What I Know After a Week

A novel about customer service? Sure, why not.

A year ago, I live-blogged my last novel, & Sons, keeping you (and myself) apprised of progress. That was fun, let’s do it again.

Last Tuesday, my new story appeared. Young Jimmy first presents himself in 1978 as a nine-year-old, riding his bike on a Saturday for his flanêur’s afternoon on Lincoln Street in Milwaukee.

The glass storm door sounded its usual welcome, a leather strap with jingle bells hanging from its inner handbar to alert the Johnsons to new arrivals. Jimmy knew every aisle and corner of the store, had spent innumerable hours there as a free agent, loosely overseen, able to let his mind and body wander. Mrs. Johnson, as always behind the register in her little retail island just inside the door, nodded at him in recognition but nothing further. Jimmy walked back into the store, through the aisle of Comet and Reynolds Wrap, brooms and Playtex dishwashing gloves, toward the curved-glass butcher counter behind which Mr. Johnson was stationed. Mr. Johnson would either be talking with a customer and putting cuts of meat or scoops of ground hamburger onto butcher paper on the scale, or cutting huge slabs of red-and-white-streaked meat on his bandsaw, ribs and hip joints cruelly bared from their formerly quiet lives within a cow or a pig. Jimmy imagined that Mr. Johnson had never actually seen him; the man was in constant work, fully intent on customer or display or carcass.

Even though he’s only in fourth grade, Jimmy has always been far more attuned to the everyday adult world than the kids around him, whom he mostly finds bewildering.

One of the things he liked about being with adults was that they didn’t need to be mean just for fun. The only problem with school was the other kids. Grown-ups sent kids to school to learn how to be adults, and then defeated their own purposes by surrounding them with the savage culture of children. Every kid had to decide for themselves which team would have their allegiance, and Jimmy, by virtue of having chosen wrong, earned the complete and total disdain of the other kids.

We’ll see Jimmy, then Jim, then James, at four different phases of his life through the course of the book, I think, as he grows into full expression of his nature. And I increasingly see that the book will serve as a love poem to the very idea of the sidewalk, the most urban of spaces.

I can’t imagine anything more fun than this.

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