Goodbye, Norman Mailer . . .
or So Long, New York, I’m Movin’ South
by David Davis
Hi, my name is Vinnie Dubinski. I was a New York writer and I want to tell my story.
I beat my head against the wall for years in the New York writing establishment, but no more. I discovered a way to get ahead with Gotham publishers. I know how to have them groveling at my feet for the smallest scrap of throw away prose. I have plenty of money, exotic girlfriends, and a villa in the south of France. But it wasn’t always so.
It was hard to get attention when I was just another New York writer. The agents didn’t care if I lived or died. In fact, there were a couple of editors who wished I WOULD die. I couldn’t sell water in hell. No New York publisher wanted another dose of New York angst. I was just like another Rocky sequel. It wasn’t pretty.
My life was an endless round of waiter and burger jobs. I scrambled around trying to eat until the big break. It seemed like it would never come. I told people I was a novelist and screenwriter. That was a big turn-off. Eighty percent of the people in a Starbuck’s Coffee Shop claim the same thing just to pick up girls. As for agents, it was, “Don’t call us--we’ll call you.”
Every week I met my literary friends for espresso. We attended writers’ workshops and pigged out on the free food. We complained about how our literary fiction was too deep for the masses to understand. Yeah, right. It was cultured, artsy, and economically nowhere.
One night I lost my head and yelled, “I don’t know about you guys, but I think pride cometh after a check!” Two of the guys beat me up, and two more went home and attempted suicide. Something had to change.
One day I was browsing the authors’ biographies at the library. The page opened to Mississippi. I was shocked. I thought the world ended at the city limits of New York City.
There were so many successful writers from that state! William Faulkner, John Grisham, Stephen Ambrose, Willie Morris, and Eudora Welty, just to name a few! I looked deeper. The South was full of great writers of all stripes. The South. That’s what sold! Mississippi roots and southern upbringing sold to New York publishers like hot bagels!
In that moment of hunger induced clarity I realized I had been born in the wrong place. Northern angst and suffering didn’t sell. A writer had to suffer, but he had to suffer in the South to sell to New York publishing houses. There is no market for Yankee tears! A daring plan hatched in my mind.
I decided to re-invent my life and image. It wouldn’t be easy, but radical changes were needed if I was going to be successful.
First, I sold the Mercedes that I inherited from my folks. I made enough money to finance my scheme. (It isn’t like I worried what my other relatives would think. Uncle Irving’s last words to me were “Stanley, look at you, you schmuck! Writer schmiter! You bum! Get a job, already!”
I took a bus to Jackson, Mississippi, and then hitchhiked to the Delta. This was the home of the Blues. It was the perfect place to get my pedigree of hard knocks. I purchased a rusty old 64 Ford pickup from one of the local farmers. It needed a paint job, and had one door missing. Perfect. I now owned a “salt of the earth” southern ride. It was now time for step two.
I drove into one of the little towns and rented a small shack out in the middle of a cotton field. I paid a contractor to cover the outside of it with tarpaper. It sort of added to the “decaying south” ambiance I was after. A few more bucks had an old tractor towed to my place. It didn’t run, and I had never operated a tractor, but it looked good in the yard. Great for effect.
I went into town again on Saturday to hit the garage sales. My furniture had to be just right. I wanted “white trash gothic.” It turned out great. I got a whole load of stuff for under a hundred bucks. An extra seventy-five dollars bought a rusty refrigerator and a 1930’s vintage metal fan.
I found an old lithograph print of The Burning of Atlanta and a poster promoting “The New South.” I found a photo of Stonewall Jackson, and another of Bob Dylan. These things graced my shack walls. I figured these items would make me a mystery man as far as convictions. (That is always good for your southern myth. If the right literary hack saw them, they might foster a couple good articles in the New Yorker or Oxford American. Articles with titles like “A New Mississippi Delta Writer: Reactionary or Renegade?” or, “Is This the Voice of the New South, or Just Another Rebel Yell?”)
There was one tense moment in town. I stopped at a local café for breakfast. When the waitress brought me my eggs, I noticed that she had not served my Cream of Wheat in a bowl. It was on the plate next to the bacon. I asked her for some sugar to put on the Cream of Wheat, and then proceeded to tell her how we served the dish up north. She looked at me sort of funny and told me in no uncertain terms that that stuff was GRITS. Everybody in the place laughed.
They laughed again when they saw my Bruce Springsteen t-shirt and my New York Yankees baseball cap. A local sheriff “helped” me down to the local record store. He let me go after I bought two Elvis CDs and two B.B. King CDs from his brother-in-law. That was when I knew I needed to change my wardrobe and keep my mouth shut for a while. I listened to the CDs when I got home. (You know, Elvis and B.B. King’s music DID beat the hell out of Springsteen tunes.)
Clothes make the man. If I wanted to be a working class southern writer that the northern publishers wanted, I had to make some changes. I threw out all my berets, turtleneck sweaters, and L.L. Bean yuppie clothes. I got rid of all my suits. The earth shoes had to go, for sure. I hung around the local cotton gin for a couple hours watching the locals. I took notes on what to buy and went down to the Mt. Hebron Baptist Church thrift store. I bought myself some overalls, work shirts, and khakis. I got some used Redwing boots that fit. Two NASCAR t-shirts, and an Ole Miss sweatshirt completed my wardrobe. I topped it off with two baseball caps to finish the look. That was not as easy as it might seem. I had to make sure the sayings and logos were right. I settled on two. One showed a kid urinating on a Chevy logo. The other cap stated, “I’d rather be fishing.” I tried to give my Yankees baseball cap to a kid, but he just laughed, and threw it in a dumpster.
I thought chewing some tobacco would be a nice touch. It didn’t work. I swallowed some of the juice when a guy shook my hand and clapped me on the back. I drove home after barfing on a stand of kudzu.
Finding the right day job presented a problem. I wanted something that would play well in interviews and on dust jackets. I thought about getting a fast food gig, but that is too generic. I had to find something southern and writerly. I had originally planned on moving to Oxford, Mississippi. I thought I might get a job at the school post office. I nixed this. Faulkner had already done it, and I didn’t want to be a copycat. Then I struck pay dirt.
I found a part-time job feeding chickens! A local black man owned a chicken farm and needed someone to feed the fowl on his day off. He couldn’t afford to pay much. I told him that was fine. I was looking to be a low paid rural farm worker. He said something about “crazy Yankee white folks” and then hired me. Now I could say I was a real southern rural low-paid farm worker!
Finally, I had to get a real southern pen name. Nobody was going to buy a southern story by a guy named Vinnie Dubinski. The name had to be southern but not too literary. (I didn’t want to sound too much like some writing professor at an upper class rich kid school in the South. That is as bad as being a New York writer. You have to be a common man from the South to interest New York publishers.) I settled on a good one.
Stonewall Catfish Beauregard.
That name was perfect. Two traditional names with a southern hook, and a good old boy nickname. I was ready to rock.
I re-typed my old manuscripts on a second hand typewriter that needed a new ribbon. I made sure to leave in a few typos. I wanted to look like a southern genius in the rough who needs a good editor. (Editors like to feel like Maxwell Perkins. Most believe they really write the story. The typos would give them something to do--and stroke their egos.)
I sent the same stories to the same editors as before, but I changed titles and dialog. Any place in the stories I wrote, “you guys,” I changed it to “you boys.” Instead of the unimaginative northern “you stink,” I inserted a colorful southern epithet like, “You smell so bad, you’d knock a buzzard off the side of a manure wagon.” I made sure to add paragraphs about how awful it was growing up in poverty.
I southernized the titles too. My story “The Bagel of Desire” became “Cornbread Love.” “Times Square Ballerina” became “Truck Stop Angel.” You get the picture.
I started out by submitting my work to several small southern literary magazines to cement my image. No big bucks, but every real southern writer loves them.
My big break came when I had a story published in one of them about the joy of manuring my tomato plants. A New York book company saw the story and the rest is history, as they say.
Yankee publishers swooned with delight! They fought to out-bid each other for my writings. It was hard to handle all the groveling letters. These stories fit their stereotypes, and they wanted all I could deliver. My sales took off like a rocket.
Sixty Minutes scheduled an hour interview after the release of my best-selling book, “Fatback Dreams.” I took care to present the right image. I hid my wordprocessor, and set the old typewriter on an apple crate on the back porch. I placed a kerosene lamp next to the makeshift desk. I set a flyswatter next to two half full jugs of whiskey and a mason jar. I scattered a few women’s hose around the area. (I don’t drink, or carouse, but how would that look to Leslie Stahl? Southern writers had to live hard.)
Everything was right--except for me. I sounded like a cab driver in Brooklyn. My northern drawl could blow my cover. I blended into the community with my clothes, but not with my mouth. I had to find a stand-in. I needed a guy who looked like a cross between Slim Pickens and Rip Torn.
I found him sitting on the courthouse steps rolling a cigarette and cussing “that jack-leg judge.” I hired that lawyer on the spot. I made him put on some overalls and an ancient second hand fedora. I coached him for the interviews. We made sure that he peppered his answers with lots of expressions like “turnip greens”and “Mess of catfish.” I made sure he said “y’all” when talking to one person. (Nobody in the South does that, but in the north they think they do.) It went off without a hitch. (Thank God they didn’t send Mike Wallace.)
Things are Great. The second “me” takes care of all phone conversations and public book signings. I split the take with him. He is rude as hell on the phone on purpose. (I started the rumor in literary circles that he is a tortured soul who writes between drinking binges. Good for the image, and it cuts down on the prying phone calls.)
I handle all the business. After all, every writer needs a New York agent, right?
Ah, the sweet smell of success! I have everything my heart desires. There are groupies, tons of money, and movie options. I have a trunk full of manuscripts to be released post-humously. I’ll kill off my creation in a couple of years. Writers who end tragically sell better. I will stage something fitting. A note left on the beach at Gulfport with footsteps walking down the beach to the surf. (No body, don’t you know.) I’ll make sure the will leaves everything to “his faithful agent, and only friend.” After that, my stand-in and I can really stick it to those publishers.
So, my New York writer friends, there is a way to make it. Head south. I do need to warn you about one thing. I have only lived in the South two years and I already don’t give a damn how you do things in New York.
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