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
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.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.