When you develop an opinionated, perverted, racist character, and proceed to write a book from his point of view, people are bound to ask: Is this a novel, or a confessional? Some writers make a tease of this. Where does the fiction end… and the truth begin!? There’s nothing wrong with that. Some work is confessional. Mine is not. I love Buddy, as I love all my characters, but I’m glad to be rid of him for a while. He’s a challenging companion.
This is not an apologia. I’m proud of the book. I laughed as I was writing it, so I think it’s funny. I cried while I was writing it, so I think it’s poignant. I don’t want to spoil it for you. I just want to make clear what I was going for.
It went like this. I wanted to write a comedic novel. Wodehouse had Bertie. Kennedy Toole had Ignatius. Twain had Huck. I tried for something similar—a character who doesn’t just transcend the narrative but is the narrative. One comment I heard from some early Sommelier readers: “It would work as a play.” That delighted me. I was a theater geek. I haven’t stepped on a stage in years, but I still carry those tools. How would he see things? How would he move through the world? As goes “process,” Buddy was more of a theatrical creation than a literary one. He’s a role, not a mouthpiece.
Buddy is a freelance web guy. The author was a freelance web guy. J’accuse!
I would have made him a telemarketer if I could have. I tried. My goal was not to shine a light on the inner-workings of a boring occupation; it was to expound on the isolation and anonymity that modern technology allows. At one level, Buddy is a successful entrepreneur; at another, he’s a fraud and a hustler; at another, aren’t we all? The telemarketer angle could have worked, but it doesn’t carry the same earning potential, and I wanted to play with some wealth-and-class, wealth-as-class elements. Plus the research. Research on telemarketing. I stuck with what I knew.
Buddy is racist. Why?
Because he probably would be.
“[The picaresque hero] is a conservative, believing in the basic order of society, so that he can learn all the rules and know better how to exist, otherwise he would vanish forever… He has little education, though much aptitude for acquiring a gold-leaf veneer of sophistication...he is of no fixed value to society.”
-Alan Sillitoe, On the Picaresque Novel and the Picaresque Hero
I’m working class, yet working class people can smell the odd on me, and they’re wary of odd, so I’ve never really fit in anywhere. I find individuals interesting; groups, not so much. I’m less of a participant, more of an observer.
Buddy is not a snarling, Alt-Right racist. He’s an everyday racist; a casual racist. As current events have shown, he is not an outlier. It’s ugly stuff. And so, Buddy is physically ugly. Buddy is supercilious. I carved the prose to match, and also gave Buddy this overdone Victorian home—an island of self-importance, set in a neighborhood that decays around him. The things he says, the actions he takes: these are his rights. He refuses any responsibility that extends beyond. Buddy is absurd. It’s all so absurd! So is the book.
I could have winked more; given Buddy that "come to Jesus!” moment. It would have been flat. It’s the biggest thing I learned in the process of writing the novel. It isn’t about telling. It’s a dance. The writer writes, the reader draws. There’s judgment to be cast. In Sommelier, I decided to leave that up to you.
Slippery. That was a character motif. Buddy is going along, and you start to think “Hey, I like this guy.” Then he does something or says something. “I hate this guy!” Snatch out the rug, send them sprawling, then put it back and promise to never do it again. Repeat. It’s an old trick.
The sexual content. Some early readers of the work-in-progress suggested that “He should be addicted to porn, addicted to prostitutes.” I nodded politely but never agreed. Buddy’s assignations may be unconventional, but they are also consensual, fulfilling, and I hope, legitimately sexy. Contrast this with the now. Ubiquitous pornography. A generation of teens, of young adults, who grew up with unfettered access, and their sexual lives, their sexual selves, a parody of the superficial simulations they witness on screen. “Making love” is creepo talk. It’s “sex” if it’s routine, and “f-ing” if it’s any good. I’m no prude, but there has to be more to it than that.
Also, sex can be pretty funny.
Buddy is my Rabbit Angstrom. You’ll meet him again. He’ll age, he’ll grow. But don’t worry. He’s a clown, and a clown he will stay. He was never meant to be anything but.