At the University of Florida, where I went to school, you don’t find many dedicated writers in undergraduate creative writing classes. In fact, you don’t meet many liberal arts majors there who are interested in doing too much more than getting laid, partaking of the local weed, trying to make a $150 paycheck cover a month’s worth of meals (supplemented by free Krishna food — now $3 — in the Plaza), and quoting Derrida. Or at least that’s how it was in the early 90’s: like Slacker, but without Madonna’s pap smear, and with palm trees and 300% more punked-out pizza servers.
So somebody like Chris Adrian, a stunning, dedicated writer even as a sophomore, really stood out. His touching stories ran from the surreal (a piece narrated by a boy whose sister was “eating winter”) to the mostly realistic (one protagonist’s beloved sister, an ice-skating princess, steals off to her boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night, and falls through the ice, leaving a trail of condoms behind her). After graduation, to nobody’s surprise, he was accepted to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and went off to study there.
I always expected Adrian to become a literary star. Everybody did. I just didn’t expect it to happen a few months after I graduated from law school, when I was working off my student loans at an insurance defense firm gig I loathed so much that I couldn’t meet my own eye in the mirror while applying makeup in the morning.
After law school, I had moved to Tallahassee, a far more conservative town than Gainesville. Outside the warmish bosom of Florida State University, admitting you write in Tallahassee is tantamount to stamping a rainbow flag, anarchy symbol, and pentagram on your forehead all at once, while preparing to drink the blood of Christian babies.
A life of lawyering seemed inevitable for me then. Legal training had bludgeoned all the creativity out of me. Student loan statements kept arriving in my mailbox. I worked 80 hours a week.
It was as though by blundering into law school at 23, for lack of anything better to do, I had sentenced myself to a life devoted to things I didn’t believe in. I had stopped writing, stopped reading, stopped doing pretty much everything except writing motions and briefs, defending hearings and depositions, and cross-examining poor Max, who was enrolled in F.S.U.’s grueling film school program, for a variety of imagined offenses. Seriously, I don’t see how anybody can live with a litigator. At least not a high-strung one.
The New Yorker‘s fiction still held a distant, hazy mystique for me then. (Maybe it’s just that the aura of literary brilliance has faded with age (mine), but I think the magazine’s fiction selections were better in the late 90’s. I miss the Bill Buford days. Back then I could open the magazine and get lost in stories from writers unknown to me, writers like Junot Diaz and ZZ Packer. There were some missteps — Lucinda Rosenfeld, for one — but the selections were daring and entertaining, and bottom line, I looked forward to reading them. It bears mentioning that Buford’s got some formidable writing chops of his own. His profile of Lucinda Williams, published in 2000 and subtitled “a singer’s love affair with loss,” may be the best piece of music journalism I’ve ever read.)
One night I came home from the office at the usual time, around midnight. Pulling The New Yorker from my mailbox, I scanned the table of contents and found Chris Adrian’s “Every Night for a Thousand Years” listed there.
I sat in front of the mailbox, in my suit, and read it. I didn’t feel penvy, not exactly. The story was exceptional, if not as untamed and captivating as the ones I remembered from Adrian’s undergraduate days, and when I closed the magazine, I thought, well, that’s it. That’s the closest I’ll ever get to writing a decent work of fiction: knowing a guy who wrote a New Yorker short story.