- In 1995, I left Florida for Alabama. Thus, the ’90s for me were bifurcated in two perfect halves. The first half was childhood, beaches, and high school. The second was young adulthood and college in the former capital of the Confederacy.
- This same year, an American terrorist named Timothy McVeigh detonated a homemade bomb in Oklahoma City. He killed 168 people, including nineteen children, and wore a shirt with John Wilkes Booth’s famous words, “Thus endeth all tyrants.” He was executed three months before September 11, in the year of our lord, 2001.
- McVeigh has nothing and everything to do with the literature of the ’90s. He was a veteran of the first Gulf War, disillusioned not by the carnage of that short-lived conflict but by the standoff in Waco with the Branch Davidians and the killing of a separatist’s family in Ruby Ridge. These three events marinated in the early days of the Internet, blossoming into cascading conspiracy theories around black sites and mind control.
- At a distance, it’s clear that terrorism in its various forms was a major theme of the decade, political discontent morphing into violence.
- At a distance, it’s clear that terrorism has been a major theme since the 1970s: The Monkeywrench Gang, Americana, American Pastoral, Outlaws, Leviathan, and on and on.
- (Let me be clear. McVeigh was no hero; he was a murderous asshole.)
- I started the decade reading Christopher Pike and ended it reading Mark Danielewski. I was sluiced through the chunnel of higher education and grateful for it. It was nothing less than magic.
- The big novels of the ’90s—Infinite Jest, The God of Small Things, The Golden Compass, The Shipping News, Underworld, The Secret History, All the Pretty Horses, and The Things They Carried. Most of these passed me by. I was too young, too unplugged from literary culture.
- The ’80s gave us Bret Easton Ellis, a sex- and status-obsessed rich kid with some good ideas and plenty of bad ones; Raymond Carver, now eternally locked in readers’ minds with his brilliant but punishing editor, Gordon Lish; Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Alice Walker, William Gibson, Salmon Rushdie, and Toni Morrison.
- I missed all that. I read Stephen King and Peter Straub and Anne McCaffery and L. Ron Hubbard, dozens of discardable fantasy and plenty of junky action, like the Mack Bolan series. But my favorite author was Dan Simmons.
- Simmons has written a lot of novels, but for my purposes he wrote two epic horror novels, Summer of Night and Carrion Comfort, alongside Hyperion and its three sequels.
- Hyperion tells its story through a Canterbury Tales set-up, with pilgrims making their way to a distant planet, where the spiky sentinel god, the Shrike, rules in silence, guarding the time tombs, where time moves backwards. God, I loved it.
- Summer of Night is the perfect mashup of Ray Bradbury nostalgia and Stephen King storytelling. Things go awry in a small town and a group of middle schoolers take it on themselves to combat the evil. It’s the summation of all the great American horror fiction up to its point, with elements of the gothic and the baroque, unease and titillation, where an ancient evil is conquered by adolescent team building.
- Carrion Comfort is something else, an excessive and distressing story of aging, psychic vampires fighting each other through proxies, with loads of collateral damage. I’d never read anything like it, with its alternating viewpoints and enormous cast of characters.
- So I was a pulp fiction guy, immune to the fineries of language, happy in my gutter of the literary world. I didn’t understand the way people rhapsodized over the prose of this or that book. I really was a philistine, and happy to be so. My favorite movie was Lethal Weapon for Christ’s sake.
- Then I read Babbitt.
- Babbitt is more known than read these days, a 1920s satirical novel that still has bite. It follows its titular character through a few months of his miserable life. He’s a bloviating know-it-all windbag, provincial to his core, close-minded, prejudiced. But he’s also likable, believable, anxious, self-sabotaging. I could recognize him. His small defeats and even smaller victories felt more important than the space battles and slaughter, the cheap sex scenes and the bullshit dystopias I was used to. The blinders fell off my eyes. I was nineteen years old, and falling in love.
- My next class dropped me into contemporary novels. I read Beloved, All the Pretty Horses, and Love Medicine. Beloved was beyond my reach, upsetting and tough for me to absorb; foolishly, I read the bulk of it in one day. It’s magnificent, a great novel, but it demanded more than I had to give.
- All the Pretty Horses was something else, an astonishing western that encapsulated the two major strands of American literature, the maximalism of Faulkner and the minimalism of Hemingway. Love Medicine was my favorite, a collection of linked stories set in and around an Indian reservation in Minnesota. It’s sexy, raw, harrowing, heartbreaking.
- I read all of Cormac McCarthy’s books, most of Louise Erdrich’s. McCarthy writes in a neo-Biblical prose, his books feeling ancient and rugged; they feel like they exist outside of anyone’s mind, etched in stone or inked onto human skin. I now try to read Blood Meridian every other year.
- But he’s a dangerous writer to fall for, demanding emulation but impossible to mimic and God knows I tried. He sits at the center of so many swirling strands of American literature, but writes with a voice all his own, some wandering mad prophet in the desert of America.
- What is American literature anyway? It’s an uneasy combination of art and commerce, an enormous bag of charlatans, outsiders, misogynists, poets, self-promoters, seekers, visionaries, wordsmiths, hucksters, hustlers, and mimics. It’s poetry and pornography.
- The world sees us as a young country with an unsophisticated culture, but look at the books! I declared myself an English major in 1997 and immersed myself in the Western canon.
- I read the defining novel of the decade in 2003. I speak of Don DeLillo’s Underworld. It was a profound reading experience. DeLillo is a product of the late 1960s and early ’70s, a workhorse postmodernist who hit his creative peak with this fabulous and dense novel, released in 1997.
- The cover had the Twin Towers ascending into gray clouds, an eerie, sinister image that took on vicious new meaning four years later.
- There it is again, terrorism, the specter that in retrospect haunts the decade of surplus, dot-com booms, and an entirely new vocabulary of computer-based logic and thinking.
- The cult of Charles Bukowski ignited in the early ’90s. The dude was everywhere. I wasn’t immune to his charms. After reading On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at twenty, I discovered Bukowski and read Ham on Rye and The Charles Bukowski Reader—in Disney World of all the fucking places—in short order. I had zero in common with this grouchy ass, but I loved his work. A friend warned me, “Don’t hold him responsible for his asshole fans. They suck.” My friend was right.
- “People prefer beautiful lies to the truth,” Bukowski writes in one of these books. That could be the coda of the entire decade.
- The French love James Ellroy, another dominant voice in the ’90s, wielding a prodigious style—hard-boiled but also Dickensian, a distillation of all the crime and detective fiction of the 20th Century—painting enormous canvases of corrupt and stinking Los Angeles in the 1940s. I catch him at the tip of the 21st century. The French critics dubbed him the Demon Dog. Sounds about right. When he’s good, he’s remarkable, a singular voice and vision. He’s an outsider, like Bukowski or Philip K. Dick, coming to books through an autodidact’s love of reading.
- The memoir craze kicked off with two books: Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. They’re very fine books, filled with truthiness, and they sold like hotcakes. We’re still living in the aftermath of their success. Ellroy wrote a memoir of his own, My Dark Places, where he investigates the murder of his mother when he was a child. It’s one of the darkest books I’ve read, a descent into utter nightmare. I loved it.
- Back to Underworld. DeLillo captures a lot of the zeitgeist here: weird performance artists, racism, sports, government overreach, terrorism, and the vast spaces of America, the internet. It’s a miracle, but something in the writing of it broke DeLillo. He never reached the same heights again. I know because I read all of his books. My personal favorite is Running Dog, his take on the thriller novel, a very strange book. He seemed to intuit everything that was coming in this hard-to-define epic.
- The writer who did the most damage was Thomas Pynchon. I read The Crying of Lot 49 for a class and was mesmerized by its funky idiosyncrasies. I sought out V. and Gravity’s Rainbow and read them both. I adored V. but I struggled through Rainbow, reading it over a one-month period, carting it along as my cousin and I drove across the country, through Tennessee and Oklahoma and Nebraska and Colorado and Wyoming then cutting back on I-90 all the way to Illinois.
- Pynchon burrowed into my psyche, drawing occult symbols in my subconscious. He offers byzantine labyrinths of language and absurd conspiracies with no answers, plots with no resolutions, puns, slapstick, orgies, abject body horror. The first line of Gravity’s Rainbow is unforgettable: “A screaming comes across the sky.”
- I discovered Steve Erickson, one of the great punk geniuses of American letters, who experiments with form, as opposed to his sentences or prose. You could call him Pynchon-lite, but that’s unfair to both writers. His characters leave dimensions, travel through time, exist in cities that are perpetually on fire. He’s so much fun to read, even when the stories are hard to grasp. He manifests not just an alternate point of view but an alternate reality of contemporary America, where time is permeable and symbols, myths, and stories collide, break into pieces, and reform.
- Trainspotting appeared. I saw the movie first then read the book, not buying it, but reading it in chunks at a Barnes & Noble. It felt radical then but foolish now. I was stymied by the dialect but drawn to the sleaze and titillation, the degradation of its junky-heroes. This kicked off a drug-lit craze in my reading, culminating in William Burroughs’s best book, Junky, and attempts at his subsequent titles, many of them unreadable. For a brief time, I believed drug addicts were the purest humans, the best specimens of the genus homo erectus. What innocent nonsense.
- Burroughs was still around in the 1990s, a crazy fucker who loved guns and knives. He gloried in his outlaw status. A lot of it was probably a put-on, a mask, but also the life he lived. I tried to read Naked Lunch multiple times, never quite getting it. He cut up a manuscript no one wanted and assembled it at random, now he’s a genius? I didn’t get it then and I don’t get it now. He got a pass from peaceniks and lefties because of his Beat Generation bona fides. As the years pass, he looks more and more like a creepy predator with a vast appetite for transgression.
- Barry Hannah’s Airships belongs in here, a wild collection of short stories that will blister your eyeballs. Hannah is one of the real wild men of Southern literature, a lifelong imbiber who wandered around the college campus where he taught, cranked on booze and armed with a pistol. I met him at a conference in 1999. He was fat, tanned, bald, sober, a cornpone Buddha, friendly and loose with his incredible smile. He’s a superb stylist, if sometimes slaphappy and prose-drunk.
- (Ray is probably his best book, a compact, disciplined but also wild as fuck novel.)
- (Hannah wrote a story with William Burroughs in it, as a character, “Two Things, Dimly, Were Going at Each Other.”)
- College syllabi: “Sonny’s Blues,” “A & P,” “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and The Awakening. Half a dozen Romantic poets, some medieval sagas, most of the plays of Shakespeare, William Dean Howells, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Morte d’Arthur, Melville, Hawthorne, Heart of Darkness, “Barn Burning,” and “The Blue Hotel.”
- Plus too much Joseph Conrad—five or six of his books!—but The Secret Agent blew me away. It tells the true-ish story of anarchists in England trying to blow up a landmark. They fuck it up, a few of them die. The best character is the Professor, a madman who walks around with a detonator in his pocket. A policeman corners him and the Professor tells him that this is the best he’ll get, two deaths by explosion. The policeman lets him walk.
- There it is again: terrorism. This time in a novel from 1907.
- One of my professors writes “truth” and “fact” on the chalkboard, and we discuss and debate the limits of one and the areas of overlap. We settle on certain fictions, especially Shakespeare, being true but not factual at all. It’s an epiphany for me.
- I loved this professor as a teacher but hated him as a man. He was a joyful lecturer, but in person he was venal, dismissive, ungenerous, litigious—an all-around gaping asshole of a human being. I later end up helping him self-publish a work of fantasy, something he labored over for years. It was terrible. He was a dick when it didn’t sell. This, too, was an epiphany for me. People contain multitudes. I wasn’t unique.
- My professors help but I’m committed to a path all my own. I initiate myself into the mystery religion of the people of the book. It’s a large, underground group of lone wolves, reading their lives away with every free minute.
- I was impossible, relentless in my daily talk of the fineries of literature, opinionated without the years of reading to back those opinions up, pretentious and incorrigible. My appetite for books was rapacious. I was making up for lost time.
- My dad sees that I’m falling way outside the mainstream. He’s baffled by it. He doesn’t understand the appeal of difficult books, difficult authors, esoterica.
- He’s right. I’m falling into the subterranean world of literary subgenres, a magical place where nothing is prohibited. Comics author Alan Moore argues that magic is really nothing else than unfettered imagination—that the realm of imagination is both a metaphor and a real place we can access through a variety of processes—and I agree with him. How else to describe communing with another mind, often a dead person?
- All reading is alchemy. All reading is magic.
- Enter Terence McKenna, another figure in the 1990s, part of the underground drug literature that bubbled up into the mainstream. He’s a real wild thinker, brilliant but suffering from what he himself calls the “delusion of reference,” bowling you over with anecdotes about the plant kingdom, history, gnosticism, early Christianity, paganism, and more. He always almost makes sense. This is his superpower. No one read him, but everyone talked about him, his fractal graphs and chaos theory. He claimed that information would reach a saturation point in 2012, the same year the Mayan calendar predicted the end of the world.
- “Earth is a place,” McKenna writes, “where language has literally become alive. Language has infested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself.” Language is an alien virus—that’s a sentiment that could have come out of Burrough’s mouth.
- My own syllabi: Charles Portis, Philip K. Dick, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and Patricia Highsmith. The ’70s, the ’60s, the ‘40s, the ’50s—all collapsing into a personal canon falling far outside my academic learning.
- I read James Joyce’s Ulysses around this time. I love/hate it.
- I didn’t read enough women. I know it now. I read The Shipping News in 2005. I read The Secret History in 2021. They’re both fabulous. The Secret History works as a kind of cipher for the ’90s. Things are both straight-forward and elusive. There’s layers of meaning, symbols, metaphors. Plus a murder.
- But I’m being dishonest here. I’m eliding. I’m being elusive. I’m hiding. The biggest influences of this period were three comic books, written by three British men. The Sandman was an exquisite work of dark fantasy, following the embodiment of dreams in a world of monsters, humans, and nightmares. The Invisibles is something else, a self-aware magic spell autobiography pretending to be a work of dark fantasy. A group of terrorists initiate a young delinquent into their battle with the outer church. It’s a dense, gnostic meta-textual work. And Preacher tells the story of an atheist pastor possessed by a spirit that gives him the power to control anyone with his voice. It’s nasty and profane. These are the hidden keys to my expanded mind, the precious gems, the enchantment, the opening up and the closing down.
- The Sandman and The Invisibles are both, in essence, about language. Sandman is about stories, how we tell them to ourselves and to others to keep ourselves sane. Invisibles is about a new language, one that will restructure reality and heal our wounded selves. They are expansive, optimistic works filled with dread.
- They’re both postmodern works, too, and the best descriptor of a postmodern work is a distrust of reality due to the gaps in language. We define reality with words. Words are filled with half-truths and distorted meanings, gaps and cultural biases. Therefore, reality is flawed and unknowable to any human mind that uses language. We can’t ever know any kind of objective truth.
- Which brings me to City of Glass, Paul Auster’s incredible little crime novel that tells the story of a child raised without language, an experiment of his father’s. Paul Auster was a major writer of the 1990s, slipping into popular culture with his keen mind and subtle meta-textual games. He writes novels that end abruptly, novels within novels with no resolution, the entire facade of fiction a landslide into his personal obsessions, the thin barrier between reality and fiction.
- Shifting gender norms, gaps in language, government conspiracies, meta-textual self-awareness, complex comics, terrorism, and violence violence violence—these are the markers and themes of the decade’s books. I was rutting in the zeitgeist without realizing it, which I suppose is always the case.
- Put another way: we’re always living inside history, slowly digested by its trends and disruptions, and all the magic in the world can’t save us from this inevitable and ineluctable fact.
- Reading can’t either. It’s magic, yes, but a kind of magic that changes the self, not the world.
- I moved to Atlanta in 2002, got a job in a bookstore, kept reading. The US was ramping up to invade a second sovereign country. My political beliefs were dissolving. I began reading more history, especially about the ancient world, and saw parallels in the post 9/11 world.
- The ’90s were over, taking all the dot-com prosperity with it. The age of terror had begun.
- The child in me was dying. The man inside was strangling him.
- McVeigh emerged from the underworld, resurrecting himself as pure mind, wagging his ghost fingers in our collective faces and smiling his semi-transparent smirk, wandering in and out of college campuses and the proliferating coffee shops, popping into novels where he didn’t belong, blitzkrieging the worldwide web, a deranged prophet for a deranged age, strangling Kate Chopin and Terence McKenna, stretching his sandpaper tongue over the novels and poems and short stories and sagas, masticating them into a soggy mass, dancing over CIA black sites around the world, nodding at water-boarding and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” slapping Dick Cheney’s ass. Look, he whispered. Just look at the state of this brave new world. I was right, wasn’t I?
By Alan Caldwell
I was a fourth grader at Austell Elementary School in Austell, Georgia in the Blessed Year of America’s Bicentennial when I first met I Richard. I had reason to think I was a pretty smart kid, routinely placing second in the annual Key of Learning reading contest behind Stacy Thorton, who always left me with remnant Silver and a modest smattering of leftover applause. I thought I knew it all, but despite my status as a smart kid, in 1976, I didn’t know dick.
Richard Hasty crashed into Mrs. Elrod’s classroom that August on a muggy Open House night wearing a snot-stained green t-shirt and established himself as an immediate problem. He picked up each and every item on Mrs. Elrod’s desk and shelves, examined each one closely, and sat each one back down in a different location or simply dropped it on the floor, eventually throwing, and shattering, a rare Panama City Beach water globe. Richard’s morbidly obese mom ignored most of his property displacement and destruction but would occasionally remove her cigarette, cough, and belch a perfunctory “Stop it, boy.”
Richard didn’t stop it. He simply shook his unkempt curly red locks and moved on to the next item. Mrs. Elrod aged a little that night. She would get a lot older before spring.
There was some part of me that was glad Richard came to Austell Elementary. Suddenly I was not the only white trash boy in the class, and Richard’s version was an inoperable stage-four case relative to my petty rebellions. Richard could neither read nor cipher. He cursed, stole, lied, broke stuff, kicked people, and threw everything he touched. Something was always flying in Mrs. Elrod’s class: pencils, erasers, hair bows, and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I actually think Mrs. Elrod slimmed a bit that session, simply by marching Richard to Mr. Sprayberry’s office three or four times each day.
Richard was immune to every known didactical behavior intervention of the era. Even a few hardy whacks from Sprayberry’s much-feared “board of education” found no corrective purchase. Richard was incorrigible, an adjective I encountered in a racy true crime book. I thought I might never find an opportunity to use it . . . then I met Richard.
As a general policy, I gave Richard a wide berth, though he did manage to kick me on occasion as I walked past his isolation desk on my way to the pencil sharpener. It’s not as if Richard sat atop the well-established male pecking order. He was outside of it and kicked everyone with pure democratic abandon. Even the bigger boys who might have bested Richard in fair fisticuffs understood the innate advantage of insanity. So, I generally avoided Richard, but I always watched him, for both personal safety and endless entertainment.
One day at recess, I observed Richard gathering hard green cones from a pine tree at the edge of the playground. It was odd that Richard was even at recess, a privilege he rarely enjoyed. I was not shocked by this act of gathering. If artillery is your calling, then amassing ammunition is just part of the process. What he did next though was shocking, even for Richard.
Richard removed the perpetually snot-stained green shirt and transformed it into a functional munitions poke. And then – as God is my witness – the little hellion ran behind the lunchroom into the teacher’s lot and began chunking the cones at Mr. Sprayberry’s pristine baby blue Buick Electra 225. I followed, and watched from a distance. Honed by what I assumed to be incessant practice, Richard’s aim was deadly, and within five minutes, the shiny clear coat was well-abraded. However, no one else but me saw.
A janitor soon discovered the scene, and all the classes went in lockdown mode. The great inquisition began. For the next several days, all the students faced repeated interrogation. Sprayberry questioned me twice, the veins pulsing in his bald crimsoned skull; twice I held fast. Everyone assumed Richard’s guilt, but wanton Buick vandalism must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Old man Sprayberry demanded evidence. Proof of such a transgression would warrant a complete expulsion.
After ten days, Richard cracked – more from boredom than contrition, I expect – and spilled the pinecones himself. Sprayberry won. Mrs. Elrod won. I guess we all kinda won. The pencil sharpener path and the peanut butter sandwiches were all safer. Once again, learning at Austell Elementary school was mundane and benign.
We heard the school board sent Richard to a special school where they thought they knew how to handle throwers and kickers. We heard Richard proved them wrong. We heard that Richard played chicken with a new F-150 and lost. We heard he survived but walked with a limp and couldn’t kick very well anymore. We heard Mrs. Elrod retired early, took up smoking and drinking, and moved to Panama City Beach. That’s just what we heard.
by Ben Beard
This is the story of two fights, unpunished crimes, dingy high schools, errant punches, the unreliability of memory and a semi-hidden psychopath. It’s also the story of the Florida Panhandle, the 1990s, and the end of my youth.
Memory is tricky, collapsible, untrustworthy, elusive, sometimes misleading, often contradictory. Our brains are as often as not eliding key details, creating narratives, reordering sequences. But one thing I’m certain of: when I was fourteen, I ran into the meanest person I’ve ever met, a teenager who, over the years, has transmogrified into something darker, something out of a fairytale or a myth.
Let’s call him Tony.
He was one year older than me, but it felt like a decade. He had olive-toned skin, wavy black hair, a nose a little too small for his face, dark brown eyes, and an inexplicably Welsh last name, despite his Mediterranean features. He could be part Greek or Italian, with a soupcon of French. Whatever his genetics, the result was a disaster. He was volatile, terrifying, rapey. He radiated menace. User of steroids in high school. Possessor of fully formed pectoral muscles.
Me: Tall, gawky, curly-haired, ill-fashioned, friendly, lover of comic books and video games, and still playing with toys at 14. I liked The Beatles, Jellyfish, The Connells, and R.E.M. I was competitive in soccer but gentle in just about everything else.
This was right before grunge exploded, somewhere in early 1992, right before flannel hit, when people wore shirts meant for cold rain and light snow in the sultry heat of Pensacola, the shirts often unbuttoned and dangling open with an alternative-rock band shirt underneath. If you were really cool, it’d be Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh. If you wanted to look cool but couldn’t quite fake it, Polvo or Firehose. If you had a little money and really cared what others thought, it might be Archers of Loaf or Pavement. Most kids had Led Zeppelin apparel. The clothes were shares of granola, beige, burgundy, campfire, and sienna. Pants were just extending into the baggy spectrum, on their way to absurd late-’90s decadent flare, culminating in jean skirts for men that never caught on.
We distrusted bright colors. They spoke of ’80s excess, of peacock posturing, of the West Coast, of elsewhere. Everyone wore khaki and beige, horizontal stripes. Even the white t-shirts were faded.
The categories of high school—nerds and jocks and burnouts and cheerleaders and band geeks and so on—were breaking down. It was a ’90s thing. You could be good at sports and good at school and good at music but the one thing you could not do was show that you actually cared. An abiding spirit of irony and detachment saturated everything. The key concept was disengagement. The vibe was apathetic. Striving was lame, trying was worse, and caring for anything was seen as dumb.
Seinfeld, a show that advertised itself as a show about nothing, would in just a couple of years be the top program on TV.
The categories were breaking down. Or maybe they were evolving. We were most of us swimming in least-worst spender mentality—wary of success, distrustful of authority, of money, floating in a post-Cold War opulence that we all interpreted as end-of-history ennui. We didn’t have everything. No one seemed happy. We had cut our teeth on Cold War animus and with the Berlin Wall now a memory a tentative optimism took hold but no one knew what to do with it and we were children, still, and children don’t know what to do with anything.
Tony didn’t fit into the old categories. He was too moody to be a meathead—meatheads hold a revelry in ignorance and violence, there was a joy in the meathead’s assholery, and if you played your part, they’d leave you alone; Dazed and Confused captured them best, with the asshole who proclaims, “I’m here to kick ass and drink beer. And I’m running out of beer.”—but he didn’t brood in any noticeable way. He wasn’t an update of Bender from The Breakfast Club, he didn’t write poetry or listen to The Cure. I don’t know what kind of music he liked, but if I had to guess, I’d say he probably complained about what was on the radio, holding a secret penchant for Celine Dion or the Spin Doctors. He drove a truck, but I don’t remember him being a hunter or into fishing. He didn’t surf, despite living near the beach.
In retrospect, much of him is unknowable.
It started with two other sophomores—Sean and Neal—telling me during lunch that they heard I had been talking about their mamas. I said I hadn’t; I was too naive to throw the joke back at them. This was in the cafeteria, one of the unsafe places in the school. (The bathrooms, the locker room, the senior hallway, the quad, and the field behind the school were the others.) Tony walked up and joined in, only unlike Sean and Neal, he was genuinely threatening. He had pectoral muscles and enormous biceps, menacing brown eyes, and a hard, bitter mouth. He asked me again.
“No,” I said.
“I heard you’ve been talking about my mama,” he said again.
I knew I was in trouble. I was still new to the school and didn’t yet have the lay of the land, but my internal alarms were ringing. I repeated myself. Tony wasn’t having it. I tried to shrug him off, move past him back to my table. The gambit worked, or so I thought.
I always went out to the quad after I ate, and this day was no exception. Only Tony followed me. Right behind me. And he asked again why I was talking about his mama. I said I hadn’t been. He asked me again, closer this time. I noticed that my friend Cody was nearby, watching and clearly worried. Tony kept coming at me about his mama, while students milled about and pretended to look at the dirt and the sky. We were near the door to the main school, a sandy patch of crabgrass edged with desiccated hydrangeas. He was in my face, and it was all happening so fast all I could think was, what is happening? Why aren’t the adults doing anything? I didn’t look around but sensed the growing audience of onlookers, doing nothing.
He shoved me. I shoved him back. He inhaled, swelling up to double his size, dropping his arms to his sides, preparing to administer a beat-down.
Then Braden—kind, tough, bowl-cutted Braden, a guy I’d known in middle school but was never friends with—stepped in. “Hey,” Braden said. “He’s cool. Let him alone.”
Tony took stock. He wasn’t looking for beef with Braden. “You really weren’t talking about my mama?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Never.”
The bell rang. We entered the school, a mass of lemmings. Cody and I headed for art class.
“Oh my god,” he said. “I would have been shitting myself.”
“Yeah,” I said, my hands not shaking but they might as well have been. I was petrified.
Thus began my relationship with Tony. One of the truly heinous people I’ve ever met.
In the after-school specials, the books and the movies, bullies are cowards. I’ve never found this to be true. Yes, most bullies look for easier prey—say, me, at 14—but my pushing Tony back had accomplished nothing.
Tony stalked the hallways. He was a moody motherfucker, often shoving past underclassmen in a puffed-up rage. He dated Janey, a girl uniformly acknowledged as one of the prettiest in the school whose locker was unfortunately next to mine. So Tony was always lurking about. I avoided eye contact, praying that Braden’s protection extended to all four years. Around this time, he head-butted a friend of mine who tried to intercede in their dysfunctional dynamic.
But it was a small school. We ran into each other. One day, after soccer practice, he was skulking around the track, shirtless, strutting around with his ridiculous physique. He pretended to punch me in the chest as I passed by. It was a thing. If you didn’t have pecs, you had a bird. And older kids would extend their middle knuckle and jack you right in your breast bone, saying, “Shut that bird!” It was a weird north Florida thing.
Weirdly, Tony didn’t actually hit me, just pretended to, making disparaging remarks. I moved along, grateful the interaction didn’t last any longer. Also, I was curious: why hadn’t he punched me?
Tony was part of a rowdy, dysfunctional, disreputable class. There were pranksters who always took their jokes too far; burnouts rocking the flannel as an advertisement for their weed-smoking; metal-heads pushing the dress code with their wristbands; skaters, smokers, nerds, assholes, geeks, and rednecks. It was a liminal time. They all seemed to hang out together, to tolerate each other, despite the meanness and the irrationality. Tony fit right in. They all seemed damaged. They all seemed off-kilter. They drove trucks and listened to Metallica. They wore Vans and drank cheap beer. They played football and basketball, with the occasional freak drifting into soccer.
The emerging class of skate-punks—most of whom didn’t skate—and the older hunting/fishing/camping crowd—most of whom did hunt and fish—were at loggerheads. They lived in different worlds. The school was a microcosm of the Florida Panhandle, split between the new-old sound of grunge and the old-new sound of country.
Grunge broke through with the appearance of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, the Screaming Trees, and Mudhoney, but it was really the first three that formed the locus of the music, and all of them hit through MTV. The bands didn’t have much in common beyond a boozy, angry, fuzzy sound, rock stripped back to its basics. But it wasn’t inevitable. Surf punk a la Jane’s Addiction—singing about heroin and homelessness and the squalid viciousness of the human animal—could have caught on. There were other bands, other trends. Industrial music—a clangy, heavy-metal derived sound—appeared with Nine Inch Nails, Tool (one of the most fascinating bands of the decade), and Circle of Dust.
I hadn’t yet succumbed to the primal angst of punk. I liked P.J. Harvey and the Lemonheads and the Las, a kind of fuzzy, early shoe-gaze alternative music, and was just six months away from Pavement and other slacker rock bands. I was still open to new things. I still listened to the radio, but I was more and more drawn to the underground. So, it seems, was everyone else.
Fast forward two years.
After school one day, Peyton and Devon got into a fight after school. I knew them both. We all grew up in the Cordova Park neighborhood, festooning with teenagers during my childhood, too many to name, boys and girls that almost all went to Washington High. The fight was set up ahead of time. I can’t remember what it was about, only that I had a makeup test the same day so I missed it. Half the school showed up to this abandoned field of overgrown grasses, parking their cars in a semicircle on the grass. Fights normally didn’t actually happen this way, and Peyton and Devon probably would have exchanged words but avoided punches.
But Tony and a meathead named Brandon told them in front of everyone that if they didn’t fight each other, then they would both get their asses beat. “We’ll fuck you both up,” Brandon said, with Tony scowling behind him. So Peyton and Devon squared off. It was a warm, sunny day. They each held their fists in front of their faces, like pugilists of old. Everyone stopped talking, giggling. They waited, leaning in, the eyes of half the school peeled, the crowd half-frozen in blood lust reverie.
A few quick asides:
Brandon was a pretty horrific person in his own right, thick-necked and ignorant, but also predictable, an old-fashioned redneck. He sported a serious mullet. He had enormous hands. He liked football, fighting, drinking, and fishing. He was a dour and humorless guy. He carried the face and features of a middle-aged man while a junior in high school. He was part of a teenage fight club that met behind the bowling alley by the airport, where the members would fight each other for fun, knocking back beers in a circle of truck headlights. They had a few rules but the point was to pummel each other and practice their brutality. He died a few years back in a fishing accident. Working on his boat, he slipped, hit his head, and fell into the water, where he drowned. The various obituaries said he was beloved.
I’ve known Peyton since I was seven years old. We were good friends, then acquaintances, then good friends again, now all of it swallowed by the crush of time. Peyton was a puckish guy, funny, quick with the pranks. He got bored easily. Once, in a varsity soccer game, he retrieved the ball by the bleachers of the opposing fans. They were heckling him. He pulled his pants down, subtly, and then when he bent over to get the ball, mooned all the parents and siblings of the other team. No one else noticed. He once made a giant rope of rubber bands just to attach it to my friend’s car when we picked him up to go to the movies. Dozens of people yelled out of their car windows on the way, “You have something trailing from the back of your car!” We pulled over and took it off. Peyton didn’t let on that he had put it there.
I was with him when the nation’s news stations broke to O.J. Simpson fleeing down the freeway in his white Bronco. We watched, unsure if we should laugh or hide our eyes, as the white Bronco made its quiet way down the freeway devoid of cars. We knew this was a big deal. We were mesmerized. Here was Simpson, a favorite of mine thanks to The Naked Gun, armed and suicidal and fleeing police. We knew we were watching something significant, even if we weren’t sure why.
I sided with him in his beef with Devon, even if I never understood the conflict. We were all on the soccer team, and I never realized it was heading towards fists.
Faced with the threats by Brandon and Tony, Peyton and Devon squared off. Peyton ducked and weaved, like an old-style pugilist, tagging Devon in the face and stomach. Devon landed a glancing blow off Peyton’s head. Peyton kept moving forward. He punched Devon a few more times. He beat Devon up. Devin fell to the ground, signaling the fight was over. Peyton backed up and walked away. His part in the fight was over. He got in his car and left, his retinue close behind.
As Devon started to get up, dust and dirt on his arms and back, shaky on one knee, Tony stepped forward and kicked Devon savagely in the ribs. Devon fell back against the trailer hitch of a truck, and busted his eye. Tony said something nasty, something like, “You fucking pussy.”
Sickened, everyone left, Devon one of the last.
I went to a girls’ basketball game the next night. A couple of my friends were playing. I went alone and sat by myself. I cheered a little, enjoying the back and forth. Halfway through the game, Tony dropped down into the seat next to me. I tried to hide my panic.
“’Sup,” he said.
“Hey,” I said, thinking, what the hell is going on?
“Kind of a lame game,” he said.
We sat in relative quiet, the gym filled with the echoing bounce of the basketball, the coaches yelling and the cheering parents. I was shitting myself.
“You at the fight?” he asked.
“Naw,” I said. “I had a test.”
“That’s fucked up,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It sucks.”
He leaned back against the bleachers. You’d think we were pals. “I just don’t like pussies, you know? I just don’t like when people are pussies. If there’s a fight, then fight. Do it. Don’t be a pussy.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking, why are you talking to me?
And I knew he was talking about the kick, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. I reflected everything back at him. The strategy worked.
“I’ll see you around,” he said, then headed off, the normal swagger gone. There was something lonely about his shoulders.
A year passed.
I went to a party with Chad, a friend of mine in Tony’s grade. We weren’t there but ten minutes before Tony popped me in the back of the head, an errant punch. I swung around, ready to fight. Chad hustled me out the door. “That was Tony,” he said, aghast. “What the hell are you thinking?”
In a parallel universe, Chad isn’t there. It plays out one of three ways. One: I George McFly his ass with a wild haymaker, breaking his nose. He crumples onto the floor and maybe I kick him a few times while he’s down. Two: I miss or he blocks it, and then he proceeds with the beat-down. Three: we get into it but the other people there break it up.
Chad and I left. He was right, of course. We fucked off, drove around a bit, listening to Beck before eating some hamburgers at Whataburger.
Here’s where memory is tricky. I know this happened, but the hit couldn’t have been very hard, and Tony and I were rarely at the same parties. I don’t know how he saw me as we both got older. I don’t know if he thought I was cocky or meek or reckless or strong or weak or strange, perhaps a little dangerous, too.
I was a bit of all of these things, maybe. I wasn’t a timid wallflower. I once tried to start a fight with a deaf kid in a pickup basketball game. (To be fair, he was a bully himself.) I shoved another kid into the Gulf, out of anger. At a church retreat. I injured multiple people in soccer and at least one for life. A teacher at my high school proclaimed in front of a large group that I had the Devil in me. Even though she wasn’t joking, I laughed.
I possess a hidden face, and it was and is hostile. I wasn’t all good.
Tony graduated. He went to college in Alabama. He joined a fraternity. I can’t imagine what his college life was like, the hidden tensions, the resentments, the loneliness. I don’t know if he followed co-eds home in the dark, or studied philosophy, read Kerouac and Hesse, or hit the weights and drank himself into a stupor at frat parties. I don’t know.
I went to college in Alabama, too, far from Tony. I didn’t hear about him for a couple of years, and I didn’t think about him, either. This was the late ’90s. Grunge in the rearview mirror. The dot-com boom. The Clinton impeachment. The pre-9/11 years of minor cultural squabbling, with hip hop beginning its ascendancy.
I heard little updates about him here and there—and the stories are really fucking dark, truly depraved and scary stuff, with Tony running someone over in his car and braining another with a brick—but with each passing day the likelihood that I would ever see him again decreased.
My buddy Robert stayed in Pensacola. He got a job as a lineman for the phone company. He rented a small house with a group of friends, right near the oyster bar, just off Bayou Texar. One night he threw a party. Some dickhead started shit with him. They fought. Robert won. But the dickhead wouldn’t leave. He stood in the yard, talking shit and making some threats. Robert was done with him. But the dude wouldn’t leave. Tony was there. God knows why. He grabbed the dude by the hair and said, “Boo-yah bitch!” before kneeing him right in the face, breaking his nose. The dickhead dragged himself to his car, and screamed at Robert and Tony and everyone else through his bloody nose that he’d be back the next night, with a gun, and was going to shoot every fucking one of them.
We weren’t kids anymore. Tony was in his mid-twenties. I had already graduated college and was working my first job in Alabama. The ’90s had ended. The 2000s were here.
My wife has taken to practicing extreme empathy. She tries to extend grace to people she dislikes or even loathes, mostly right-wing political figures. “It’s a way of letting go of negative emotions,” she tells me. “The person you hate is unharmed and you are burned up with resentment.”
I’m a nonviolent person. I try to be good. But I cannot forgive Tony. He remains on my not-so-shortlist. I brood. I like holding on to my resentments. I don’t like being a resentful grudge-holder, but I come by it naturally. I’m mostly Scottish, a grouchy, clannish hill people ill-tempered by centuries of haggis, English imperialism, and interminable rain, with only the goddamn screeching bagpipes for succor and comfort. We have this in our very bones.
The film critic A.O. Scott writes in a recent essay that, “The things you loved when you were young will never be able to make you young again.” Perhaps this is the way of hate, too. I’ve held on to Tony; I don’t want to let him go. I keep the anger close, and the fear closer. I should have exorcised Tony from my mind a long time ago. I’ve wasted precious time on him that I could have spent living my own life.