Friday, May 26, 2017

foreword by Anne Moss

          The 1990's were the worst possible decade for a young American to decide to become a fiction writer.  The internet was on its way in and books were on their way out.  The "great American novel" was an idea whose time had come and gone.  The era of Salinger and Hemingway and Melville and Faulkner and Henry Miller and Saul Bellow was history.  Book stores were being boarded up left and right while libraries were emptying their shelves to make room for computer kiosks.  None the less in 1992, namely on the strength of his self-published first novel Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner, Ed Wagemann applied to the Fiction Writing program at Chicago's Columbia College.  His intention?  To become a great fiction writer.  For the next couple of years he was a fixture of the fiction writing department offices at 600 South Michigan Avenue.  He was often seen strolling the halls of the 7th floor - never in a hurry to get where he was going, but certainly with a purpose to his step.  He had the demeanor of someone with something to accomplish, and whatever that was, it seemed to involve the battered and worn copy of Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner that was perpetually tucked under his flannel-sleeved arm.  To an outsider, his self-published novel resembled a mission statement - something along the lines of the mission statement that the fictional sports agent Jerry McGuire printed and distributed to his co-workers right before he was fired.  And in fact, Wagemann had pieced his novel together using a copy machine, a three-hole puncher and craft store binding techniques.  In total he had the resources to "mass" produce 28 copies.  He didn't bother to register the novel or obtain an ISBN number.  He simply tacked copies together and, for him, that was enough legitimacy to declare his novel's validity to the world. 

By 1996, if any of the original copies of Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner still existed, Wagemann didn't know where they were - or who had them.  The only remaining version he was aware of was found in bits and pieces on various word files on a handful of floppy discs that he now carried around in lieu of the bulky, stapled-together manuscript.  And it was in this floppy disc format, nearly two decades later, that the novel was presented to me for inclusion in this collection of his early works.  The format Wagemann originally used to transcribe his novel was out of date by this time of course, which meant I had to transfer the files to an updated format.  That process took awhile and it eventually produced a document that looked like coded messages from Cold War era Soviet Union.  Every couple of words had strange, obtuse symbols breaking the words up - symbols that resembled ancient Sanskrit.  For the next few weeks I spent sleepless nights meticulously piecing the words, sentences and paragraphs back together.  It took the steady hand of an archeologist brushing away sand and debris from ancient artifacts, but the result was a mesmerizing and raw narrative.  At times, Wagemann's lost novel bounced between present tense and past tense in a nuanced way that made me reluctant to correct it.  The narrator (aka the Smalltown Stoner) seemed so sure of himself that changing even the slightest thing seemed like a crime.  So after investing a great deal of time and energy into uncovering this piece in its original splendor, I decided to stand back, let the voice ring through in its original sense and get out of its way.  Therefore the excerpt included here is as true to the original version as possible.  

By the middle of 1994 Wagemann began concentrating on the matter of his graduate thesis, a collection of short stories that would eventually need the approval of his thesis advisers.  Three of the stories from that thesis appear in this collection (along with an excerpt from The Panty Thief of Bridgeport which also appeared in part in his graduate thesis).  These three stories were among the first that Wagemann completed as a grad student at Columbia.  The first two, Streetball Junkie and What Makes Jeni Frown, resembled Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner in both tone and rhythm. Wagemann's signature style from that time was so prevalent that Streetball Junkie and What Makes Jeni Frown could have been told by the same first person narrator of Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner - only now, instead of existing as a small-time, small town pot dealer living in an abandoned gas station, the narrator had moved to the big city and was addicted to inner-city pick-up basketball games and a mysterious, slender femme fatale.  Wagemann's first person narrator had a laser like focus and the uneasy, agitated restlessness of a caged animal who doesn't seem to know what to do with himself.  What Makes Jeni Frown however is set apart from Wagemann's other stories from this period as it is his first known (and most earnest) attempt at Erotica.  As Wagemann freely admitted, it was written to impress a girl who "read a lot of Anais Nin" and with whom "I had had a "short-lived and confusing relationship with".  The narrator of What Makes Jeni Frown is a young man who is seemingly incapable of maintaining a meaningful relationship, either of a romantic nature or otherwise.  In that regard, What Makes Jeni Frown foreshadows Wagemann's 1998 novel The Panty Thief of Bridgeport. The difference being that the first person narrator in The Panty Thief of Bridgeport mines great emotional depths and goes to bizarre psychological lengths to win back the affections of his love interest, whereas the narrator of What Makes Jeni Frown is entirely baffled, passive, and simply content to watch his love interest sail away into a sea of uncertainty.

What Makes Jeni Frown was submitted to a number of local literary magazines.  It was the first time Wagemann had ever tried to get anything published beyond his own copy machine method.  He received no response for What Makes Jeni Frown, but Streetball Junkie on the other hand became a local success as it was featured in Columbia College's literary journal Hair Trigger as well as in Jothom Borello's independently-published Sport Lit, and later awarded the coveted Golden Circle Award for Creative Writing.  Streetball Junkie reads like a non-fiction day-in-the-life set within inner-city Chicago.  The first person narrative style is greatly influenced by the hard-boiled detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, etc (all of which were among the first authors that Wagemann ever read as a teenager).  But with the success of Streetball Junkie also came the stigma that Wagemann was a bit of a one-trick pony with a limited range as a writer.  His stories were criticized for not having much of a plot or conclusion.  They seemed to end with no rhyme no reason.  To broaden his horizons Wagemann looked to the works of several writers that were being touted by the Columbia College fiction writing program at that time.  This included Sherwood Anderson, Hubert Selby, Herman Melville, Anton Chekov and Franz Kafka.  He also became immersed in the writings of Chicago literary figures such as Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrel, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko and a fellow Columbia grad student, Don de Grazia, whose novel American Skin had just been published.

Steeped in the philosophy of Columbia's writing program, Wagemann began experimenting with new techniques and his writing took a dramatic turn.  Nigga Killa X, an ambitious case study of an inner city white male channeling the ideas and spirit of Malcolm X, is an example of the direction Wagemann was headed during this time of growth.  The controversial piece, which begins with a white man confronting racist remarks from three black men while riding a CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) bus, was originally written in first person.  Wagemann had written everything in the first person up to that point, but when one of his instructors at Columbia encouraged him to take the daunting step of rewriting the entire story in third person, Wagemann complied.  After this change to third person, Wagemann submitted the story to a number of literary magazines nationwide.  The response he received was overwhelmingly negative.  Nigga Killa X seemed to strike a nerve, for while Streetball Junkie had toyed with the themes of racism and racial stereotypes in acceptable narrative conventions, Nigga Killa X absolutely ran ramshot over these conventions.  The story of a young white male who is continually getting into violent confrontations with young, urban black people certainly must have been a reflection of some of Wagemann's own experiences with the racial tensions of inner city Chicago in the 1990's - as well as a reflection of his personal awakening as he was introduced to black culture for the first time.  Wagemann was, after all, raised in a small rural town (much like the one portrayed in Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner) that had a black population of exactly one.  Wagemann admitted that until he went to college (at the age of 18) he had only met a half dozen African-Americans in his entire life.  This may account for his portrayal of the understated and matter-of-fact moral certainty behind the violent actions that Nigga Killa X's protagonists commits against the African-Americans who do not conform to his ideas of decent behavior.

The undercurrent of perceived racism in Nigga Killa X, combined with the "too-familiar" understanding of homophobia in his Open Minded Not Homophobic, combined with what was dubbed as his "pro-life message" in The Abortion Doctor's Wife, left more than a few readers of Wagemann's early works wondering if he held some radical Right-wing Conservative agenda which he was playing out in his works.  Wagemann for his part, recognized that pieces such as Nigga Killa XOpen Minded Not Homophobic and The Abortion Doctor's Wife agitated the "lock-step, knee-jerk ideologues from both extremes" of the political spectrum - but he didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing.  Although all three pieces revolved around controversial topics that pointed to Wagemann's evolving political awareness, they also represented a change in Wagemann's writing style during this early period.  The Abortion Doctor's Wife in particular is an example of a shift in Wagemann's shift in writing style.  Reading as if it had been written by a John Grisham impersonator toiling away in the copy writing department of a Pro-Life super PAC, The Abortion Doctor's Wife stands as a testament to the crisis Wagemann was having with his writing style.  He still aspired toward the 1930's hard-boiled detective fiction that informed his earlier stories, but the story came off as blatant propaganda that could almost be seen as a parody of Upton Sinclair.

The crisis Wagemann was having in his writing style can be traced back to the spring of 1995 when Wagemann was tutoring for Columbia College's Writing Department and discussing his novel-in-progress The Socialist in the Closet, to anyone who would listen; co-workers, classmates, instructors, people he met in bars, strangers at social gatherings or even peddlers at bus stops.   Wagemann was certain that this was going to be the next great American novel.  This was the one that would put him in the echelon of great American novelists.  He already had the entire novel formulated inside his head, full of rich characters and a plot that revolved around an organized group of socialists lead by Tatum Rudkus (the great-grandson of the fictional Jurgis Rudkus from Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle).  This group of socialists covertly infiltrate all the major political and financial institutions of Chicago then secretly take complete control of the entire city without anyone outside the group knowing it.  Wagemann described his novel-in-progress to patrons he sipped beers with at the Inner Town Tavern over and over again, for days, then weeks.  More than one patron must have felt as if they could have committed Wagemann's story to paper themselves.  Yet, when it actually came time for Wagemann to get it all down on paper, he stalled.  One false start led to another.  His frustration mounted and each time he started on it, it wouldn't come out like he wanted.  This lasted for months.  Occasionally he would shift his focus to The Abortion Doctor's Wife, but finally Wagemann admitted that he was quickly evolving an identity crisis with the first person narrator's voice in The Socialist in the Closet.  He tried to switch to third person.  This too proved futile.  It appeared that he was having a classic case of writer's block.

After many nights of beer drinking and soul searching, Wagemann came to the conclusion that his problem in writing The Socialist in the Closet could only be attributed to something he called Lit-think Syndrome.  Lit-think Syndrome is a common ailment in young writers who attend "writing classes" in a highly-reputed "writing program" and who, after being indoctrinated in the program's milieu, are subsequently afflicted with an acute case of "lit-think" that inevitably ruins everything they touched (or so Wagemann claimed).  One of the symptoms of Lit-think Syndrome, according to Wagemann, is that an overriding tone of self-importance dominates the writing.  In writing The Socialist in the Closet, Wagemann claimed that at a certain point he began to feel as if he was writing the novel for no other purpose than to showcase "my self-righteous desire to expose the evils of corporate capitalism to those poor souls with a lesser insight to the ways of the world than myself – even though I was only 27 years old."  But worse still, The Socialist In The Closet had become "Spiellberg-ized" - another Wagemann term, meaning anything that was formulaic or lacking in originality.  His writing felt stiff, too wordy and he eventually abandoned the novel to devote his time to a series of short pieces that were getting favorable reactions in the writer's workshops at Columbia.  These pieces would eventually morph into The Panty Thief of Bridgeport.  The excerpt from The Socialist in the Closet that is included in this collection represents approximately on-fifth of what Wagemann actually committed to paper. 

Considering that it was written during this same period, The Panty Thief of Bridgeport might have suffered from similar inflictions as The Abortion Doctor's Wife and The Socialist In The Closet.  The saving grace however was that Wagemann wasn't taking the writing of it very seriously.  The result was that The Panty Thief of Bridgeport flowed naturally and with minimal effort.  The novel was inspired by true events of a man in Japan who went around stealing women's panties.  Somehow this tale inspired Wagemann and he soon found himself writing simply for the enjoyment of it again.   Abandoning the self-importance that his writing style had gotten stuck in, he returned to a style that reflected the inward musings and thoughts of a first person narrator who relied heavily on humor to navigate through life.  The narrator of The Panty Thief of Bridgeport, who is enamored by the works of Franz Kafka, even takes jabs at the craft of writing - which perhaps is a direct indication that Wagemann was taking a much less serious account of the "serious writer" world view he had fallen into as a graduate student at Columbia College.  At one point, after being approached by a student film group, Wagemann considered scrapping his dream of being a great American novelist altogether and turn to screen writing instead.  Wagemann played with the notion of transforming his (at the time) novel-in-progress The Panty Thief of Bridgeport into a film screenplay.  "It would make a great Romantic Comedy for Owen Wilson," Wagemann declared one night after a screening of Wes Anderson's film Bottle Rocket with some film industry friends early in 1996.  In the end though, Wagemann finished The Panty Thief of Bridgeport in the novel form and started sending it out to dozens of small press publishers. 
Without an agent's guidance or the touch of an editor, The Panty Thief of Bridgeport was soundly rejected by every single publisher Wagemann sent it to.  So Wagemann simply shelved it.  By this time he had completed grad school and had enlisted in the Air Force.  It wouldn't be until a decade later that The Panty Thief of Bridgeport would see the light of day when Wagemann decided that he would just publish it himself.  As the story goes he was was inspired one afternoon in 2010 as he came across a paperback novel written by a former Columbia College classmate named Joe Meno.  One of Meno's novels had been left in a scrap heap at a garage sale.  "All this work a writer puts into a novel, and this is how it ends?" Wagemann thought.  "But at least someone other than the author had read it."  So Wagemann decided to dust off The Panty Thief of Bridgeport and publish it himself.  

Even though The Panty Thief of Bridgeport did not become an immediate commercial success, it none the less seemed to be the antidote Wageman needed to evolve beyond his short-lived writing crisis of the middle 1990s.  His next two stories, Creepy/Erotic and Eye Puzzle reflect the writings of someone who is much more sure of what he wants to say and how to say it.  Both stories are set in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood in which Wagemann lived during the 1990s, and both stories clearly reflect the influence that living in that neighborhood had on him.  In Creepy/Erotic, Wagemann's tone and style had devolved beyond the Lit-think syndrome he had suffered during the tail end of his graduate studies.  Instead it harkened back to the best elements of the hard-boiled detective influenced narratives of his earlier work but it also had a maturity and easy flow that Nigga Killa XThe Abortion Doctor's Wife and The Socialist in the Closet lacked at times.  The story also had a playful, tongue-in-cheek tone similar to that of The Panty Thief of Bridgeport.  It is however, considered by some to be Wagemann's most blatant attempt at the "popular fiction" style of the time.  Perhaps this is a fair criticism, but even as Wagemann deftly utilized all the formulaic tools of the popular fiction style, he did so in his own unique way.  Creepy/Erotic, although not a penetrating look at the human condition, is a fun and fast read.  The tale revolves around the erotic relationship that develops between "two young midget women" and a protagonist who has an infatuation with 1930's Depression-era bank robbers.  The lust/love that one of the females has for the protagonist echoes that of the lust/love that the narrator from The Panty Thief of Bridgeport has on Samantha (the girl in that story) - and likewise that lust/love grows into an increasingly unhealthy obsession.
Eye Puzzle, completed in 1999, signals Wagemann's return to submitting his works for publication as he entered it into a number of local writing contests.  Eye Puzzle was not as playful as Creepy/Erotic or The Panty Thief of Bridgeport, but it would unexpectedly become Wagemann's most notorious piece of writing from this period.  The story however, did not obtain its notoriety until 12 years later when it became an oft-referenced favorite of various protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement of late 2011.  Ironically, its popularity came to Wagemann's attention during the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago.  Wagemann was an NCO in the Air Force National Guard by then and had deployed as a military escort providing security and transportation for State Department big wigs during the summit.  One day during a large protest on Michigan Avenue an Occupy protester tried to commandeer a government vehicle.  The protester was rebuffed and apprehended by several military members.  When the protester was searched, a Xerox copy of Eye Puzzle was found in his possession.  This seemed like too much of a coincidence.  An investigation ensued and Wagemann was questioned by federal agents. Wagemann told them he was utterly dumbfounded to find that his story was being read by the protesters.  The attraction to Eye Puzzle for the Occupy protesters seemed obvious however.  It is the sad and inevitable tale of the decay of Chicago's historic Maxwell Street Market which portrays the battle against (and defeat at the hands of) modern corporate gentrification - all of which is told through the eyes of a moderately ambitious young real estate agent who unwittingly yet remorsefully participates in Maxwell Street's demise. 

Being the last short story Wagemann wrote before the new millennium, Eye Puzzle seemed to be the perfect story in which to end the collection.  But as the finishing touches to the collection approached, there was a sense that more content was needed.  When I mentioned this to Wagemann he informed me that he had taken a fiction writing course as an undergraduate student at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Illinois in 1990, and that he vaguely recalled a collection of short stories that pre-dated the era of Confessions of a Smalltown Stoner.  Semi-fearful of another floppy disc quagmire, I none the less asked him if he still had any of his work from those classes.  He said he doubted it, but that he would check.  And of course a week later he handed me three ragged looking binders which I took home and immediately began thumbing through.  What I found was hundreds of pages of quirky story starts, bits and pieces, unfinished scenes and bizarre doodles.  But more than one of the pieces held promise.  Psychedelic Christmas, for instance, was an uneven and abandoned bittersweet tale of a teenage boy who tries psychedelic drugs for the first time while riding to his Grandma's house during a snowstorm on Christmas day in 1984.  On the car trip to Grandma's house the teenage boy becomes convinced that the DJ on the radio is contemplating suicide because of the songs he is choosing to play.  When the boy arrives at Granny's house - a woman who is described as the most joyless and lifeless woman to ever walk the Earth - he manages to sidestep a holiday meal that was prepared as though Granny was trying to take all the taste out of the foods so that it was as bland and joyless as she is.  Another piece that emerged from Wagemann's tattered notebooks was what became Bean Ball, a short story which Wagemann also included as part of his Graduate thesis.  Bean Ball tells the story of a ten year old boy in Little League who is petrified of getting hit in the head by a baseball.  Its narrator could have very well have been the Smalltown Stoner at the age of 10.  Like most of the snippets from Wagemann's old notebook stories Bean Ball described places and plots that were set near the same small town that was featured in Confession of a Small-town Stoner.  Overall, the notebook pieces seemed like glimpses of an alternative history of Wagemann's life as told through the voice of more innocent, sentimental and light-hearted version of the Smalltown Stoner. 

Although I found nothing from the notebook stories that I deemed worth adding to this collection, they did lead to me to 1981, Wagemann's first foray into Rock journalism.  1981 is Wagemann's essay that recounts his recollections as a 12 year old during the weeks immediately following the assassination attempts of Ronald Reagan and John Lennon.  It is straight non-fiction and first appeared on-line during the U.S. Presidential Election of 2000.  It was also the first piece of writing that brought Wagemann to the attention of Rock music fans.

Overall, the material gathered for Gentrification: The Early Works of Ed Wagemann was chosen to provide insight into the maturation process of a young American writer in 1990's America.  A starving artist who, after finding some early success, struggled to expand his pallet and strive for greater things.  I can still almost see the Ed Wagemann of those early days, working hard, scribbling on scraps of paper at CTA bus stops, hustling to preserve his ideas during coffee breaks or just observing patrons and co-workers who populated the various odd jobs he toiled away at.  And despite a mid-decade slump that resulted in narratives that produced (at times) cringe-worthy paint-by-numbers writing and lit-class self-importance, overall there is an arc of evolution going on in his writing that fans out across the progression of these stories and which reveals the expressions of a young man with something to say.  These expressions, which are filtered through the rawness and intensity of youth (and with all the uncomfortable truthful edginess that comes with that territory), create a collection of transmissions from the margins of 1990s American society that transport the reader back to that mid 1990's era when society had yet to be taken over by the internet and other communication technology.  It is a fascinating place in time and history and there is a tangible, genuine human warmth emanating from these stories that many of today's writings can only aspire toward.  I am thankful they are finally being shared with us and perhaps that is what Wagemann was grasping for all along, all those years ago, as he trekked the halls of 600 South Michigan Avenue with his battered, rag-tag copies of Confessions of A Smalltown Stoner tucked under his arm.  Maybe he was just looking for someone to tell his stories to.

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