MY FUNDAMENTAL TEXT by Geoff Herbach
Last night I had the opportunity to do a reading from my new book, Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders, at a wonderful little bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota called The Red Balloon. This bookstore caters to everyone from the toddler set to 18-year-olds. It’s colorful. It’s bright. It’s inviting. It’s cheerful. I love the place.
I read with my good friend Jeff Smieding who recently put out a YA book called The Salt Machine. My wife and I have four kids between the ages of 12 and 16. Jeff has two kids, one in preschool and one in elementary school. There were plenty of kids in the audience. Jeff and I have read many, many times before together. Oh no, there were never kids there then.
Nearly a decade ago, Jeff and I were in a group called the Lit 6 Project. Even though I had a hand in coming up with that name, I don’t remember what it was suppose to mean, exactly. I think the Lit had something to do with literature. I think it also had something to do with beer, because our primary mission was to write the funniest, wildest stories we could come up with and then deliver those stories in rock clubs, as if we were some kind of powerful rock band (instead of a band of merry nerds). The places we “played” were not colorful, bright, inviting, or cheerful. They were dank. And, I loved them, too.
Sometimes the shows were great. We wrote a series of wicked coming of age stories and framed the event as my Bar Mitzvah (I was in my thirties). We handed out greeting cards and everyone in the audience wrote congratulation notes. The night ended with the band playing The Horah, the whole crowd dancing madly, and various people being launched into the air in chairs.
Sometimes the shows were utter misery. We opened for the band Of Montreal in 2005. Very angry members of the audience hurled insults (and a few bottles) at us as we told our stories. We wouldn’t relinquish the mic. We were loathed! In some ways, I cherish that memory more than any other. Who gets the opportunity to be cussed out by a drunken, borderline violent, throng while reading a short story? That was a hard won defeat, for certain.
When I was a kid, I was tortured by an unholy trinity in my neighborhood: Cliff Serdel, The Martens Twins, and Troy Kleiner. Maybe tortured is extreme. They told me I roller-skated like a grandma. They said my bike, which I built and re-built by myself, was stupid. One of them killed a frog and stuffed it down my shirt as I squealed and cried. Okay, minor torture. They scared me. They made me feel small and vulnerable. I never fought back. I tried to hide.
By high school, I’d grown a bit bigger (thank God), and I’d read Catcher in the Rye (thank God). Holden Caufield’s repulsion spoke to me so hard. So did his courage. So did his rebellion. When I was a freshman, a member of the unholy trinity – he was a junior at the time – tripped me as I walked past in the hall. I didn’t fall, just stumbled a couple of steps. Then he said, “You got fat ears.” Fat ears? I stopped walking, turned, and took two steps so that we were face-to-face. I said, “You’re an idiot. I’m sorry.” Then I blew a stream of air into his eyes (gross – I don’t know why I did that). Then I prepared to be beaten or to fight until I was beaten. He didn’t do a thing. In fact, he looked super scared, deflated. I smiled and walked away (also my heart pounded and I thought I might throw up). Here’s the thing: I’d begun lifting weights a lot and I played sports and I was pretty good, so that might’ve given me some confidence. But what really happened was this: Holden Caufield had taken over my perspective on things. He hurt bad. He wouldn’t go down, though. Not without his personal dignity (with his personal dignity he’d gladly go down hard). I believed Holden Caufield and he changed my approach to the world and I felt so much better.
The Lit 6 Project wasn’t a band. But, it was punk rock in some ways. It was rebellious and ridiculous and fun and sort of dangerous sometimes. It was Holden Caufield the way I read Holden Caufield when I was young: If you’re not with me, you’re a phony, okay?
What’s cool about Catcher is how it’s grown with me. Reading with my old Lit 6 pal, Jeff, at Red Balloon, both of us dads, both of us concerned with the well-being of kids, has as much to do with Holden Caufield as my high school rebellion against a bully or my initial writing successes: beer-drenched events at rock clubs. Now, I think about Holden’s empathy. I think about how his love for his sister, how he erases profane graffiti to protect kids, how he wants to be a Catcher in the Rye, to stop kids from falling off the cliff (just a powerful metaphor for the loss of authenticity and innocence). Jeff and I read our books, the ones we wrote for kids, in a bright, cheerful, perfect little bookstore in St. Paul. I wouldn’t have been there last night if it weren’t for Holden Caufield. He continues to change my approach to the world as I grow older (maybe he caught me before I went over the cliff?).
Yeah, this is what I wish for everyone: an exposure to a thousand books. My teachers and parents stuck so many in my hands. I read most. Lots I liked. Some I didn’t. And, eventually, I received my fundamental text, the book that changed me then, grew with me as I grew, and continues to inform my relationship to the world. I wish for everyone to find their own fundamental text.
Geoff Herbach’s Young Adult novels, Stupid Fast, Nothing Special, I’m With Stupid, and Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders, have been listed in the year’s best by the American Library Association, The American Booksellers Association, and many state library associations. They’ve won the Cybils for best YA Fiction and the Minnesota Book Award. Prior to writing YA, Geoff published a literary novel, wrote comedic radio and stage shows, and traveled the country telling weird stories in rock clubs. He teaches creative writing at Minnesota State, Mankato and lives in a log cabin with a very tall wife and many kids.