Lot Boy by Greg Shemkovitz, Sunnyoutside, 2015
It’s been a long time since I’ve cherished a work of fiction this thoroughly.
Sometime around 1996, I switched allegiances from fiction to nonfiction, and books like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation became the vessels of light that I carried with me like burning truths.
But fiction can be its own kind of truth when it conjures up a compelling world inhabited by fully formed characters reflecting a reality, actual for some but unseen by many. Lot Boy, Greg Shemkovitz’s debut novel, is that kind of book.
Shemkovitz is a skillful writer who draws on his own experience to sketch the socioeconomic and cultural details of his native Buffalo in western New York, and fills in the rest — the callous and antisocial behavior of his protagonist Eddie Lanning — through his keen empathy and imagination. In so doing, the author pulls off a difficult trick by leaning on personality traits that his protagonist sorely lacks to render a compelling and believable character.
As someone with an admittedly limited exposure to Greensboro’s literary canon, I’m excited to discover a genuine budding talent, to know that a work of this caliber was produced here and to gain an appreciation that this city nurtures such ability.
Clocking in at a brisk 265 pages, Lot Boy is the kind of novel that you don’t want to end. And when it does, if you’re like me, you’ll reread the last couple pages two or three times searching for nuances that might have initially eluded you, wondering if you missed something important and if you understand where things are headed.
Written in direct, economical prose, Lot Boy packs layers of meaning and complexity into a narrative that at first appears to be simple and straightforward. In many ways the narrative is propelled by the contradiction of its protagonist, who is both the son of a Ford dealership owner with all the privilege and arrogance that entails, and at the same time the lot boy, who performs the most unskilled and menial labor at the bottom of the operation’s hierarchy. Eddie Lanning’s self-hatred is appropriately projected onto his fellows, simmering with his general loathing for his hometown.
Even if you’ve never visited Buffalo, you can feel the city radiating off the pages of this novel through vivid descriptions of the frozen, industrial landscape; observations of the characters’ personality tics; detailed representations of the rudiments of various jobs; and dialogue richly laced with profanity and local dialect. Those elements would add up to a perfectly fine novel, even if nothing happened at the dealership except the exchange of casual insults among the service writers, sales reps and mechanics. Yet there’s plenty of story here, with most of the action generated from the protagonist’s emotionally stunted antics.
It might seem like a stretch to care about a self-involved jerk like Eddie Lanning, but the skillfully rendered substrata of the novel ultimately makes it impossible not to. It’s the tension between alienation and yearning in the relationship between Eddie and his father. It’s his gradual realization that the flawed but fundamentally decent employees of Lanning Ford are his family. And it’s his burning desire to get the hell out of Buffalo while remaining utterly ignorant of anything beyond his tightly circumscribed world.
There are hilarious bits of dialogue and observation in this book, most of them too foul to print in these pages.
There’s workplace ethnography that will change the way you think about the automotive service sector: “Everybody wants to get their brakes checked or their oil changed before that big drive to grandma’s house. These are easy, low-paying jobs, which is why the mechanics hate them. And they’re short jobs so each customer is willing to wait for their car. That’s why Jack and Porter hate them even more. It means that the waiting room is full and people are wandering around the service area, trying to make small talk like it’s a social mixer.”
There’s keen insight into the particularities of place: “The only establishments that survive are those that can withstand inflated property taxes while supplying what Jack once explained to me as the five Bs of Buffalo. He said, ‘Buffalo starts with five Bs. Beer, bellies, bitching, blizzards, and the Bills.’ If a company can somehow cater to, provide an answer for, encourage, or otherwise feed one of these Bs, then that business stands a chance.”
You wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of Eddie Lanning, the novel’s inchoate antihero, or any of the other characters hovering around the dealership for that matter, but you if you’re willing to go along for the ride you can bet it will be worth it.
Review: Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South by Neal Shirley and Saralee Stafford, AK Press, 2015
One of the great things about Dixie Be Damned, my former college advisor told me over our shrimp pho lunch last week, is that the authors set up each new section with very helpful historical context before diving into the minutia of each insurrectionary struggle. The authors’ ability to illuminate primarily forgotten rebellions while framing each within a broader narrative makes Dixie Be Damned an important and digestible read, she said. She may even incorporate the text into one of her classes.
Rather than take the comprehensive Howard Zinn-style approach of A People’s History of the United States, the authors — Saralee Stafford and Neil Shirley — selected seven moments of insurrection across the Southeast that have been largely erased by other accounts of US, Southern or even radical history.
Beginning with a chapter about outlaw communities in the Great Dismal Swamp in northeastern North Carolina, Dixie Be Damned weaves across hundreds of years and several states to illustrate a much stronger tradition of resistance than is generally attributed to the South, one created by teenage girls working in Tennessee mills and marginalized black communities rising up against police oppression in Atlanta, among others. Of the seven pockets of history chronicled in this book, three are in North Carolina, including a chapter on the Lowry Wars in Robeson County during Reconstruction and the concluding insurrection in the book, a 1975 revolt at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women.
It’s not surprising that the anarchists at AK Press would be interested in examining and distributing these histories that had been brushed to the side, but the majority of those who came to listen to the authors at Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books last week didn’t necessarily harbor the same feelings about the state and capital as the presenters.
While a few questions touched on the process of examining contemporary newspaper reports and searching for scant historical documents, the most vocal members of the audience wanted to talk about anarchism or pontificate about what would make a successful social upheaval. People — many of them long since gone gray — packed the back of the bookstore for the reading, the authors’ first since the book’s release.
The audience quickly drew connections between a passage Shirley read about a series of riots in Atlanta after heavy-handed policing in the 1960s and modern street fights after police killings of unarmed, black men in the last year. But Shirley pushed attendees deeper, drawing out the ways that wealthy blacks attempted to speak for disenfranchised urban communities or how authorities used civil services to try and placate the public while fueling their own agenda of gentrification and displacement.
At the outset of their research, Stafford expected to find a history dominated by men, but said she was shocked to discover resistance led by women and teenage girls, stories that shook stereotypes about ideas of Southern womanhood. But all of the moments of insurrection challenge existing notions of the region, and counteract the notion that to be proficient in radical history, one must heavily rely on European examples, Stafford said.
“As a radical Southerner, I’ve always had to look to other people’s histories as an example of resistance,” she said at the event, adding that even accounts of historical resistance in the American South usually follow a narrow scope, documenting only certain components such as nonviolent civil rights struggles.
But now, an alternative narrative exists.