12.23.2006

HH Com 381

Fresh from his dreaded thirty-fifth birthday (duly celebrated with Hostess cupcake and deli takeout), Tom Henderson is lamenting his latest feeble attempt to turn his life around when he notices a major change: a snarky voice in his head claiming to be a character from a favorite Beatles song. The Nowhere Man.

Henderson needs a good shaking up. From his dead-end job in a Baltimore mail room, he's watched the clock run out on his ejection from pop culture's prime demographic. His girlfriend breaks up with him before he can scrape up the initiative first. And now the Nowhere Man has Henderson so obsessed with his bullying ex-boss, the ursine, foul-mouthed Sal Stern--the man who put him in the mail room--that he's fantasizing about murder.

As Henderson's self-esteem deficit metastasizes toward full-blown psychosis, his easygoing best friend Dave and clowning co-worker Charlie can't snap him out of it. The Nowhere Man spoils both a pilgrimage to Henderson's idyllic college campus and a Thanksgiving trip home, turning them strange and unsettling. All the while, Henderson's hatred of Stern grows ever more intense and toxic, and when Stern's wife lands in the intensive care unit, Henderson wonders if he's entered the Twilight Zone. After a dark night of the soul that involves
"Harold and Maude," $600 in parking tickets and way too much Molson ale, Henderson confronts his demons, both internal (The Nowhere Man) and external (Stern).


He has voices in his head?
Voices that are actual characters in the book?
well, ok I guess.

Now let's figure out the antagonist, and the conflict and the stakes.

You never ever want to use "dark night of the soul" to describe the climax of a novel. It's beyond trite.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The trouble with spending too long establishing that a character has no life worth speaking of is that readers will blame you for his dead-end situation. They'd rather read about someone interesting; having a character reflecting on their dull existence reads like an elaborate way of mulling over your writer's block. Unless you can dramatise his petty irritations to the point where they become exciting in themselves, reading about boredom is boring.

However, you have a plot: he hates his ex-boss to the point of wanting to kill him. That makes Stern the antagonist. Henderson's inner demons are character notes that give this conflict its context.

What you need to do is lay out clearly and dynamically what happens in Henderson's external world. What does his boss do that's so hateful? (Be more specific than 'foul-mouthed'.) Are they still in contact - you say 'ex-boss'? Personally I'd vote for keeping them in contact somehow. Why is he still thinking about Stern when he's away from him? What makes the hatred grow? What happens between them?

You sound as if you're more interested in Henderson's inner journey, but that's going to have to take place in an outer context to keep the readers interested. You need to be Samuel Beckett to make someone's inner life interesting to people without support from a plot. Talk about what actually happens, and let Stern's character develop alongside that.

Anonymous said...

Loser no-life characters can work when they're funny and reflect the feelings of a bunch of people. An example would be Sam Lipsyte's Home Land, or Indecision.

This sounds interesting-- it makes me think of the movie Harvey (guy with naughty invisible friend; comedy) crossed with something more serious and sinister about a mailroom worker about to go postal. Doesn't Stephen King kind of work at this intersection of the wacky and the icky? Right now, though, I'd like to know whether this is a funny Gen-X type book with a surreal device or a horror novel about a psychotic. Also, if the boss isn't really the novel's antagonist, is it the Nowhere Man?

the author said...

Thanks MS and anons for the feedback. I'm aiming for funny--like Lipsyte, Hornby and Perrotta, not Beckett, even though the story spends a lot of time in Henderson's head. But Stern is definitely the antagonist, the Nowhere Man just an echo of that. So I've got to make that clearer.

Anonymous said...

Love this line: "he's watched the clock run out on his ejection from pop culture's prime demographic" (I paid attention to that, too.), and some of the writing. I like books that delve into people's weird-ass brains, and I love "Harold and Maude" with a white-hot passion.

It's OK with me if someone's life is dull, as long as they're bright enough that their inner life is far from dull.

I think I'm your audience. Second of the COM: I'd buy this book.