Joshua Steele, 11/2/2015
Current Occupation: Research Analyst
Former Occupation: Research Assistant
Contact Information: Father. Husband. Cat-lover. Research Analyst. Where does Joshua find the time to write? It's entirely possible the typewriter does it all for him, but don't tell anyone.
The FINKEBYNE MANUSCRIPT
Drinking on the job is frowned upon in most professions. Why do so many writers do it, then?
Jackson Randolph asked himself this very question. Jackson was an editor for Birdstone Publishing. He read more manuscripts and half-assed attempts at novels in a month than most people could stomach in a lifetime.
And, yes. Most were shit.
He couldn’t understand it. Even well-known alcoholics, who happened to also be serious, successful authors didn’t drink when writing. Except Hunter S. Thompson – he was usually drunk or drugged – but let’s consider him the exception, rather than the rule.
It wasn’t just that these manuscripts were bad. Most were. In fact, even in the past, fewer than five manuscripts ever actually made it past his desk in a year. They were getting worse all the time. Many began as a paean to some long-lost lover (these he usually set on fire by the end of the first page), others contained such anecdotes as “Doomed to a life of solitude, Mr. Simmons had failed for the last time at marriage”. Boo-hoo. Cry me a river.
Jackson was tired. He’d gotten into this profession because he loved to read books. But not these. Good God, not these.
He always dreamed he’d be the one to discover the next Great American Novel. After twenty years as editor, this had yet to occur. Sure, he’d sent a few through the system, even had his name on a few published books. Still, he longed for that life-changing discovery.
When he got home each day, with ink-stained fingers and the beginnings of a migraine, wife and daughters rushed to the door to greet him. They lavished their affections upon him and wanted to hear all about his day. They asked questions like: “Did you find the next blockbuster hit of the summer?”
“No, just filled my trash can, mainly. People sure do send in a lot of garbage.”
He wished he had different news. Yet, day after day, he told his family that a day’s work consisted primarily of throwing manuscripts into the trash. Sometimes, he told the girls about the ones he set on fire, which was worth a laugh or two. But really, he just wanted to respond to their question with: “Yes, I did. And it’s great!”
A happy family, they would all gather around the dinner table and enjoy a home-cooked meal and talk about their days. They would laugh at each other’s jokes and they would praise each other for their accomplishments. At this point, Jackson always forgot his troubles and enjoyed the quality family time.
Later that evening he told his wife about his struggles at work.
“Tell me more about these writers. What makes them so bad?”
He mulled over the more eloquent ways to say: “They’re just a bunch of drunken idiots” but he couldn’t find one, so he said: “They’re just a bunch of drunken idiots.”
His wife burst into laughter. “People just want to live up to the image they’ve grown accustomed to, and I suppose being a raging alcoholic is right up there with the horn-rimmed glasses and an ashtray full of cigarettes beside the typewriter. All drinking does is remove your self-control.”
“Hmm,” she started again. “Maybe you should try reading some of these manuscripts when you’re drunk!”
They both laughed.
“Alright! I’ll do it!” He wasn’t sure if he meant it or not, but it sounded good.
After their talk, he retired to his study and picked out a book to read. Life on the Mississippi.
“Ah, yes. Something good. Why can’t these idiots write like this?”
Why can’t an idiot write like this? Twain called out from his steamboat. Do you think I was ever more than an idiot, blathering on about one thing or another? No, the question you should ask yourself is, why do these folks try so hard?
His favorite authors always had witty commentary, or at least he thought they did. He even got the idea to burn the worst of the manuscripts from Ray Bradbury – well, the idea came from Guy Montag, who gave it to Bradbury, who gave it to Jackson.
He wondered if Mark Twain had a point. If he did, Jackson didn’t follow. Trying too hard? Sure. Maybe they ought to try less. Oh to hell with it.
Jackson put the book down and went upstairs to bed.
“Jackson! Got a new manuscript for you,” the mail clerk shouted.
Great, another piece of drunken bull shit, he thought to himself.
He set his coffee mug on the manuscript he was currently reading. The only use he could conceive for it at this point was to keep the coffee mug from leaving a ring on his desk. Yeah, for sure, these “writers” were trying too hard…
He walked down to the mail room. The decorations in the hall were old and dilapidated. The potted palm in the corner had been there for twenty years and the few assorted Monet prints hanging haphazardly along the walls were just as old. The carpet was worn, too. Just the tell-tale signs of a publishing house on its way out, he thought.
Jackson thought about the back and forth trips down these very halls over the years. Too many times to count.
“Looks to be a monster,” the mail clerk remarked. “Sort of reminds me of the stories you hear about Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins.”
“Oh great…” Jackson chuckled. “Just what I need now. A crate filled with manuscript. There’s no way in hell I’ll be reading a crate, even if it is Thomas Wolfe.”
It wasn’t quite a crate, but the manuscript was massive.
The men laughed.
“See ya, Phil.”
Jackson tossed the box containing the new manuscript beside his in-box. He’d get to it later.
“Gaylord Finkebyne, eh?” The name of the author was strange. “Might as well be called Jose Cuervo.”
By mid-afternoon, he’d thrown away two more manuscripts. He relished the solid “thump” the bundled pages made as they hit the bottom of the trash can. As the day went on, though, these “thumps” were replaced by “thuds” which were finally replaced by “flops”, at which point he knew his day was over.
The Finkebyne manuscript seemed to call his name then, but he ignored it.
He phoned his friend Calvin, an editor at another publishing company. Old college buddies, not quite rivals; one could say they had a healthy competition going. They made a bet years ago regarding who would publish the most best-sellers in their careers. At this point in time, Calvin would win that bet.
Calvin was inundated with what he termed “best-sellers in the making.”
“Really? All I ever get sent is garbage,” Jackson said.
“Well, I wouldn’t say what I get is any better, to be honest. I’d rather read some Kurt Vonnegut or Mark Twain. I would never claim these aren’t crap. I’d say these manuscripts just fall in line with what currently sells.
“Like this one:” Jackson heard papers rustling on the other end. “It’s called ‘The Vampyre Sister’. For God’s sake, Jackson, what has the industry come to?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. How do you do it? How can you stand to read this drivel, day after day? How do you make it through these so-called ‘best-sellers in the making’?”
“You really want to know? I’m almost embarrassed to say.”
“Hah! I’m embarrassed to say there’s no way I can tolerate reading that sort of shit, and because of that, this job has lost its pleasure. Just last night, Judy and I joked that I ought to get drunk before I read the manuscripts, at least then it would be interesting again!”
“That’s what I do.”
“It’s the only way to tolerate it.”
“Yeah. It seems almost blasphemous, doesn’t it?”
Jackson thought about it. “No, not really.”
“Well, I mean, it’s almost painful to do it otherwise. You’d never get past the first page!” Calvin was right.
“You’ve got that right. Besides, it seems to me that most of those are written drunkenly in the first place. How else can you explain it?”
“Wow, you really think so?”
“It’s the only explanation. That or they’ve sold their soul to the devil. I mean, some of the spelling I see! Jesus! And the grammar! These could only be explained by the presence of alcohol.”
“Huh…” was all Calvin could muster.
They said goodbye and went back to their jobs.
Jackson left the Finkebyne manuscript for another time. He decided he would try the drunken read-through at home that night. He planned to retire to his study with a large glass of Scotch and attempt to make it past the first chapter. If he did, he promised himself he would read through the entire thing and decide at the end whether or not to burn it.
He took the last manuscript of the day and crumpled the entire stack as best he could and threw it into the trash can.
So, Calvin drinks when he reads his best-sellers, huh? He shook his head.
He and Calvin had graduated college together. Neither very good at writing the novels they wanted to read, but they were both very good at spelling and with grammar. They felt that somewhere out there, someone had written the novels they wanted to write and it was their job to find them and bring them to the light of day.
Naturally, they graduated and went right to work at separate publishing houses. Early on they were optimistic.
How did we end up here? Jackson thought. Reading such garbage. Isn’t it our responsibility to weed out the bad books? But here’s Calvin, sending them right along. That can’t be right.
But he did want to know what it felt like, having his hands on a best-seller, one that sold millions. Even if it wasn’t the book he wanted to write, he thought his family would be proud to know that he helped it along.
That evening, before he left work for the day, he made a point of telling everyone – including the mail room – he was taking the Finkebyne manuscript home to do some after-hours reading.
“I’m taking this one home with me, got a good feeling about it. This is the one!” He proclaimed. “The next Great American Novel.”
Of course he hadn’t read a word of it and he had no confidence whatsoever that the manuscript wasn’t garbage. He put on this show mainly for himself, to get himself into the mood, so to speak.
“Okay, Jackson,” everyone said. Nobody cared anymore what was done with the manuscripts. Hell, they didn’t even care that he burned some of them. Everyone had become so complacent and so accustomed to the fact that the firm hadn’t seen a good book in years that they assumed all incoming submissions were garbage and didn’t stand a chance. Like Jackson, they had all but lost their drive.
Jackson laughed and headed home.
On the way home, he considered the following: this would be the first time he’d ever read a manuscript when drunk. Slightly nervous, he thought of what might happen if someone found out. Then he reminded himself that nobody gave a damn anyway.
After dinner, he retired to his library with a bottle of whisky. He sat in his favorite brown leather chair and poured a glass. He looked around at his bookshelves and listened to them calling out to him.
Hemingway called out from Pamplona, Wolfe from Altamont and Bradbury from Mars. Here were men who had given him his dream. Without them, he would never have fallen in love with books in the first place and would never have become an editor.
That’s not about you. Someone else wrote this manuscript. If a little drink is what you need to face it, then drink, Hemingway told him. Be a man about it, make your decision.
So, he drank the first glass.
Then he picked up the manuscript.
He read the first page. He let the words seep into his mind. He absorbed every sentence. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t immediately disgusted.
Hmm, he thought. Maybe this does work.
He wasn’t quite drunk, he reminded himself. So he didn’t totally discount the manuscript, yet. Perhaps it was just that good.
He continued to read. He drank another glass. He was hooked. He hadn’t read anything this engrossing in years. It was like the words on the paper decided to glue themselves to his eyeballs.
The explosions of language on the page were relentless. At first he was struck by the imagery and the wild imagination. The metaphors! The similes!
Jackson found himself crying. He convinced himself they were tears of joy at having finally gotten a good one. He smiled when he recalled his friend’s advice. It seemed ironic that he’d begun drinking so as to tolerate the manuscript, but now he couldn’t stop reading.
He read on.
By the time he finished, on page 354, the sun was rising. Instead of trying to get a few hours of sleep and commuting in a little late, he rushed to the kitchen and scarfed down breakfast. He bolted out the door wearing the same clothes as the day before.
When he got to the office, the early arrivers were trickling in and he sped by them as they meandered around the coffee station.
“Wonder what he’s in such a hurry about,” they remarked. He didn’t notice.
He marched straight to his boss’s office and thumped the manuscript on the desk.
“For God’s sake, Bob! Whatever’s on the press right now, stop it! We need proofs made immediately. It’s the next best-seller.”
“Hmm.” Bob Birdstone set down his coffee. “What’s got you all fired up, Jackson? I haven’t seen you this excited about anything in at least ten years.”
“It’s a damn good story, Bob. The best I’ve read in a long time.”
“Hmm. I’m not sure if that’s high praise or not, considering what you’ve had to read these last few years.” He laughed. “Tell me about it.”
Jackson told him the story.
“Let me read it.” Bob said.
Bob read it. Jackson waited the two hours it took for Bob to come to a conclusion.
“Jackson, you consider me a friend, right?”
“Yes, of course.”
“We’ve known each other for years, you and me.”
“You’ve always been so obsessed with finding the Great American Novel that you’ve never really stopped to consider the fact that most people just want to be entertained. Until now.”
“This’ll sell millions, Jackson. Millions. It’s no Charles Dickens. No, not even on the same level as Stephen King. It doesn’t have one ounce of literary merit in it. There are no awards for style. No Pulitzer. But the story. The story is there.”
“But…” Jackson recalled the enjoyment he’d felt reading it.
In this moment, he realized what Mark Twain meant. Those similes? Those metaphors? The gripping plotline? He found them because he wasn’t looking for them.
“Of course, we will make millions when this hits the shelves. This ‘Finkebyne’ or whatever he’s called will make millions, too. People will eat it up. But tell me Jackson, how did you get past your usual prejudice?”
“I had a drink or two with Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.”
“I suppose that’s what it takes in this day and age. Even though I’m not sure what you mean by that, I knew there was no way in hell you’d have enjoyed this any other day.”
“I suppose you ought to spend more time with those two. We might not end up bankrupt. It just doesn’t pay to have such a literary fixation anymore. Maybe we shouldn’t try so hard.”
“You know what? You’re right about that.”
Jackson went home that night and finally told his family he’d finally found it.