Blow my blues away
A new Reno-based publishing company kicks off with a novel in which the city itself plays a major role
For many outsiders, the city of Reno writhes in its loathsome yet rebellious history. Reno is, and forever will be, the place where Johnny Cash shot a man, just to watch him die. It’s the “biggest little city,” tourists repeat, as they regale each other with Reno’s ties to Westerns and cowboy idolatry. Folk heroes remember Reno as a motel graveyard where backdoor deals spin as often as the strippers do. But as local author and Reno native Brad Summerhill writes, Reno remains “the city of free will.”
Summerhill’s new novel, Gambler’s Quartet, expands on this existentialist theme of living with a “terrible freedom.” Released in late June, Gambler’s Quartet is also the first novel published from Reno’s newest publishing house, Virginia Avenue Press. Owners Caleb Cage and Kathy Besser, who in their day jobs work for the state, began Virginia Avenue Press last April, certain that Nevada—and Reno in particular—carries a history bent on a unique outlaw culture. To them, publishing opportunities knocked on every one of Reno’s doors. As a debut novel, Gambler’s Quartet sets the mood for Virginia Avenue Press.Virginia Avenue Press
Summerhill wrote Gambler’s Quartet in 2000 as his MFA thesis for the University of Arkansas. He submitted the novel to a few writing contests and small presses. Later he returned to his hometown of Reno, never pushing the manuscript any further except to save it on his hard drive. After not hearing back from anybody, he later confided to a friend, “If this thing never sees the light of day, I still want to know that it’s a good thing, in and of itself.”
Ten years later, Summerhill met Cage through a mutual college friend. Cage and Besser were in the process of launching Virginia Avenue Press in Reno, named after a song from Tom Waits’ 1973 debut album—the title a misnomer of the major Reno thoroughfare. When the publishing house began, Cage and Besser were already knee-deep in their new music production business, Extradition Music-Gallatin Road Productions. Cage was also working on the first issue of his new journal, The Nevada Review, and finishing I Shot a Man in Reno, a non-fiction book about Johnny Cash and Reno as a musical muse.
When they met Summerhill, they thought he would fit nicely into The Nevada Review and with Just to Watch Him Die, a compilation of Reno-themed fiction writing where local and national authors wrote with the prompt: “I shot a man in Reno.” At the release of the Fall 2009 issue of The Nevada Review, Summerhill mentioned his novel about a disconnected family set in Reno, circa the 1980s. Cage read the first Gambler’s Quartet manuscript on Thanksgiving Day, and five months later, Summerhill had a proof.
Cage and Besser admit that the timeframe for Summerhill’s novel was unusually fast. Moreover, with all their projects in the air—a music production business, a regional journal, and another book in the works—why would Cage and Besser want to push for a publishing house, let alone a publishing house in Reno?
“Reno’s not just a little Las Vegas,” explains Cage. “It’s not just a place that you stop on your way to Sacramento. It’s a place that’s this truly unique atmosphere and culture and the local population is starting to—I mean much more than I’ve ever noticed before—is starting to really be proud of that. So, we’re providing a connection to Reno and the broader American culture and we’re trying to provide that with music and literature.”
This month, Cage and Besser hosted their Extradition Music Festival and simultaneously released the second and third books from Virginia Avenue Press: Cage’s I Shot a Man in Reno and Just to Watch Him Die. But, they say Gambler’s Quartet was the obvious choice as the first pick.
“There was such reality to it,” says Besser. “One part of it he talks about his father who was dying, and he was the caretaker, and I’ve gone through that personally. You read this and all of those emotions are real. All of the feelings you have toward yourself, the person who is ill, towards others, it’s all there and it’s continued throughout the entire book.”
“We thanked him for taking a risk on us,” says Cage.Gambler’s Quartet
“I mean listen, here’s putting it in a very base way,” says Summerhill. “There aren’t a lot of places in America that you can grow up and decide when you’re 16 that you’re going to pop your cherry at the Mustang Ranch—and I realize that popping your cherry doesn’t refer to young men—but there aren’t a lot of places where on a Sunday afternoon you can say, ‘Well, I’m going to pick up a 12-pack and get blitzed.’”
Summerhill is referring to Johnny Drake, the son of Jenna and William Drake and one of the two main characters in Gambler’s Quartet. The novel opens with his father’s military funeral, and the formalities end there. Jenna, once known as Ryu Chen, was transplanted to the United States from Korea nearly 30 years prior. Back then, she hung to William’s arm, dreaming of an acting career. But of all the places to bring Jenna, William brings her to the gem of the West: Reno. Jenna’s flaws go hand in hand with a city that knows no rules, no set morality, no set customs or religion. As Reno is “the city of free will” the characters’ vices know no boundaries, and their “free will” is fleeting.
“This novel came to me through the characters, and you really can’t have these characters other than in Reno,” says Summerhill. “It’s true of any good writing or any good story that the setting is a character, and the people in the setting are at least, in part, who they are because of setting, because of the landscape. So the characters are inseparable from Reno, and Reno is inseparable from these characters.”
Summerhill writes polyphonically, in many voices. Each section is written from a different point of view, combining to form a “quartet.” The first part, or voice, begins with Johnny, Jenna’s son. He refuses to give his mother any money from her ex-husband’s inheritance. Johnny knows he cannot give his mother money because she lives her days inside casinos, addicted to gambling.
Jenna, however, sees herself differently. She hasn’t gambled in 10 months. Her boyfriend, Donald, is starting a surefire business. But the business deviates more than she cares to admit. She cowers when explaining to Johnny that she’ll be managing women; that she’ll be selling them like her parents sold her to William. The business and characters begin to unravel in more illegalities. Johnny and Jenna begin to choke, but Summerhill ends on an open note.
Some might call the novel a tragedy, but the tragic feeling is ephemeral. Readers should end feeling happy, almost relieved that the events, based on real people, are not theirs, not their “terrible freedoms.”
“I believe a lot of those decisions seem to be predetermined, and that’s part of what lends a sense of tragedy to it,” says Summerhill. “There’s always a sense of tragedy when a self-destructive person does exactly what you know he or she will do.”