Giancarlo DiTrapano, founder, editor, and publisher of Tyrant Books, died last weekend at age 47. I met him at a bar 13 or 14 years ago in Hell’s Kitchen. He lived then on the West Side. He had started a new magazine, New York Tyrant, the sort of thing I’m always interested in. He was cool — something that has to be said about him — cool in a way that I found intimidating when I first met him that night and still found intimidating two weeks ago when we had dinner in Brooklyn. It was impossible not to want to impress him. How silly: He was the gentlest of men, the sweetest. He was a character out of a movie set in New York in the 1970s, the guy who shows up and gets you out of a jam without asking any questions, who will accept nothing in return for the favor of saving your life.
I’m romanticizing my friend, but he was a romantic guy. How else do you start a magazine and then a press from nothing? I no longer possess the early issues of New York Tyrant, casualties of my moving out of town and back, but I remember thinking here was something that wasn’t great yet but could be someday. Someday came with Tyrant Books, which he launched in 2010 (I think). Gian published at least four of the most important (important because beautiful and unlike anything else) American books of the last decade: Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish; Liveblog, by Megan Boyle; Essays and Fictions, by Brad Phillips; and The Complete Gary Lutz. He helped shepherd Nico Walker’s novel Cherry, written in prison, into being. Then he passed it to Knopf. “Nico is only gonna have one shot as a writer,” Gian told me. “I had to give him up to someplace big so he could be big.”
There were lots of little books from Tyrant that I love, like Bad Sex, by Clancy Martin. The milieu (low-rent jet set), the subject matter (crack-up), the style (urgent, shaky, vulnerable), were all Gian’s sort of thing. Marie Calloway’s blazing confessional what purpose did i serve in your life — who else could have published that book the right way? Firework, by Eugene Marten, a tour de force of rock-hard prose. The Sarah Book, by Scott McClanahan — people love that novel the way they love old records. Gian was the maestro, the James Laughlin or Sylvia Beach of a strung-out, down-at-the-heels American aesthetic, something tingling in the wake of punk and lassoed to the online. It seemed to be coalescing into a movement that will outlast him. The last email I got from Gian: “obviously gonna send you a galley when i have them but just wanted to start you off early so you could take a little sip from the next big thing.” Attached was the manuscript of a novel, Fuccboi, by Sean Thor Conroe. Here’s a bit from the second page:
“My thing lately was sticking to 41st.
Walking down 41st and only 41st, whenever possible.
Doing so was how I managed to leave my house.
41st was my block.
Forty one hunned.
Fuck you, high-30s UPenn motherfuckers with your dorms and well-insulated jackets and bike cops and senses of purpose.
Eat all the dicks.
And you, mid-40s kombucha-guzzling hippies with your communal housing and fermented foods and jars and senses of purpose.
The fuck y’all know about 41st Street.
That shit ain’t even straight.
It zigged east a half-block at Market, zagged west a quarter block at Walnut, and was paved for shit all along.
Ran one way one block and the other the next. Wasn’t respected as a thru street.
But walking it.
Kept things interesting.”
That alienated American yelp was what kept Gian interested, kept him reading when others might have stopped. The other young genius he had recently found is Honor Levy. Her first story is here.
I never asked Gian why he called his magazine and his press Tyrant. Around that time, there were a lot of little magazines asserting their bigness. Two magazines called themselves Gigantic (one of them changed its name to Gigantic Sequins), and there was a website called HTMLGiant. There was some irony in the name Tyrant. Gian was an enlightened despot of the little literary kingdom he built. He was a liberator for many writers and saw editing and publishing as a moral duty. How can we entrust our literature to international corporations? Is this not obviously insane?
Gian wouldn’t have put it that way because he truly did not care about the favor of the wider publishing world. He cared about getting readers for his writers. He published young writers nobody else would look at and older writers who had been around the block with the big houses and been ill served by them. Sam Lipsyte told me he first met Gian when he came to a workshop he was teaching 20 years ago in a rented room in a building somewhere in Queens. “Don’t even really know how he found me,” Sam says. Gian had come to New York from West Virginia, and he was good at hunting things down. A few years ago he moved to Italy, where he’d fallen in love (a story he told us last month at dinner) and set up an artist’s residency in a villa in Tuscany. Or is it a castle? I never got to visit. He had an olive-oil business. A bottle of the stuff with his name on it is on top of my refrigerator. His grandfather came from Italy to West Virginia at age 14 to work in the coal mines, and he’d gone back to restore the castelletto. His life was storybook all the way.
He had lots of plans. My last few messages from him are book covers for fiction he was going to publish under a new moniker, DiTrapano, after folding Tyrant in a break from old business partners. A friend of ours in L.A. tells me Gian had just sent him a script he’d written. I used to put Gian in touch with writers. Lately, I was putting him in touch with people who knew people who have money: investors, a word that sounded not a little funny coming out of his mouth. The natural thing was to hug him, a feeling he wrote about, a tough man but eminently huggable. He published books from the edges of American life, books written in trembling states, and books with words nobody else uses.
He had hustle, and he had integrity. He followed his very rigorous tastes and never compromised. It would never occur to him to do so. When all you’ve got is an ear — and a perfect one — that’s also all you need. The writers he published knew if he believed in them they were the real thing. With him on the scene, even if he was an ocean away up in a castle, you knew American literature wasn’t dead, wasn’t some soulless imitation of what it used to be. He brought excellent books into the world because that was the sort of world he wanted to live in, a world with those books. He had the cynical and ironic view of the world that’s the mark of a true idealist. We used to stay up late laughing and smoking cigarettes, and I’m gonna miss him.