EDITOR’S NOTE by Tom Bissell
If you’re a writer, chances are high that quite a few of your friends will also be writers. But sometimes you’ll have two writer friends that, however close, have yet to read each other’s work. Obviously, that dynamic can get a little strange, which is why most writer friends eventually cave and say, “Show me what you’re working on.” Unfortunately, this is where things can get even trickier. To read a friend’s work is always a risk, on both sides of the equation. Numerous times in my life I’ve felt important friendships shift and slip when I realize I don’t like a friend’s work or sense he or she doesn’t like mine. Where friends go from that realization is always an open question, and sometimes a very unhappy one.
So when I asked Dan Josefson, one of my dearest friends in the world, to give me some pages of the novel I knew he’d been working on for years, I was nervous. So, I suspect, was he. What would it mean for our friendship if I didn’t admire what I read? I started reading the novel Dan would eventually title That’s Not a Feeling on a plane, flying to my then-girlfriend’s home state. In two pages I realized the novel was not only very, very good, but, quite possibly, it was great. Dan’s facility with language — understated, but brain-surgically precise — moved me to grit my teeth in envy several times, but more important than that was what Dan does with characters. In creating Roaring Orchards, a highly troubled school for highly troubled children, Dan was courting all sorts of potential literary disasters. He could have very easily slipped into fetishizing madness, overly romanticizing youth, and feeding like a succubus on the human pain his characters feel and inhabit. But Dan didn’t do any of those things. He pulled his characters out of the deep black imaginative space between his mind and our world with real care. You always feel, reading this book, that you know and understand its characters, even as they grow deeper and more mysterious as the book progresses. Dan understands the crucial difference between surprising a reader and blind-siding the reader. Would that more writers did.
It’s hard enough for a book to have one unforgettable character. Dan has given us, at my count, three. At least three. (Possibly there’s as many as six.) But three definitely. I’m thinking of Benjamin, the book’s only-seemingly-dead-inside narrator; Tidbit, a tough, fragile, habitually dishonest teenage girl; and Aubrey, the bananas headmaster of Roaring Orchards, whose initially and vaguely sensible-sounding pronouncements gradually become a kind of behavioral Dada-ism. These characters became as real to me as I am to myself, which is, I believe, the highest imaginative achievement literature is capable of.
The passage to the left shows Dan’s many strengths. Benjamin has been caught doing something red-handed, as it were, and we read in dread as the school’s crazy, topsy-turvy rules and forbiddances bear down upon him. Ellie, one of the school’s custodians, tries to coax Benjamin out and admit his malfeasance, but at the same time we sense her exhaustion and frustration with the school, her life, and possibly her existence. Also watch for Benjamin’s startling, if brief, flash forward: “It’s embarrassing to remember now.” This smart perspective shift throws the scene, Benjamin’s P.O.V., and the novel itself into a wonderfully uncertain and even cock-eyed temporal position. It reminds me anew how good and serious and smart Dan Josefson is as a novelist. More than that, though, it makes me forget that my friend wrote this book. It’s real, as I say. Gorgeously real. The world Dan created is as real to me as the keys I’m now hitting, the sky beyond the window out of which I now look, the book I know I will soon pick up to read again.
Author of Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation
That’s Not A Feeling
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OVER THE NEXT DAYS the early snow melted away and fall resumed its course. New Boys and the few students on Reciprocity Detail cleaned the debris from the storm, the fallen branches still flush with leaves. Autumn from that point on proceeded differently. The colors when they came seemed muted, and the drying leaves curled against their branches and clung to them longer. Husks of dead bees collected behind the Mansion’s heavy curtains; tiny white spots of mold appeared on the windfall apples in the orchard.
Dedrick decided to give us a day off from Cooking with Butter to help decorate the Classroom Building for Thanksgiving. He took us to the atrium, which was just a wide lobby with large, potted plants, and dropped an assortment of Magic Markers onto the floor. The heat hadn’t been turned on yet, and the large cinderblock building was drafty. Dedrick gave each of us a poster to draw on. He said we should trace our hands to make turkeys and include Thanksgiving messages.
“But try to make them look as retarded as you possibly can,” he said. “Misspell things, write with your left hand if you need to. Pudding, you just write the way you always do.”
“Ha-ha,” Pudding said.
Everyone thought the project was hilarious, though I did my best to seem morose. Laurel Pfaff carefully made all her Rs face the wrong way, and she drew a big turkey, which she colored in like an American flag. Zach Strohmann drew a crow and beneath it wrote, “Yeesturday we R reeding a Turgee.” Bev covered her poster with an assortment of dark squares. When I asked her what they were, she told me they were brownies. Dedrick heard her answer. “Brilliant!” he said.
Seeing us as objects of fun let the faculty imagine we were somehow protected, I think, as comic figures are able to survive all kinds of harm. I never minded that the staff amused themselves at our expense, although I’ll resent forever the fact that I was so indifferently educated. In part that was my own fault — by the time I got to Roaring Orchards, I was pretty much a lost cause intellectually. What little I know now I’ve mostly taught myself, and it’s come complete with an autodidact’s insecurity and pedantry.
Looking back I can see that the teachers had plenty of reasons of their own to be angry, and that they were occasionally funny, too. Toward the end of the period we ran around the building taping the posters to the wall.
“Are these going to stay up for Parents’ Sunday?” Pudding asked.
“God I hope so,” Dedrick said.
Walking to lunch with Spencer and June, Dedrick asked them about something that had been on his mind for a while. “What the hell is going on with these Decamerons?” They were passing the shelves in the hallway of the Classroom Building where students left their shoes while they were in class and where they left their books when they went to lunch. Among the math and history textbooks lay badly worn copies of The Decameron, their covers curled and bent. “Almost every copy I see is dog-eared and torn, the spines are broken, chunks of pages are falling out all over the place. I don’t get it. They were all brand-new about two months ago.”
June stopped to pick up a copy. There were pages that had fallen out and were now stapled together and stuffed back into the book. The spine was curled, and the pages that hadn’t fallen out radiated from it like spokes on a wheel. “Maybe these are just really cheap editions,” she said. “Where’d we get them?”
“Someone sent them, I think,” Spencer said, taking the book from June. “Maybe they knew there was something wrong with them.” He flipped through the pages only to have a clump of pages fall to the floor. Spencer picked them up, put the book back together, and placed it back on the shelf. “No, it’s probably just that our kids don’t know what to do with books.”
Pudding and I overheard this on our way out. We couldn’t help laughing, but just looked down and kept walking.
The closest any faculty members came to discovering why all the copies of The Decameron on campus were in such bad repair came during a candor meeting that Alternative Boys held because of me in the middle of one night that fall. At two thirty in the morning, I got caught with my alarm clock going off. I’d hidden the clock beneath my pillow, hoping it would wake me and no one else. But William Kay, in the bunk across the room, heard the alarm and saw me, startled, wake and scramble to turn it off. I think he might have seen me set it and stayed up to catch me, either because he thought it would be funny or just because William was a jerk. Maybe the alarm just woke him, and he was annoyed. Whatever his reason, William began shouting that I was running away, although he knew that wasn’t what was happening.
He woke the other students, who woke Ellie, who pulled an oversize tan sweater over her pajamas and called Alternative Boys into a meeting to figure out what was going on. The boys dragged their blankets with them and curled up on the couches. I sat down angrily.
“I wasn’t running away.”
“Then why did you have your alarm wake you up at two thirty in the morning?” William was the only person who seemed entirely awake. He was bouncing slightly on the couch, his skinny arms sticking out of his T-shirt, his white-blond hair hanging in front of his eyes.
“Don’t be a dick, William,” someone said groggily. “You know why.”
“None of us know why until Benjamin tells us,” William said, “and you have to admit it looks really suspicious.” He smiled. “So, why were you getting up when everyone else was asleep?”
Ellie leaned back in her chair. “William, just lay off, all right? Benjamin, you set your alarm for the middle of the night?”
I just looked at the carpet.
Pudding sat up and wrapped his blanket around his shoulders.
“Oh God, will you just tell her so we can all go back to sleep? We’ve got to wake up in a few hours.”
“Pudding, what are you talking about?” Ellie was uncomfortable being the only one not to know what was going on. She tugged on the sleeves of her sweater and crossed her arms.
“Do you want to tell her or should I?” Pudding asked me.
“Shut up,” I said.
“Pudding, will you just answer my question?”
“He was going to whack off!” Pudding said. “You think any of us want to do it as soon as we get into bed, when everyone can hear? You were just waiting for everyone to be asleep, weren’t you? So you could do it in peace?”
“No.” I was, but wouldn’t say so.
“I don’t know why you set your alarm clock instead of just staying up like a normal person,” Pudding said, “but we all know what you were doing, so you might as well just say it.”
“Yeah,” William said, “because, personally, if that’s not why you were getting up, I’d assume you were going to run away, which means you can’t stay in this dorm.”
“I’m just saying that I wasn’t going to run. I swear, Ellie. You can go check my room — I didn’t pack anything. How could I be planning to run without at least setting aside clothes to change into? Go ahead and see if you don’t believe me.”
Ellie sat up. “It’s the middle of the night. You don’t get to choose what you feel like being honest about and what you don’t. Now, is what they’re saying true? You were getting up to masturbate?”
“I wasn’t going to run.”
Ellie let out a cry of frustration and stomped her feet against the carpet. She stood up. “You guys figure out what the fuck is going on with him. I’m going to go pay for that f-word and search his room.”
From that point on, I refused to talk. Whether the other boys tried to convince me that there was nothing wrong with masturbating, or tried to goad or threaten me into talking, they didn’t get me to say a word. It’s embarrassing to remember now. I don’t know why I wouldn’t talk. I’d like to think I was bored with the dorm and that was just my way of getting sent to New Boys. Or that I just didn’t want to take back what I had initially said.
Ellie returned to the lounge and stood talking quietly to Roger, who had emerged from her bedroom. It was the first time we realized, with some shock and disappointment, that they were sleeping together. When she rejoined our meeting, Ellie said it didn’t look like I had been preparing to run, but she wasn’t satisfied.
“If your dorm mates and I have reasonable questions about what you were up to, and you can’t tell me or aren’t willing to talk about it, then you can’t be trusted to stay in this dorm. Do you have anything you want to say?”
I glared at her.
Ellie helped me throw my things into two garbage bags and that same night escorted me to the Cottage where New Boys lived. Along with the clothes and toiletries my parents had sent, I packed my blanket, bedsheets, and pillow. Hidden in the last of these were my two favorite novellas from The Decameron: one told by Fiammetta on the third day of the book, In which Catella dotes on Filippello Sighinolfo, and consequently finds herself in a dark room at the public baths. Here she addresses herself to the wrong party, one Ricciardo Minutolo, with unpredicted results, and a second, shorter tale in which, At Pietro’s request, his friend Don Gianni sets about transforming his wife into a mare; but when Don Gianni comes to the hard part, Pietro ruins the spell, which was the last story told on the ninth day, by Dioneo. I’d torn these stories from my copy of the book and folded them into fourths when no faculty members were watching. They had been the inspiration for my furtive assignations with myself over the past few weeks. Previously, I had simply stayed awake until the boys in my room were asleep. But that night I’d been tired, so I tried to get some sleep and wake up using the alarm.
In the absence of pornography, The Decameron had been a welcome discovery for the students in Dedrick’s Cooking with Butter class. Word quickly spread to the rest of the students on campus, and we were soon slipping copies back and forth, dog-earing our favorite stories or tearing them out to keep. Passages were copied by hand into journals and into notes that were folded, a name carefully printed on the outside, and passed from hand to hand. If faculty members had known to look, they might have found pages from The Decameron smuggled into restricted dorms, stuffed under mattresses, or hidden at the bottoms of drawers full of T-shirts or underwear. As the season wore on, boys and girls who ran away took their favorite parts with them, so that the box of books that had arrived at the beginning of the school year was slowly dispersed, piece by piece, to distant corners of the campus and around upstate New York.