A Conversation with Stephan Salisbury
author of BRITT & JIMMY STRIKE OUT
Alternative Book Press, 341 Pages
Interview by Sue Laizik
Stephan Salisbury has been a cultural writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than three decades. Britt & Jimmy Strike Out, his first novel, is a dystopian, satirical quest story about branding, live streaming, social media, and commercialization of lived experience. Britt and her friend Jimmy set out into a blighted urban landscape to find answers when Britt’s online brand starts to fail, friends start disappearing, and mysterious men show up at her home to intimidate and threaten her for not getting in line with the President’s brand. Ken Kalfus describes it as the “first great novel of the Trump Era.” Stephan Salisbury is also the author of a non-fiction book Mohamed’s Ghosts: An American Story of Love and Fear in the Homeland about the anti-Arab hysteria after 9/11 and its devastating effect on people’s lives.
Stephan and I had many great conversations about books in the 1980s, when I worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer as a clerk for the book review. Years later, we reconnected through (of course) social media. This conversation took place via Google Docs over several days. Following our conversation are two excerpts from Britt & Jimmy Strike Out.—SL
Sue: I know you as a very good investigative and cultural journalist (for over thirty years!), so my first question when I learned you had written a novel was, Why fiction?
Stephan: Yes, I’m still a journalist. All writers who take fiction seriously are journalists of a sort. But instead of reporting on woman found dead in concert hall, they report on what they think about woman found dead in concert hall. Some writers, of course, make their reporting explicit. Dreiser comes to mind. Whereas Proust was shining a light into his own head and reporting what was rattling around inside. Journalism, at least as it’s practiced in newspapers today, is formulaically rigid, and that’s where fiction and the novel, remain alluring. It’s the freedom of the form, rather than the freedom of the subject that’s attractive: in fiction, a writer can do the police in different voices (to quote Dickens); the journalist, not so much. Britt & Jimmy is completely driven by voice, largely Britt’s voice (she is the narrator, after all), but also the cacophony of voices that’s swirling everywhere and swooping in on us, like pesky birds. Journalism remains the foundation for everything I do, though. It keeps the digital self-indulgence from floating away, like an overly gassy blimp.
Sue: I want you to talk about Britt—the novel’s protagonist and narrator—and her voice. (She turns into a bit of an investigative reporter herself.) But, first, some context might be helpful: Explain a little bit about the world of the novel, as well as what you call the “cacophony of voices,” including the voice of the President in the prologue.
Stephan: The novel takes place at an indeterminate time, presumably the future, over the course of one night when Britt and her friend Jimmy are forced to flee from her digs through the streets of the collapsing city. Clearly there has been some catastrophic event in the far past, but its effects—crumbling buildings, gaping sinkholes, ash sifting down everywhere, the obliteration of economic and social life—are far more important than the causes. The physical is giving way to the virtual, the material to the immaterial. This is a world in which everything touchable has been debased and every habitable oasis has been depopulated, scattered, re-worked, and remarketed.
The President and the corps, his network of private partners, preside over this territory, leaving ordinary people to scrabble for a few pennies gained via branding and selling themselves and their wares online, where life is robust and good and, not surprisingly, dominated by the President. Who is he? He is the creation of every imagination in his great country. He is the President, the P, the guy with the biggest, most powerful brand of all. Ride with the President and you move with Presidential speed, the fastest of all speeds. The President, who is the focus of the novel’s opening section, is not unlike an oddly thoughtful frog, watching, tongue at the ready to snap out and snare whatever he seeks to snare. He sits in his bed and reviews the overnights, recounts what may or may not be prophetic dreams, watches various livestreams of himself, conducts millions of simultaneous chats, engages in endless self-promotion, and above all, worries that the overnight numbers might suggest a flagging presidential brand. In such times of stress, the President, as all presidents before him, going back and back into the foggy and unknowable past, launches an outside threat. Nothing welds a populace to its leader better than a decent, old-fashioned threat.
Britt and Jimmy flee Britt’s place because they are visited by two mysterious presidential agents who tell them they and their friends are not pulling along with everyone else in this difficult moment. The President has noticed and identified the disappearance of Britt’s good friend Deb as the reason for disruptions in the smoothly flowing system. Deb had become known as the President’s Girl, the hottest of the hot brands. But she took a wrong turn, her brand disintegrated, and now she has vanished. The agents tell Britt and Jimmy to find her. Britt and Jimmy are fleeing the P and his world in search of Pluto, the ruler of the pits, the city dump where everything goes to die.
Sue: Your answer makes me think of several follow-ups. They all have to do with different elements of the novel, so I’ll just put them out there and let you have a go.
- “The physical is giving way to the virtual, the material to the immaterial”: that’s a wonderful description. Yet, the physical world—mise-en-scène—is so vividly realized on the page (which is one of several ways irony is employed in the novel). In what ways was Philadelphia an inspiration for the setting?
- Britt is a great narrator and character. She reminds me of a younger, more innocent Oedipa Maas (from Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49). Talk about her character and her voice.
- And speaking of characters, the President in Britt & Jimmy Strike Out seems eerily familiar in a way that makes the skin crawl, yet you wrote the book before the 2016 elections. How is that possible?
Stephan: The novel was written before Trump announced his candidacy, but what does Trump represent if not the political culture and the wider forces shaping our world? It’s been almost forty years since Reagan, so his genial corruption and corporate spokesmanship have evolved and ripened, if that’s the right way to put it. Add a huge dollop of the internet with its self-branding, its intense commercialization of everything, its drive to entropy, its nastiness, and—voila!—Trump.
I think that I’m more acutely aware of these kinds of cultural shifts because of the severity of the problems facing newspapers. Newspapers back in the day—a few years ago, lol—were really flags of community. You’re walking down the street, see a paper in a box or on a newsstand and you know exactly where you are. Read it, and you’re reading things that your neighbors are reading. So papers are binders, they tie people together in a shared experience. But digitization works differently. No flag of community. No sign of place on the street. No shared experience with neighbors. Life becomes increasingly fragmented and disembodied. All of the things that have become commonplace in the Trump era were latent before—the ubiquitous branding, the lies and deceptions, the self-aggrandizement, the surveillance, the kleptocratic corporate fascism. All of it. That’s what I picked up on.
Listening to the new online producers at the Inquirer gave me Britt’s voice, by the way. I was struck not so much by the naiveté as the disinterest a lot of these people had in the world and people around them. So I paid attention. Britt is someone who evolves from a kind of pure version of self-marketing to a self-awareness geared toward actual understanding. She moves, I guess you could say, from Fake News to real life. I mean, here she is, living her life, livestreaming everything, and her brand falls apart, her friends disappear, she’s visited by weird emissaries of the President who tell her fantastical stories of people going OFF THE TRACKS! Aunt Rita smothered by tsunamis of waste as she livestreams from the pits! Britt is, to put it mildly, unnerved. She wants to find out more. I guess what distinguishes her is that she doesn’t want to double down on the stuff that got her to such a bad place to begin with.
All that said, I’m still sometimes amazed myself, how much in our daily world now was prefigured in Britt & Jimmy—everything from the use of social media to influence behavior in the election to really specific policies like family separations at the border. Eerily Trumpesque. Philadelphia is absolutely in the book, but the city is all jumbled up, kind of falling over itself. The signs and ghost signs, the fires, the dilapidation—all scream Philadelphia. And there are specific places and people described. The Gurney Boy, the leader and singer for the Nighttime Echoes, really used to be at the corner of 15th and Chestnut Streets, late at night, about forty years ago. The city was empty as an old paper bag back then, but I’d run into him most every night about two in the morning. It’s a city, you know.
Sue: I know you have thought a lot about the cultural shifts and the (d)evolving political climate, as is apparent in much of your writing, not just this novel. It’s there in much of your journalism, in your previous (non-fiction) book, Mohamed’s Ghosts, and, hilariously, in your satirical blog CSI: American Carnage, a daily narrative commentary on the current administration and politics. There have been a couple times when your blog has narrated events before they happened, which is impressive given how unpredictable the goings-on in Washington have been. Talk about the blog.
Stephan: Ah yes, CSI: American Carnage, my daily take on the world descending. You know, it started out purely as a jokey riff on Trump and his reality-teevee world filtered through the news shows and their reality-teevee world. That was back in January of 2016. Since then it’s been a scramble—how do you keep one step ahead when there’s always a porpoise close behind who’s treading on your tail? I do the voices, again. When in doubt you ask yourself, how would the President say it? That immediately takes you down the rabbit hole of language. We have broken a number of stories, many eventually picked up by the Fake News©. If you live in the shit, you stink too—that’s how we continue to live in the future even when it’s become the past, because, you know, the past is always prologue. Our team of crack reporters, for instance, has been way out front on the coming Venezuela unpleasantness, and we were completely on top of the President’s takedown of Spike Lee at the Oscars. We had his diss of Spike before the President even picked up his cell and logged onto his Twitter feed. We are also following closely the babies that have been ripped from their mothers’ bosoms on the southern border. We’ve tracked them every step of the way through the backchannels and the tunnels that crisscross beneath the country. A harrowing story. We’re on top of it. As Les Moonves, one-time head of CBS, said a couple of years ago about 24/7 coverage of Trump’s ridiculous campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That was before poor Les got called out for serial sexual misconduct and was forced out. Then, of course, he lied and destroyed evidence. No word if he is getting advice from the White House.
Sue: I notice the CSI: American Carnage “editors” took over your response to that last question midway. Did that shift happen consciously? Between the blog, your journalism, your fiction, and other writings, you have many voices. Talk about yourself as a writer and difficulties you’ve encountered in writing (especially the novel).
Stephan: As I mentioned, voice drives a story. If you have voices, they can overcome even a lackluster story. I learned that as a kid. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye. It really is a weak book—except for Holden’s voice. It keeps younger readers enthralled. Voice is what draws readers to Dickens over and over again. I’m surely not in that league, but the lesson is a good one. Inhabit the voice and you can get into all the fancy restaurants. Actually, writing Britt & Jimmy, the trickiest part was melding the virtual and the actual. Or is it the other way around? There are many scenes in which what is happening online takes on a very real presence. For instance, when B&J stumble upon Briggs’ outpost store on the far edge of the city. The encounter seems to include some kind of missile attack which leaves Britt and Jimmy sprawling in the street. Does it really? Or when they are resting by the side of the road and a parade of gimpy soldiers staggers by, followed by a wave of rodents, which morphs into an actual parade reminiscent of one held in Philadelphia, followed, at last, by a VICTORY parade celebrating the End of the Burning Season! All is narrated on camera by Britt and Jimmy who are, in fact, watching from the side of the road. If I’m successful for readers, it all blends together, seamlessly. Such mashups lead to some of the funniest parts of the book; and we need that kind of laughter.
The parade scene Stephan mentioned in his final comments is a good illustration of the melding of the virtual and the actual along with other aspects of the novel that came up during our conversation. Jimmy and Britt, far along in their journey, are on a deserted, dilapidated street when an incongruous line of wounded soldiers followed by a frightening mass of rats pass by. Britt has used the camera on her pad to stream the procession live with voiceover. Logging on to Britt’s site with their pads, Britt and Jimmy see that Britt’s video is looping (and getting many “hits”). After a disruption, the video starts over yet again on her site. The beginning is the same, but the parade that follows has been transformed into something else entirely. The actual is subsumed by the virtual in this excerpt:
I still have the pad in my hand. My stream opens up again. There is the street we’re on.
Jimmy, the stream is back up on my site.
A rhythmic metallic sound begins faintly and grows louder. There’s the cloud of dust rolling toward us, must be the gimpy soldiers. Do I want to watch this? Do I want to see all that again, the great rodent ocean?
We are beyond the Ville, I hear myself say, just as I said before, that’s my VO! The cam is still focused down the street, in the direction of the sound.
The streets have been empty, I say. But this is happening now. You are seeing this as we do.
Far down the street on the screen I see small figures, sheathed in white, marching along, the gimpy, blood soaked guys with the white headbands? No, no gimpy guys. No band of brothers. They come closer and I see they are little ghosts from a children’s tale, the diminutive white-sheeted dead. The front rows bear enormous banners uplifted on poles:
Triumph Over Occupation!
Then behind it:
Little Caesars Sporting Club
End of the Burning Season
And the last:
I hear myself saying, Here comes the Victory Parade right now.
That is my voice!
We are reporting directly from the WHBS Studios, or I should say, the street, where these events are being beamed to you live. The Caesars have just come into view, right on schedule. Aren’t they darling, James?
Indeed, says Jimmy’s voice. This is one of my favorite moments in the celebration, he says. The Caesars have been presenting their colors for, what? As long as anyone can remember, that’s for sure. And they are always a treat, Brittany. Here they are with their balloons, folks! Let’s watch.
The ghastly little buggers glide by us like oil slicks, their white coverings completely concealing whatever might be inside, if anything. They could be little rat automatons for all we know. Their banners have precise lettering, as though stenciled in laser labs. The Caesars fill the street, a moving rectangle, a wavy white flag of twisted anonymity. The dead.
This passage illustrates the zeitgeist of the novel world. An authority figure uses a cautionary tale to teach about the potentially fatal dangers of going off-message and losing focus on one’s brand. In the end, video images are buried and mourned instead of an actual person.
Finally, one day, I’ll never forget, she’s streaming from down in the pits—actually in the pits!—and one of the Nutri-Waste chutes opens up and masses of plugs come hurtling all around, a load showers down like brackish hail. It overwhelmed her, knocked her silly, and her vidstream gets jumpy and frazzly and then blotchy and then nothing. Dark.
They never found her, he says. Not WRMS, not Sentry, no one. And for what? For what did she do it?
I don’t know, I say. For her site? For her fans? Revs?
Sheesh, Morrie says. Her site? Her revs? Here’s what: she lost her focus, she lost her fans, she even lost her feed, her micros, and she lost her whole self. And we lost Aunt Rita. All we had left was her jerky final stream, which we buried in our own plot, with services and all. Buried images of Auntie Rita buried in a looping shower of digested plugs—that’s all that was left for us. There was upset in the family. Upset for all who followed her. It was a long time before all that subsided, before the perplexities washed away, and there are still questions that come into Central about it. Poor Aunt Rita. And it was all so unnecessary.
Sue Laizik is a reader living on Long Island, NY. In addition to her stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer, she has worked in publishing, IT, and academic administration. She also attended graduate school in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and taught English at Columbia and Barnard Colleges. She currently tutors high school students studying for the college-entrance exams.