The tall guy
Novelist Jack Pendarvis empathizes with a friendly giant.
Tue Jul 29 2008
Photograph: Charles G. Steffen
For Jack Pendarvis, playing by the rules never paid off. After catching the writing bug while in college, he spent years sending carefully crafted stories to one literary journal at a time, never challenging the publishing etiquette that frowns on simultaneous submissions. But after two decades of rejection, Pendarvis, 45, revised his plan. “Mounting frustration changed my writing style,” he tells TONY from his home in Oxford, Mississippi, where he currently teaches. “It inspired me to produce a series of rage-filled stories.”
Readers of this work, collected in The Mysterious Secret of Valuable Treasures and Your Body Is Changing (both came out in 2007), noticed some anger and frustration, sure (one story portrays a radio DJ who tries to up his notoriety by burying himself alive). But even more obvious is Pendarvis’s penchant for the fantastic and the fantastically silly. This is an author who likes to dwell on topics such as the psychological state of a squeaky-voiced man whose primary goal is to work on audiobooks.
That silliness is on full display in Pendarvis’s debut novel, about a wealthy and sexy giant named Awesome. For such a short novel, Awesome feels very, well, big. The book is not only a detailed account of the day-to-day life of a 50-foot-tall man, but a blend of literary references (Borges, Mark Twain) and lowbrow comedy. It is also, at its heart, a love story: Our protagonist must fulfill a handful of Herculean demands to win back his estranged bride, Glorious Jones. Over the course of the book, Awesome goes in search of both a needle in a haystack and his own severed penis, which is, indeed, huge.
“I want to say something lofty about myself, like, ‘I deal in emotional realism!’ ” the author jokes when asked how someone might market this hard-to-classify work of fiction. “But that makes me want to throw up, so I will say that I consider Awesome a work of grim realism marketed toward people who might identify with lonely giants.”
Pendarvis, who contributes to McSweeney’s and maintains a feisty blog, has been praised for his highly tuned sense of the absurd, winning him accolades from George Saunders and Barry Hannah. But even with his well-deserved reputation as an original, Pendarvis admits that he became paranoid while writing Awesome that the story’s main idea had already been spoken for. Dave Eggers, he heard, was also working on a story about a giant (it eventually appeared in the anthology The Book of Other People). “I nearly wet my pants,” he remembers. “I e-mailed him and asked if I could see it in advance, just to make sure our giants were different. He was very kind and sent a draft of his story to me. The strange part is, we both had whales in our stories, and the color ocher. But his giant was big enough to eat whales, while mine just makes out with one, so I felt okay about it.”
Even if Awesome is now part of a mini trend, its extra-large protagonist is an ideal embodiment of Pendarvis’s interest in awkwardness—this giant suffers from a literal inability to fit in the world around him. Still, it took time for the character to evolve. “There were several early drafts in which he wasn’t a giant—just some sort of superman, like Popeye or Hercules, and then came a draft when he grew or shrunk at will,” Pendarvis says. “The novelist Tom Franklin, who’s a friend of mine, read that draft and pointed out that if my character wasn’t a giant the whole time, he really wasn’t a giant at all. So I went back and made Awesome a giant all the way through. It was such a simple thing, and it really helped the story, but I couldn’t see it until someone else pointed it out, which is one of the scary things about writing.”
How do you follow up a book about a giant named Awesome? Pendarvis has decided to try out more well-traveled fictional territory, and is currently working on a detective novel, titled Shut Up, Ugly. But don’t expect anything too conventional. The protagonist becomes a detective only because he is mistaken for one—he just falls into it. Pendarvis identifies with this happenstance sleuth: “He’s as clueless as I am.”
Awesome (MacAdam Cage, $18) is out now.