took me to write the book. It was a very established and well-documented phenomenon, and as a lost, isolated adult beholden to a host of lazy addictions, I felt like I understood a lot better the why of it all. All those notes I’d been taking coalesced into an outline, and from that outline, I just started writing, every day after work, for as long as I could stand it, and often all day on weekends…”

And, reader, the book that all this brought into the world is a doozy. I’ve written above about the thing’s size, if only because it’s so rare to see an indie-lit title that breaks three-hundred pages. Where this may initially be a turn off, especially if you’re at AWP already lugging an over-stuffed tote bag, I can’t stress enough that the clip Fitzgerald sets his narrative at is absolutely breakneck. All nearly six-hundred pages are used in full—an explosively wordy stream of fractured consciousness, written by a pen as cued to pacing as the screenwriter of a procedural. Beats a reader couldn’t possibly be expecting are hit dead-on, and the turns the narrative takes never leave one in the dust. From the first page, the Troll has us by shirt-collar and fighting against his dragging us under his bridge is a futile effort. This is no big-brain DFW slog, though the book is horrifically intelligent—the logic here is in some way that of television, i.e. everything’s flashing, every joke that can be made is made, every observation hateful, pointed, and aggravating. Here, a selection from near the beginning wherein the narrator (you, don’t forget!) explains his job, see for yourself:

The keys to a successful GRUNDL post are accessibility, brevity, and controversy (insert Glengarry Glen Ross joke here). Find a listicle-ready topic about which even the most cretinous simpleton will have some opinions, write no more than five sentences per entry, and throw in a few picks that will leave at least half your readership inordinately pissed off. This one practically writes itself [Top Ten TV Shows That Lasted Way Too Long]…

A little taste there of the voice Fitzgerald has set to wrap you in. Whether this is an act of forced sympathy or outright cruelty is, perhaps, for the individual reader to discern. Either way, it’s impressive. Fitzgerald says of his decision to write in the second-person:

“When I started, I saw it as both a bit of a challenge—what’s the first thing they teach you in English class? You can never write in the second person. Well fuck that, I’m doin’ it!—and also as a way of depicting the extreme isolation and alienation of this character who spends the vast majority of his time alone, inside his own head, usually high as a kite and staring at a screen. […] Then as I got further into the writing, I also recognized the tactic as, again, something I was maybe doing partly out of self-preservation […] by writing him as ‘You,’ I think I was able to keep some distance between us and not lose sight of that dividing line when his worst thoughts and actions inevitably had to also emerge from my head…”

And things certainly do get grim. For my reading, the eighth episode of the novel kicks open the door to the darkest TROLL has to offer: Our boy, us, we—Christ, you and me, the reader and the Troll himself—have got a date. No romance here, don’t get ahead of yourself—you know who you are by now. We’re set to meet this girl we have no intention of loving, no intention of taking seriously whatsoever. We’re gonna play nice until she hates us and herself enough to get a little fuck going—we can’t stop, as the text says, “wondering if she’d let you snake your dick between her d-cups and pound them right out of the c-cup bra into which she has them so stubbornly crammed.” Of course, given what’s come before and the four-hundred-some-odd pages to go, this is not what’s in store for us, we’ve got much worse turns to take. It’s karaoke night. And, if there’s one opportunity we’re not going to miss, it’s the opportunity to sing in public Bitches Ain’t Shit by Dr. Dre—the whole thing, every world. Every. Word. Ensuing riot be damned.

“I started out thinking I was writing this character to get it out of me—writing my id, I sometimes said—but by the time I finished the book, I felt more like I was writing the person I was most afraid of being; the person I might become if I just kept on down the path I was on. My hope then, through all of it, was to write something that angry young men might pick up for the wrong reasons, only to find themselves at the end maybe thinking a little harder about the right ones.”

It’s a noble thing to discover in oneself—the initial reason so many of us write often has something to do with this ‘getting [x] out,’ and for this fact one’s early work is often navel-gazy, self-concerned, flaccid, and ironically communicates very little about oneself or the world one inhabits.

The secret sauce to rendering forth a great book, despite the maligned loneliness it takes to compose, is ultimately a thorough engagement with the world-at-large. Some of us get a sort of synthetic worldly engagement—MFA programs wherein one has plenty of time simply to write and think, traveling excursions in our youth, or any number of other safety-net-funded adventurings. For the majority, however, this engagement is one predicated on necessity—seeking employment and drudging away all the hours we wish we were writing—, and thus many lose the thread, become inured in the workaday, our grand opus and debuts nothing more than the very “massive file of dark thoughts, pop culture musings, meanspirited one-liners, gross-puns” Fitzgerald employed in TROLL’s construction.

But if one can swing it, maintain a discipline and develop relationships that encourage creative work, then the nut can be cracked. By anyone. This I believe whole-heartedly—the novel is there, a life is worth that, at the very least. A story—stories, if we’re being honest—is lived every moment of your existence. Tell it or not, it’s there. And trust that once the initial work has been done, that first precious thing sent out into the world, the itch begs again to be scratched.

As we wrapped up our meal, I asked Fitzgerald a final question—what’s next?

“What’s next is, mercifully, something completely different. I’ve largely finished the first two entries in what I’m envisioning as a 12-part novel in stories tracing the rise of an American theocracy—working title is Memory Verses. […] I read what feels like an inordinate amount of dystopias in a classroom setting as a kid—I think my teachers were trying to tell us something—, and the way religion’s influence is depicted in the genre always feels like this very dark, scary, fire and brimstone kind of sensibility—with robes and rituals and lots of shouting in Latin. That doesn’t really track with my own experience growing up in the church. So, I started to play with the idea of what that theocracy might look like—one built on the foundation of the 90’s Christian rock/Christian skateboarding boom and hip, young pastors in backwards baseball caps planning, like, ziplining trips and shit. The insidious nature of all that, of corporatizing and commodifying Christianity; trying to make Jesus ‘cool,’ and how it might translate into a full-on Christian Nationalist regime, struck me as both an angle I’d never seen written before, and also just really fucking funny. […] I’ve always been a ‘laugh to keep from crying’ kind of person, and it feels a little more every day like the American right is working toward becoming parody-proof. So, as with any really trenchant satire, it’s a little bit of a race against time to write something like this, and it’s not all fun and games. Just as with Troll, I’m imagining it will be funny right up until it’s really, really not…”

What was next for us was two more days of AWP. 

I’d be lying if I said a day in the company of a man like Fitzgerald didn’t do me any good. I can’t tell you any more than he told me about himself before working on TROLL, and even though he insists that “the titular Troll is not me. Even at my worst, I was never this guy. Not even close.” There’s still something undeniably beautiful and true in imagining that he was indeed a very different person during that time of his life. I can only hope there’s a soul-changing quality to this work that we all try to do, that we’re not just wringing our little lives to ink up a page or two. There’s got to be something learned, a temperament earned, a core shift in one’s programming. It can’t just be about typing, attending conferences, and hustling…

Maybe it was the writing of TROLL—or maybe it was years spent writing about other peoples’ work. Hell, maybe it was the years NOT writing anything of note, reaching that point where one must do something, and then deciding what exactly it is that one is going to do. I can’t say, but the man on the other side of this book is one I found myself increasingly looking up to as our AWP moved forward.

The last day of the conference, I did my best to sling along with him—put on the smile and shake the hands. If not for the purpose of connection, of telling stories to touch lives—or, even better, for our love of the stories of others, to be touched ourselves by their lives, to hold their words in our hands and honor them as near-divine writ—then what else are any of us doing this for?

A final word from our friend Dave, the light from under the bridge:

“I guess I’d say that regardless of how you measure the success of ‘the thing,’ it takes will and tenacity and balls to write a book, show it to people, and shepherd it through to publication. For as many of us as it seems like there are at a clusterfuck like AWP, there are thousands more out there who just never do it. […] That’s true of every artform. […] To refer back to Jeanette’s advice again for a second, it’s not just that no one will care if you don’t do it. In a lot of cases, it’s that no one will even know if you don’t do it. Only you. […] For me, ‘doing the thing’ has changed my life. The sense of accomplishment—of a lifelong goal achieved, of having put my money where my mouth was after so many years of idle talk—has been an unqualified win for my mental health, my confidence, and my sense of who I am and have always wanted to be in the world. Even if only the few hundred people who’ve bought the book at this point are the only ones who ever read it, there’s no doubt in my mind it was worth doing…”


K Hank Jost is a writer of fiction, poet, and editor born in Texas and raised in Georgia. He believes language is the only remaining commons, and through its meaningful deployment all lost commons may be rendered fresh. He is the author of the novel-in-stories Deselections, the novel MadStone, and is editor-in-chief of the literary quarterly A Common Well Journal–produced and published by Whiskey Tit Books. His fiction and poetry are recently featured/forthcoming in Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Burning Palace, Hobart, and BULL. He is currently seeking representation/a publisher for his newest novel, Aquarium, while he works on his fourth book. He has led fiction workshops at the Brooklyn Center for Theatre Research, writes event reviews for the New Haven Independent, and is the Reviews/Interviews Editor at X-R-A-Y Lit Mag. Residing in Brooklyn with his partner, he reads as much as he can, writes as much as he can, and works as much as he must.

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