book excerpt

Read an Annotated Excerpt From Adam Rapp’s Novel Know Your Beholder

Adam Rapp Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

Adam Rapp is perhaps best known as a playwright, having earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 2006 work Red Light Winter. But he’s one of these creative polymaths who seems to excel at everything he does–whether its film directing (Winter Passing, with Zooey Deschanel) or screenwriting (he’s written for the L Word and In Treatment, among other shows). Now, he’s trying his hand at a still relatively new form. Though Rapp has written a handful of YA books, Know Your Beholder, which tells the story of a shattered rock musician trying to rebuild his life, is his second attempt at a novel in the classic sense. Here is the first chapter, with annotations from Rapp. 

Part One: Small-Town Snow

I haven’t left my house in almost a month.

It’s either Tuesday or Wednesday — most likely Wednesday — and three days ago a foot of snow fell on Pollard, Illinois, and its surrounding farmlands: storybook snow as soft as sifted cake mix. Although an old municipal plow has scraped down the street exactly twice—the driver’s head enshrouded in wool — clearly it’s been an effort in futility as the snow continues to fall at a dizzying rate.

I’m in the attic. I’ve been spending the last few hours counting the number of people laboring down the middle of my street on cross-country skis. I am haunted by cross-country skiers. For high school I attended St. John’s Military Academy, a boarding school in the Kettle Moraine area of southern Wisconsin. During the long brutal winters I would look out my dorm room window and watch “townies” cross-country skiing along the paths and roads just beyond campus. They represented such freedom and their progress was hard to watch but impossible to turn away from. I used to fantasize about stealing a pair of cross-country skis from the Phys. Ed. Department and going AWOL, or better yet, skiing to my freedom, all the way back to Illinois, but I never did. Laboring, not gliding, as one might expect from a sport that uses a pair of long, preternatural runners. There have been seven skiers so far. Velocity-challenged and hunched over, the cross-country skier fights the snow, driving his poles into the frozen crust, desperate for purchase. The snow doesn’t welcome his pursuit the way it coaxes the downhill skier with its powdery, virginal shimmer. It bewilders rather than bewitches.

The cross-country skier exists as if trapped in a purgatorial silent movie.

It’s strange how full-body winterwear makes gender difficult to identify. Each goggled cross-country skier seems androgynous, machine-like, somehow pneumatic. It appears that the sport is a solitary pursuit, as I have yet to witness duos or trios. Perhaps there is something about the threat of being snowbound in a small town that inspires the lone adventurer? Where are they going, one by one? Are they skiing away from lives of ill repute? Or to a lover? Or simply to the library to return overdue books because the car won’t start?

Whatever the case, those lone skiers, as they probably already know, are not going to find much in Pollard. Pollard, Illinois is a made up town. I borrowed the name from Scott Pollard, a former star of Kansas University’s basketball team. Though he did play in the NBA, he wasn’t necessarily one of my favorite players, but I always had great respect for his tough-nosed play and crazy hairstyles. Pollard, the town in my novel, is an amalgam of many small towns that I remember from Illinois. I spent most of my youth in Joliet, lived for a year in Aurora, and often traveled toward the middle of the state and further south for junior high basketball games and track meets. The rolling prairies and agricultural architecture seems to make its way into a lot of my work. aside from Our Lady of Snows shrine, an embarrassing, miniaturized counterfeit of the shrine at Lourdes, France (ours looks more like an interstate rest stop for science-fiction enthusiasts than a place of pilgrimage dedicated to Christ’s mother), and an enormous bookbindery on the outskirts of town.

What snow does to a small town like Pollard is vastly different from what it does to a mountainside. Whereas it beautifies the mountainside, beckoning photography and sporting life and teams of people in expensive, pastel-colored, waterproof Gortex to gather on outdoor lodge decks and drink mulled wine and hot toddiesFull disclosure here: I have never skied down a mountain. And though I have hiked and camped and cross-country skied along a horizontal trail or two in a hilly area I have never stepped foot on such a deck. But I have interviewed many people about what this experience might be like and I’ve looked at lots of pictures. And I have seen the great Swedish movie, Force Majeure. I have done my due diligence. Someday I would like to ski down a mountain. And I would also like to imbibe hot alcoholic beverages on a mountainside deck., it shuts the small town down, rendering it municipally constipated.

Mountain snow has the power to be painted. Small-town snow just gets dirty.

Architecturally speaking, the houses on my street are sort of interesting in that they are mostly mid-nineteenth-century, three- to four-story VictoriansHere I borrowed from the many Victorian homes I remember from Dubuque, Iowa, where I went to college. Again, the Midwest haunts me. Dubuque is a beautiful town, right on the banks of the Mississippi. It is surprisingly hilly and there are bluffs and many bridges. I remember hearing it referred to as “Little San Francisco.” There are neighborhoods full of old Victorian homes. Oddly, I’ve never actually lived in a house — I’ve always lived in apartments. in various states of structural and aesthetic decline. The less compelling houses are a pair of low, flat Tudors and something four lots down that looks unfortunately log-cabinish. From my vantage point (the attic), the neighborhood has been suddenly blessed with an innocent gingerbread-house quality, featuring meringue-like gables, sugar-glazed finials, and frosted yards. Things look downright Alpine. But Pollard is no mountainside. Soon it will be dirty.

It’s warm and dry here in my attic room and the portable humidifier beside my writing desk issues a calming, attendant hiss and the occasional gurgle. It smells cedarn up here today. I’m dressed in two pairs of slightly yellowing, old-school, waffle-patterned long johnsBelieve it or not, as I type this, I’m actually wearing old-school waffle-patterned long johns. I bought them at Duane Reade a few weeks ago, to ride out this cold snap. Mine are in much better condition than my narrator’s. (long johns on long johns, if you will), a moth-bitten, Brillo-pad-gray cardigan sweater, a pilling wool winter hat the color of kelp that mostly hides my asinine hair, merino Ingenius camping socks, and a light-blue terry-cloth bathrobe that has become a low-grade monastic cloak. It is definitely the outfit of the nonattendant. The uniform of a Life in Default.

I am also now sporting a beardI,like Francis Falbo, am also now sporting a beard. Is this a sympathy beard? Like a husband putting on weight for his pregnant wife? I worry that I look like a bad version of Kenny Loggins. Or Richard Chamberlain in “The Lost City of Gold.” Those guys could pull off beards. I couldn’t even grow a beard until I was like 28. I might be the latest bloomer in the history of Western Civilization. It was time to see what kind of beard I could grow. Or maybe I’m just tired of shaving. I worry that I’m giving my girlfriend acne. We’ll see how long this lasts., and have developed a very real anxiety about it smelling gamy, like wet squirrel or coon. Beard pong can be an acute social/hygienic problem and when I encounter my tenants at the front porch mailboxes or in the basement laundry room I make an effort to keep at least an arm’s length between us. Though I twiddle and stroke the beard compulsively, I don’t know what it looks like, as I’ve been doing my best to avoid mirrors and reflective surfaces of any kind out of fear of what I’m liable to see staring back at me. I’m starting to imagine the beleaguered Civil War soldier. Or the banished indie record store warlock. Or a derelict from the northwest United States. Like one of those Olympia, Washington, societal dropouts who eats only frosted Pop-Tarts, living out a nineties grunge fantasy. The beard is mangy and random, with riptides and lots of wiry rogue strands.

The word wayward comes to mind.

But I’m a musician, so doesn’t that make my current state okay? Musicians have beards. And many musicians live outside of time. There’s Time and then there’s Musician’s TimeI think it’s safe to say that this is a direct quote from the drummer in my band, Less the Band. His name is Ray Rizzo and he sort of lives outside of time. He is part musical Shaman, part community organizer, part loser of many socks. For a long time, Ray wore neon green Crocs. The last time we played music he was wearing those shoes that are actually gloves for the feet, with individual toes. Ray is a genius drummer, makes everything sound better, and though he will always lose his socks he will likely outlive the human race. He’ll be the last one standing, poised on a giant rock, listening to insects and squirrels..

This morning the molten plates of my personal history took a tectonic shift when I realized it’s been nine days since I’ve removed the bathrobeI think if you wear the same clothes for more than a week, they take on a primitive, animal smell. It’s something between a gamey food odor and the smells of the space you inhabit. I remember working at a sandwich shop during the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I did many minimum wage double shifts at Sub-Diggity Sandwich Shop in Joliet, Illinois. I could never get the smell of cold cuts and mayonnaise out of the three pairs of JC Penny’s Plain Pockets I wore to work every day, in rotation. I figured nine days would be a good amount of time to affect this kind of existence for Francis at the beginning of the book. He’s starting to smell like other things.. Yes, attired in ancient terry cloth, I’ve slept, eaten, landlorded, gone to the bathroom, washed dishes, and guitar-noodled for some unfathomable number of hours.

One of the strange symptoms of even the mildest form of agoraphobia is that it gets progressively difficult to distinguish between personal and household odors. Beyond my beard, which I really can’t smell, as I’ve no doubt grown immune, the rest of my person stinks of the attic’s aged cedar, fiberglass insulation, and the faint aroma of dead mice. Mold memory. A skosh of Lysol-covered bird death. At least I’m still brushing and flossingSince reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying in my early twenties, I’ve been fascinated by my own relationship to my teeth. Like many people, I often dream that they crumble and fall out. I also dream that they’re grayer than they really are. Or bluer than they really are. I guess this is my little homage to Faulkner. As advised by an intrepid dentist a few ago I now use a water pick.. My mother used to say that when you give up on your teeth you might as well lie down in a ditch and wait for the dirt. I guess I’m still keeping that proverbial ditch at bay.

© Excerpted from the book Know Your Beholder.  Copyright © 2015 by Adam Rapp.  Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.  All rights reserved.

The First Chapter Adam Rapp’s Know Your Beholder