Today is my 32nd birthday and it’s always nice to imagine that your birthday is a grand moment for reflection and, if you’ve got a platform like this one, dispensing wisdom. Marie listens to a podcast out of Spain where a precocious 21-year-old host recently interviewed her father. Said they could talk about whatever he wanted to talk about and he said he wanted to talk about his advice, culled over seventy-odd years of life, about how to live responsibly. The host said it sounded like a good topic and then ceded the floor. He pulled twenty-two notecards of advice from his back pocket and spoke for two hours.
I could not fill twenty-two notecards with advice or insight but I can look back on the previous year and see what worked for me personally and what didn’t.
Success: last April I finished writing Cubafruit and it was the best thing I’d ever done. I worked harder on that book than anything before and it seemed both surreal and appropriate that this novel (my sixth) was the one to finally snag the interest and commitment of a wonderful agent at a wonderful agency. There’s a reptilian part of me that refuses to believe it’s quite real and I’m fine with that.
A long-burbling failure that came to a head in my 32nd year is this: keeping jobs. It’s true I worked at one place for eight years, and another place for two years, but in between (and among) those jobs I had five or six other part-time jobs that never lasted long. I stick around for two or four months and then quit abruptly with a dramatic account of how the job was uniquely embarrassing and terrible. All of these jobs were embarrassing and terrible in different ways but the one thing they all had in common is that I, Alex, was working there.
Which is a suspiciously consistent element in these jobs that happen to be uniquely terrible and embarrassing.
Like saying last night there were six fires in six different parts of town and a nun stood giggling in the flickerlight of each.
Much as the evidence suggests there’s something uniquely impatient and maybe self-destructively proud about my own behavior in these jobs, I’m also inclined to think that most jobs are terrible and humiliating. That a very small portion of Americans have jobs they’d call “rewarding” or “meaningful.” My current job at a grocery store, for instance, is the best job I’ve ever had. Hands down.
It’s also the most humbling. Occasionally someone from my past will turn up in front of me with good jewelry on their fingers and a heavy German pendant on their keyring. We’ll make smalltalk as I bag their groceries. It’s humbling.
That’s why I don’t talk much about the job outside of the Thousand Movie Project blog and podcast, which constitute my diary, these two very private and volatile things that I broadcast to everybody on the planet.
A Success-in-Progress That Complicates the Aforementioned Failure: Being so terrible at holding onto these low-paying miserable jobs is what compelled me to jump so hard into reselling on eBay (the “focus” of this recent spate if posts), which I’m still not very good at doing, but it’s fun, and I’m getting better, and since just about every one of the 16.5 hourly dollars I earn at the grocery store goes immediately and entirely toward living expenses (a day-consuming eight-hour shift pays almost exactly one-tenth of my half of the rent) it means that every snack and beer and book I’ve purchased in the past four months has been the financed by these eBay earnings. About $1,800 net, as of April 24. And there’ve been many snacks and beers and books.
I would not have this wonderful eBay sidehustle in my life if I’d turned out to be even halfway suited, temperamentally and physically and maybe socially, to those other jobs at which I so promptly and angrily failed. And I do mean promptly and I do mean angrily. A couple weeks ago Marie was out late with some friends catching West Side Story at the Arscht Center so I sat half naked in the living room and drank three quarters of a bottle of wine while watching a stunningly remastered montage of World War Two planes getting shot out of the sky and I kept thinking, “Yes. Yes that was me.”
There was that two-year stint of bartending about which I’m quick to say that I was a terrible mixologist but a good bartender. Not great, but I had a knack for the intangibles. My drinks were over-poured and nobody ever (I’m telling you it wasn’t one single person) told me a cocktail I’d fixed them was delicious. I’ve made peace with this. Because while my drinks were terrible my customers always ended up redfaced and giggly and if you consider the demeanor with which some of these white-collar types came up to the bar you’d agree it’s an achievement that they hobbled off their stools laughing and vowing to come back.
As a 31-year-old (2022-’23) I wrote a new novel called Cubatooth. I worked harder on that one than I did on Cubafruit. I’m proud of the fifty-odd books I read for research into this project and the one-hundred and four JSTOR articles about America in the 1920s.
I’m more proud of Cubatooth than of anything I’ve ever accomplished anywhere ever.
At the same time, I had no social life for the entire year I’ve been working on it. I can count six occasions when I went out with friends and I swear each occasion was sandwiched with dread about whether it might not be more responsible to put in more hours on the novel. Check my Instagram: didn’t post a single thing (except occasional stories asking if anybody knew where I could get a job) between April ’22 and April ’23. I was so hellbent on becoming polymathically knowledgable in my subject that I woke up at 4 a.m. every day and ingested heart-mangling amounts of caffeine to read and read until 7 a.m.; after that I would take a break, walk the dog and eat breakfast; then, starting at 9 a.m., I’d write and write. For the three obsessive months writing the novel’s final third I quit my food-runner job at Yard House and took odd jobs tutoring and editing so I could work on the book full-time.
I believe a very good book has emerged from the process; but I also feel like I lost a lot of time with friends, and with Marie. That the commitment was a little overzealous.
The second draft of that book is currently finished and as I ready myself for the third draft in the beginning of May I’m asking myself how I want to tackle it, as 32-year-old Alex. I’ve got a reading list down to here, books that I’ve told myself are absolutely critical to an understanding of the period, the subject matter…
That’s what I was chanting back as a naive pubescent 31-year-old.
I’m not so convinced anymore.
My plan is to take it easy on the research, going forward, and to spend more time on just the writing. One of my writer heroes is Don Winslow and his Cartel trilogy is a north star for everything I’ve worked on lately.
It was actually part of the pitch for Cubafruit! I described it as, “Don Winslow’s Cartel, as told by Junot Diaz.”
When Winslow was working on that trilogy he sometimes got so mired in the research he had to roll back from his desk and remind himself he was writing fiction. That he didn’t have to stay glued to what actually happened. That he would, in fact, write a miserably unpleasant book if he kept the story anchored to the miserable gory facts and never took readers on a flight of imagination.
So I’ll do that as a 32-year-old, working on the third draft of my 1920s novel Cubatooth, which is currently 1,200 pages, about 300,000 words, and which I will not under any circumstances share with anyone anywhere ever until it is roughly the size and shape of Cubafruit, which weighs in, presently, at a still-chunky 106,000 words, some 424 double-spaced pages.
There are other things. My big focus over the next few weeks, as a 32-year-old, will be the reselling “business” I’m operating on eBay. Marie keeps telling me to call it that: a business. Normally if there’s a great streak of sales from my eBay store I celebrate the streak as like A Thing I Just Narrowly Did Not Fuck Up. Giggly and hunched, like when someone at the grocery store whips the forklift around too quickly and just barely avoids severing my ankles. Marie’s attitude is, “No: you’re running a business. When it succeeds, it’s because you were successful. Let it reflect you.”
I can try that.
I’m already up at 4 a.m., what else am I gonna do?
Happy Birthday Alex! 32 is young.