"Goo Book" by Keith Ridgway Originally published in the April 11, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Over at Asylum, John Self has praised Keith Ridgway: “When I rule the world, the list of authors everyone must read (yes, you’d better start taking notes) will include Keith Ridgway.” I’m sorry to say that, in this regard, I haven’t shown myself a worthy subject to John Self. However, I was pleased to hear that Ridgway would be publishing a short story in The New Yorker, a portion of a new book, if sources are correct.
I came to this story with some thematic expectations, then, and was pleased but not surprised to see them come up. I was not, however, prepared for the rest of the story, and I’m still trying to decide just how I felt about it as a whole.
When the story begins, we meet our protagonist with some bruises. He does not like violence, but something has happened. We soon learn that he engages in petty theft, picking pockets the classic way. We also see he has a bit of heart when he asks a young boy to return something of obvious sentimental value to his victim (but he kept the money).
Then we meet someone special to him:
She was sitting up, dazed, staring at the water. He kissed her and stroked her back, but she was too hot and she shrugged him off. She picked up her things and they walked toward the road, and he hailed a taxi and they went home and she got in the shower and he gave her a few minutes, then he climbed in beside her and they stood together in the cool water and they held each other skin to skin, and he was the happiest he had ever been, again, and he had no worries, none, and he worried about that.
I wouldn’t have expected this petty criminal to be sentimental himself. However, one day when his girlfriend is out, he stumbles upon one of her notebooks and, on a whim, writes some things down for her.
He left the notebook where it was, and he didn’t mention it. And it wasn’t until about a week later that he noticed it again, and he flicked it open, and he saw his lines followed by lines from her. She’d written words that she had never said. He sat down. He read them over and over for a long time. Then he wrote a paragraph for her to find.
This back-and-forth is tender. Except on rare occasions, they don’t speak of the notebook. And what they write in the notebook are things they never say to each other. Ridgway develops the notebook and the characters’ attachment to it excellently.
The story progresses in snippets. Here there’s a bit with his girlfriend, and there we find out a bit more about his secret life, which is about to become much more secret when he gets a job as a driver and is expected to be deaf, dumb, and mute. He can’t quite bring himself to believe that the people he’s involved with are dangerous. Once, after they speak with a pronounced degree of toughness, he thinks “that was probably for his benefit. That they’d done nothing other than have a chat or maybe shout at someone a bit.”
Soon, there is another element. Two police officers find him and let him know they have tapes of his petty crimes. They’ll be quiet about it; they simply want reports about his drives. He won’t have to do anything. One of the officers is named Hawthorn, and something secret begins to develop between them:
They looked at each other. Hawthorn half blushed, up near the tops of his cheeks, like some invisible thing had just flicked his fingernails against his face. He looked away.
Nothing happened for a while. Then Hawthorn looked back at him. Held his eyes. For exactly the amount of time it takes for a look like that to become a look like that.
All of these lines develop clearly and split the protagonist as the tension (or paranoia) builds.
His mind was dividing. Parts of it were roped off. There were things he could say. There were things he could not say but could write in the book. And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted a fight.
Though the story comes to a nice end, in fact a very satisfying end, I’m still not sure I was entirely satisfied with the whole thing. My suspicion is that any disappointment I feel is due to the nature of the excerpt. What we have here is a small piece of a greater story, and I couldn’t help but leave feeling like it was missing some of that greater story to be, in and of itself, complete.
I’m interested, for sure. Ridgway had me from beginning to end, and, though the style of the writing seemed to change (impressionistic beginning, run-on sentences in the middle, more conventional end), it all felt controlled and successful. I hope that the full novel arrives someday. At the very least I can say that, based on the promise of this piece, life under John Self’s rule might not be so bad.