Atticus Lish by Jesse Barron

Hardship, the borough of Queens, and new American pilgrims.

Atticus Lish

Photo courtesy of Atticus Lish.

It’s been a while since we had a great novel about being poor in New York where poor did not mean broke. The difference between the two conditions may be how reasonably you can hope they’ll change, and Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life is a book about people hoping to change their lives in a city that will not let them.

Preparation is a violent and unfashionable book. Unfashionable in that it’s not concerned overtly with consciousness, subjectivity, voice, politics, or making art, but instead with money and the law as the impersonal determinants of fate. Lish knows—or just as validly, conveys he knows—the institutions that are often least visible in American fiction, like prison, and the parallel economy of the undocumented. To find a predecessor for this kind of cross-sectional social novel, where the lawyer’s office is as vivid as the basement squat, you may have to go back to ‘90s DeLillo or ‘70s Robert Stone.

Lish has lived in New York off and on since the ‘90s, and this shows. The street corners, masājid, massage parlors, and basement food courts of Queens have the clarity and thickness you get by walking and hanging out, and listening greedily to thousands of hours of talk. In the first sentence, a woman who’s been hitchhiking carries “shower shoes” for the truck stops, not sandals. Her name is Zou Lei, and she comes to the city without papers after the death of her parents in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. While working at a food court, she meets and falls in love with Skinner, an Iraq veteran looking for a reason not to die. Their desire to get married makes for a desperate plot—it’s almost impossible to be legalized by marriage if one doesn’t have ID to begin with.

Reading the novel this fall, I tried to figure out how Lish had made such a far-fetched love story credible and moving. Then I realized I was trying to figure out the wrong thing. This love story isn’t far-fetched. The question was why I’d never seen it done before.

Jesse Barron Both of your characters arrive in New York without money or connections—with nothing, basically. What did you do when you first got here?

Atticus Lish I had just come back from China, where my wife Beth and I were teaching English, and we weren’t really sure what to do with ourselves. We kicked around the idea of moving to New York, and I thought, Okay, let’s do that. I came ahead, and she stayed in Arizona with her mom and dad. I had our earnings from China, totaling about a thousand dollars. I spent one of my first nights in a McDonald’s, and I used that for my main character, Skinner.

Then I went on Craigslist and found a landlord. I didn’t have a cell phone, which made it more complicated. I talked him out of a security deposit, saying, “You’ll just have to trust me.” This was in the Newkirk neighborhood of Brooklyn. Then I got my hustle on, and I ran door to door, saying, ”Hey, I need a job.“

JB That seems anachronistic for New York.

AL Well, by talking to people on the street and on the subway, I found a woman who worked at a temping company, and she gave me a chance. But I didn’t start writing until about a year and a half down the road.

JB Had you been writing before?

AL I did try to write when I was a kid. I don’t know why I stopped. It seemed like I had to figure out life first. I guess life took me about twenty years.

My wife Beth and I have always been nomads. When I got out of the Marine Corps in ’96, we spent a short time in Boston, then lit out for Los Angeles. And we didn’t know anyone out there either. But I should tell you I made a very conscious decision not to make this book about me.

JB Why?

AL I wouldn’t be interested to read a book about me. I’m a well-fed, college-educated, privileged guy who works quite comfortably at a computer all day. My big drama is taking a trip to the refrigerator for more cheese.

JB But some of your experience in China obviously made it into the book. Zou Lei, your heroine—she’s Uighur, from the far west. I think you must have had an intense reaction to that part of the country.

AL Very much so.

JB Was that the first time you’d been?

AL Yes sir. I’d been in the country previously, in 1988, the year before Tiananmen. And China had changed a lot during the intervening period, not necessarily for the better.

But the far west, Xinjiang Province, was thrilling. In the Taklamakan Desert I experienced silence, peace, joy, and energy. The only other time I’ve had that has been in an Italian cathedral. It was mystical. I can understand why—here’s a quote for you—John Walker Lindh would have been drawn to the Taliban. I imagine the landscape itself could have won him over.

JB From the outside, it seems like you were trying to distance yourself from some other New York novels, which are often Brooklyn or Manhattan-based. Queens is less visible.

AL Well, I didn’t have to look for that distance consciously because the loop you’re describing, I was not in it. In the early ‘90s, I used to live in the east Flushing area of Queens. I lived in Corona, too. I was fascinated with the unfashionable parts of New York. Beth and I used to take these long walks. We walked all the walks that are in that book. When the main character walks from Jamaica all the way up to Northern Boulevard—I did that. I walked from Connecticut with Beth all the way back to Grand Central.

JB How long did that take?

AL Twenty-four hours. We did it because—I don’t know why we did it, actually. It’s very strange. We did it because I was in love with the city.

JB Walking is a big thing in the book. So is running—running alone, being chased. And going to the gym. With Zou Lei especially, she’s in a situation where your body’s what you have. You need to be able to throw a punch. And you need to be able to run away.

AL I wanted the book to have action, but I didn’t want the action to be contrived, to be imposed on characters who, in real life, would not find themselves in extremity or be prepared to fight. I think it’s a syndrome with movies today—the rest of the world is soaked in violence, but American movies have to draw in the occult or sci-fi. Meanwhile, all the stuff they’re describing is happening to real people ten blocks from the theater.

And here I had a female character, and I didn’t want her to be girly. You know, I met these two Tibetan women when I was in Shanghai. They were both wearing black cowboy hats and had sheath knives. I went over the to two of them and said that we’d like to take a picture. Sort of on instinct, I went to put my arm around one of them. I didn’t mean anything by it. The woman I began to embrace reacted—and just the way she tensed up, without even having to raise a hand, I was really interested in that.

JB She had a physical presence.

AL She was a tough lady. And I was thinking of someone like that for Zou Lei.

JB The idea of self-reliance. That’s an American idea in some ways. It’s old-fashioned in some ways.

AL I was thinking of that. These are the new American pilgrims, the new pioneers, people like Zou Lei. People who are Asian or perhaps from Latin America, who are coming here with nothing.

JB It’s a settlement-of-the-West story, but it’s in New York.

AL I thought of it as a real American story, yes.

JB It would be convenient for this interview if Skinner had a cowboy element too, but he doesn’t really. He’s not a settler like Zou Lei. He has an ID card and money from the VA.

AL The reason this book has a Skinner in it, is that I became obsessed with the war, and especially in the criminal aspect of war. I was interested in the way war opens the gateway to atrocities. I also saw war as a contaminating force in many very literal ways. In Iraq, the sewage system was nonexistent; there is shit everywhere. It stinks. War is this spillage of disease. People get unusual illnesses.

Then you have camp morality: where there’s a military camp there’s going to be whorehouses. People are bringing that home with them.

JB You would have been in the Marine Corps when there wasn’t a war on.

AL I was between the Gulf War and Iraq. I don’t consider myself Joe Marine or anything. I don’t have personal experience of combat.

JB How did you get confident enough to write about a guy who’d been traumatized by combat?

AL I put him together—there were images I picked up. Who’s the guy who was in the remake of the Mechanic? Ben Foster. He was in a movie with—I think it’s called The Messenger, with Woody Harrelson.

JB They’re doing death notification.

AL Right. I saw Ben Foster with that black hood over his head and the way he was constantly going to work out. I did my best to try to assemble an organized picture of the impact of war on people who are damaged by it. I read soldiers’ testimonies. One thing I learned is that, out of a group of people who are exposed to the same thing, different ones will react different ways. After an IED goes off, you might see one guy laughing, one guy throwing up, one guy crying.

JB In New York, Skinner doesn’t carry himself like a soldier. He’s not one of those guys who leave Penn Station with their uniform on, and it’s pressed. Skinner is wearing a sweatshirt.

AL I didn’t think of Skinner as a natural soldier. There are some guys who really talk army, and some guys who never shed the street. They never shed the block. They get out of boot camp, and they revert. They go right back to smoking. You might be taught to refer to a weapon as a weapon; they call it my gun, my gat, my strap. I saw Generation Kill, and there’s a moment where one of the recon marines says, “I feel funny if I’m not carrying my strap.” The word strap. It stuck in my head. Skinner’s gonna be the type of guy who talks like, I’m pimpin, I’m carryin my strap.

JB You have another character, Jimmy, who’s kind of this petty criminal, really violent. Evil, actually. He appears toward the middle of the book, when he’s finishing a sentence at Rikers. Where did the details come from for the prison section? 

AL From the time I was young, if there was a documentary on TV about prison, I would watch it. There’s a line in the book where Jimmy says, “I don’t care about your sad brown eyes.” Around 1990, I saw somebody interviewed from prison; they stuck a microphone in his face while he was working out. And he said, “If you’re some new guy in here, I don’t care what happens to you. I don’t care about your sad brown eyes.”

JB Did you visit Rikers?

AL I visited the Manhattan Detention Center when I was arrested years ago—that’s how I visited that. The jail scene with Zou Lei in Bridgeport, that’s taken from my personal experience. I was locked up for a couple of days in North Carolina. The interior, the way it smells like animals.

JB That “sad brown eyes” line waited more than fifteen years before you used it. Do you import a lot of dialog from the street and from TV?

AL I do overheards. Some of the dialog in the book comes from people who didn’t know I was listening to them.

JB I once heard Richard Price talk, and he said he would always sit out on his stoop and listen to people. And so one day he’s sitting there, and two guys are walking down the street, and one says, “I’m not saying it’s okay to hit a woman …” And that’s all, he’s gone.

AL The other day I heard somebody say, on the street, “I have a baby inside me. I’m gonna go to jail.” They actually said that. I set out to make the book as realistic as possible. I like grittiness, as a consumer of art. You know what I’m a big fan of? You know Nicolas Winding Refn?

JB I just watched all three of Refn’s Pusher movies in a row. There’s a similar feeling. The mood, the texture, and the talk. It’s both time killing and incredibly threatening.

AL You know, I didn’t even know who he was. Beth knew. She’s got her ear to the ground a little bit better than I have. She was looking out for me.

JB Refn’s work seems messy at first, and only at the end do you realize how tight the vise has been the whole time. Did you know your ending in advance?

AL Except for the epilogue. The epilogue of this book was Beth’s—and it is an absolutely vital element of the story that I didn’t see on my own. I can never thank her enough for this. Where I initially stopped was the line right before the epilogue, and that pretty much just occurred to me, just one of those things. That was why I wrote the book, to lead up to that line.

JB And she thought it was too unrelenting?

AL She and I had a talk about it, and she said it was a little dark.

JB It is a little dark.

AL Right? And of course, my first reaction was: I don’t care if anybody hates it or not. But if you read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, at the end of even that book, there’s a little glimmer of hope.

JB The fish?

AL The fish. And I thought, she’s right. I need some fish.

Jesse Barron is an editor at Harper’s.

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