Reviews

The Tearjerker by Daniel Hayes

Matt Weir

Hayes postulates writing as an act of timidity and distance, a profession chosen by those who want to recreate excitement rather than experience.


The Tearjerker

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Length: 211
Price: $15.00
Author: Daniel Hayes
US publication date: 2004-09
Amazon
And I realized that I'd always wanted to be the traveler and not the guide. I wanted to go someplace new, to be taken there, led by the hand, even blindfolded if it came to that.

Evan Ulmer. He's 40 years old and has a name that will either get lost in the phone book or stick in your mind forever. It just has that tone: either perfectly mundane or totally extraordinary. And Tearjerker, a novel about writing novels, manages to be both of those things in a very charming way.

Evan Ulmer has written for years; he is a writer in the truest sense. And he's a failure in every sense of the word too, at least as far as being published goes. And the story of the failed writer is a tale told beautifully many a time by (ironically) very successful writers. But Daniel Hayes, in his debut novel, manages to add his own inspired prose to the subject. In this book he postulates writing as an act of timidity and distance, a profession chosen by those who want to recreate excitement rather than experience it in the real world. To borrow an image from Hayes himself, the traveler writes, not the guide.

The inherent question in this book (Is writing brave or cowardly?) can be expanded in every direction in terms of living in America today. As a nation, America is obsessed with doing, not observing. The early bird gets the worm and nice guys finish last because productivity is number one. And writing? Who sits down to just write besides intellectual snobs and sad teenage girls? To write is to sit and be physically silent. In the end, that does sound pretty unproductive.

And Hayes realizes in Tearjerker that not only does writing sound "unproductive" to the average American, but the loneliness and remarkable honesty that writing demands can alarm and destroy. To write is to be seated and silent but also to think and create and process without distraction. Evan himself wonders of another character at one point, rather defensively, "Had he, for example, ever really felt the sheer terror of writing?"

And the message behind that subtext -- either the bravery or cowardness of the author -- collides with the fantastically bizarre central plot. Acting on impulse, the frustrated Evan abducts a near-famous editor, Robert Partnow, and confines him in his basement with only a porta-potty, a treadmill and a TV. Evan has no idea why he really kidnaps Bob.

It's not to force him to publish a book (he has no new ones written as of now); it's not to punish Bob for rejecting his book (he's never sent a book to Bob); it's not really anything. At one point Evan muses that he probably took Bob hostage to learn about the publishing world, but Bob just replies, "Couldn't we have just gone out to lunch?"

It's in these questions that the book becomes a mystery novel of Evan's inner workings, a journey to discover whether Evan really is a brave soul in need of the inspiration to become the genius he is or just another coward wrapped up in his own above-average skill at putting symbols on paper. Evan's relationships with Bob and Promise, a 25-year-old wanna-be-writer and sort-of-girlfriend, hint at the answers to that question.

Hayes manages to dig as much understated comedy as he can out of Evan and Bob's relationship. Evan wants to become friends of sorts with Bob, honestly caring about him and wanting trust to exist between them. But Bob, quite sensibly, refuses to play the "we're friends" game with Evan as long as he's locked in the basement with handcuffs on. In one memorable comedic moment, Evan describes, like a parent, how proud he is that Bob has finally started using the treadmill and is getting in shape for once.

But with Promise, Hayes shows once again how writers could just using the page to escape the real world. She's a young woman who has left her mother to return to her childhood house and write her first novel. Even her relationship with Evan reeks of escapism. As a reader one wonders if Promise even really writes when she's at home or if she's just fantasizing about the act with Evan.

And that's where the book works best, when Hayes has readers questioning the honesty of each character's desire to write and, even more importantly, each character's honesty with him or herself. Is Evan's abduction of Bob an impulsive and desperate sign that he's ready to live or just an impulsive and desperate sign that he's afraid of the truth about his writing career? And are Promise and Evan really connecting or are they just deceiving each other into believing they are writers?

With all these great questions flying around, the book takes an unflattering turn at the end with light satire about media coverage and a clunky twist. But, luckily, no matter what happens in the story Evan Ulmer remains delightfully -- and pathetically -- Evan Ulmer. Evan's last words in the novel are mind-numbingly boring yet touchingly extraordinary. Hayes wouldn't have it any other way.


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