With The Great American Suction, his debut novel, David Nutt takes a seat at a table reserved for the perverted visionaries of American dystopia. The novel follows Shaker, a former faux-rocker, a burnout, the exuberant rider of a riding mower, a longtime resident of society’s fringe. Shaker tries to stay out of trouble, but he is a magnet for misadventure. Shaker belongs to a storied tradition of antiheroes who arrive to the reader pre-chewed: he’s as physically evocative as the incontinent Moldenke of David Ohle’s Motorman books, as scum-crusted as any of Harmony Korine’s creations, as comically paranoid as any Pynchon proxy.
Nutt writes like a sentimental dumpster-diver, lovingly enumerating the odd and improbable, the sad and abandoned. The book is full of odds and ends in which the odds—a man who eats cat food, druggies who huff puffer fish, hack-artist impersonators, a municipal-militia cabal—generate wild ends—an explosion, an execution, a betrayal, a resurrection, gunshot wounds, several refried minds. This book is a grimy showroom of the weird and unexpected, but it possesses a formal rigor, the tonal and stylistic control of a writer who prefers to manicure his chaos. Though Shaker’s process of sculpting a trash-phallus would be a nice metaphor for the novelist’s slapdash process of stacking a precarious word-tower and praying it all holds together, Nutt’s not half so haphazard. He writes with tremendous comedic energy, but he takes such verbal care with his sentences as to betray a faith in art and in the redemptive power of language. There is hope for all of us in words—so long as we don’t overdo it on the puffers.
“What is holding our good man Shaker together these days?”
“Bubblegum, hot solder, spiritual malaise. A whole lot of dried glue.”
Shaker, our downtrodden hero, is an unlikely survivor. He’s lived a hard and fast life as a rocker and a huffer of all things chemical and potentially mind-altering. He seems slightly surprised he’s still standing. But for such a self-destructive fellow, he’s wildly unsuccessful at self-destructing. He seems unsure what to do with himself other than commit flamboyant acts of lawn-care. What made you want to pick up Shaker’s story at this particular juncture? He’s led a rich and rollicking past. But you seem more interested in the afterglow of burnout.
David Nutt: Yes, you’re right, Shaker can’t even fail well. I admit, there is something perverse and contrarian about starting the book long after Shaker’s life has crested and all the noteworthy action has already occurred. Shaker is sorta left in the dust. Maybe he is the dust. And I am certainly a perverse and contrarian type myself. Thematically, the stuff that interests me most is always the wreckage, the aftermath. That is the moment of moral reckoning when, as Shaker’s cousin, Darb, says, “the hounds have been called indoors to account.” This also sets up an interesting challenge for a writer: how do you spin out a kinetic narrative from a character stranded amid the blasted landscape of his own combusted life? Even in the aftermath, there is still some vestigial glow. I like that. I think the ancients called it “sad dude syndrome.” Also known as terminal melancholy. But melancholy can be kinda fun, too. It means there’s still a little life left. I’m giving you hope here, Walker. You’re welcome.
At least Shaker’s not eating cat food. There’s hope for him yet. Is it too much if I hope for that, too?
I didn’t say there was THAT much hope. Jesus.
I like this idea of the book’s contrarian spirit. Shaker, as a kind of rebel artist, seems the “perverse and contrarian type” as well. He’s not moved by the usual reasons for making art; he just wants to pile trash on top of more trash. Are we to think Shaker is the purist of all purists? He brings a weirdly devout and near-monkish attention to building his monolith at the dump. I wonder if Shaker would even bother if his project were any less pointless. It seems to be his way of working towards a happy oblivion. How much do you share this view—that there has to be some pointlessness, or lack of direction, to the enterprise? That if you pay too much attention to the why of a project, you might spook it and spoil the whole thing? How much of this book is the work of a fanatical purist who likes to play with garbage?
Is Shaker a purist? Are any of us? What we’re talking about, I think, is authenticity, and that’s definitely a big jumbled thread in the book. Because all the characters have some deeply ingrained fraudulence about them. You referred to Shaker as a rocker earlier, and that’s partly true, but he didn’t really play the bass, he just held the cumbersome thing and mimed to a backing track. The woman who impersonates his musician ex-wife is clearly not the real item. And the ex-wife herself is a sham, what little we glimpse of her: squirming from musical genre to genre, rummaging and poaching other people’s aesthetics, much like Shaker and his trash monument. Yet, beneath their transparent fakeries, there is something very genuine about these acts, I think, a famishment, an urgent human need. There’s no faking that. And let’s face it, the concept of authenticity is its own kind of shell game. All of us like to think of ourselves as genuine, but we’re such colossal frauds. Just look at me. I mean, most of this the-fake-is-realer-than-the-real stuff I rummaged from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Because, hey, that’s what Shaker would’ve done.
But to your main question: I agree, pointlessness is an essential condition of Shaker’s project, and I think that’s true of the best art. It’s stuff that lacks utility. No self-important purpose or sweeping messages or agendas, no political agitprop or finger-wagging schoolmarmism. Just a little mystery, a dash of spiritual dysfunction, some formal tension. Readers will naturally excavate any subliminal meaning, and if there is none, they’ll go ahead and project their own. That’s far more interesting anyway. The most worthwhile art, for me, is the strange thing that sprawls on the kitchen floor, a lump of bloody matted hair and twitchy meat in a snazzy tropical-print shirt, crooning “Happy Birthday” to itself late into the night.
Fuck, I guess I am a purist after all.
That sounds like Shaker’s take on the Big Mouth Billy Bass.
Maybe someone can produce a puffer fish version.
I’m interested in this novel’s stance towards work. Shaker, in the employ or indenture of various scummy overseers, can only find work that demeans, exploits. But the other forms of work we see aren’t much better: his ex-wife puts the sham in “shamanic schtick,” and his cousin, the dark entrepreneur of the novel, deals chemically fortified, hallucinogenic puffer fish. At one point, Shaker grudgingly acknowledges the success of his ex-wife and her industrious hackery. He doesn’t respect it, but he still feels left out: “Shaker…was the only person in this artificial ecosystem not receiving some form of brownbag payola, and he felt a little excluded, a little nixed.” This notion of work and remuneration as an “artificial ecosystem” reverberates throughout the novel, but it’s not a cheap critique of capitalism. In fact, this novel has a lot of affection, or at least guarded reverence, for consumer culture. Among the supermarket shelves is a sense of awe for what one’s painfully-earned money can buy in this country, as Darb’s diet shows. And even though it’s painful to participate in such a bullshit system, Shaker sees that it might be even more painful to be outside it altogether.
Oh totally. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, like many an angsty college-educated suburbanite who loathes the cushy conditions that birthed her or him, I had tremendous hostility for consumer culture, and its twin sibling, gainful employment. But the older I get, the more enthusiastic I am about embracing all the trifling diversions and tchotchkes we squander our financial resources upon (and appreciating the debased means of earning those resources, too). Maybe that’s because everyday life is so tenuous and fraught, you gotta anchor it with something tangible. It’s enough to send any of us scurrying off to build our own giant trash structures. To get that armature, that mooring. Consumerism may be tacky, but its satisfactions and placations are very real. And certainly Shaker’s history of huffing household cleaning products is its own kind of egalitarian consumerism run amok. What’s the difference, really, between stocking your life with high culture (smarty-pants novels, snooty films, laptop music made by preteens) and buying nice living room furniture or bespoke legwarmers? Consciously rejecting a culture of consumerism still reinforces that culture in a way. It’s still steering you, just off a different cliff.
The system is bullshit, but all systems are bullshit. Most ecosystems seem artificial once you’ve grown overly familiar with the surroundings. The same species traipse the same stale vegetation. The blue sky looks more and more like a painted bio-dome roof. It all feels rigged into arbitrary hierarchies, nature’s festering cliques.
And while I’m lobbing around so many crass generalizations, here’s one more: All of us are beholden to some larger tyranny or coercion, real or imagined, that is ever ready to crush us. And that includes the people who on a daily basis make their living crushing us. Our bosses, our landlords, our tax collectors, our insurance company flacks, our pharmaceutical cartels. Each one of them is cowering in fear of a supervisor or a board of directors or a crowd of pitchfork-wielding shareholders, maybe a secret society of black-cloaked reapers, who are just itching to bring down the axe on them, too. (Shaker catches quick snatches of this type of authoritarian pyramid scheme several times in the book, with Hob, the Howitzer, the Tullys, etc.) We’re all kinda screwed somewhere along the spectrum. Some folks just get more screwing, and with less civility, than others.
Recognizing all this stuff, and making some kind of temporary peace with it, can be very freeing. It can also train you to cope with the rest of life’s devastating disappointments.
Is there any worth to be found in work? To what extent has your own experience and opinion of work informed this book?
If there wasn’t any worth to be found in work, I wouldn’t have spent much of the last decade toiling on this puny book. Oh wait, you mean like employment? Real employment? A quick glance at my resume confirms I’ve never held the same job for more than two and a half years. I imagine you’d see something similar on Shaker’s resume, greatly accelerated and handwritten in sharpie on a crinkled taco wrapper, probably. Things are fairly stable now, but I had a roughly five-year tenure in the newspaper industry, as a copy editor and reporter, during which time I witnessed all manner of mass carnage rain down upon my friends and colleagues, and occasionally myself, in the form of layoffs, furloughs, consolidations, etc. That may very well have contributed to the book’s weary temperament, but also its occasional lapses of pure unfettered glee. Nobody laughs louder than mourners at a funeral or the deck crew on a sinking sink.
It does seem like Shaker has made a “temporary peace” with the local conspiracy. He doesn’t even get upset when his house goes missing. And the novel doesn’t really take the bait of the “whodunnit”; it’s more of an “itdun” situation. That seems like a rebellion against the invocations of plot, and a way the book sidesteps the trajectory of something like The Crying of Lot 49, where the comedy of conspiracy and paranoia consumes the story. You mentioned accountability to a “larger tyranny or coercion,” but the very existence of Shaker, a protagonist too burned out for most motives, seems like an act of rebellion against some of the prevailing notions about what a character should be, what fiction should do or say. How much are you moved by a will to rebel against such notions, and against the majority of what fiction looks like these days? This is a long-winded way of saying there aren’t, to my knowledge, a lot of books like this out there. Who do you see as your fellow travelers in fiction writing? Who do you see as your prose forebears?
I lump my influences into three somewhat capricious categories: classic European modernist/existentialist/whatevers (Beckett, Kafka, Camus, Bruno Schulz), maximalist postmodern brainiacs (Pynchon, Gaddis), and the weirdo, rampantly voiced, bleakly hearted, quasi-comic American fiction of the burnout 1970s/80s (early DeLillo, Stanley Elkin, Thomas McGuane, Barry Hannah, Joy Williams, Renata Adler, James Robison, Stephen Wright). I know there’s a lot of overlap, and plenty of stray influences abound, but those are the writers whose work has informed and infected and mutated mine the most. I guess I’m trying to triangulate those camps into something that doesn’t feel like a rehash or fawning homage. I mean, that’s the goal. Of course, there’s already a cadre of writers who blended those influences pretty seamlessly in the mid-to-late ’90s: Donald Antrim, George Saunders, Gary Lutz, A.M. Homes, David Foster Wallace, Ben Marcus, Sam Lipsyte. Dark, funny, skewed fiction that leaves behind a nice, scorched crater in the chest. I love those writers, too. Some of them have been teachers of mine, and that’s probably where their influence is most tangible, in the stringency with which I try to corral my shabby little sentences, stretch ‘em out, curl and compress them. And maybe blast open a few chest cavities in the process.
But at a certain point, you need to acknowledge the art you unabashedly love and then pivot away from it. Or, conversely, chafe against it. Everything you say about the book’s stubbornness concerning plot and character and conspiracy is spot on. I’ll never be smart enough to imitate Pynchon or DeLillo, and why bother? No one can do them better than them. But what I can do is set up a conspiracy that would not be out of place in Pynchonland or DeLilloville, stoke some kind of anticipation in the reader…and then ignore it, deflate it, twist those expectations somewhere new. Or newish. Sometimes the most exciting way to move forward is by moving sideways. That is Shaker’s m.o. throughout the novel. His weirdly passive refusal to cooperate in a traditional narrative scheme strikes me as funny and perverse (Is my contrarianism showing again?) but also, in its own way, pertinent. In our current info/tech/surveillance-glutted world, where all these multinational corporations know everything about us and trade our private data like baseball cards, where everything really is a conspiracy of sorts, we all just sorta shrug and sigh and go back to the humdrum business of dragging our trashcans to the curb and watching goofy cat videos on our phones. Maybe we’re all, secretly, Shakers at heart.
So much contemporary fiction is well-plotted, well-written, well-intentioned, and just plain fucking boring to me. I’m not spiteful; that stuff just makes me restless. I like the idea of hijacking the conventional novel format, as well as the tactics of commercial entertainment (velocity, accessibility, humor, a bit of schmaltz), then stuffing the shell with unruly characters, nervy impulses, plotlines so harebrained that no sane, sensible writer would bother with them so there’s some untrampled, virgin terrain. And maybe, sure, slip in some high-brow-ish (okay, middle brow-ish) notions about, you know, estrangement, failure, authenticity, death, garbage, self-sabotage, puffer fish. All the big stuff. Let the various components bicker, corrupt each other, germinate some kind of mutant hybrid. Soon the reader is leaning forward, squinting hard, wondering “What is this thing? Why is it crooning ‘Happy Birthday’ to itself late into the night?”
Then the reader looks down at his or her phone and thumb-scrolls another goofy cat video.
Walker Rutter-Bowman is a fiction writer living in Washington D.C.