Books In Conversation
JOHN MCCAFFREY with Jill Dearman
Two Syllable Men
(Vine Leaves Press, 2016)
John McCaffrey’s debut book of short stories, Two Syllable Men, has just been published by Vine Leaves Press. In each of the dozen stories, some of which have been previously published, a man has to fight the most dangerous opponent: himself. The conceit of this pared down, emotionally resonant book is deceptively simple, like many of the Carver-esque men themselves. Each guy has a two-syllable name. Their problems, though, are not so easy to define. William, for instance, finds his immigrant girlfriend’s English translation notebook, and within it the words that serve as clues to the inner workings of their new relationship. The cumulative effect of Two Syllable Men, is at once hopeful and melancholy. Depicting men who are rarely able to express their feelings and fears openly, and asking the question: How do such men navigate relationships, the world, and their own hearts?
Jill Dearman (Rail): Clever naming each story after a two-syllable man, by the way! I was particularly struck by Daniel (two syllables), who risks violating parole by sitting in a cafe listening to a warm and lonely woman ramble. What are some of your characters thinking as they interact with women, particularly in conversation? It does seem as if men and women speak different languages in your stories, and yet there is a soulful poignancy to their need for each other, their connection.
John McCaffrey: The easy answer is sex. That’s what men are thinking about when they interact with women, be it in a dance club or at an AARP convention. But for Daniel, sex is just a means to an end—a way to massage his self-esteem and rub other men’s noses in his ability to make a conquest (double entendres intended). Basically, his method of dealing with his insecurity is to make himself appear grander than he is to other men, with women serving as just another building block in the creation of this false and faulty masculine tower. This differs from some of the other men in the book, like Graham, who pines ceaselessly for his ex-girlfriend, doodling pictures of her on bar napkins and buying her books she does not read to win back her love.
Rail: They’re both very earthy and relatable. Your first novel, The Book of Ash, takes place in a satirical not-too-distant future in which passive aggressive self-help mantras are used by the state to keep people in their place. How did the book come to life for you?
McCaffrey: The Book of Ash, the idea came to me right after 9/11, when I was going through a divorce and living alone in Hoboken. Each night in the aftermath of the attacks I would find a spot to look out across the Hudson River, at the wall of black smoke that for days defined the former Twin Towers. Like most, I was in despair, shaken by humanity’s penchant for violence, the needlessness of it all. Then one evening, just before sunset, I saw a column of geese cut through the haze, flying in a familiar V-shaped pattern, heading south perhaps for the winter. The image brought me to tears, but it also gave me hope. I thought that although the human world was out of order, the natural world was not—that no matter our struggles, geese and animals, plants and fish continued to follow an inner guide, a purer, more peaceful instinct. That’s what I set out to write about, but not wanting to appear “soft,” I erred on the side of humor throughout the book, to avoid revealing my sickening maudlin nature.
Rail: I thought nature gave the book a real depth—and saw no shades of crocodile tears! Your story “Words” was anthologized in Flash Fiction Forward and became “William” in this collection. In this story the protagonist doth protest too much to his Chinese-speaking new girlfriend about his need to “resolve” things with his ex-wife. His girlfriend knows little English and cannot yet communicate in a nuanced way, but somehow she appears more truthful. How do some of the more educated men in your collection use language as a way to block intimacy?
McCaffrey: William is truly conflicted when it comes to his girlfriend: he recognizes he has found a rare happiness with her, but also knows he is not yet ready to let go of the hurt caused by his recent divorce. And so he treads emotional water, biding time until his psyche feels fully ready to embrace new love. The language he uses in the story reflects this schism, his need to go slow in the relationship, but also to hold on to it. He is desperate to keep her, but all he is doing is keeping her at a distance. For him, it is a safe place, for her, a stagnant one. A crisis point is coming, and he needs to find the right words, soon, or risk losing her forever.
Rail: When you were growing up who, in the culture, were models for you to learn how to be a man? Who do you think are the icons of manhood for today’s young male?
McCaffrey: Beginning in my early 20s, I’d say that the male ideal, for me and most of the fellows I hung with at the time, was Mickey Rourke in the movie 9 1/2 Weeks. His character, John Gray, was sultry, slick, and patently disturbed, sporting stylized spiked hair and downbeat longshoreman’s coat. The only shade of gray this Gray cast was cool. We thought he knew exactly how to capture a woman’s heart: by pretending not to care for it. But it was a hard act to follow. In actuality, we all seemed pretty needy, desperately longing for true love, for someone substantial and steady to lift us up to the next plateau in life, where happy hour tacos were no longer a staple meal, and rejection, be it on the dance floor or in the bedroom, a thing of the past.
Rail: Your writing feels very spare and classic in style. What tradition would you say you are writing in?
McCaffrey: My reading over the past few years has been happily stuck in the early 20th century, and, I guess, England as well, with my favorite writers being Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and George Orwell. Before I latched onto the wagons of these giants, I was an avid devotee of Ernest Hemingway, with his The Sun Also Rises my apex novel. What I see in common with all these writers, and what I aspire to achieve in my work, is an ability to draw in readers to a story by telling a story, to put forth prose that is clear and clean, without fanfare. Consistency and patience are a couple of better traits (I think) as a storyteller.
Rail: Raymond Carver’s stories dealt with similar material in his collections, and appealed to both men and women. How do you see women connecting to Two-Syllable Men?
McCaffrey: I think, and hope, that women readers will empathize with the men in the collection, as the struggles the guys face, love and loss and everything in between, are gender-neutral. And being that there are twelve men in this collection, I have a feeling that women will identify with at least one or two on a personal basis—meaning they might have dated someone similar, or married them, or divorced them. So perhaps the opportunity to relive and better understand a past or current romantic experience, good, bad or indifferent, is possible.
Rail: Tell us about how you develop your very natural-sounding dialogue.
McCaffrey: I like to talk, and like many people who like to talk, I often talk too much, something I gauge by the deadened look in the eyes of whomever I am talking with. So writing dialogue gives me an opportunity to talk, on the page, without overstaying my conversational welcome. That said, I play basketball regularly with actors and theater types who have helped me over the years turn several of my short stories into plays that have been performed on stage.
Rail: Yes, that “pick-up” game uptown is something of an urban legend. TV stars play—
McCaffrey: —Yes, and schmoes like me. There are some famous and infamous guys shooting those hoops; that’s all I’ll say. But, I’ve learned so much through trying my stories in theatrical form—with real actors, like my basketball buddies—about how to use dialogue to create mood, set up action and carry plots. Perhaps most important though, it’s helped me learn what not to say—how a character can keep his mouth shut, so to speak, and say even more about a scene.
Rail: That’s it?
McCaffrey: Yep. Game over.