Loser makes it big
Young writer moves from Chico to New York, starves, scrimps, makes self-deprecating jokes and gets a book published
Dan Kennedy is a funny guy. He’s the kid who sat next to you in high school and cracked you up during American History. He’s the workmate who made your otherwise deadly dull job tolerable.
Kennedy, a Paradise High graduate, bookstore clerk and former part-time Butte College student, has accomplished something everybody who ever fancied himself a cutup, a humorist, a class clown has only dreamed of—he’s written a book and had it picked up and published by a major company.
On Sept. 23 Crown Publishing released Loser Goes First: My Thirty-Something Years of Dumb Luck and Minor Humiliations. Now the author is on a book-signing tour that is taking him from New York City to Berkeley and Seattle and back to the East Coast.
That tour includes a stop at Chico’s Barnes & Noble at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5.
All Kennedy had to do was weather a life of adolescent humiliation, mind-numbing jobs, social shame and near starvation and then write it down and meet an agent who would help submit it to a major publishing house.
Kennedy has been compared to other comically hip 30-somethings David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) and Nick Hornby (About a Boy). Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight, calls Kennedy’s novel “flat-out brilliant, full of heart, and screamingly funny in its darkest moments.”
And while you can expect such praise when it’s written on the dust cover of a new author’s work, I can testify that this writer is indeed a funny man. I once knew Dan Kennedy, and for a brief and entertaining moment I was privy to the man’s ability to make light of otherwise dismal and depressing situations. We worked together in downtown Chico at the now-defunct Tower Books on Main Street in the early 1990s.
I last saw Kennedy on the corner of Second and Main in December 2001. He was home for the holidays from New York to see his parents, who still live in Paradise. I didn’t recognize him at first; he had that sophisticated big-city look about him, with a hip hair cut and the confidence of a man who spends his days in the shadows of gray skyscrapers. He told me he was working on a book. I nodded and thought to myself, “Yeah, aren’t we all?”
When we talked on the phone a few months ago, I reminded him of our chance meeting two years prior and told him how he’d successfully “shed the Butte County look.”
“Oh, you mean the I-have-starved, I-have-been-frightened look,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve been working on it for a while.”
Loser Goes First chronicles Kennedy’s life from his younger days in Southern California through moving with his family to Paradise when he was in the eighth grade ("Uh, that would have been when I was what, 21?"), working for a stint at Kangaroo Kourts health club, taking fire suppression classes at Butte College and then moving to New York by way of Seattle.
Local references include his explanation of why he took a job at Kangaroo Kourts, a segment that also is a good reflection of the book’s protagonist:
Why would I have a job opening this health club at five-thirty in the morning when I’m just this really skinny, unfit, smoking, drinking, confused person who doesn’t even work out, stays up late, has a problem getting up before ten in the morning, and eats mostly prepackaged snack foods served in a tavern that smells like urinal cakes and has only a toaster oven for a kitchen?
Because sometimes you have to do exactly the opposite of what your instinct tells you to do if your aim is to change your life and reinvent yourself. And also because your physically fit sister is a friend of the owners and has convinced them to give you a job.
And this remembrance of attending Butte College:
… the freeway was the only thing that stood between me and the small and barely funded community college where one obtained his wildland fire suppression certification.
I had to get out past where the suburban sprawl ended or at least took a pause, out to the open fields under the huge buzzing power lines, and there I could read and listen and test.
Once on campus, after the harrowing drive along Highway 99 on his underpowered motorcycle, he would arrive triumphantly and be one with the “community college students who were smoking cigarettes next to their tired and wilted early-eighties economy cars.”
To my great disappointment there is no mention of working at Tower, and I told him so.
“It’s funny, because as soon as I finished writing this book I would be out to dinner with a friend or something and I would start telling a story about the old days and I would think, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I didn’t put that in the book,'” he explained. “It’s this weird thing where you want to call it back because you thought of something great that has to be in there. I was just trying to describe to someone yesterday working at Tower, and I thought that was such a cool, weird time, between [the late former manager] Jeffrey [Norwood] and [now retired longtime clerk] Franz [Celinsek].”
His influences, he said, include Steve Martin, The Onion, Jon Stewart, the Smothers Brothers, Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson.
He added, only half-jokingly, that another big influence on his writing has been the Chico Enterprise-Record’s phone-in public-rant column, “Tell It to the E-R.”
“Have you read what people spend time thinking about in that column?” he asked. “I still have my parents cutting them out and sending them to me here in New York. I’m probably the only guy in New York City sitting in Rockefeller Center having lunch and reading ‘Tell It to the E-R.'”
I asked him about his education, thinking he probably didn’t bother to mention in the book his snooty East Coast university degree that he gained while working full time and taking a heavy load.
“Me? No. I didn’t get a degree, because the honest-to-God truth is that I would enroll in a community college and start out with the best intentions of wanting to get general ed done,” he said, “and by about day four I was spending all my time in the library reading anything I felt like reading, which obviously was terrific primer for the Tower gig and watching documentaries.
“This was before digital cable, and the idea of being able to go into a room and see footage of anything, from like the human brain to fly fishing, was an extremely attractive prospect and one that lured me away from any of these classes I was supposed to be in. I knew I was in a sort of Rainman trouble zone when instructors would know where to find me. They didn’t reprimand so much as they were compassionate: ‘Hey, you know, you should be in that course of mine tomorrow; you weren’t there today.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God, they are treating me like the Robby Benson character on some after-school special.'”
So he took classes in fire suppression and actually fought some fires in Northern California and Oregon. His accounts of firefighting break from the smart-guy/loser tone of the rest of the book. Here, describing the aftermath of a fire in Lassen National Forest, he is introspective and vividly literal:
And in the most beautiful gray and white full-moon stillness in the hush that comes as all that is left is miles and miles of canyon covered in two feet of ash, I am walking without making a sound except my breathing. My thighs and knees cut a silent wake through ash, feet and boots are out of my sight and somewhere deep down on the ground. Every now and then the other nature janitors call me on the radio and we all meet up to chop the hell out of a smoldering stump. This is not the exciting stuff they put in the training film. Everybody wants to fight fires, but nobody wants to be a caveman forest custodian cleaning up after it all.
Today, Kennedy is a contributor to the online publication McSweeney’s, reads his work at a couple of New York literary lounges and is director of creative development for Atlantic Records.
Loser Goes First took about a year to write.
“My original idea going into it was maybe I can send off a bunch of notes and get a big advance,” he said. “In other words, I was completely unfocused. I did kind of the obligatory thing—I wrote my first novel, which sucked and nobody wanted really anything to do with.
“It takes a while to realize that is the one you write and then put in a box and hide away in a closet in your apartment.”
He marketed the book, which he said is a collection of pieces written for McSweeney’s, through an agent who eventually sold it to Crown. He had gained a small following through his live readings and McSweeney’s.
“My first instinct as a writer is, ‘What is the least vulnerable and easiest way to be able to feel like I wrote something?’ I was reading things around town and people were showing up and the stuff was going really well and I met a couple agents. I got some serious names jotted down on cocktail napkins.”
He said he was told nobody wants collections of things jotted down from a “first-time guy.”
“They said it had to be bigger, it had to have an arc, it had to be a book. If you’re going to write a book, you have to write a book. Once people know who you are, then at some point you’re so huge you can go, ‘Ha! My grocery list. Everything I’ve bought in the last three years,’ and the people at the publishing houses are thrilled.”
He gives a lot of credit to his agent, whom he describes as “part editor.” Many of the bigger-name agents are simply too busy to take on a new writer, he said.
But it worked out, and now Dan Kennedy, former Tower Books clerk, is on a book-signing tour.
“I remember reading the jacket copy on Cruel Shoes when I was 9 or 10 years old, and it said something like, ‘Steve Martin has always wanted to write a book so that he could craft the clever copy that goes on the book’s dust jacket. He has finally done just that.’
“I remember thinking that someday I would like to publish a book, so that I could write on the dust jacket. And in the blink of an eye—the kind of eye that takes 26 years just to do one blink—I’ve got my own dust jacket to fill with copy."