On the front page of this website I am wearing a beanie that reads "Vaccines." I wear this beanie often--even when it is warm and I am at the desk in this foul apartment, going through the emails, dealing in the pain and injustice--real discrimination that would completely destroy, in mere days, people who talk a lot about discrimination and have no clue what it truly means--and trying to keep going, fight, create. I am wearing it now. It helps with my anxiety. My heart rate does not just get jacked--it becomes alarming. The last time at the hospital they put me in a wheelchair. During these COVID-19 times, people stop and ask me about cures, on account of my beanie--they think it signifies that I am working on one or else in some proximity to a cure being developed. This one guy in the North End, when I see him at the local market called the Golden Goose, starts saying stuff to me about his wife who is some form of clinician at MGH. I think he thinks we are doing shoptalk, though I don't say much--he just talks at me. I say sure, crank up those Vaccines. Let's get it going. Then he says, "yeah, bro." I think he's a meathead married to a doctor.
Anyway. The Vaccines are an English band. They are very good. But they mean something different to me, on account that it was their first album, What Did You Except from the Vaccines?--along with Alex Turner's Submarine E.P.--that I had on constantly while I was writing Dark March and The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, both of which books I composed simultaneously.
I was alone in the house in Rockport. My then-wife had done what she had done, with her affair--which I did not know about at the time--and her Gone Girl routine. I loved--love--that place, that house, and I knew my time there was coming to an end. It would be taken from me. I had no means nor monies to fight. I could see the hours drip away. I was completely shattered, terrified, broken, destroyed. There was the mystery at the time, too, of why this person had left, not a single word or sign as prior indication. Simply vanished. I was in so much pain that it overran me, overran my mind. The day I had the stroke in California on assignment for ESPN was not even one of the worst days. Perhaps because I thought I was going to get to die.
I had done a lot as an artist to that point. But in that house, during that time, that dwindling time, in all of that pain, in that unique situation, setting, context, it was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Okay, it's go-time now. I hereby grant you more imagination and wisdom that you ever had before. You are different than you were. You are a different artist now, capable of so much more. Learn how much more. Give yourself to that."
And I did.
I played that Vaccines first album constantly, I screamed, cried, I vomited, I paced, I wrote ceaselessly, I literally collapsed on the floor and pulled the hair from my head, and I could feel my heart, my mind, my soul change from the inside out in writing those two books, Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep and The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss. They will always be--and I think this is more than a fact, it's a truth---the two most emotionally powerful, devastating books anyone has written, because they were born of that unique environment, that unique set of experiences, that unique person morphing and molting at the rate of every single second of that period of time, who already had an ability no one else had, which was without precedent, and will remain without a match. I was born when I wrote those two books in that place. That's when I was truly born. Not in 1975. The date upon my birth certificate means nothing. I came to exist as I now am when I wrote Dark March and The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe. I measure everything to that point. Before Dark March/Anglerfish, and after.
Those books were not about me--they were about everyone who has ever known a pain they did not think they can handle. They are as humanly alive as any two books have ever been--even though a lot of times there are not even any humans in them.
Pratt talks about humanness, and I think it's an apt word. The greater the quotient a work has of humanness, the greater the work is. The more valuable the work is. The more the work offers. The more the work asks. The more the book lasts. Humanness is, more than anything, what I do in my work. I have not had anything stocked with a greater quantity of humanness than those two works.
They are not about busted marriages, affairs, anything like that--they are about things beyond mere processes and labels and court dates of human life, beyond rearranged lives. They are the alpha and omega of universality in how they present suffering. Bookends. The books do not attempt to rank forms of pain, or pass any judgment on anyone else's pain; they are for people who have known and felt what it means to have a pain they are not sure they can handle. And they are also very funny, at times, because it would not have done, it would not have worked, to bludgeon anyone with grief.
They deserved to laugh, too. I was not simply writing books or doing story collections. They are not those. Not truly. The term is too limiting, it implies a collation of the largely unrelated. I was creating new forms of artistic human energy. I was finding new ways to distill humanness. To show. To say, I understand. These books feel your pain. They are your pain. But, crucially, they are also new hearts that retain the memories of the old one, for hearts hold memory, but from which new love--and new hope--may beat and grow. And I knew it. The most painful books I could imagine were also the most hopeful, the most beautiful. I knew it every single fraction of a second of the way. I was creating something that publishing labels could never do justice. Even if I was not hated by thousands of people in an industry because of what I can do and what I am.
And that Vaccines album was just always on (on a stereo that is now in storage). In that house, as I created those works. So that's why I wear the beanie. I wear it when I go to war with these evil bigots. The people who have banned all coverage of my work. The people who have locked arms to keep me out with each new thing I achieve. (I believe there's a new op-ed in The Wall Street Journal today. I have not checked.) Who deny me awards. Who try to make sure my stories cannot run. Who would sooner die, I believe, than let the world know about this writer guy over here, this force of nature. Who seethe with anger and envy as I keep doing what I do.
I wear it after not sleeping for two days, sitting in this chair, in nothing but a pair of dirty basketball shorts, sometimes with blood literally up and down my front because my fingers become so raw and abraded from hitting the keyboard hour after hour after hour that I wipe them on my chest so as not to have to get up as I compose yet again, create something that none of them ever could if you gave each of them five million years to do what I do in five minutes.
I wear it when my heart rate kicks up to 200 bpm, trying to get it to go down so I don't have to go to the emergency room again.
I'll probably be wearing it on the day when I have finally arrived at where I am going, when i am past these people, when I am front and center to the world, because I will.
That's why it's on the front cover of this website. Not because I'm in a lab coat mixing up the medicine.
If you read those books, you will see exactly what I am talking about.
It was intense in that house. The energy. I know that energy is still burned into the very air of the place, the walls, the floors. When people ask me why it is that precise house I am trying to get, and return to, and live in, that's the reason.
To cool down the energy, I wrote Buried on the Beaches. So, the three books were composed simultaneously, along with, of course, dozens and dozens of nonfiction pieces. I wrote Buried on the Beaches so that I could write Dark March and The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe. It was like moving to my corner to get patched up by my cut man and have my trainer squirt some water in my mouth before the bell dinged and I exploded back into the ring to throw hands with the fates, the devil, the very depths of human pain and suffering. I had to write Buried to have the strength to return to the total offering up of all that I was and also more than what I was which was the other two books.
I consecrated every last bit of my humanness, my will, my strength, my genius, to those two books. I let them have me. I left nothing behind, out in the world. To journey to the very bottom and try to ascertain what is there, and in fact ascertain what is there, you must give everything; to rise once more, but as one has not previously, you must give even more than everything. Those two books do both.
One of the songs on that Vaccines album is called "Wetsuit." It features some lines that go, "If it's up and after you/What do you suppose that you would do?" which I heard as a question and a challenge meant just for me, right then, right there. Was I going to give in, or would I seize the chrysalis moment and become unlike any artist had been or would be? Even unlike an artist who was already unlike any artist had ever been? I was alone. I had no friends, no family. I had no support. But I knew exactly what I was going to do, and nothing that was up and after me was going to stop me.
So that's the story of my beanie. And part of the story of a few of my books. And if you're sitting there some time with Buried on the Beaches in one hand and Dark March in the other, now you know that somehow they were actually written at the exact same time, which is a pretty impossible to believe, but there it is.