Written and Submitted by Alex Lanz
On the last week of August in 1985 I packed two suitcases, rode a bus from Virginia Beach to Manhattan, and moved into a single room on the eighth floor of the Y in the upper east side. There was a twin bed with tissue-thin sheets, a desk with a plain wooden chair, a window I couldn’t open, and a covered radiator that was more useful as a bookshelf. I was in the city, I had a temp job at a literary agency in midtown, and a good cup of coffee cost a buck fifty.
When I finished unpacking, I went out and walked four blocks south to see a movie. It was around ten at night and only a handful of people were scattered in the theater, including a figure in the row behind me who shifted and moved to my row, sitting one seat away.
It was astoundingly simple. At some point in the movie he just reached over and took a pinch of my Big-League Chew, then left. I followed him to the urinals in the men’s room. His name was Ryan and he was a stocky Jewish kid (at least his mom was Jewish) from the Bronx, twenty-one years old and possessing phenomenal head game – switching seamlessly from fast to slow, from his lips and tongue to his hands and back again.
Over the next few weeks we would grab breakfast at a bistro near the museums on Fifth Avenue. We talked about our ambitions (Ryan’s to write great novels, mine to sell them), our ardent love for Montgomery Clift westerns and Alice Munro stories, and men we knew who were dead or dying.
It was a driven yet drifting lifestyle. I drank cheap, stiff well drinks throughout Times Square and the Village; all the action I’d ached for was there. I maintain that my sexuality was called out of me, which is why my life by itself doesn’t make a great story. There was no resistance at all, though I got roped into the contest soon enough.
At work I Xeroxed memos and manuscripts, returned phone calls, coordinated events for the rich, drank in fern bars before noon, and wondered where my next cup of coffee would come from. Ryan wrote a wonderful science fiction novella about a voyage to another planet that’s basically feudal but bearing the traces of a past super science.
I told him I didn’t know much about representation for sci-fi, but I promised him I’d give it a shot, and my chance to shoot it came in mid-November. I attended a literary awards reception in a hotel near Union Square, surrounded by the rising stars of the literary firmament, plus their editors and publishers and a few agents; everyone tipsy and well-disposed.
I pitched Ryan’s book to an agent I’d gotten close to named Jennifer. We were huddled around a messy table that came up to our collarbones, along with a third person, a breakout novelist drunker than either of us named Thomas Greatsheet.
“Too short,” Jennifer cut me off, “only vanity presses come out with books that size.”
“He can make two more and call it an omnibus,” I shot back, feeling brazen, “and why are short books so bad? Who has time to read those doorstops by Pynchon and McElroy anyway?”
Thomas nodded, which kept me going: “One day novels and novellas will lose all distinction, and anything longer than 200 pages will be unsellable. In the meantime I suppose American letters will celebrate this nation and all its might with some real six-inchers.”
Thomas’s hazel irises barely took in the dying candlelight from the table. But that was enough to show a writer animated in thought.
He said something to Jennifer, then she told me to see if Joachim Stansbury was still in the building and if so to introduce him to Thomas. The inside baseball was that these two authors, now enshrined giants of late 20th century American literature, were both in a slump and Thomas was about to launch an upstart’s challenge under the guise of a mutually beneficial competition.
I found Joachim smoking a joint outside and when I told him Jennifer had a request, he followed me back to our table without complaint. He and Thomas looked uncannily similar; medium build, squarish faces, informal shirts and denim, except Joaquim also had a tweed jacket with some ash stains on the sleeves – and between them was Jennifer and her square glasses, bleached wavy hair and a little black dress.
The guys realized they both had some time and needed motivation to start working again, so we drew up the terms right there. The authors would have seven days to fast-draft their next novel, and the man who wrote the longest one would be the winner.
A novel in a week — it’s not unheard of; William Faulkner, Henry Miller, and Graham Greene had all done it. But Stansbury and Greatsheet wrote big books and intended to produce big books.
The countdown would start Sunday, giving both men some time to get situated. Thomas would post up in the Grand Hyatt with a view of the Chrysler Building from his bathroom window, while Joachim would fly back to Austin.
Jennifer arranged to get a landline phone for my room; I was to call the adversaries each night for aid and accountability. I clinked my shot glass with the others at that table, thinking to myself that in trying to help out Ryan I had only ensured my own success in the book business.
Thomas started communicating well before the official start time. He barked out a shopping list over the phone that meant running to the Japanese stationery store and several musky hobby shops to find a certain tabletop wargame.
I tracked it down and Thomas spent the first two days of the contest playing it without writing a word. That was his procedure. He plotted war novels through multiple playthroughs of campaigns on his dinner table, either adapting the most interesting results into narrative scenes, or perhaps having the results in mind and finding the best series of events to get there.
He began composing on Tuesday, writing longhand with a Pentel GraphGear 1000 mechanical pencil in a small, neat architect’s hand, on notebooks of isomorphic quarter inch graph paper (my heart goes out to whoever had to type those up). He sipped from a neat glass of Maryland single malt whiskey while he worked.
I couldn’t get ahold of Joachim in Texas until Wednesday afternoon his time. He calmly described to me how he was sitting in his armchair, staring at the Sonny Rollins record sleeve in his lap, taking in every detail of the portrait as he’d been doing for the last three days with other great jazz albums. Not once had he touched his Eaton portable. My guy was ingesting cocaine like a snowblower.
By the time of the contest, Joachim had been established beyond all measure. He came on the scene selling sword and sorcery stories in the sixties, scraping together a living as a high school history teacher in Boulder.
He had a string of paperback hits in the seventies, including Say, Limn the Oak Mottes in 1975, an invasion story in which the Old Ones rise out of the Gulf of Mexico with rearing tentacles and slimy eyeballs. By the time he published When He Spans Death in 1978, in which a high school band retreat in the Oregon Cascades is besieged by wendigos, Joachim had gone from rich genre author to cultural institution.
So he got himself an agent. That would be Jennifer, and she went along with this contest scheme because she saw a chance to make the ultimate power move.
She had divulged her intentions to me while we wrapped up the meeting at the reception. The next day she called Joachim’s publisher since 1980, Soames & Malmsey, told them her man was on the verge of his greatest work yet, and that she was offering to license (not sell) the manuscript for a figure in the tens of millions.
So when Joachim’s monologue was over and I put the navy-blue receiver back on the boxy little touch tone phone in my room, I almost broke out in hives. Jennifer’s disgusting book deal was riding on my ability to handle this wild card, and all it seemed I could do was to let the man be who he was.
Thomas kept a splendid pace. By Wednesday he’d gotten the exposition out of the way and was realizing several battle sequences concurrently.
I’d mentioned that Thomas was the upstart compared to Joachim’s prestige. He sold real estate for almost 30 years before he tried his hand at writing a novel, a story like the pulp westerns and war tales he liked as a boy with a modern technology-oriented twist. The manuscript got picked up by the first imprint that read it, and his debut dominated the bestsellers lists throughout 1984. His fate was sealed: the man would never see a rejection slip in his life.
In Foreign Honey, Awkward Toehold, Rough-Edge Metal, terrorists gain secret weapons manufactured by the Soviets and professional climber Richard Hartmann must overcome his personal doubts and put his intimate knowledge of the Portuguese cliffs to use before the bad guys rain hell on the Iberian Peninsula. (Notice the logline formula: inciting event, hero and goal, the stakes: easy and universal, I bet even Ulysses could be reduced to one.)
Thomas’s contest draft would be his second novel, but all my worries were on Joachim’s nonexistent masterpiece. I sort of came apart on Jennifer over the phone Thursday evening, and she told me to stay calm, trust the process, and buy a book she had represented at full price for good luck. Instead, I did what I always do when feeling stressed and went back to the movie theater.
I kept a pager on me in case one of the writers wanted to get in touch and when it finally went off, I ran out to a payphone to return Joachim’s call. He talked my ear off about the yuppies in Austin, and when I asked if he needed anything he said he was ready to start working and wanted me to pick up his favorite beer, enough of it to stock a bar, and he needed it within 24 hours.
I went through a phonebook at the Y and found a number for something called a direct market reseller. I asked if they could get a business size order from a manufacturer to a single consumer in Austin, Texas, and the voice on the other end said, “We can get you anything, man, anything.”
The order and shipping cost dearly, but everything for the contest was on a credit card courtesy of Jennifer — three cheers for white collar crime. Around Friday morning Joachim received several cases of Peoples Brewery canned beer from Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
The weekend was here. The belligerents were keeping their heads down, but Jennifer must have handed my pager code off to someone.
We swore ourselves to secrecy in the hotel, but naturally word gets out on a tight ship like literary New York. That Saturday I was hanging out in the men’s room in a certain private university, not to cruise, but to check in with two creative writing professors giving weekend workshops who wanted to put some money on the contest: literary agent, logistics coordinator, and bookie — my resume looked terrific.
Sunday arrived. Topcoat season came with it, and I walked around eastern Central Park breathing into my hands, staring at the Obelisk outside the Met, a piercing silhouette against the overcast sky, reflecting on my big mouth.
Time was up, and after a half-day grace period I checked in with Thomas. He was finished, having filled up 33 graph paper booklets, which translated to roughly 660 pages, a bit short of my projection of 700, but still a mighty feat.
Reverend Flowers’s Scoffing Sutures told the story of World War III from the point of view of an aging and injured army chaplain who learns to overcome his guilt-ridden past and contribute to the effort in his own way. On average, Thomas completed 128 pages per day, a true warhorse.
I tried to clear my mind of any anticipations when it came to Joachim’s results, but to my surprise he picked up on the first ring. The Ideology of Insects, in which the ants, spiders, centipedes, beetles, and Dobson flies finally take revenge for our ecological folly, stacked up to 1,140 manuscript pages.
How did he do it? Not even the author can recall – it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment of white-hot artistic production, fueled by coke, fortified with cigarette after cigarette and can after can of Peoples Brewery from Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Imagine a little car making its way along an unpaved road cut along a crumbling cliff, moving only by flooring the accelerator and hitting the breaks right after; halting and lurching forward again and again. That’s what I think happened: starting Thursday, Joachim needed to write at least 10 pages per hour, working around the clock, flowing it out without once going back, as fast as humanly possible with some time to catch his breath and do it again on the next hour.
It sounds wild, but you can’t discount inspiration. Besides, this was apparently typical for how Joachim worked (would have been nice of Jennifer to tell me).
Yet genius and narcotics alone don’t explain Joachim’s triumph: the answer lies in the way the man dug into his writing, took part in its body and soul. The practice itself has an inner working that does more to drive it forward than anything else, and Joachim Stansbury’s intuitive grasp of that process, in order to work up an epic statement of this country for the reading public, is what makes The Ideology of Insects a Great American Novel – I don’t expect anyone to agree.
Joachim and Thomas each produced a novel under the same time constraint, and while their style of living and working seemed radically opposed to one another, beneath these differences lies the common denominator, the contest, that gives their books the same standing in the world. That equality comes not from what we are or what we do, but from what happens between us: I mean society, the writer’s domain, whatever type of writer we’re dealing with.
Anyway, the books came out eerily fast, during the fall-winter season of 1986. Two hardcover products, Joachim’s a dark marshy green and black, and Thomas’s crimson red, both having six-by-nine-inch boards, and both two inches thick (Joachim’s had thin pages).
My part in this story is over, and nothing quite as interesting has happened to me since. Thomas died ten or so years ago, though new books keep appearing with his name on them. Joachim is still working, pushing eighty, clean and sober.
A few years ago, the contest winner gave a reading on 92nd street. I happened to know his editor at the time, and she got me a ticket and some drink vouchers. He signed my umpteenth paperback reprint of The Ideology of Insects.
I didn’t think he’d remember me from ‘85, but in fact he recognized me right away and even recalled his maundering phone calls from that week. From his open boyish shrug and his old eyes squinting from his grin, I knew he valued our time together. He was a touching sight, still wearing a tweed jacket and everything.
I asked him how he managed to win the contest and he said, “I still don’t know, man, and it never got any easier, even after I found my higher power and all that; the book was eating me up inside and I had to get it down, and when I started writing, I forgot about my wife and kids, about everything, and I have never felt so peaceful before or since. It had to happen, and it did because Tom got me to do it; I just wish I’d said thanks.”