Thursday, June 23, 2011

Little Books Lost

As promised, here are a few more of my Oh, what might have been! books. It helps to picture me in front of a towering bookshelf, pipe in hand, tortoise shell glasses tilted down. And my hair's on fire.


An editor at New Press, who liked American Fan, suggested I go Howard Zinn on sports. I'd just finished a sports column gig at Ironminds (which folded owing me a couple grand) and thought this would be the natural next step. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be a lefty sportswriter. Had I written A People's History, that probably would've become my schtick. I wrote a heavily-detailed chapter outline, tracing American sports from Iroquois lacrosse rituals to present day multimillion dollar contracts, steroids, and media saturation. I learned more about colonial-era "sports" like rat-baiting than I ever desired.

After sending the outline to New Press, I waited. And waited. Waited some more, then phoned. My would-be editor had left, and no one there knew what to do with my book proposal. So they did nothing. I never heard from them again. Years later, New Press published A People's History by David Zirin, a well-known lefty sportswriter. Somebody had to be one, I guess. Fate had other plans for me.


Another editor, who'll remain anonymous, as will his publishing house, was intrigued with me writing a book about Christopher Hitchens. He enjoyed my 2003 piece, Obit For A Former Contrarian, and my Red State Son posts blasting Hitchens' war dance. We spoke on the phone a few times, sharing ideas, trying to envision what the book would be.

I'd write about my personal contact with Hitchens over the years, and explore the American phenomenon of lefty intellectuals becoming neocon propagandists. I told the editor that I didn't want this to be a one-dimensional attack on Hitchens. Despite everything, I still had fondness for him and wanted to be balanced. He agreed that this would make a better book.

Writing a rough chapter outline, I wondered if Mentor was such a great move. A lot of people would like it, but there would be harsh reactions from Hitchens' allies, personal attacks and God knows what else. Then there was Hitchens himself. Maybe he'd ignore it, but most likely not. Did I really want to crawl into the pit with him? Part of me did, yet the more I thought about the negative possibilities, the less enthused I became. Turned out the editor shared these second-thoughts. We decided to drop it, and he left for another house.

The proposed title was a joke. Had we done the book, I seriously doubt it would have been used. Given Christopher's current state, I'm happy I didn't write Mentor. Even if he was in the peak of health, I still wouldn't want to be tied to it. Trusting your gut sometimes works.


The agent who liked The Monkees: A Life really embraced this one. Janitorgod chronicled my family's move to Michigan and me mopping floors for a living. It was primarily set at Kerrytown Mall where I worked six days week under Richard, head of maintenance. Richard taught me a lot, not just about cleaning, but about humility, sacrifice and redemption. Every night after closing the mall, I went to the bar next door, ordered a Tanqueray martini and wrote about that day's experiences. There was so much material I didn't know how to use it all. Eventually I put the pages into manuscript form, sent it to my agent and hoped for the best.

He loved it. "This is a work of art," he kept telling me. Thoughts about a film version were tossed around. But the big houses weren't buying. Not that they disliked my work -- several editors praised my prose style; they just couldn't see the book scoring with a general audience. Other houses passed. One notable house showed interest, but only if I rewrote the book to their specifications. My agent suggested that I comply, which for a brief time I did. But my revisions didn't please them. They asked for more. Essentially they wanted a love story about me and the wife, the janitor jazz as background noise. People like love stories. Who wants to read about finding your soul in a clogged toilet?

Nan, already edgy about being a character in the book, wasn't crazy about expanding her role. Neither was I. Plus, I wasn't in the best emotional shape to write about our marriage, which had been severely tested and stretched to the breaking point. So Janitorgod just faded away. My agent seemed angry with me, and I haven't heard from him since.

Several years later the Ann Arbor Observer published a version of Janitorgod. I was told that reader reaction went through the roof. Apparently many people liked the story as it was originally intended. Despite weeks of positive feedback, nothing more came of it.

As of now, parts of Janitorgod will appear in the third volume of my book. Whenever I get there.