Can a person with a tattoo have a soul? To judge from a broad swath of contemporary fiction, the answer would seem to be noat least if the tattooed person in question is young, lives in a place like Los Angeles or Austin or Brooklyn and works in the arts. In that case, the character is clearly a member of the species "hipster," almost always written about ironically, portrayed as too vain and ridiculous to be taken seriously. It's refreshing, then, that David Goodwillie's very good new novel, Kings County, depicts such people with genuine, unmitigated sympathy and good-fellowship, as if, in spite of their fashionable lifestyles, they are as fully human as anyone else…Like the characters at the center of Goodwillie's smart debut novel, American Subversive…the youngish people who populate Kings County are thoughtful and appealing…Goodwillie is…a stylish writer, smart and witty without being a show-off.
“Kings County crystallizes how it feels to be young and in love in New York City.” —Stephanie Danler
“A true and continual delight...Goodwillie captures the rapturous soul of a bygone Brooklyn.” —Joshua Ferris
It’s the early 2000s and like generations of ambitious young people before her, Audrey Benton arrives in New York City on a bus from nowhere. Broke but resourceful, she soon finds a home for herself amid the burgeoning music scene in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But the city’s freedom comes with risks, and Audrey makes compromises to survive. As she becomes a minor celebrity in indie rock circles, she finds an unlikely match in Theo Gorski, a shy but idealistic mill-town kid who’s struggling to establish himself in the still-patrician world of books. But then an old acquaintance of Audrey’s disappears under mysterious circumstances, sparking a series of escalating crises that force the couple to confront a dangerous secret from her past.
From the raucous heights of Occupy Wall Street to the comical lows of the publishing industry, from million-dollar art auctions to Bushwick drug dens, Kings County captures New York City at a moment of cultural reckoning. Grappling with the resonant issues and themes of our time—sex and violence, art and commerce, friendship and family—it is an epic coming-of-age tale about love, consequences, bravery, and fighting for one’s place in an ever-changing world.
Goodwillie (American Subversive) dully resurrects the New York City of the recent past, when Occupy Wall Street occupied the headlines, fixtures such as Café Loup catered to Manhattan cognoscenti, and the Turkey’s Nest dive bar welcomed Brooklyn’s newest hipsters. Among these are Audrey Benton, a failed actor who babysits bands for a Brooklyn music label, and Theo Gorski, a book editor turned literary scout for films, both of whom arrived as recent college graduates shortly after 9/11. In 2011, after dating for three years, Audrey and Theo hit a series of bumps when one of Audrey’s friends, Fender, disappears. Audrey’s Bushwick apartment is then broken into and someone leaves behind a note with four names on it—Audrey and her three best friends, including Fender, whose name has a check mark next to it. Audrey’s confession of a sordid secret from her past causes a rift between her and Theo, who separately try to find out who is behind the threat. It takes Goodwillie until the halfway point to introduce the mystery element, but even then, thrills are strangely absent, and Theo’s casual sociology falls flat (“He was not politically active, but he was a watcher of the world, and the Occupy movement intrigued him”). Despite an attempt at Wolfean verisimilitude, this slipshod novel reads more like a Wienie Roast of the Vanities. (July)
Can a person with a tattoo have a soul? To judge from a broad swath of contemporary fiction, the answer would seem to be no. . . . It’s refreshing, then, that David Goodwillie’s very good new novel, Kings County, depicts such people with genuine, unmitigated sympathy and good-fellowship, as if, in spite of their fashionable lifestyles, they are as fully human as anyone else. . . . Goodwillie is also a stylish writer, smart and witty without being a show-off. . . . It makes for a suspenseful read. After the first chapter or two, the pages of Kings County begin to turn quickly.”
—Adelle Waldman, New York Times Book Review
“Dazzling writing, propulsive storytelling, relevant and timeless characters—that’s exactly what David Goodwillie has accomplished in Kings County. He’s created a true urban tableau, at once gritty and hopeful. Kings County crystallizes how it feels to be young and in love in New York City.”
—Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter
“A panoramic time capsule of youth and self-discovery in the aughts in New York City . . . Goodwillie’s writing is full of not only impressive detail and fondness, but also self-awareness. . . . The novel’s characterizations of people—from Brooklyn musicians to Upper East Siders—and the city itself are its biggest strength.”
“Goodwillie has the anthropology of New York down. In Kings County, young professionals struggle to find their moral compass as they test the limits of their relationships under the glare of city lights, and suffer the dramatic effects of their past and present decisions. He weaves suspense around a dark, page-turning mystery that stays palpable to the end, and his confident—and often comedic—narrative hand allows him to seamlessly fold in contemporary events and generate a necessary social document for this new age of unenlightenment.”
—Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves
“Kings County is a heart-wrenching love story, a character-driven suspense novel, and a lush thrill-ride through the New York City aughts. For some of us who lived in Brooklyn at the turn of the century, it’s a meticulous period piece that doesn’t sacrifice immediacy for the nostalgia it provokes. For those who didn’t, it’s a scintillating glimpse into the zeitgeist that followed 9/11—the music, movements, and sense of impending upheaval that foretold our chaotic present.”
—Melissa Febos, author of Abandon Me
“Goodwillie captures the rapturous soul of a bygone Brooklyn: the songs, the sex, the bars, the youth! And then the churn of relentless change, the broken hearts, the crushing realities. But it is the searing burn of discovery that makes Kings County a true and continual delight.”
—Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
“Goodwillie pins his characters to the page with a lepidopterist’s merciless affection—and then, by some trick of resuscitation, lets them fly in a Brooklyn that’s a kind of darkly miraculous forest populated by charismatic and errant fauna. Kings County is a thrilling and persuasive read.”
—Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland
“With Tom Wolfean sociological precision, David Goodwillie casts an insider’s eye on the Brooklyn creative class in a gripping novel as suspenseful as it is panoramic. Kings County is a grand, galloping ride.”
—Teddy Wayne, author of Apartment
"Goodwillie's setting is vivid and his characters rich, with flashbacks fleshing out their backstories. Those who like literary, character-driven fiction with a strong sense of place . . . will enjoy this coming-of-age story with elements of romance and mystery."
Praise for American Subversive:
"No one could accuse David Goodwillie of playing it safe in his first novel. . . . The book moves like a potboiler. . . . Sequel, please?" —Vanity Fair
“[A] hip and quick-paced literary thriller . . . Goodwillie excels at jet-black social satire in a style reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis. . . [H]e has written a scathing and hilarious indictment of our bizarre moment in time.” —Malena Watrous, New York Times Book Review
“Definite beach-reading recommendation. . . A genuinely thrilling thriller.” —The New Yorker
“The novel is thoughtful and dead-on in its presentation of our post-recession, digitally obsessed, self-centered and seemingly morally bankrupt culture.” —Carol Memmott, USA Today
"A new voice has entered the city—youthful, wise, and with an enthralling story to tell. Goodwillie's rendering of an American woman seduced by radicalism skillfully examines the enduring themes of our lives: politics, media, loyalty and love." —Gay Talese, author of A Writer's Life
“An incisive depiction of radicalism’s seductive roots . . . Falls somewhere between Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama and John Updike’s Terrorist.” —Publishers Weekly
After the death of a former friend, a Brooklyn couple finds their lives beginning to unravel.
In his second novel, author and memoirist Goodwillie paints a captivatingly vivid portrait of young love in New York in the early 2000s. Drawn by the promise of the city, Audrey and Theo are a creative couple who both escaped their respective dead-end towns and broken families. Struggling to make it in Bushwick, Audrey, a jack-of-all-trades for a well-known indie label, and Theo, a literary scout for a Hollywood production company, seem like polar opposites at first. After meeting at a concert, they fall into a deep love built on trust and devoid of secrets—or so they thought. When Audrey hears a rumor that someone from her past jumped off the Williamsburg Bridge, her life and relationship start to come apart at the seams. An old secret rises to the surface, putting Audrey and Theo in danger. The novel’s characterizations of people—from Brooklyn musicians to Upper East Siders—and the city itself are its biggest strength: “It had taken [Theo] a decade to gain his footing, but New York was funny that way. Occasionally, he thought he understood the city in a profound way. Most of the time he was confused about everything.” It’s a simple yet perfect encapsulation of the perpetual intimacy and elusiveness of Manhattan. Goodwillie’s writing is full of not only impressive detail and fondness, but also self-awareness: “Audrey and Theo were not true pioneers. They’d arrived, instead, with the first swell of settlers, and had watched with timeworn gentrifiers' dismay as the swells became waves.” Throughout the novel, the Occupy movement beats wildly in the background, and the pages are littered with current and lost locales like Café Loup, Saint Vitus and Balthazar. Aside from the plot (which sometimes falls on the overdramatic side), the novel is a panoramic time capsule of youth and self-discovery in the aughts in New York City.
A compelling—if slightly melodramatic—portrait of youth, love, and a lost era of New York.
|Publisher:||Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.60(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
Read an Excerpt
They came in hot, the band and Audrey Benton, a raucous cocoon of color and sweat. Security up front, cutting into the crowd, splitting it, radios squawking, someone saying, “Just stay close.” But they couldn’t be closer. They were the Stones entering Studio 54. They were the Beatles on the Shea Stadium infield. They were four nervous kids from the Catskills, sticking tight to the girl who’d gotten them there. The club thrummed and pulsed. The band kept moving. Heads down, hair down, don’t let them really see you—just like Audrey had taught them.
Currents emanate outward, ripples become waves. In a room full of people looking for other people to look at, it was only natural to turn toward the commotion, the rock stars—for what else could they be, dressed like that? Audrey could hear the talking, people wondering who they were, who she was, all ink and tights and heels. Not model hot, so probably the real deal. They surged past the dance floor, past the DJ booth. Whistles and shouts, security throwing a shoulder, and then the crowd ebbed and they found themselves in a cordoned-off VIP area along a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. The space was divided into three raised seating platforms, each surrounded by linked velvet ropes. They were led to the one in the middle, where a man sat, elevated and alone, typing into a phone. He stood up when he saw them, pocketing the device. His name was Lucas Duff and he was the band’s new manager. This after-party had been his idea.
He greeted them in turn, Ben and Arthur, Easter and Gatesy. Audrey stepped up last and Lucas held his arms out wide. She submitted to the fleshy hug.
“Drinks!” Lucas declared. “They’re sending someone over.”
The four members of the Westfield Brothers peered around, a bit lost. If the theory behind roped-off seating areas was to promote privacy, it wasn’t working. People were looking over, still trying to place them.
“Check out the view,” Audrey said, pointing east across Manhattan, and for a moment everyone did. But their eyes were drawn to the lights beyond the lights, the city beyond the city, the borough where they lived.
“Looks small from up here,” Arthur Westfield said to Ben.
“I know.” The brothers collapsed onto a leather couch; Easter and Gatesy hovered behind them. Just like onstage, Audrey thought, eyeing a nearby chair.
“Come sit with us,” Ben said, moving to make room for her. And so she did, flopping down between the two brothers. There was safety in numbers.
The problem was Lucas. He’d been jittery at the show but now was seriously high—a fact so evident no one bothered to acknowledge it. He sat down and took his phone back out. What was so important that it couldn’t wait? It was almost one a.m.
The band members surveyed their new surroundings. It was the last place they wanted to be, this Manhattan club, fifteen years removed from the last time those two words, strung together, had held sway with the city’s creative class. But there’d been no question of not coming. Lucas had said it was important—the image and exposure. The relevance of the right place. He was, and had been for years, Columbia Records’ East Coast VP of A & R, and if he wanted to make a splash by having the after-party here, then Ben and Arthur weren’t about to say no. Besides, the Westfield Brothers deserved it. They’d just played Terminal 5, a bellwether venue for a band on the rise, and the sold-out show had come off without a hitch. Even Audrey thought so. Especially Audrey. Because she understood what could have gone wrong.
Audrey Benton had been the Westfield Brothers’ label rep—as well as their publicist, booker, manager, and greatest cheerleader—until two months prior, when Ben and Arthur had made the difficult decision to leave Whale Creek Records, the small, if influential, Brooklyn-based label where Audrey worked, for the (potentially) greener pastures of Columbia Records. The brothers had made the move with Audrey’s blessing, if not quite her full-throated enthusiasm. She had discovered the four of them (or three of them: Gatesy had come later) years before, playing an open mic in Gowanus, and they’d been central to one another’s lives ever since. So much so that after intense lobbying from Ben and Arthur, Audrey had promised to join them tonight—however bittersweet it might be. Even Lucas had approved. “I guess chicks never hurt at a club,” he’d said after Ben and Arthur added her name to the guest list. It was his eloquent way of saying he understood. Everyone respected Audrey Benton—even the competition.
Now the brothers slumped, exhausted, into the cushions on either side of her. No one knew what would happen next. Lucas would put his phone down or a waitress would arrive. It didn’t matter. Everything was a novelty, so nothing was. A Top 40 song came on and Ben wondered aloud who sang it.
“Katy Perry,” Audrey said.
“How do you know that?”
“How do you not?”
Audrey enjoyed playing the generalist in a world of connoisseurs, but not being a snob was different from not knowing music, and her true tastes were redoubtable—the Westfield Brothers being Exhibit A. At least the other clubgoers had stopped staring. These were people for whom recognition was an ethic, and a careful study of the band had revealed no familiar faces. It was true that the Westfield Brothers had never had a radio hit. Certainly, most people in this room had never heard of them. But most people in this room weren’t from Brooklyn, where the band was indie royalty—the kings of Kings County. Walking through South Williamsburg with Ben or Arthur (or Audrey, for that matter) was like walking through the Mojave with extra water; everyone was suddenly a friend. Except it was more genuine than that.
The noise was grating. Ben, the older, stockier Westfield, searched his pockets for the earplugs he’d worn onstage, while his whippet-thin brother stared quizzically at Lucas. “So where’s Theo?” Ben asked Audrey.
“He really wanted to come, but his boss is in from LA and he has to prepare for their meeting tomorrow,” Audrey said. “I left his name downstairs but I doubt he’ll make it.”
The brothers nodded. Though they’d played there twice now, Los Angeles remained a mystical place. They probed no further.
“It’s too bad,” she continued. “He’d have loved the show.”
“Well, he’d hate it here,” Arthur said, nodding at Lucas. “What the fuck is he—”
“Easy,” Ben warned.
“No, seriously. This is bullshit. Hey, Lucas!”
“Hold on,” the label man said, his thumbs jabbing at his phone. “Bit of a crisis. One of our employees has gone missing.”
Arthur shook his head. Ben rubbed his. This was the music business. People went missing all the time. Audrey had warned them about Lucas. He was abrupt and abrasive and full of contradictions—he didn’t, for instance, drink alcohol—but Audrey believed his bombast cloaked great talent and a large heart. She didn’t know him well—they swam at different ends of the same pool—but she knew he’d earned his reputation. He’d survived as an A & R man for decades, had practically outlived the industry itself. Music was a young person’s game, but it would be hard to claim, judging from the bands he’d broken, the songs he’d coaxed into existence, that anyone, even now, played it better than Lucas Duff. Yet the years were wearing on him. The wrinkled suit, too big, even for his oversized frame; the red splotches and peels of skin; and the hair, what was left of it, sprouting out like stubborn weeds. He looked awful enough to be important.
He must have sensed the band’s uneasiness, because he repocketed his phone. He snorted like a horse and clapped his hands. “Still no waitress?” He looked around for someone who might fit that description, and then lost interest and launched into a monologue about licensing agreements, how they worked, how he would make them work—content and copyrights, splits and royalties. It was drug talk, ambling and unfocused, and it made Audrey nervous. How she wished Theo were here, and how glad she was that he wasn’t. Because this place was everything they’d tailored their lives to avoid. Also, it was late now, and it was a long subway ride, and there’d be issues at the door, and... and... and...
And there he was! Standing in front of the platform, looking up at her. Such was Audrey’s shock that her boyfriend appeared at first as an apparition, a manifestation of her reverie. The raw physicality. The blond hair and square shoulders. The half grin on his strong face. And then a second passed and she wasn’t shocked at all. Her life with him was like this. Charmed. Fated. Full. That she experienced the same sensation—an avian lightness in her chest—as she had the very first time she saw him thrilled her immensely. She understood what it was. And never took it for granted.
She skipped down the platform steps, scissored the velvet rope, and, to the amusement of the band, all but leapt into his arms, where she remained, only pulling back when Theo finally did.
“I can’t believe you. I told you to stay home. I mean, look at this place. No, wait, don’t. Stay looking at me.” She kissed him. “Did you get in okay? They have four different promoters working the door. Whatever, you made it. Come say hi.”
The band was only too happy for the interruption. They greeted Theo one by one, standing up, clenching hands, leaning in—that ubiquitous male embrace. Ben introduced him to Gatesy, their latest drummer. Lucas remained seated. He looked annoyed.
“How was the show?” Theo asked. Of Audrey’s many bands, the Westfield Brothers had always been his favorite.
“Amazing,” she said. “The union guys finally had to turn up the lights.”
“Just as well,” Arthur said. “We’d run out of songs. Besides, it’s a dead place acoustically. The soundboard’s all fuzzy on the low end—”
“Artie,” Ben interrupted, “he doesn’t need the full recap. Here, Theo, come sit. We’re playing Spot the Waitress.”
“A band with no drinks,” Gatesy said. “How’s that for fucking rock and roll?”
“Let me go buy a round,” Theo offered.
“Absolutely not,” Audrey said. “Did you see the bar? It’ll take forever. Plus, the label’s paying and you just got here.”
But it was too late. Theo had seen eyes light up in the wake of his offer, and before Audrey could stop him he was shrugging off his coat and taking orders.
“At least let me come with you,” she said, but Theo wouldn’t hear of it. He was stubborn in his kindness. He kissed her again and then ventured back down the shallow steps. Audrey’s eyes trailed after him. So often he looked like the only man in a room full of boys. But it was more than his size. It was the way he moved, with sureness and deliberate grace—like there’d always be time.
Her mind drifted back, as it often did, to the morning after their first date, three years ago now, and the call she’d placed to her grandmother Connie in Cape Canaveral, to gush about her latest intrigue. Audrey wasn’t a girl who fell for guys. She was a girl who tossed them (sometimes gently) aside. But now, out of nowhere, this big, shy, handsome, self-deprecating... She’d stopped and tried again but kept butchering the knotty language of enchantment until suddenly the word “dignified” tumbled out and abruptly Audrey stopped talking. Connie sighed through the phone. “?‘Dignified’ is exactly how I used to describe your grandfather,” she said. “It’s the best thing a man can be.”
And then it was her grandmother’s turn. Hurricane season, trailer park politics, “medical” marijuana. As Audrey listened, she became acutely aware of how lonely she’d been. This was ludicrous. One night, and they hadn’t even kissed. She thought of other nights, with other men—there were plenty to draw from—and the empty ways they’d so often ended, or hadn’t. She muted the call to hide her sniffling.
She loved that woman.
And my God, she loved this man. She’d known it right away.
Theo was still visible from where Audrey stood. She could see the back of him, paused at the edge of the throng. He was wearing the jeans she’d bought him and an off-white button-down, dusted with flecks of paint. (Much of his wardrobe was blemished in this manner, Theo having begun painting their new loft before his clothes had found their way into drawers.) He had no fashion sense, per se, but living in Bushwick, the Edison Labs of emerging style, his functional austerity lent him an aura of relative sophistication. Add to this his more permanent features and it wasn’t hard to imagine him an exile from some more reliable era. He wasn’t preppy or bohemian or conservative or hip. He was just perfectly there, in space.
And then he was gone, sucked in.
The band had been watching him, too—or watching Audrey watch him—because when she turned back around, all four members were grinning.
“Look at you,” Arthur said, “all loved up.”
Audrey pretended to ignore him. She stepped over the corner of the table and fell back between the brothers onto the couch.
Lucas clapped his hands again. “Think this one’s gonna last? Hah! Just kidding. I mean, come on, embrace the rep, right? A whole neighborhood of heartbreak in her wake.”
“I’m right here,” Audrey said. “You can address me directly.”
“Hey, I said I was kidding. You don’t need to get all...”
But the flimsy underpinning of this unlikely gathering was revealing itself. Everyone felt it and moved to control the fallout. A lot was at stake. The Westfield Brothers had spent almost a decade working their way up from basements to bars to concert halls, every step of the climb orchestrated by Audrey in her capacity as Whale Creek’s Artist Liaison. Theirs was a rare bond. Bands existed in a world of grudges and slights (some real, most imagined), where fame forever beckoned beyond the edge of the stage. It would have been so easy for them to give up. And for Audrey, too, staving off the pressure to drop the Westfields after each unprofitable year, until the last two, when the major festivals had come calling and Whale Creek finally stopped losing money on them. Columbia Records had noticed immediately. But Ben and Arthur wouldn’t switch labels without Audrey’s permission, which she had begrudgingly given. How could she not? This was about the music, after all, about championing songs that got heard outside their world, beyond Brooklyn. Booking the band at Terminal 5 was about exactly that. Breaking them out. Taking that rare shot at... not the “mainstream”—they were too good for that—but some iteration of commercial success. Two words not in Audrey’s vocabulary.
Of course she had mixed feelings. It wasn’t the money. No, she was worried her boys would get lost out there. Indie acts rarely signed major record deals these days. Too much had to go right in a business where so little ever did. Tonight, for instance. Audrey had been against their playing the show (not that it was her call anymore). Terminal 5 was twice the size of most New York clubs. What if they hadn’t filled it? Time was, the booker would have come backstage, slapped Ben or Arthur on the back, and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it right next year.” Now the venues were owned by public corporations, and each night’s gate was studied and archived. A few soft shows and you were playing bars again.
The Westfields had shared her concerns, but Lucas pushed back and the brothers had finally given in. Audrey had to admit, Columbia had certainly done its part. They’d wheat-pasted half of North Brooklyn, organized a webcast at NPR’s offices, and landed the brothers interviews with Pitchfork and RollingStone.com. And the show had been stellar. Audrey could envision what would happen next—the new album date bumped up, the tour lengthened. Lucas had been right and she’d been wrong—wrong enough to wonder about other advice she’d given Ben and Arthur over the years. Sitting between them now, she thought about regret. Did the band have any, or did they take life as it came? Certainly, that was how Audrey had always lived. Planning her future, charting some kind of progression... these were things she’d never contemplated. People, not time or geography, delineated the chapters of her life. Bands and boyfriends, though her relationships with the former had always meant more, and lasted longer.
She could apply those two words to every aspect of her life. Pre- and post-, before and after; it was almost biblical. Now, for the first time, the band was leaving and the boyfriend staying. She had other bands, of course, a healthy roster of them, playing their hearts out in makeshift East Williamsburg practice spaces, but she’d been with the Westfield Brothers longest. They’d become adults together.
“Hey, guys, sorry for the wait.” Everyone turned at once. A miniskirted waitress had negotiated the velvet ropes and was now towering over them.
“Honey, where the fuck have you been all my life?” Lucas said, looking her up and up and up.
Of the many possible responses, the waitress chose flirtatious ignorance. Audrey, no stranger to the service industry, watched in admiration as the girl bent down to take Lucas’s order: “Bottle of Grey Goose, bottle of Maker’s, two bottles of champagne, all the bells and whistles.”
“But Theo’s getting us drinks,” Ben said, an edge in his voice.
“Audrey’s boyfriend. He’s up at the bar.”
“And he’ll be up there all night. Anyone want anything else? Easter? Gatesy?”
“I’ll wait for Theo,” Easter said from behind the couch.
The other half of the rhythm section had wandered over to the ropes, where two iron-haired bottle blondes in wrap dresses stood, sipping cocktails through straws.
“Gatesy!” Lucas shouted, too loudly. “Drink?”
The drummer wanted a mind eraser. Not bad, Theo thought, wondering if it might hold up later, in front of Audrey. They’d been trading potential opening lines since the night they met, inventing new beginnings, the first words of the fictional books of their lives. Audrey was better at it—she was funnier—but Theo had his moments, and he hoped this might be one. Also, it had the benefit of being true. The drummer had asked for a mind eraser. If only Theo could place the order.
He should have listened to Audrey. Theo Gorski was not small, and still it had taken him ten minutes and counting to get close to the three-sided bar anchoring the center of the club. Along the way he’d tripped over clandestine cube chairs and been stymied by human cul-de-sacs. Reedy night owls with unfocused eyes. Now he turned sideways, all six foot three, two hundred fifteen pounds of him, and sort of shimmied past a group of sharp-shouldered women, apologizing as he did so. He was twenty-two stories above Manhattan, at a nightclub on top of a hotel on top of a landfill. A city extended by refuse. Theo guessed he was the only one in the room who knew what lay beneath (and certainly the only one who appreciated the latent metaphor). He was full of such minutiae, and increasingly aware of its irrelevance.
Thank God he’d hit the cash machine earlier, still had seventy-five or eighty bucks. He ran through the order: mind eraser, Bulleit bourbon for Audrey, and beers for the rest. What was in a mind eraser anyway? Kahlúa, maybe, or Baileys; he couldn’t remember, if he’d ever known. For the first time, it crossed his mind that their new drummer—Gatsby, Theo had heard the kid say through the din, but that couldn’t be right—might have been messing with him. Not that it mattered. These were Audrey’s people—her boys, she called them—and that was enough. He didn’t mind being the genial plus-one. He’d grown used to balancing on the edges of couches, leaning in to hear snippets of talk, leaning out to digest it. There was no pressure to perform when he was with one of her bands. No one asked his opinion on anything that hadn’t happened that night. Had he liked the show? The new T-shirts? As if he’d ever say he didn’t. What a funny world Audrey’s was, with all that posturing and beauty and talent. The trick to making it in music, Theo figured—because it was the trick to pretty much everything—was finding balance, some form of stability in the most unstable of environments. Audrey said the trick was to write great songs. The rest was just life. The two of them were different like that. Wonderfully so.
A hole opened up in front of him, and Theo, former football star, reacted quickly. Soon he found himself, if not quite at the bar, then near enough to call out an order. He watched the bartenders rush back and forth, shaking and pouring, shaking and pouring. All women, mostly skin. How that equation had changed. When he’d first moved to the city, it was all skin, mostly woman in this part of town. But he was dating himself.
Patience. Positioning. Incremental gains. God, this really was like football. Cash in hand might help. He fished out a twenty and waved it in the air. Like a dandy. Like a fraud. Surely, there was a more effective way to do this, but he didn’t know it. Shaking and pouring, shaking and pouring, ice, ice, ice, and no one looking up. At least at him. It was the paradox at the center of Theo’s life. For all his abundant physicality, he was decidedly modest and unassuming in temperament. He supposed he was cerebral, if a person could still be such a thing. “He not only has no ego, but, like, no mechanism for selfishness at all,” he’d overheard Audrey tell her then–best friend, Sarah, one night early on, and while Theo knew that wasn’t true, there was probably something to it in a relative sense.
The self he did have a mechanism for—an entire assembly line of machinery—was self-analysis. Not in a clinical way, but situationally: a kind of outsider’s omniscience. He existed not in moments but near them; he didn’t drive the narrative of his experiences so much as study their structures, the frameworks of his environment. For instance, while waiting at the bar, having adopted an overtly casual strategy of not looking at the bartenders, he began to take in his surroundings, beginning with the faux-crystal “chandelier” above him. It looked like the dripped-wax base of a candle turned upside down and magnified a thousand times for no discernible reason but poor taste. From there, he followed the ceiling to the wall of windows and the gunmetal skyline beyond—blurry lights in the black of October. He thought of people riding late-night subways. Protesters occupying Wall Street parks. Friday night crowds in clubs like this one. Theo peered around, stirred by the energy, the exuberance, the (im)pure stamina of the room, but no one caught his eye. These people didn’t pause to ruminate; they paused for selfies, which, when taken with a flash, changed the windows to mirrors, endless reflection pools, and that seemed about right.
But he was projecting. For all he knew, half these revelers were first-timers like him. Just look at Audrey. Short shorts over red tights, with some kind of black leotard top. Plus heels. Plus a Slinky’s worth of jangling bracelets up and down her arm. Plus—agghh, he had no idea what he was talking about, the names of these female things that other men learned through urban osmosis. The point was that Audrey had never been here either, and, further, actively hated places like this—exclusive clubs, posh rip-off dens, anywhere that catered to “society” kids or still offered bottle service at this thankfully late date in bottle-service history. But to see her you’d think she breezed through every night.
Someone fell into him, and Theo spun around to find a loose-legged prepster getting up off the floor. “Dude, I was pushed,” the guy announced by way of apology. Then he took Theo’s measure, held his arms up in a no mas gesture, and made himself scarce. This was ridiculous. It was way too crowded, way too loud. Theo turned back to the bar and this time raised his hand with some urgency. Several other hands were in the air, and Theo felt an odd surge of adrenaline. He fixed his gaze on the closest bartender, a willowy brunette whose hardness seemed more put on than permanent. He went again for eye contact, in hopes of ordering, yes, but also because the top she was wearing was low cut, and the glitter in her décolletage so potentially distracting that—
Theo looked up, mortified. He’d only glanced down so as to actively not glance down, peeked so he’d know where not to peek. But how do you explain that? She started shaking a drink in front of him, the glass and shaker up by her head, as if to establish his allowable viewing frame. “I’m sorry,” Theo said, “I wasn’t—”
“What do you want?!”
He recited the order, face burning. She didn’t flinch at the mind eraser, which was sounding increasingly enticing. In fact, she didn’t acknowledge him at all. Somewhere above, a song ended and another began. Synthetic dance pop no one was dancing to. How long had he been gone?
The drinks appeared on the wet bar top in front of him, all four leaking down the sides. The mind eraser was two-toned.
“Eighty-seven!” the bartender shouted, leaning over.
Theo looked at the drinks. “But I only got these four!”
“I know what you got!”
Dazed, Theo reached for his wallet. His head swam with figures, none of which, when added together, reached the number she had named. Predictably, neither did the cash in his wallet. He handed over his debit card.
“Start a tab?”
“I’m going to visit the little boys’ room,” Lucas said to no one in particular. He stood up, patted his pockets instinctively, then walked past Gatesy and unhooked the rope. He stepped out. The two wrap-dress girls stepped in.
Gatesy ushered them up the steps. “This is my band,” he said, “and this is Audrey. Be nice to her and she’ll get you a record deal.”
“Really? I can play ukulele,” said one of the girls.
“Christ,” Arthur muttered.
Audrey shook their hands and made small talk. She’d been on both sides of the female-with-band equation, seeker and sought, and understood the value of keeping everyone happy. She’d seen bands undone by blog posts, relationships implode from a single tweet. The wrap-dress girls asked about the cowboys-on-horseback tattoo on her left shoulder blade. It was the coolest one they’d ever seen, they said (or one of them did), and Audrey smiled obligingly. The brothers jumped in to save her and the conversation drifted like flotsam, every which way. Audrey listened to the banter, the reassuring constants of her inconstant world. She’d miss these boys.
How had they done it? Talent and ambition, sure, but these were New York words, and while they certainly applied to the Westfield Brothers, Audrey attributed their success to something less definable: a kind of urgency born of circumstance. Ben and Arthur Westfield were from Kripplebush, a Hudson Valley hamlet old enough to have traditions and secluded enough to keep them. Their parents were self-taught musicians who for years hosted ramshackle Sunday jamborees on their front porch, bringing old-timers down from the hills toting instruments from other epochs: dulcimers, lumberhorns, clackamores. They looked homemade but sounded otherworldly, and so did the accompanying voices, their mother’s among them, above them, enveloping each song with careworn tenderness, the way a clean sheet fell on a bed. That’s how Ben had once described it to Audrey. The parties—they called them knockabouts—would last all day: hymns, folk songs, mountain blues, half the town showing up most weeks, grilling food, drinking from unlabeled bottles, the aged and infirm propped up in lawn chairs, just watching and listening, the way you did in these rural outposts, for hours, for years.
And how could the two young brothers not become a part of it, not start fiddling and strumming and banging on things, not learn to play the songs they heard and then start writing some themselves, tough-luck stories and outlaw ballads, simple and derivative at first, but less so as time passed, teenage summers, the two becoming three when they added Easter Woods, their grade-school friend, a socially awkward musical prodigy from a meth-wrecked home, who slept over half the time, and then all the time, taking up residence among the instruments in the basement, their self-appointed curator and guardian. They started small: house parties and local festivals. High school became an annoyance, and then an afterthought, replaced by the kind of changeless small-town jobs that crushed a person without a sideline, an outlet, a mission. Ben became a bouncer. Arthur worked stints at the municipal dump, and in the warmer months reshingled roofs with Easter, until the latter, stoned, fell off an A-frame and fractured his skull. But he could still fiddle with a cracked head, and though the roofing concern went bust, the band gigs kept coming. They accepted every invitation, learning through trial and error the tricks of performing live, pedal loops and distortion, movement and stage presence, venturing forth to nearby towns, to neighboring counties, to the forlorn cities of industry still dotting the north-country landscape. Finally, they headed south to New York, once, and then again and again, metal to the magnet, until, like Easter in the basement, the temporary became permanent, and they found themselves subletting a bedbug-ridden, exposed-wire “work/live space” in the barren and not-yet-fashionable reaches of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
They arrived (as Audrey had not long before them) at the height of a specific cultural moment born of the jangly rhythms, retro stylings, and put-upon attitudes of a loose cluster of artistic-minded contrarians. These were the muscular years following 9/11, but the young denizens of their particular Brooklyn weren’t political activists or aspiring intellectuals. They weren’t unified in much at all beyond a loose belief in creative self-expression. But how to channel it? The art world was too insidery, photography too accessible, writing too antisocial and, in the end, too hard. What remained was music, and the sprawling canvas of indie rock. Part grunge, part Brit invasion, part disco and hip-hop, folk and electronic, fashion and spectacle, it could be stripped down or layered up, and, as such, was so fragmentarily derivative as to be thoroughly original. The barriers to entry were low, the odds of success—or at least stylish failure—enticingly high. And that was enough. By the first years of the new century, the immigrant neighborhoods of North Brooklyn had cracked open, and beautiful, bedraggled twentysomethings were pouring in. They arrived from that vast American other, dreamy theater majors and art school grads, suburban iconoclasts and Rust Belt misfits, some fully formed but most needing time among similar minds and sensibilities—other people doing weird shit, wearing weird shit, smoking weird shit, busloads of kids who understood firsthand the suffocating lassitude of cultural homogeneity, the illogical sameness of everywhere else. Of course, Williamsburg, the ground zero of this non-movement, had its own indigenous codes, and as it happened, just then, the prevalent look was exactly congruent to what Ben, Arthur, and Easter already wore: Carhartt jackets and denim cut-offs, work shirts and wife-beaters. And while they understood that irony was involved (not everyone—in fact, almost no one—hailed from their type of manure-scented nowhere), they never did comprehend, or really care about, the complex sociological factors that produced that irony. In a world of layered artifice, they were wholly authentic. Not that they realized that either.
How they’d changed from those early days—grown up physically, acquired the tempered weariness of prolonged creative struggle. Arthur was now a genuine front man, handsome and charismatic, bending his skinny frame into the songs as if willing them to life. Ben, twice as large, was the sweat-drenched soul of the group, standing center stage, cradling his accordion like it was a baby in a sling. Tempos and moods, the entire spirit of the show, emanated from him. And then Easter and Gatesy, the two always lumped together, despite their evident dissimilarity. Easter Woods was shy and aging early but confident onstage as he moved between instruments—bass, fiddle, keyboards—while Gatesy, the drummer they’d found some months ago at a gig in New Paltz (after several others hadn’t worked out), was a frenetic body of energy, perpetually surrounding himself with women he never brought home, his true interest, his real love, being the band itself—its members and music, its currency. In this most anonymous of cities, a band provided identity, community, and cover. Notoriety, if it came, only heightened the experience, the group becoming a separate life force its individual members were forever trying to comprehend and control. You made the band, and then the band made you.
Now, marooned on their VIP platform, Lucas nowhere to be seen, Audrey and the brothers watched as Gatesy, spurred on by the wrap-dress girls, began unhooking the velvet ropes in hopes of enticing more visitors. “Death to the social order!” he shouted, and the two girls squealed. Audrey could feel it coming, one of those harebrained incidents that so often occurred around band boys. They tried so hard to be mature, to be men, but they were still just kids with guitars, breaking what they touched, begging to be heard.
It didn’t take long before the same security guard who’d ushered them in reappeared and methodically began rehooking the ropes to their stanchions. He asked Gatesy what the hell he thought he was doing, but the drummer just continued around the circle, until he was unhooking ropes the guard had just rehooked. For a while, they moved in synchronistic tandem, Gatesy taunting his apelike adversary, slowing down and speeding up, at one point even switching directions and confusing the guard into doing the same. Which is when the waitress arrived with a busboy in tow, carrying bottles, mixers, an ice bucket, and glasses. Naturally, Easter began lobbing ice cubes at Gatesy, who picked them up and threw them, harder, at the guard. The scene was teetering toward bedlam, security radioing for help, when Theo reappeared, staggering toward the platform like some long-lost explorer emerging from the jungle. Audrey caught sight of him just as Theo, in turn, glimpsed the bottles and glasses, the yet-untouched mind eraser. Theo was cradling one of those himself, along with three other drinks, his sleeves soaked, his expression pushing past exasperation to disbelief. Audrey stood up to both help and explain, but she lost sight of her boyfriend in the mess of people closing in from all directions. Here was Lucas, returning from the bathroom, only to be thrust aside by three newly arrived guards, and from the other direction, the club manager, his face betraying the antithetical requirements of his dual roles—peacekeeper and party host. It was a madhouse now, champagne popping, people pushing one another, one of the wrap-dress girls screaming as she slipped on an ice cube and fell to the floor—
“Lucas!” the manager called out, as if the label man could do something, as if the label man were even listening. Because he wasn’t. Pale and sweating profusely, Lucas Duff was staring again at his phone. He was in some kind of trance, and it wasn’t just the coke. Audrey and the Westfields saw it, too, and instinctively moved toward him, everyone converging near a downed section of rope—Lucas, Audrey, Ben, Arthur, Easter, and now Theo, who’d put down the drinks. Audrey slipped over to his side.
“What the hell’s going on?” Ben asked.
Lucas looked up, glassy eyed. “A guy who was working for us scouting shows...” He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “I’ve been getting these texts all night. Apparently he... he killed himself. Jumped off the fucking Williamsburg Bridge.”
“Jesus,” Arthur said. “What was his name?” They were almost shouting above the noise.
“Fender. At least that’s what everyone called him. Weird dude, but really knew his shit and had a great ear—”
But the brothers were no longer listening. They were looking at Audrey. Her lips had parted, her cheeks gone pale.
“Are you sure?” she said to Lucas. Her voice sounded unsteady, almost quivering.
“Sure about what? That he jumped? No, I’m not fucking sure. But the story’s been going around the last few hours. That’s why I’ve been distrac—wait, Audrey, what’s wrong? Don’t tell me you used to—”
“Hey!” It was Theo, stepping toward Lucas. Ben tried to get between them. Three big men standing toe to toe to toe, though all eyes were on the tallest.
“Easy, easy,” Lucas said. He looked terrified. “Sorry, I wasn’t...”
But Audrey’s boyfriend stood his ground. It was the label man who moved, stepping meekly backward.
Everyone else huddled around Audrey. “You okay?” Theo asked, stooping slightly to meet her at eye level. “What just happened?”
“Nothing,” she said, ridiculously. She felt claustrophobic, short of breath.
“It’s probably not true,” Ben said. “Lucas is all fucked up.”
“I know.” Audrey appeared dazed. “Look, we’re gonna go, okay?”
“Are you sure?” Arthur asked. “Here, we’ll walk you downstairs.”
“No, don’t,” she said, grabbing her coat. “I’m fine. Let’s catch up tomorrow.”
No one believed her, but she didn’t care. Her heart was racing. Fender. The name bore into her. She hugged the brothers, almost perfunctorily, and then took Theo’s arm, which was there, waiting.
They walked across Ninth Avenue in silence, Audrey wobbly in her heels on the cobblestones. Theo put his jacket around hers as the wind off the river funneled past them down Fourteenth Street. At the corner of Eighth they descended underground, only to be flattened against a wall by a tide of bodies surging up. Manhattanites stumbling home from Brooklyn. For so long, this time of night, the crowds had gone the other way, but it was 2011 now; the scales of pleasure had tipped. Theo swiped his way through a turnstile, then passed his card back to Audrey, who did the same. The train sat in the station, hissing, belching; they hurried down the platform and stepped into the rearmost car. There were only four people inside: a homeless man slumped under blankets in a corner he’d cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape; a European couple speaking in hushed voices as they studied a route map by the door; and a woman in a Con Ed jacket, eyes closed, lightly snoring.
Theo and Audrey sat as they’d walked, huddled close. What the hell had just happened? He’d never seen her react like that—to anything or anyone. Worse, she hadn’t said a word about it since they’d left the club. As the train started moving, she buried her head in the crook of his shoulder, her hair obscuring her face. He pulled her tight to him. She’d talk when she was ready.
Sixth Avenue. Union Square. The car filling up. Theo scanned the ads running the length of the opposite wall: six panels dedicated to a new James Patterson book, four to an ESL school. Above the Con Ed woman’s head was a new installment of the MTA’s Poetry in Motion campaign: a stanza from Robert Frost’s “Birches.” An odd choice, considering the surroundings, but then, the whole series seemed unlikely—subversive, even. How had it ever been green-lit? Theo pictured an idealistic city employee navigating the endless bureaucratic hurdles. Things like that warmed his heart. A swinger of birches indeed.
Third Avenue. First. A kid with a stand-up bass flopped down across from Theo, the instrument remaining upright between them. Had Audrey known this Fender guy well (and what kind of name was that)? Theo had never heard her mention him, which was strange. They’d told each other so much about their pasts. He knew all the major figures—her longtime friends, her significant lovers. He understood that things had happened to her, come at her, in ways unfamiliar to him, and if minor details hadn’t been fully broached, well, he had learned to live with that fact, even admire it, at least as it contrasted with his own lackluster New York story. What mattered in the end was honesty: they trusted each other completely, and this, to Theo, meant everything.
What was happening? The train was easing to an unscheduled stop. The lights flickered off and on and off. Then the backups kicked in, as the train exhaled and went quiet. The kid in front of him brought the bass in against his body, allowing Theo a view of the car again. He scanned the riders’ faces, some bathed in the glow of smartphones, others blank, lost in the non-time of here to there. Minutes passed. Theo listened for an explanation. He’d read an article once about the real meaning behind conductor announcements. A “sick passenger” actually meant a dead passenger; “police activity” meant a suicide. A jumper. A body on the tracks.
Audrey stirred. “What’s going on?”
“We’re stopped,” Theo said.
She sat up quickly and looked around. “Under the river?”
“Yes, why?” Theo asked. As if he didn’t know. As if the night hadn’t already twisted in on itself. Could this have something to do with that? Of course not. They were in a tunnel, not on a bridge. This was just the city taking a breath before the ceaseless march resumed. Still, the coincidence gave him pause, being stuck under the river—the moat, as Audrey called it, which would make Brooklyn their fortress, their refuge—between lives old and new. The link never seemed quite severed.
Audrey hadn’t answered, and he was about to ask again when the main power came back on, and soon they were moving, slowly, with effort, and he could feel the age of everything—the tracks, the system, the city. Five more stops.
Audrey was gazing at the homeless man, at the tape that marked his realm.
“Tell me something,” she said.
“Anything. I don’t care.”
Theo cleared his throat. “I thought of a good opening line.”
She looked up at him expectantly.
“The drummer wanted a mind eraser.”
She closed her eyes, buried her head again.
“God, so do I.”