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1 essay

by Tom McAllister

Tom McAllister's novel HOW TO BE SAFE was named one of the best books of 2018 by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews. He has also published another novel, THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK, and a memoir, BURY ME IN MY JERSEY. His short stories and essays have appeared widely, most recently in The Rumpus, The Millions, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Third Point, Hobart, and Cincinnatti Review. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. He lives in New Jersey.


       I spent most of 2018 not writing, filling my days by obsessing over social media and the news in ways that have rotted my brain. If I type a few good sentences, I reward myself by clicking ALT+TAB over to Chrome, so I can check Twitter, where I am reading about:

  • Somebody’s especially fat cat

  • YouTube’s algorithms have accidentally built a massive network of pedophiles by linking them to videos of young girls

  • Several more cats, just piles of cats

  • People are still doing the distracted boyfriend meme, every day, forever

       Over the past two years, I have lost faith in the project of fiction. I published two novels in that time, and there were interviews and reviews in all the good places, but almost nobody has bought or read these books. The loss of faith is not just about sales or prestige; it’s about living in a decaying world in which I feel silly sitting down and writing a made-up story. All I can think is that what I’m doing is pointless, that nobody could ever care what happens to these fake people. It feels like a thing a child would do.

       Maybe you’re thinking that fiction is an escape, and escape has real value. The act of creation helps to make the world more beautiful and livable. Some of the greatest artworks in history were produced at times of unfathomable strife and fear. Fiction can illuminate reality in ways nonfiction cannot.

       I get it. I do.

       Most days, I prefer a novel or some kind of genre film to yet another documentary about a humanitarian crisis that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I don’t mean to degrade all novels, just my own. Writing this book, I’m finding some solace in shrinking the world around me and fortifying myself. I am trying to order my life in such a way that I can validate my existence. Clicking back to Twitter, I see:

  • Another conservative pundit is writing another disingenuous argument about free speech on campus

  • Two journalists I don’t know are fighting about something I don’t understand

  • One of my friends bought a wig

  • A literary organization is selling sassy tote bags

  • An acquaintance published a story online, which I click and open in a new tab that I will eventually read, before the end of this year

       Lately, I have felt for the first time in my life that I’m always on the verge of tears. Showing a documentary to my students, a movie I have now seen nine times, I have to look away when an adorable 8-year-old sings about how she’s going to make it to the top; she lives in the projects in New York City and statistics tell us she is probably not going to make it, not even to the middle, and I am overwhelmed by all of it. I don’t even like sneezing in front of my class—it reminds them I have a body—so there’s no way I could abide crying there. At night, I tried watching a nature documentary, and when a prehistoric-looking bird called a shoebill abandoned one of its two chicks, the little one shrieking in panic as its mother and brother strode away, I cried in the darkness of my living room. I’d never even heard of shoebills, but I watch nature shows specifically so they can manipulate me emotionally. I used to sit in my dorm room and watch Faces of Death. Used to play the Budd Dwyer suicide video for anyone who stopped by. Watched and rewatched a friend’s VHS collection of the best hockey fights. Now I fast forward through bloody fight scenes in movies. I turn away when an athlete gets injured.

       It’s a sign of maturity that I don’t find other people’s pain entertaining anymore. But there’s something else happening too, something more insidious and permanent and heavier.

       A lot of days, our house is a sad house, despite our best efforts. The day after Thanksgiving, one of my wife LauraBeth’s closest friends was visiting. After a few cocktails, he told her, “You really need to go to therapy.” She laughed and brushed it off, the same way her father used to turn it into a joke when we said he needed to lose weight and be more active. When she went to the bathroom, her friend said, “Seriously, she needs to go to therapy.” I know, I said. Later, I recounted this conversation for her. I know she said. For real, I said. I know, she said.

       Back on Twitter I see:

  • A friend promoting her book

  • A humpback whale’s stomach is full of plastic

  • The guy who writes Dilbert is shirtless and flexing again

  • A one-panel comic about a sad dinosaur

       I almost forgot to mention we got a new dog. After the death of our previous dog, LauraBeth was once enjoying her freedom from the responsibility of keeping another mammal alive. She’s been enrolled part-time in a graduate program for Public Health, and had told me, explicitly, that she wanted to finish school before we got another dog. But I was bored and wanted to feel useful. I’d tried building a feral cat shelter in the back yard, but no cats ever sheltered there, and I trashed it when I saw a portly raccoon strutting through the yard as if she was considering moving in. For a month, I fed the birds, and if you accept the premise that it’s better for the world to have more fed birds than unfed birds, it was a good thing to do, but it did not make me feel less lonely.

       The Homeward Bound Pet Adoption Center has a program that lets you “rent” a dog, sort of a dog library, where you give them your contact information, and then hang out with a dog for the next few hours. On summer break, I rented a pit bull mix named Taco. It was a hot day and I didn’t know what to do with him after our walk. It was like being on a first date. We drove around for a while with the air conditioning blasting, and we listened to a basketball podcast (he didn’t express much interest in the Knicks or the Jazz but I felt like he perked his ears up when the host talked about the Bulls, some sort of mammalian kinship).

       For two weeks, I showed pictures of Taco to friends and family, and then I saw on the shelter’s Facebook page that he had been adopted. The new owner posted a video of him sleeping on a couch and twitching. “My son is having a dream!” the owner said. I am telling you, I have cried more in the past year than I had in the previous three decades combined.

       The dog we have now is a black and white pit bull named Gus, who has a head the size of a watermelon and in the summer gets a little strip of sunburn on the tip of his nose. He was abandoned by his previous owners, so his separation anxiety is severe enough that we started him on 20 mg of Prozac a few months ago. Now he’s doing well enough that I can leave the house without him leaping onto tables and breaking our lamps. Still, he brings disorder to the house. He creates messes, and he wants to wake up by 7 AM no matter what. If Gus’ life goes right, he will be a burden for at least five more years, but I feel better having another living creature nearby. I’ve made my wife’s life worse by bringing him here (I like to think of myself as a good husband, but doesn’t everyone?). I want my wife to go to therapy partly because I’m afraid if she doesn’t, she won’t have anyone to talk to about her frustration with me. I’m afraid of being alone. That’s what it’s always been about.

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