Today on Alphabet City: A query on Jon Paul’s blog leads to a new friendship, an intro to a phenomenal new book 85A, and a party.
Sometimes I imagine how Mary Tyler Moore would get along in the age of the Internet—instead of a job as Associate Producer in a TV newsroom, she’d probably be creating online content. But I like to think Mary would resist the all-too-easy temptation to be bitter in the blogosphere. Hopefully, she’d remember her Sonny Curtis theme song, continue to “turn the world on with a smile” and remember that with “each glance and every movement” she shows it. Of course, for the web world you’d replace “movement” with “keystroke.” Which is why I take reader questions and comments so seriously—the response sends a message to the world.
Back in June, I received a simple question from fellow first time novelist Kyle Thomas Smith. He’d read an article about me in EDGE, and wrote for some advice on book tour publicity—and I took the reply very seriously. Writers are all in this together—we need each other. What I got out of posting a thorough reply would have made Mary proud—I gained a new friend and an introduction to his captivating book 85A.
By the time I secured and cracked open my copy of 85A in late August, Kyle and I had already hung out together a few times. The most I knew about the book was some of the promotional material on the back cover that opens with this line, “What do you get when you cross Holden Caulfield with Johnny Rotten?” Honestly, I cringed when I read that—thinking it was a bold claim to make a comparison to one of America’s most enduring narrators from Catcher in the Rye. So I was a little nervous when I started the book a few days before going to Kyle and his partner Julius’ home for dinner—what would I say if I didn’t think the book lived up to the hype? That’s a set-up for an awkward MTM episode if ever there was one.
Boy, I shouldn’t have worried. Instead, from the moment I began my journey across late 1980s Chicago with narrator Seamus O’Grady, I couldn’t put this book down. To me, Kyle has created one of the most captivating, riveting and engaging narrators in modern fiction—it’s not a stretch at all to compare Kyle’s character to Holden. As Seamus tells his story while he rides the 85A bus across various suburbs neighborhoods of the Windy City, I bonded with his disaffected, punk rock persona in ways I hadn’t expected. [NOTE: both here and in my Amazon review, I called Seamus’ route across “suburbs” when in fact, as the author notes, “he lives in the city but in a part of the city that’s in the most wretched fear that minorities will move in. That’s one of Seamus’ big gripes is that the neighborhood is a segregationists last stand in the changing city.” An important distinction–one that adds immeasurably to the layers of this story]
According to the book’s time period, Seamus and I are pretty much contemporaries—except that Seamus is the kind of kid I wouldn’t have necessarily understood or appreciated at my fancy prep school. Failing out of school and ostracized because of his interest in the punk scene, Seamus feels like the world doesn’t understand him. It takes a skilled author like Kyle to make me want to get inside Seamus’ head—and moreover, feel sympathy for him. When Seamus isn’t allowed to do the one thing he most loves in school—my heart breaks for him. And when he finally discovers the hipster coffee shop where he might just fit in—I cried. It took me back to the first time I was able to walk into Dallas’ gay bookstore—hoping I found others like me.
The deck seems hopelessly stacked against Seamus, including a horrific home life filled with abuse from a homophobic father and brother, and a mother unwilling to do what it takes to protect her son. The two people in his corner—a sassy best friend Tressa who opens his world to other possibilities, and his therapist Dr. Stryeroth, both reveal themselves to have much more complicated agendas than originally presented.
But through it all, Seamus’ dream of moving to London keep him moving forward at all costs. Anyone who has ever experienced being an outsider, being different, not fitting in for any reason, will connect with Seamus’ desperate struggle to find a way to escape and be accepted.
Some reviewers have objected to Seamus’ colorful language—and to that I say phewey. His use of expletives is completely in character, especially for a kid who feels like the world is against him. Sadly, the world in which Seamus is bullied and abused is still very much alive 20+ years later as recent current events about suicidal teenagers can attest. Thankfully, Seamus’ dream of a better life in London is able to keep him alive.
Little did I know it, but Kyle delivered a gift when he first emailed me for advice. Today, I hope to repay the generosity and take a cue from the folks across the country who opened their homes to me on my book tour this summer. Chef and I have invited our friends around for an 85A book party gathering at our home featuring the author Kyle. It’s the kind of thing I imagine Mary would do—yesterday and today.
Tomorrow on ABCityblog: Tips and recipes for throwing a book party for under $100 by taking advantage of Whole Deals at Whole Foods Market Upper West Side.