JR: Dogfight, A Love Story came to me last year right alongside other books that Random House wanted me to read. Somehow this little gem shot to the top of the pile, because after I read the first few pages I couldn’t put it down. The two brothers at the center of this story might remind you of a modern day East of Eden, but with lots of drugs, pitbulls and a scam involving a pocket full of chocolate…that all takes place in Queens, NY. You’ll love the urgency of Matt Burgess. The details that might be overlooked by the common man, in this book, take your breath away. There is a wonderfully vibrant scene around a dinner table, involving a baseball game and a pregnancy, which should leave you in awe. As far as debut novels go, this one is great. Here is Matt’s contribution to the When We Fell In Love series.
When We Fell In Love by Matt Burgess
This is a bit of a cheat, since I had already fallen in love with literature when I found this book. I was nineteen years old and I’d taken a semester off from college to write short stories.
“To do what?” my mother said.
I lived with my parents in Jackson Heights, Queens, and every morning, Monday through Friday, I put on a shirt and tie and rode the 7 train out to the Mid-Manhattan Library. Not the one from Ghostbusters, with the lions out front, but the other one, the smaller, grimier library across the street, where you could actually pull books off the shelves.
Which is what I did when I wasn’t writing or sleeping or getting tapped on the shoulder by the library security guard who told me to stop sleeping and start writing. My very first editor! One afternoon, stuck on the Raymond Carver knockoff I was writing, I wandered around Fiction and found a book by Chuck Wachtel called Joe the Engineer. Here’s the first sentence:
Joe the Engineer and Joe Flushing Avenue are driving out to Howard Beach, the neighborhood whose water meters they were assigned to read that morning.
Flushing Avenue! Howard Beach! I’d been to those places!
Plus, there are all sorts of other, lovely, non-geographic things going on in that sentence: the present participle of “are driving” and the way it implies habitual, grinding, everyday action; the “whose” tucked after “neighborhood,” as if Howard Beach were alive and breathing; and best of all, the sneaky little passive construction at the end of the sentence, which hints at Joe’s own passivity, the primary frustration of his already frustrating life.
Joe the Engineer is a twenty-seven-year-old who lives in Richmond Hill and reads meters (a job he hates) for Brooklyn/Queens Water Resources. When he knocks on people’s doors and explains why he’s there, he is invariably greeted with: “How come we gotta pay for water?” You don’t, he tells them. You can go water your flowers with Coca-Cola.
Joe is combustible, sensitive, haunted by memories, tender when he’s not mean, funny when he’s not mopey, and consistently horny. He drinks a lot of beer and watches a lot of TV. He has conflicting desires and self-defeating impulses. Nothing about him seems special at first, but Wachtel delivers him with such specificity and honesty that Joe becomes special, or rather he is revealed to have always been special, not some glamorized working-class hero, but a particularized human being, someone I’d recognize if he came knocking on my door.
Recently I saw George Saunders at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, where he talked about being a young writer in Chicago and reading a short story set in his neighborhood by Stuart Dybek, and all of a sudden for Saunders literature was in color. That’s what Wachtel gave me. He tweaked the rabbit ears on my old black-and-white. He offered up a new kind of literature, one I felt I could contribute to, a literature grounded in the people and places around me: Sammy’s Halal, Helen the Bartender, the handball courts on 85th, the hamster at the McDonald’s parking lot, the 7 train that brought me home.
But listen, you don’t have to be from Queens to love Joe the Engineer. You may not thrill to the Jahn’s reference, as I did, but there’s plenty else to set your hair on fire. There’s the loving attention to detail: supermarket corn is described as having “kernels set in rows like movie seats.” And the dialogue: “Every time she says no, I wanna get inta her pants even more…Jeez, I bet she got muscles in her shit.” (I don’t even know what that means, but Joe Flushing Avenue does.) And of course there’s Joe himself, a character who’s just self-ignorant enough—we know before he does when he’s being an obstinate prick—that he becomes a storehouse for our emotions. The critic James Wood, in his book The Irresponsible Self, calls characters like these rich cavities, ready to be filled: “once it is only we who can provide the knowledge they lack about themselves, then we ourselves have become that lack, have become part of them.” And vice-versa, of course. They become part of us.
Although when I finished Joe the Engineer at the library, I didn’t run to the nearest bar or apply for a job at Water Resources. Instead, I went straight home on the 7 train and ordered a copy of the book off of Amazon. When it arrived, I tried lending it to my father, who looked at the back cover and said, “What do I need to read this for? I already lived it.”