“I work heavy construction in New Jersey.”
You know this guy, right? You may not know this particular guy, but you know this kind of guy. His last name is something Italian, Polish or Irish, an -icelli, a -warski or an O’-something. His gut is considerable. His opinions on women, queer folks and people who aren’t like him are reprehensible. He might be a union man, but he voted Trump to trigger the libs and because of something half-thought-out about trade deals.
Only this guy isn’t that guy. He’s Bud Smith, the best American author you haven’t heard of (yet), and a damn nice guy.
I first came across Smith through one of his most recent publications, the short story collection Double Bird. There’s been a kind of post-alt-lit current coalescing on the margins of the literary world, far from the Big Five publishers, fostered by publishing houses like Tyrant Books (infamous for banning agented writers from its enviable roster), Civil Coping Mechanisms and journals like Hobart. Smith was getting mentioned in the same breath as writers in this nameless scene that I love, so I checked out his work — and wow.
Double Bird is actually an outlier in his bibliography. The short stories play with magical realism, or the straight-up strange, coming off more like Pulitzer winner Kelly Link than the kind of affected affectlessness of the alt-lit kids who came and went before him. Every story was wholly unique, from the man running away from his problems by dynamiting a hole to the center of the earth, to the post-apocalyptic survivor with a fatal case of wanderlust. But they were all wholly Smith, all in his imitable voice.
Next for me was WORK, a shift of gears in tone but not delivery. It’s a straight-up memoir, covering his life starting with a childhood he sums up to me, via email, as “lots to do in the summer, nothing to do in the winter. No neighborhood kids to play football in the street with, or anything. Then when I was 11, we moved to the regular suburbs. I played Nintendo with friends, 99-cent VHS rentals, but solitude was even better. I read a lot of books, horror novels and spy novels, and was a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes.”
After that, there was the eponymous work — first creating waterfalls for the swimming pools in rich folks’ homes (auto-fictionalized in his book F250), then the aforementioned heavy construction. It’s an ordinary job by global standards, something out of a Springsteen song, but ordinary jobs aren’t something we hear much about in literature. Here’s how a typical day goes: “I get up at 5 a.m., eat something for breakfast, get my lunch together and then drive to work. I punch in, go through a turnstile, put on work boots, fireproof suit, gloves, safety glasses, hard hat and put in earplugs. Then I go weld something out in the oil refinery that’s broken, or I take apart a piece of machinery that’s broken down. Sometimes the machines are as big as a house.”
If it sounds blue-collar, that’s because it’s the very definition of blue-collar. He finds time on lunch breaks to write, and when you read one of his short stories or a chapter of his serialized novels, you’re reading something that was typed in an oil refinery, in the freezing cold or blazing heat. He fits in an extra couple of hours of writing after work at his home in New York and avoids easy but unfulfilling distractions like video games and TV.
He notes that the people he works with “don’t have more fun anywhere else, they have the best time at work.” He makes the physical labor that a lot of millennials got in thousands of dollars of student debt to avoid sound kinda great — the camaraderie, the joking around and talking shit, the rules you have to follow because if you don’t, somebody will die (WORK was originally serialized as Work Safe or Die Trying). He also talks about how he didn’t go to college because he could just read thousands of books. He’s the epitome of leaving behind all the crap you don’t need, and working really hard on the things you do.
That’s what’s always amazed me about Smith: He can do four hours of some of the hardest work somebody can do in the Western world, write incredible things with a phone in one hand and a sandwich in the other during lunch and then spend another four hours in which he could fall, be crushed or incinerated at any moment before writing some more. Plus, he’s so goddamn nice. Not in some cloying, cutesy way, but because he has stuff figured out. Among all the burnouts, creeps, racists and rapists in contemporary alternative literature, he stands out as uniquely mentally healthy, at a time when a good part of male identity is performative asshole-ry.
It doesn’t mean that he avoids difficult subjects in his work either. His next novel, Teenager, out very soon on the aforementioned Tyrant Books, has fertilizer bombs and doomed, deadly romance from the jump. He says, “The most powerful writing I can think of is about sadness as longing, as want, as a desire for a thing one may never get,” and that writers “have to go all the way to hell, and when we get to hell, we have to talk about how we could have gotten to heaven too if the wind had just been blowing a different direction.”
The thing that gets us from heaven to hell in his books — and very probably, life — is putting in the work. Even in his least realistic fiction, it’s a willingness to expend effort that drives the plot: In “Tiger Blood,” the first story in Double Bird, a man goes on a date with a woman who claims to have tigers in her blood. They break into a community college science lab, put a drop of her blood under the microscope, and yup, thousands of miniature tigers. The man could have dismissed her as crazy or just not wanted to break-and-enter on a first date, but he opened himself up, put in the work and saw something nobody else has ever seen.
Smith has a similarly unpretentious attitude toward work: “Being in a society is work. Being in a family is work. If you put in the effort, you’ll be rewarded because you’ll grow as a person. If you avoid the work, you’ll always stay the same, and you’ll be cheating yourself.”
It would be tempting to lump in Smith with the canon of quintessential Guy Writers: Bukowski, Hubert Selby Jr., John Fante, Céline, Hemingway. He says that he gets compared to Kerouac, though he lacks the aching self-importance. Moreover, in his work, you’ll see a much healthier vision of what a man can be than what you’ll find in the writing of those other Guys (with the capital G, of course). He’s not doing the whole Magnificent Bastard shtick: men who are terrible, most of all to women, but who are just so raw and real that you have no choice but to excuse how awful they are (again, to women).
Smith’s guys might be somewhat schlubby and naive, but they aren’t bad people. The writer who comes to his mind when I ask him about how he writes men isn’t some dorm-room staple punching their typewriter into submission after an inadvisable quantity of liquor, it’s Virginia Woolf. He admires how in To the Lighthouse no character is truly good or bad, rather there are unresolved, probably unresolvable arguments for and against them being either. Another inspiration is his friends and co-workers, since he says to understand somebody well enough to write about them, you have to become their friend.
After all, Smith is just that kind of guy.