Every so often (weekly at the moment), I’ll be writing a commentary about a story from EMPTY ROOMS LONELY COUNTRIES. I’ll tackle the stories in the order they appear in the book. Given the nature of this exercise, I cannot guarantee that I won’t spoil specific details from the story. So you may want to return to the commentaries here when you’ve finished reading the book. If I don’t address an aspect of the story you were interested in, by all means leave a question at the end of this post and I’ll do my best to answer it.
“THE ILLUSION OF SWING”
This is the story that started it all. While I had been published quite a few times by then, this was my first story published in the writing style that best reflected me at the time. I had previously written two pieces for Tampa’s The Weekly Planet called “What Can You Do?” and “In the Name of Love” in February and April of 1998, respectively, that were written in a similar style, but by the time they made it through the various editors, they had been altered enough to leave me a little disappointed (though this was overshadowed by my excitement at having the pieces published at all).
Somewhere along the way, I found out about a new magazine being published called City Style. I managed to contact Derrek Carriveau who was the editor in chief of the publication. We had a couple of phone calls that were very positive and eventually I was invited to a “meeting” with some other writers at a bar in Ybor City. I remember a few things about that evening, including how my zest to get to the meeting on time got me a speeding ticket, and how I managed to severely embarrass the waitress who was serving us, only to discover three days later that she was my blind date arranged by my then roommate Spryte. I also remember hitting it off amazingly well with Derrek and him asking me if I was interested in writing a review about the Sugar Palm Club – the new swing dancing club that had recently opened in Ybor.
Because of whatever cultural forces that were at work, swing music and dancing had come back into style, and Ybor City – still struggling with its own identity at the time while doing its best to push away all the investors who were salivating to gut it and turn the city into a poor man’s downtown Disney – embraced the trend a little too easily. The Sugar Palm was the newest swing club in the city, and at the time, it was the happening place to be on the weekend.
A week later, Spryte, Mr. Murray (an old high school friend), Dr. Patel (a pharmacist I had been working with) and I went to the Sugar Palm. By chance, my good friend and actor Joe Davison was working at the club and had arranged to have our names on the guest list. And, naturally, our names were not on the list. “The Illusion of Swing” covers the rest of the story pretty well.
I have a lot of good memories of the James Joyce. I believe it’s still open these days, but a lot of its charm had to do with its then owner, Richard. If I’m not mistaken, the James Joyce returns again later in the book. The musician Darrell Jarmon was one of my favorites. I won’t say he was the greatest singer in the world, but he was funny and had a way of getting the crowd to do what he wanted. It’s hard to find a good memory of the James Joyce without him wandering around in the background.
The heavy Hunter S. Thompson influence is the only thing that makes me cringe here. I had discovered his work the year before when I was in London and was still in the process of reading all of his work. Because of this, his voice was seeping heavily into my work. And because Spryte was a huge fan of HST long before I ever was, she had a wonderful tendency to act like a character from a Thompson story whenever we were out. The way she speaks throughout the story is pretty much verbatim as she was always committed to me making my deadline.
Despite that influences, the things I wrote about the Nineties were precisely how I was feeling at the time. I know it’s easy to think that your generation is a missed opportunity, but the decade certainly wasn’t making a good counter argument.
The “Sally Struthers is a lie” line was a cheap throwaway attempt at humor. And for some reason, that sentence has been quoted by more people than I’d like to admit. I shudder to think that it’ll end up being the quote that people remember the most.
The piece, of course, wasn’t what Derrek wanted from me at all. However, he did like it and offered me a monthly column in the magazine (for the life of me, I can’t remember what the column was called). I’d end up writing five pieces for City Style in all, including “Kicking Love’s Ass” (published in two parts) and “On Being Velma-less”, both of which are in this book. The story that was published but not included in this book was “On Mediocrity, Love and Prescription Drugs”, a story that I’ll probably post here someday. The final story I wrote for City Style was “Defying Gravity” (included in the book), a story that was never published and managed to not only get me fired from the magazine, but Derrek as well.
But that story is for another commentary.