Post Road Magazine #25


Jay Baron Nicorvo

In the summer of '05, I gave up my adjunct teaching job at Eckerd College to become a twenty-nine-year-old unpaid editorial intern at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishing house I admired most. I wanted to get a look inside the literary citadel, and I was willing to up and relocate from Florida, and to forego any salary, to do so. I was also chasing a woman.

I prepared for this move by reading Sophie's Choice, studying the first chapter, wherein Stingo (like William Styron and thronging other writer aspirants before and after) takes a low-level reader's job with a publisher while living in Brooklyn. Stingo rails at the "clubfooted syntax" and "unrelenting mediocrity" of the manuscripts he reads, and in his short time at McGraw-Hill, manages to reject the manuscript that becomes Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, a real-life bestseller and a "great classic of modern adventure."

The woman I was after, a poor man's Sophie, disappointed, but FSG did not. In the free time I spent there—four months, nine to five, five days a week—I read and assessed manuscripts. I wrote the copy for the press release of Louse Gl├╝ck's astounding Averno, glimpsed boxy-shouldered Denis Johnson sitting in the tiny windowless lobby, wearing a plum blazer, meeting with his editors in preparation for the publication of Tree of Smoke. I transcribed a blurb phoned in by Paul Auster for Yves Bonnefoy that I heard as: These recent poems, superbly translated by Hoyt Rogers, a test to his enduring greatness. For an hour afterward, I obsessed over how it was possible that Auster could offer up such a clubfooted, backhanded fragment of an endorsement. Minutes before needing to convey the blurb to FSG's president and publisher, Jonathan Galassi, a poet who acquired all of the house's poetry, I experienced a panicked lavatory epiphany—Bonnefoy's poems aren't a test to his enduring greatness; they attest!

By night, I waited tables at Stephen Lyles's Village Restaurant on 9th to pay some, but not nearly all, of my bills. Credit cards covered the rest. Unpaid interns are exempt from minimum wage laws, but the Labor Department makes clear that the unpaid worker must get something for his time. At FSG, I worked for books.

Most were published by FSG, but some were sent from overseas with the hope that the publisher would acquire North American rights. One of these submissions was set to be published by Granta Books in the UK, and I took it home to Brooklyn, tore through it, and returned recommending that FSG acquire it. They didn't, but Mariner Books ultimately did, and I think often of this memoir, wishing more people would read it, and I wonder how its author is doing these days.

In I Have Heard You Calling in the Night, Thomas Healy—who's also written a boxing book, A Hurting Business, and two novels published by Edinburgh University Press—tells a heartsick story of the wild way he quit drink. Set in Glasgow, Scotland, the memoir chronicles Healy's rough-and-tumble childhood and how, in adulthood, things got worse. He lived his life from one drunken brawl to the next. He avoided the Glasgow tenement gangs, but ran, fists-first, into every tough guy he could find, and he drank himself senseless day and night—that is, until he met Martin.

A queer name for a dog, Healy admits, and it is the dog, a feisty Doberman pup, that inspires a change in the forty-year-old Healy. At the end of a mean bender, he realizes that the puppy he's bought on a lark won't last if he doesn't sober up. Caring for the dog teaches him to care for himself, and we get to see the soft heart of an angry man long hell-bent on hurting people who have it coming to them.

There's a scene, halfway in, that, for all its intensity, would make a sociopath shrink from the page. Healy sits on a park bench waiting for a bus while his dog plays nearby. A nasty, thick-necked bruiser with a tethered pit bull sits down next to him:

Martin was playing in the bushes behind where we sat. My companion wore a dirty T-shirt and his arms were covered with tattoos. He had his dog on a long chain lead and he told me his name was Brutus. It looked the part, did Brutus: a true brute, much the same as his master. He went on to tell me that Brutus had killed two large German shepherd dogs. When he told me this he had unleashed Brutus.

The dogs go at it, and they fight to the death there in the park. Their masters also come to blows. This, the most violent portion of the book, is balanced by incredible sensitivity and grace. Healy, as a man and a writer, is a contrarian—caring for his mother brought down by a stroke, finding broken teeth imbedded in his fist—and the result is a book that runs the gamut of strong emotion.

By turns vicious and tender, beautiful and brutal, I Have Heard You Calling in the Night is a marking of territory; it's Healy relieving himself on all the sentimental dog memoirs that top the bestseller lists, this while giving the middle finger to James Frey and his sham recovery story. It shows how one bad man can turn his life around for the better, before it all—sadly, expectedly—again gets worse. Eventually, after years of many failed attempts, he manages to get right and, seemingly, for good.

I'm left with the sense that it's Healy's writing, not his dog, that ultimately saves him. His memoir is incriminating and embarrassing, but his prose is always honest and sure; it inspires pride and confidence because Healy has a way of sharing with the reader thoughts and feelings few tough guys would reveal. The effect is mesmerizing. We get to glimpse the complexity and vulnerability of a lonely man, and in the end we're made to know that there is hope for Healy yet.

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