For ten months I stood at a retired wet bar in the basement of a postwar bungalow in Cincinnati and tried to write a novel. I had decided I was a cut-to-the-bone kind of writer, and I wanted to work someplace suitably severe. I wanted no windows, no chairs, nothing to distract from the terrible beauty of sentence-making. I wanted Sparta. So while my wife stayed upstairs at a desk, in a room with wood floors and natural light, each morning I descended the stained carpeted stairs to a barren cavern with a view of nothing. I piled the length of the bar with etiquette manuals, Edwardian memoirs, anthologies of classical poetry, a few reliable jumpstarters (Banville, Wodehouse, Nabokov, O’Toole—all my white guys), and set grimly to work. When my wife and daughter laughed and cooed upstairs, when they whacked tambourines and danced around to mariachi music, I sniffed and turned up the Mendelssohn. Every half hour or so I hurled myself to the floor and did pushups.
That was the first two months. I got up every day at dawn and wrote. I was so disciplined I wore a bald spot into the carpet. And what came out was—adequate. Characters ate and drank and conspired and made theoretically witty banter. They were doing what they were supposed to do, but it felt rigid and compulsory—sort of Spartan, actually.
The longer I spent down there, the less it looked like Sparta and the more it looked like The Silence of the Lambs. The naked bulb overhead cast a sickly light. Wires dangled lewdly from the creaking floor joists. The wall I stared at was streaked with a mysterious, possibly disgusting wetness. The bar itself—homemade of plywood and glass brick, with a faux-leather bumper, a little out of plumb—began to feel haunted. Under it were red lights, long dead, that would have bathed the patrons in a bloody glow. What weird bacchanals had unfolded here in the first, heady days of the Ford Administration? I heard strains of Three Dog Night on the hi-fi, saw the walls mossy with sweat, smelled something funky.
The rains came, and our cul-de-sac turned into a huge mold farm. The baby started coughing, a deep, rusty cough that inspired her mother and me to call up the property management company and mutter darkly about federal health codes. I saw the first centipede, vibrating across the wall. This turned out to be the advance scout of an infestation. Soon I was being inspired to acts of outrageous violence with one half of a pair of gray Adidas expressly dedicated to that cause.
That winter, I got up every day at dawn and went downstairs to what had become a cold, mildewy place. I embarked upon the morning’s massacre, and with—forgive me, gentle reader—still-twitching chunks of thorax stuck to my sneaker, went on with my novel.
Something happened. These cool, witty characters began to reek of seediness and failure. Brittle repartee turned savage. People made asses of themselves before drunkenly collapsing. I started laughing at what I had written. It was jagged and strange, and suddenly I liked it, not for what I had wanted it to be but for what it was.
The baby got better and my wife went to hear the Famous Novelist speak. He told the crowd that the unwritten novel, the novel as you dreamed it, was “a cathedral of fire”—until you began to write it, when it devolved into a mess of false starts and pukey rhythms, testament to the error of the actual.
Or that’s what I heard he said; I skipped the talk. That cathedral of fire wouldn’t let me alone, though. I had seen it too. It was so bright I couldn’t look at it straight on. I walked in its direction for weeks. When I finally arrived I found it hadn’t been a cathedral at all. It was an abandoned church gym, maybe. From the seventies. Adolescent vandals had burned it to the beams. They had sat by the fire sniffing Krazy Glue, then peed on the embers. I walked around the sooty mess. Smoke got in my hair and singed my nostrils. This was the place. This was where I wanted to be.
Nico Alvarado’s essays and reviews have appeared in Witness and Jacket2. His first piece for Orion, “Remembering the Weather,” appeared in the November/December 2011 issue.