At the start of every semester, my students and I introduce ourselves to one another, and when they hear I’m from New York, they instantly think they know what that means. I live in Tennessee now, and the majority of my students are from the South and Southeast. Around here New York evokes images of Wall Street traders and supermodels and expensive restaurants and everything fancy. But no, I have to tell them, I’m not from that New York. I’m from the other one, the part where people drive pickup trucks and listen to country music and the only celebrities are the local news anchors.
As different from one another as my novels have been, they all in one way or another come back to my experience growing up in a place that I only ever knew as being in the process of disappearing. This was Syracuse, NY, a spot on the same latitudinal line, more or less, as Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit. Syracuse’s story is the familiar Rust-Belt narrative. By the time I was a teenager, it had gone from being a major manufacturing hub to one of America’s most rapidly shrinking cities.
My father had grown up in Syracuse, too, and when I was a kid he enjoyed playing tour guide to the city’s former prosperity, pointing out landmarks of the not-yet-erased past: the empty plant where General Electric once built its TVs; the shuttered complex where Carrier—the world’s largest air-conditioning manufacturer—used to have its headquarters. So too Stickley Furniture, Allied Chemical, General Motors, Chrysler, Smith-Corona, and on and on, all of them reduced to weedy lots.
One of my main inheritances from this upbringing—and consequently one of my preoccupations as a novelist—is an interest in characters who are living on the margins and wind up in over the heads. In The Boiling Season, my first novel, which is set on a small, turbulent Caribbean island, that character is Alexandre, a poor shopkeeper’s son who dreams of escaping the poverty and violence that surround him. In my second novel, Angels of Detroit, it’s a bunch of misfits trying to figure out how to go on living in a place the world has given up on.
Delivery is my most autobiographical novel. Strangely, though, my path for writing it began not with my own life but with Homer’s Odyssey.
A few years ago I was reading Emily Wilson’s new (at the time) translation. I’d read the Odyssey at least a couple times before. I thought I knew it pretty well. But Wilson’s translation was a kind of revelation. Rather than the elevated, heroic prose that has been the default of previous translations, Wilson concentrates on capturing the syntax and diction of the source material. The result is a story that feels more contemporary, more plainspoken. As a result, Odysseus occupies the page less as some fantastical legend than like someone sitting next to you on a plane. It’s startling, the difference that makes. Suddenly I found myself rethinking a lot of the stuff I’d always taken for granted. For instance, the idea of Odysseus—as I’d always heard him described—as the innocent victim of vengeful gods and mythical creatures. A guy at the mercy of hostile winds. Reading Emily Wilson, I just didn’t see it any more.
Consider the sequence of events after the fall of Troy. Regarded with even a little bit of skepticism, they reveal something interesting: all Odysseus’s misfortunes are set in motion by his own poor choices. His or his crewmates’. It’s a team effort. Unprovoked, they pillage, they steal, they avenge old grievances. They’re not victims. Virtually everything that happens during their plagued return home is nobody’s fault but theirs.
These days we call this kind of thing self-sabotage. And there’s so much of it in the book that after a while it becomes hard not to wonder, is it maybe possible that Odysseus doesn’t actually want to get home after all? Could it be he’s really just stalling?
Here’s a guy about whom songs are sung. A guy who’s joined the pantheon of heroes. A guy the gods know by name. And now he’s just supposed to set all that aside and go back home and be a farmer? No wonder he’s dragging his heels.
And I thought: I know what that’s like. Who hasn’t felt that way? Rudderless. Confused. Terrified. Doing stupid stuff so as to avoid having to face the hard stuff you don’t know how to deal with. For me that was called being a teenager.
That’s how I started writing Delivery. Whether or not Emily Wilson or any other respectable classicist would sanction my particular reading of Odysseus, who knows. Artistic liberties are one of the privileges of writing fiction. So I decided to diagnose Odysseus with toxic masculinity and turn him into a star high school baseball player.
I say this is an autobiographical novel, but alas I was at best a mediocre high school baseball player. I was never in any danger of getting drafted by anyone. But baseball was my life back then, and when I got injured (the same injury I gave my character), that was that. Suddenly that part of my life was over, and I was left with a pile of complicated feelings I didn’t know how to deal with. So I availed myself of that avoidance strategy certain men have been indulging in apparently since the time of Homer: I procrastinated. My diversion was an after-school job delivering pizzas. It was the early 90s. We had CB radios instead of cell phones. Your employer couldn’t track your every move. My car was a piece of junk, and I drove and I drove and I tried to lose myself. But as they say, wherever you go, there you are. Still, every night was an odyssey.
Christopher Hebert is the author of the novels The Boiling Season (HarperCollins), Angels of Detroit (Bloomsbury), and Delivery (forthcoming, Regal). He’s co-editor of Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience (UT Press). Among his other peregrinations have been stints in scholarly and trade publishing, teaching English in Mexico, and fork-lift skiing on 2x4s at a discount lumberyard. New England born, Rust-Belt bred, transplanted to Appalachia, he’s a professor of English in the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee.