- See also: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
- Anything good that I have written has, at some point during its composition, left me feeling uneasy and afraid. It has seemed, for a moment at least, to put me at risk.
- The Recipe for Life, The Washington Book World (2000)
- Childhood, at its best, is a perpetual adventure, in the truest sense of that overtaxed word: a setting forth into trackless lands that might have come to existence the instant before you first laid eyes on them.
- Maps and Legends, Architectural Digest (April 2001)
- The presence of evil, once scented, tends to bring out all that is most irrational and uncontrollable in the public imagination. It is a catalyst for pea-brained theories, gimcrack scholarship, and the credulous cosmologies of hysteria.
- The God of Dark Laughter, The New Yorker (April 9, 2001)
- I have staked my career—my life itself—on the things I could see, on the stories I could credit, and on the eventual vindication, when the book was closed, of the reasonable and skeptical approach. In the face of twenty-five years of bloodshed, mayhem, criminality, and the universal human pastime of ruination, I have clung fiercely to Occam’s razor, seeking always to keep my solutions unadorned and free of conjecture, and never to resort to conspiracy or any kind of prosecutorial woolgathering. My mother, whenever she was confronted by calamity or personal sorrow, invoked cosmic emanations, invisible empires, ancient prophecies, and intrigues; it has been the business of my life to reject such folderol and seek the simpler explanation. But we were fools, she and I, arrant blockheads, each of us blind to or heedless of the readiest explanation: that the world is an ungettable joke, and our human need to explain its wonders and horrors, our appalling genius for devising such explanations, is nothing more than the rim shot that accompanies the punch line.
- The God of Dark Laughter, The New Yorker (April 9, 2001)
- When I first set my sights on becoming a writer at age eleven or so, I wanted to be a fantasy and science fiction writer. That was my preferred reading material and that's what I thought I was going to write. That's always been there. You can even see little hints of it in Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys.
- Interview with Metro Weekly, March 12, 2002
- I think it was when I got to the butterflies -- in that brief, beautiful image comprising life, death and technology -- that the hair on the back of my neck began to stand on end. All at once, the pleasure I took in reading was altered irrevocably. Before then I had never noticed, somehow, that stories were made not of ideas or exciting twists of plot but of language. And not merely of pretty words and neat turns of phrase, but of systems of imagery, strategies of metaphor.
- I would give a good deal of money, blood, books or years to be able to watch as Amanda, in a picture hat, looked back from the vantage of a long and productive career to reject her first published efforts as uneven or only halfway there or, worst of all, as promising, or to see her condescend to them, cuddle them almost, as mature writers sometimes do with their early books, the way we give our old stuffed pony or elephant, with its one missing shirt-button eye, a fond squeeze before returning it to the hatbox in the attic.
At bottom of this kind of behavior on the part of old, established writers is the undeniable way in which our young selves, and the books that issued from them, invariably seem to reproach us: with the fading of our fire, the diminishment of our porousness to the world and the people in it, the compromises made, the friendships abandoned, the opportunities squandered, the loss of velocity on our fastball.
- Pity those—adventurers, adolescents, authors of young adult fiction—who make their way in the borderland between worlds. It is at worst an invisible and at best an inhospitable place. Build your literary house on the borderlands, as the English writer Philip Pullman has done, and you may find that your work is recommended by booksellers, as a stopgap between installments of Harry Potter, to children who cannot (one hopes) fully appreciate it, and to adults, disdainful or baffled, who 'don't read fantasy.' Yet all mystery resides there, in the margins, between life and death, childhood and adulthood, Newtonian and quantum, 'serious' and 'genre' literature. And it is from the confrontation with mystery that the truest stories have always drawn their power.
- Dust & Daemons, The New York Review of Books (March 25, 2004)
- It is in the nature of a teenager to want to destroy. The destructive impulse is universal among children of all ages, rises to a peak of vividness, ingenuity and fascination in adolescence, and thereafter never entirely goes away. Violence and hatred, and the fear of our own inability to control them in ourselves, are a fundamental part of our birthright, along with altruism, creativity, tenderness, pity and love. It therefore requires an immense act of hypocrisy to stigmatize our young adults and teenagers as agents of deviance and disorder. It requires a policy of dishonesty about and blindness to our own histories, as a species, as a nation, and as individuals who were troubled as teenagers, and who will always be troubled, by the same dark impulses. It also requires that favorite tool of the hypocritical, dishonest and fearful: the suppression of constitutional rights.
- Solitude and the Fortresses of Youth, New York Times (April 13, 2004)
- The imagination of teenagers is often -- I'm tempted to say always -- the only sure capital they possess apart from the love of their parents, which is a force far beyond their capacity to comprehend or control.
During my own adolescence, my imagination, the kingdom inside my own skull, was my sole source of refuge, my fortress of solitude, at times my prison. Like all teenagers, I provisioned my garrison with art: books, movies, music, comic books, television, role-playing games. Given their nature as human creations, as artifacts and devices of human nature, some of the provisions I consumed were bound to be of a dark, violent, even bloody and horrifying nature; otherwise I would not have cared for them.
- Nanny Nation, San Francisco Chronicle (April 15, 2004)
- We don't want teenagers to write violent poems, horrifying stories, explicit lyrics and rhymes; they're ugly, in precisely the way that we are ugly, and out of protectiveness and hypocrisy, even out of pity and love and tenderness, we try to force young people to be innocent of everything but the effects of that ugliness.
So we censor the art they consume and produce, and prosecute and suspend and expel them, and when, once in a great while, a teenager reaches for an easy gun and shoots somebody or himself, we tell ourselves that if we had only censored his journals and curtailed his music and video games, that awful burst of final ugliness could surely have been prevented. As if art caused the ugliness, when of course all it can ever do is reflect and, perhaps, attempt to explain it.
Let teenagers languish, therefore, in their sense of isolation, without outlet or nourishment, bereft of the only thing that makes it all bearable: knowing that somebody else has felt the way that you feel, has faced it, run from it, rued it, lamented it and transformed it into art; has been there, and returned, and lived, for the only good reason we have: to tell the tale.
How confident we shall be, once we have done this, of never encountering the ugliness again! How happy our children will be, and how brave, and how safe!
- Nanny Nation
- It took Marvel Comics years to begin to put together any worthwhile superheroines. The first crop was, to a gal, embarrassingly disappointing. They had all the measly powers that fifties and sixties male chauvinism could contrive to bestow on a superwoman.
- A Woman of Valor, Alure (May 2004)
- I suppose there is something appealing about a word that everyone uses with absolute confidence but on whose exact meaning no two people can agree. The word that I’m thinking of right now is genre, one of those French words, like crêpe, that no one can pronounce both correctly and without sounding pretentious.
- Introduction to McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories (2004)
- The point of Obama's candidacy is that the damaged state of American democracy is not the fault of George W. Bush and his minions, the corporate-controlled media, the insurance industry, the oil industry, lobbyists, terrorists, illegal immigrants or Satan. The point is that this mess is our fault. We let in the serpents and liars, we exchanged shining ideals for a handful of nails and some two-by-fours, and we did it by resorting to the simplest, deepest-seated and readiest method we possess as human beings for trying to make sense of the world: through our fear. America has become a phobocracy.
- Obama vs. the Phobocracy, Washington Post (February 4, 2008)
- One knew, of course, that it was not the red cape any more than it was the boots, the tights, the trunks, or the trademark “S” that gave Superman the ability to fly. That ability derived from the effects of the rays of our yellow sun on Superman’s alien anatomy, which had evolved under the red sun of Krypton. And yet you had only to tie a towel around your shoulders to feel the strange vibratory pulse of flight stirring in the red sun of your heart.
- Secret Skin (March 10, 2008)
- The Weinreichs have laid out, with numerical precision, the outlines of a world, of a fantastic land in which it would behoove you to know how to say, in Yiddish,
250. What is the flight number?
1372. I need something for a tourniquet.
1379. Here is my identification.
254. Can I go by boat/ferry to----?
- A Yiddish Pale Fire
- As for comics, one has only to turn to the characteristic output of Marvel Comics, for the period from about 1961 to about 1975, to find not an expression of base and cynical impulses but of good, old-fashioned liberal humanism of a kind that may strike us today, God help us, as quaint, but which nevertheless appealed, in story after story, to ideals such as tolerance, technological optimism, and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
- Unpublished Letter of Complaint to The New York Review of Books
- [Comics] were viewed as the literary equivalent of bubblegum cards, meant to be poked into the spokes of a young mind where they would produce a satisfying—but entirely bogus—rumble of pleasure.
- Greasy Kids’ Stuff
Wonder Boys (1995)
- Eight solid light-years of lead...is the thickness of that metal in which you would need to encase yourself if you wanted to keep from being touched by neutrinos. I guess the little fuckers are everywhere.
- The young men listen dutifully, for the most part, and from time to time some of them even take the trouble to go over to the college library, and dig up one or another of his novels, and crouch there, among the stacks, flipping impatiently through the pages, looking for parts that sound true.
- If Miss Sloviak were not already a transvestite, Crabtree would certainly make her into one.
- I knew that I shouldn't have, but I did it all the same; and there you have my epitaph, or one of them, because my grave is going to require a monument inscribed on all four sides with rueful mottoes, in small characters, set close together.
- Over the years I'd surrendered many vices, among them whiskey, cigarettes, and the various non-Newtonian drugs, but marijuana and I remained steadfast companions. I had one fragrant ounce of Humboldt County, California, in a Ziploc bag in the glove compartment of my car.
- The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite. I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses.
- I had a certain cetacean delicacy of movement in the wide open sea of a hundred-yard field...
- Dutifully I thumbed the rides, hopped the B & Os and the Great Northerns, balled the lithe small-town girls in the band shells of their hometown parks, held the job as field hand and day laborer and soda jerk, saw the crude spectacles of American landscape slide past me as I lay in an open boxcar and drank cheap red wine; and if I didn't, I might as well have.
- It was in this man's class that I first began to wonder if people who wrote fiction were not suffering from some kind of disorder--from what I've since come to think of, remembering the wild nocturnal rockings of Albert Vetch, as the midnight disease.
- A couple of years later I would marry her for a little while.
- As a lifelong habit of marijuana I was used to having even the most dreadful phenomena prove, on further inspection, to be only the figments of my paranoid fancy...
- "I feel great," I said, trying to decide how I did feel.
- I'm a man who falls in love so easily, and with such a reckless lack of consideration for the consequences of my actions, that from the very first instant of entering into a marriage I become, almost by definition, an adulterer.
- ...as with most redheaded women what beauty she possessed was protean and odd.
- Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.
- There's nothing more embarrassing than to have earned the disfavor of a perceptive animal.
- Every writer has an ideal reader, I thought, and it was just my good luck that mine wanted to sleep with me.
- The overcoat was a trademark of his. It was an impermeable thrift-shop special with a plaid flannel lining and wide lapels, and it looked as though it had been trying for many years to keep the rain off the stooped shoulders of a long series of hard cases, drifters, and ordinary bums. It emitted an odor of bus station so desolate that just standing next to him you could feel your luck changing for the worse.
- Her style was plain and poetic as rain on a daisy--she was particularly gifted at the description of empty land and horses. She lived in the basement of my house for a hundred dollars a month, and I was desperately in love with her.
- He was a fugitive, lurking soul, James Leer. He didn't belong anywhere, but things went much better for him in places where nobody belonged.
- Her ankles were wobbling in her tall black pumps, and I saw that it could not be an easy thing to be a drunken transvestite.
- The whiskey tasted like bear steaks and river mud and the flesh of an oak tree. I had another swallow because it tasted so good.
- I found myself going over a particular troublesome scene in the novel, for the one thousand and seventy-third time, in the manner of a lunatic ape in a cage at the zoo, running his fingers back and forth along the iron bars of his home.
- Although it was only nine o'clock he had already gone once around the pharmacological wheel to which he'd strapped himself for the evening, stolen a tuba, and offended a transvestite; and now his companions were beginning, with delight and aplomb, to barf. It was definitely a Crabtree kind of night.
- "To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing," he would learnedly expound at WonderCon or Angoulême or to the editor of The Comics Journal. "You weren't the same person when you came out as when you went in."
- Part I, ch. 1
- "Forget about what you are escaping from," he said, quoting an old maxim of Kornblum's. "Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to."
- Part I, ch. 2
- [I]n 1938, Superman appeared. He had been mailed to the offices of National Periodical Publications from Cleveland, by a couple of Jewish boys who had imbued him with the powers of a hundred men, of a distant world, and of the full measure of their bespectacled adolescent hopefulness and desperation.
- Part II, ch. 1
The Mysteries of Berkeley (March 2002)
Online text, Gourmet
- Where passion is married to intelligence, you may find genius, neurosis, madness or rapture.
- [I]f neuroses were swimming pools one might, like Cheever's swimmer, steer a course from my house to the city limits and never touch dry land.
- When Berkeley does not feel like some kind of vast exercise in collective dystopia—a kind of left-wing Plymouth Plantation in which a man may be pilloried for over-illuminating his house at Christmastime—then paradoxically it often feels like a place filled with people incapable of feeling or acting in concert with each other.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
- The rest of Sitka’s homicides are so-called crimes of passion, which is a shorthand way of expressing the mathematical product of alcohol and firearms.
- Chapter 1
- “Are you mocking the concept?”
“Not necessary,” Berko says. “The concept mocks itself.”
- Chapter 9
- The daily sight of her is going to be a torment, like God torturing Moses with a glimpse of Zion from the top of Mount Pisgah every single day of his life.
- Chapter 9
- A friendship across sectarian lines is not a common phenomenon, in his experience. In the past, it has struck him that, apart from homosexuals, only chess players have found a reliable way to bridge, intensely but without fatal violence, the gulf that separates any given pair of men.
- Chapter 10
- Men tend to cry, in Landsman's experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along just, under their boot, lay the abyss. This is part of the policeman's job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.
- Chapter 11
- He knows, of course, that a criminal organization like the Verbover ring can’t flourish without the ready services of bagman and secret lobbyists, without regular applications of grease and body English to the works of government.
- Chapter 12
- Every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve.
- Chapter 23
- He’s too superstitious not to see this as a bad omen, but when you're a pessimist, all omens are bad.
- Chapter 23
- He doesn’t know how one proceeds under the circumstances, except with the certainty, pressed to the heart like a keepsake of love, that in the end nothing really matters.
- Chapter 23
- Every Messiah fails, writes Litvak, the moment he tries to redeem himself
- Chapter 38
- Dr. Roboy, in Litvak’s measured view, had a vice common to believers: He was all strategy and no tactics. He was prone to move for the sake of moving, too focused on the goal to bother with the intervening sequence.
- Chapter 39
- A Messiah who actually arrives is no good to anybody. A hope fulfilled is already half a disappointment.
- Chapter 39
- Litvak knew that charisma was a real if indefinable quality, a chemical fire that certain half-fortunate men gave off. Like any fire or talent, it was amoral, unconnected to goodness or wickedness, power or usefulness or strength.
- Chapter 39
- Yes, all right, Landsman understands, so go shit in the ocean, that he made not the right but the only choice. He understands that the necessity of covering up for the dark deeds of the boys in the top drawer is one that nozzes have been making into a virtue since the dawn of police work.
- Chapter 45
- He didn’t want to be what he wasn’t, he didn’t know how to be what he was.
- Chapter 46
Gentlemen of the Road (2007)
- [A]dventures befall the unadventurous as readily, if not as frequently, as the bold. Adventures are a logical and reliable result—and have been since at least the time of Odysseus—of the fatal act of leaving one's home, or trying to return to it again. All adventures happen in that damned and magical space, wherever it may be found or chanced upon, which least resembles one's home. As soon as you have crossed your doorstep or the county line, into that place where the structures, laws, and conventions of your upbringing no longer apply, where the support and approval (but also the disapproval and repression) of your family and neighbors are not to be had: then you have entered into adventure, a place of sorrow, marvels, and regret.
- [L]ook at yourself right now... hoping to lose yourself—your home, your certainties, the borders and boundaries of your life—by means of a bundle of wood pulp, sewn and glued and stained with blobs of pigment and resin. People with Books. … It makes me want to laugh.