THERE’S A LONG and distinguished tradition of American fiction that looks at boys in the moment they become men. In his masterful, regret-filled new novel Cargill Falls, William Lychack tracks two boys who are unequal to the challenge, who don’t even recognize it when it comes to them, seeing a gun lying amid the dirt and leaves of the woods. It’s years later that one of the boys, now grown and the only survivor of the two, understands the challenge for what it was, though maybe 12 is too young for any boy to become a man in the moment. It’s no spoiler to say that the survivor is named Bill Lychack. Instead of a coming-of-age novel, the writer crafts something vastly more complex, and more haunted. I spoke with him about it, literary craft, and how he transmits it to his students at the University of Pittsburgh.
PETER TRACHTENBERG: Most of the action of Cargill Falls takes place over a few hours, between the time that the narrator and his best friend Brownie find a gun in the woods and the time Bill comes back to his house at dusk and goes to sleep later that night. Almost every minute of that time is, or feels, accounted for. But about a third of the way into the book, there’s a sudden leap to a moment in the characters’ young manhood and then, later, a further leap to Brownie’s suicide decades later and the memorial where the narrator gives a eulogy for him. Can you talk about the relation between these two time schemes and these two modes of storytelling, one granular, the other episodic?
WILLIAM LYCHACK: I love the feeling that a moment in a life can sometimes feel more real and granular than an actual narrative present of a story. I mean, the impulse of the book was to try to make amends for a childhood friend, to dial back to some physical place where two boys began to diverge in their lives. I wanted to both honor and betray that friendship, and in that contradictory way I wanted to have the smarter, older narrator show up early in the narrative. I wanted the vantage point to be the present story, and I really never wanted to feel I was being coy with any information. I didn’t want this to be a “gotcha” kind of story, if that makes sense. I wanted the truth of the book — and the truth for its characters — to cohere around something bigger than just the revelation of the suicide. There has to be that smart narrator from the first word, so that I could have a narrator capable of trying to understand his situation, or a narrator able to deepen the mystery of it all.
Can we read the novel’s first 100 or so pages as Bill’s eulogy for his dead friend?
Sure, you can, because one through-line of the book is its desire to get another shot at that first eulogy. The book was borne out of some abiding lack of satisfaction for the words I gave at the Elks club for my friend’s funeral. I spent the next year or two working on what I might say if I had the chance to do it over again. At some level, the novel is that redo.
A key difference between the boys is that Brownie has a father and Billy doesn’t. In the aforementioned flashforward, Billy and Brownie, who are working as bartenders after college, put a shard of glass in Mr. Brownell’s drink. The narrator’s sole explanation is: “Such rage we must have felt.” So, what is the role that fathers play in this novel, and what would make one the object of such rage — not just his son’s rage but his son’s best friend’s?
They don’t so much put a shard of glass in a drink for Mr. Brownell as much as they leave a shard in the father’s drink. They don’t remove the danger. They don’t warn or save the man. I’m not sure they have the ability to actively kill him, but they’d not be unhappy to let him die — sort of manslaughter versus first-degree murder.
As for the rage, that’s complicated, isn’t it? No simple reason to point to — a lot of expectations, a lot of disappointment, a lot of anger and love and good intentions, a lot of changing economic conditions, a lot of opportunities missed, a lot of self-destruction and misused power and bravado and alcohol — and all I know is the hatred, which simmered underneath everything, could spring up in a moment’s notice.
As for the roles of fathers, they seem either to be overly present to the point of oppressiveness, or they leave such an unfillable hole in the life that a boy could hardly even name that absence, it being just part of one’s days, like gravity, like the air one breathes.
Most of the novel’s action centers around the gun. We wait for someone to figure out how it works and fire it, and then we wait for someone or something to get shot. Is it a spoiler to say that nobody is? The narrator gives it away on page 21 when he says, “If only I’d had what it took to shoot him.” Meaning his friend Brownie. Why might he wish this, and how would you explain that nebulous “what it took”? What does it take to shoot your friend?
It would’ve been an act of love to shoot his friend here. Knowing what will come to them, shooting him would’ve changed the trajectory of their lives completely. As the narrator says,
Imagine the presence of mind it would take to stand calm as cake and squeeze that trigger straight into the top of a sneaker. Kids able to do that would have been able to do anything they wanted in the world. No stopping two little psychos like these. We’d have skated through the rest of life just fine. We’d have stacked a woodpile any way we damn well pleased, no matter how picky someone’s father might be. Nothing could have touched us, no one able to piss and moan about how useless we were. We’d have shot a gun before we drank a beer, before we kissed a girl, before we drove a car.
It’s true, I think, if Mouse (the narrator) had been a braver boy, if he’d been smarter, he’d have saved his friend here by shooting him.
When you were writing this novel, did Chekhov’s maxim about the gun in the first act (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”) enter your mind? And do you believe that maxim is still binding?
Not really. I didn’t have Chekhov’s maxim in mind, but I know the boys would have felt the maxim from the very first words of the book: “We once found a gun in the woods…”
How could they not want to fire the gun? If I were a 12-year-old boy, I’m not sure there’d have been anything more powerful to find in the universe than a gun. They needed to use that power. It’s a binding maxim if the characters feel it’s binding, but there’s no maxim worth following if it makes the narrative predictable. Even Chekhov would have subverted our expectations, if his story needed such a subversion.
On a somewhat related topic, what does it mean to be an “experimental” writer? How do you experiment in your own work, and how do you cultivate it in your students?
I’m not sure I know what experimental means, really. I mean, I try to put anything to use in the service of the story. Photos, letters, newspaper clippings, anything that helps or amplifies the cause. I’m in a good place in writing when I’m humming that old Wings song, “Let ’Em In,” and when I’m not resisting new material or new plot directions to enter into the narrative.
I try to cultivate this same permission giving in my students by sharing the brute range of writers and writing. Chekhov, of course, breaks every rule you’ve ever heard of in storytelling. And I love bringing in James Alan McPherson, Wright Morris, as well as Nabokov, Tolstoy, Woolf.
I know that many of the events in the novel are drawn from your own life, including the photograph of your father holding you as a baby. And of course the narrator is named Bill Lychack. Without asking the tedious and intrusive question about which of the novel’s episodes are real and which invented, can you talk about the uses of autobiographical material and why one chooses to render it as fiction or nonfiction?
It’s not so tedious to tease out the real from the fictional, and everything I write has a seed in reality. I like playing with that line between fact and fiction. I like when people ask if we found a gun in the woods. I like when they ask if we killed a dog. I did give Brownie’s father a card for Father’s Day. I did skate on the pond with my friends.
I suppose I choose autobiographical material because writing is so difficult for me. You’d lose all respect for me if you knew how much work goes into the smallest so-called “achievement.” I need to care about the material in ways that will make the stories feel somehow necessary for me to write. I need to care so much that I don’t care if anyone else cares, which makes me care, of course.
“In other words,” as the older Mouse says, “You could reach down into your throat and pull your heart out raw and warm and still beating to show the world, but the world would probably just shrug like it was nothing. The world had its own problems. The world didn’t want your heart. It had more than enough hearts already.”
Would you characterize Cargill Falls as autofiction then, and if not, why not?
I suppose the label applies, though I don’t put much stock in those external definitions like that. It seems somehow dismissive to me, as if we’re always just trying to put a handle on things so that we don’t have to engage them on their own merits. I don’t care a lick about what a writer or piece of writing is, but I do care about who they are and how their writing makes me feel. Labels only seem to get in the way of that work for me.
I was the first person in my family to graduate high school — my grandparents came over from The Old Country, so to speak, and my parents worked and went off to war and eloped all before they were 17 years old — and I had no model for how to go about college, let alone how to be a writer. I never really thought it was a possibility. At all. I stumbled into a writing class my sophomore year, because it fit my schedule and I thought it’d be an easy enough lark. It just so happened that my teacher, Blanche McCrary Boyd, had pulled together a symposium of writers to come to campus that semester. They were coming together to explore, as the title of the symposium put it, “Fact and Fiction: The Troubled Relationship.” Suddenly, we had William Styron, Norman Mailer, Francine du Plessix Gray, Renata Adler, Alexander Cockburn, Joe McGinniss, William McPherson, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, and others sitting with us in our classroom. We were reading their work, of course — The Armies of the Night, Sophie’s Choice, et cetera — but also studying and talking with them about Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion and James Baldwin and Truman Capote. I suppose, like the baby duckling I was, I imprinted on those big ducks pretty deeply. They were my first permission givers. Theirs were those early books that I worshipped and dog-eared and wanted to emulate. To some degree, they still are.
I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference last summer with the express hope [of] corner[ing] Tim O’Brien to ask about this relationship between fiction and nonfiction. I love the way he uses the tropes of memoir to lend depth and reality to his fiction, and I wanted to wonder aloud with him about his work (which is fiction but reads as nonfiction), as compared to the work of Tobias Wolff (whose nonfiction reads to me as fiction) and Michael Herr (whose journalism feels the most fictional of all three to me). Not surprisingly, O’Brien had little use for labels. They certainly didn’t let him get the work done, and he told me certain chapters of In Pharaoh’s Army were first published as fiction, and Herr himself admitted that he made up dialogue to capture the truth. For me, this blending in no way compromises or diminishes the achievement of the work, it only deepens my awe for the difficulty of trying to let your situation somehow speak.
Which writers are always by your side as you work?
To be honest, always at my side are my mentors and friends and colleagues. It’s a long and trying process sometimes, and I find encouragement and support in the achievements of mentors like Charles Baxter, Nicholas Delbanco, Blanche Boyd, and William Maxwell. I keep my friends and colleagues within close reach: Miles Harvey, Michael Paterniti, Stewart O’Nan, Angie Cruz, Michael Meyer, Charles Bock, Paul Yoon, Rachel Kadish, Hester Kaplan, Jeffrey Condran, Chris Lynch, Geeta Kothari, Jason Reynolds, Irina Reyn, Jeanne Marie Laskas, Kate McQuade, Michael Lowenthal, Cammie McGovern, and a shelf full of others. I also have a pile of books that were wildly successful or had a ton of recognition, yet I found insufferable on so many levels. We all have these books, and they have to remind us that it’s really not about market or marketing or big-buzz label in the end. It has to be about something much more personal and life-or-death, at least for me, otherwise it’s not worth the effort. I have to find some skin-in-the-game connection, a promise of yearning and completion and contentment in the work at hand, a feeling that I’m part of some deliverance of whatever it is that haunts the writer, and, by extension, whatever haunts us.