John Goldbach’s Selected Blackouts

By Spencer Gordon

I hope John Goldbach is nothing like his characters. I’m saying this in the most positive way imaginable; I’m saying this because I can imagine his characters as real people, coach surfing while snogging with their buddy’s girlfriend, chain smoking cigarettes and chugging back countless pints of water and aspirin to rid themselves of massive, crippling hangovers.

It’s to Goldbach’s credit that most readers can recognize somebody they know in one of his stories – someone reasonably intelligent and sensitive, but clouded in ethical obligation and ambition by a certain type of everyday sadness: the kind that manifests in cynicism and bitterness and a tendency to hit the bottle way too hard. These aren’t the destitute heroin addicts, pimps and criminals of a novel by Irvine Welsh or Hubert Selby, Jr., but the post-university crowd of men and women inching toward an overwhelming apathy, a pathetic truce with fizzled aspiration – what the late David Foster Wallace might call “the gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.” Goldbach’s younger crop of characters seem equally recognizable – naïve and stumbling but so desperately eager to feel – which is the typical way most smart kids endure their strange and terrifying high school sentences.

I got in touch with John Goldbach to discuss his debut novel Selected Blackouts (Insomniac 2009), the writing and editing process, his influences, and the literary scene in his home base, Montreal. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t blackout during our conversation, but with veteran drinkers it’s sometimes hard to tell.

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Selected Blackouts wasn’t the product of sudden inspiration and manic output (a la Kerouac’s On the Road), but rather one of slow, steady discipline. Though some of the works included in the book are “connected and interrelated”, most were written “independently of each other” over the course of several years. “I spent a good deal of my twenties working toward the book,” Goldbach admits. “The book came together over a long period of time, [with] seven or eight of the stories being published in journals before the collection” (journals including Descant, Matrix, Hobart, Smyles & Fish, Waccamaw, The Shore, and The Globe and Mail). For any aspiring writer, this is always nice to hear – that the hurdles and ditches or our twenties can eventually flatten into firm ground, and we realize that it’s never been a race, but a marathon.

I find Goldbach’s stories to be accessible, stripped-down works that swing between first and third person without a dramatic change in voice – a kind of minimal mixture of Raymond Carver and Bret Easton Ellis, albeit with a decidedly lighter tone. “I don’t know if I think of the stories as minimalist,” Goldbach counters, “but with short stories there isn’t a lot of room for digression, so I wanted them to be fairly tight, in a sense, if possible.” It’s interesting, then, to discover that several of Goldbach’s literary influences and current interests (which he was understandably enthused to share) aren’t exactly known as masters of concision. “Dostoevsky, Gogol, Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Beckett are a few writers I love to read and reread,” he lists, “as are Philip Roth and Mordecai Richler and Gilbert Sorrentino and David Foster Wallace and many more. I’m just finishing António Lobo Antunes’s What Can I Do When Everything’s On Fire? (W.W. Norton 2008) and it’s a remarkable novel; in some ways, it reminds me of Faulkner but also of William Gaddis – two other incredible, impacting writers. It’s one of the most interesting and awesome novels I’ve read recently, that’s to say, by a contemporary writer (i.e., someone who’s alive!). Also, I’m currently reading The Essays of Leonard Michaels (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2008) – which is terrific – and I’m about to start Ann Quinn’s Berg (Dalkey 2001), which a friend highly recommended – so I’m looking forward to reading it, too.”

I asked Goldbach about his experiences working with Insomniac Press, as well as his editor – fiction/poetry writer and all around very busy guy – Jon Paul Fiorentino. “Working with Jon was good. He didn’t change much – just suggested a few cuts, which I was happy to implement, and made a few other suggestions. He’s an encouraging editor and I enjoyed working with him quite a bit. Working with Insomniac, too, went well.” I suppose if readers want any juicy gossip about the Insomniac editing process, they’ll have to pry it from Fiorentino – Goldbach is perhaps wisely keeping details under wrap.

Living in the very literary-friendly city of Montreal, and judging by his characters’ social habits, one might imagine that Goldbach is a frequent and enthusiastic attendee of readings. Not so, as it turns out. “I don’t read live that often,” he says. “I like it, I think, ultimately, but at the time it’s a little anxiety-inducing. It can be fun, though I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. And I enjoy going to readings sometimes. And as far as the Montreal literary scene goes, I have some friends here that are writers and some that are very good readers and some that are both – a lot of people seem to read literary fiction in this city, which is great – but I don’t think I’m that involved in any scene, though I do like to have beers and talk about books with some of my friends sometimes. And I do read my friends’ work, too. I think Montreal’s a city of several scenes but also a good place to work on what you’re working on. I like that about the city; there’s a lot going on but room to do your own work.”

For enthusiasts of Goldbach’s writing, there’s some good news: it seems he’s already got a few more projects on the go. “I’m working on some new stories and a novel,” he says. “It’s hard for me to say if the themes are similar in the newer stuff but if the themes are similar, the treatment’s a little different, I think. But I’m sure there’ll inevitably be some recurring ideas.”

And yet, alas – with the good news comes the bad: that’s all I could seem to get from him on the subject. All you avid Goldbach fans will simply have to keep your shorts on and wait until these new pieces are revealed in print. One may feel the urge to go on an extended bender until then, but please, take it from me – speeding up time by means of a massive blackout is never, ever a good idea.