Last spring, while serving as Hobart’s web fiction editor, I published “Sanguine,” a short story by Darrin Doyle that stayed in the back of my mind for months afterward. When I heard that Doyle had released a new collection of stories with Tortoise Books, I was curious. “Sanguine” was subtle and dark, hard to place, confusing and enigmatic. Scoundrels Among Us, Doyle’s new collection, is even darker, even more mysterious and odd. Some stories start out innocently; a young couple on vacation in Thailand, a suburban housewife at a party. Others leap headlong into nonsensical violence, hilarity, and chaos. In our conversation, Doyle told me that his work attempts to express the complexity of human nature. The scope of my own reactions while reading Scoundrels Among Us (delight, disgust, frustration, laughter) suggests that he’s done just that. Doyle was gracious enough to speak with me over the phone last month about loneliness and desire, writing to entertain yourself, and coming to terms with being an artist without a niche.
Many of the stories in “Scoundrels Among Us,” are set in Michigan, but you’ve lived all over the country. Why do you think Michigan pops up so often?
That’s a good question. I think it’s because I’ve lived here most of my life. I was born in Saginaw and I grew up in Grand Rapids and then Kalamazoo, so most of the foundational years of my life were spent here. Then I went around to a number of different places. Some of that moving was related to getting jobs and I just happened to end up back in Michigan. But I still think even if I didn’t end up back here, I’d be more comfortable writing about it because it’s in my blood. I mean, I’ve written a couple of stories in Ohio because I spent five years in Cincinnati but it doesn’t feel like familiar territory. It doesn’t feel like it belongs to me.
I’m always curious about what draws people to a place and what makes people feel comfortable writing about it, especially a place like Michigan. The Midwest is so foreign to me because I grew up in the South, and then I lived in New York for most of my early twenties. I lived in Ann Arbor for a summer and it truly didn’t belong to me, I was so out-of-place there. And curiously, I’ve never written about it either, perhaps because like you said, it doesn’t feel like it belongs to me.
You’ve not only lived all over the place, you’ve had such eclectic work experiences. Do you draw on those experiences often in your stories?
Oh yeah, I think that’s a good point. I think those two things are kind of intertwined. I started working when I was nine. I had a paper route from when I was nine to fifteen and afterwards I became a janitor. I always had a job, and like you said, it was just whatever I could get. All through my twenties it was just dumb and weird jobs, whatever paid the bills. It wasn’t probably until I was thirty or when I went to grad school for the first time and started teaching as a graduate assistant, that I didn’t have a job that wasn’t some kind of retail or food service or telemarketer. Those jobs are terrible on one hand, but also great for somebody who is interested in art because whatever we write about is ultimately about people. It gave me exposure to a lot of different kinds of people and I think that continues to be present in my work.
So many of those jobs were very memorable. I wouldn’t want to do them again but at that time in my life... I worked at an adult book store, book store is a nice term for it, it only had one rack of books, but it was an adult store with massage offered and that kind of stuff, peep booths. I’m surprised I’ve never written about that one. It was almost too strange.
I’ve had those experiences. You think you’re going to write about them but then you’re like, “I don’t even know what to do with this!”
Exactly. It’s going to seem like I’m being gratuitous or something.
You mentioned reading a lot as a kid. Who would you say your biggest literary influences have been? I’m particularly interested in this because when I read your book, it didn’t really remind me of any other book, and I mean that as a compliment. It might mean that I need to read more! But I remember dating this guy, my first real love, and I told my friends that I liked him because he didn’t remind me of anyone else. And that’s kind of how I felt about your book. It felt so bizarre and singular.
Donald Barthelme was a very big influence. He’s one of these late sixties, early seventies writers, so-called postmodern writers, playing with form a lot. Him and Robert Coover, Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Barry Hannah, Lynn Kilpatrick...I read this collection of kind of weird stories from the 1800s, Leonora Carrington is her name, very strange, fairy-tale like stories. I was reading a lot of these shorter stories. Not quite flash, but short. On the short end of a shorter story so around a maximum of 2,000 words and I really liked that. A lot of the older people who had published, the old writers that would actually get paid, people like Shirley Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, John Cheever, ones like that, they would write for The New Yorker and they would just crank out these stories and they were often kind of short. They weren’t like the expansive twenty-pagers we’ve got now and I thought, “I like that. I like the idea of get in, get out, simple situation, don’t give a lot of backstory.” So that was my goal. Because I had been writing novels. I had a couple of novels that didn’t get published and my short stories were stretching super long and I felt like I couldn’t even write a short story anymore so I thought, “Screw it. I’m just gonna entertain myself and write short stuff and make every one different from each other.” I wanted to make each one a different character, a different situation, a different form.
There’s a lot of what I would call gratuitous violence throughout Scoundrels Among Us that’s also a bit hilarious, and I thought, “Oh, should I laugh? Because this is gross.” That blur between realism and fantasy is present in almost every story, and I wonder whether the violence is more a function of the realism or of the fantasy.
I think that’s the Franz Kafka influence on me because [his work] is always very believable and down to earth, but then stuff happens and it’s just sort of off. The realism is what influences the violence and it comes out in absurd ways… I don’t feel like I’m very good at writing a serious story with super realistic violence and human emotion. I feel like it has to be filtered through some kind of absurd or weird lens.
This collection seems like it would be fun to write. Was there one story that you enjoyed writing the most?
“Scoundrels Among Us,” was a fun one to write. “Three Men On A Boat,” too. I was just making myself laugh with that one. I did one of these charter boats with five other guys to go salmon fishing, and there’s a little bit borrowed from that. But mostly I was parodying the kind of male bonding that happens when nothing is said but it’s all very warm anyway.
So many of these stories, at their heart, seem like stories about lonely men.
That wasn’t my intention, but if it’s there it’s there. At heart we all die alone and that’s my bleak, existential view of life. I think that’s Kafka and Camus and Dostoevsky. I think those were early influences. I was always interested in that. I was always interested in stories where people were going to die and they had to face their maker, and those writers are a little nihilistic, they’re not into salvation. I think even though I’m being funny, I’ve always grappled with this idea of death and what you do with it.
One of my favorite lines is from the story “Insert Name,” and it says, “Love is a muscle weakening with disuse.” I also really like the line from “A Fine Time” that reads “When a person lost his desire, what did he have left?” It reminds me of The Beautiful and the Damned, when Fitzgerald writes, “Desire just cheats you.” As if desire defines a person, motivates a person, but is also this thing that can never be satisfied or satiated. I find that really interesting because if you lose that, who are you? If you don’t want anything, what do you have?
Exactly. That’s the mood that’s probably infused throughout the book because that’s where I find myself. Like you said, you’re always having to want in order to feel alive and then when you get it, it just doesn’t quite satisfy. It can’t. It’s the source of capitalism, or the whole function of capitalism really. We have to always want more things and then we have to always be dissatisfied with the things we get because we’ve got to want more stuff. It’s a weird parallel between our capitalist society and life in general, or at least the life that I know in America. I think I was playing with that as well with some of the more satirical, political stories.
MB: Tortoise Books [who published Scoundrels Among Us] describe themselves as a publishing house that works with artists who haven’t found a niche. Do you think of yourself that way? Or do you want to be an artist that has a niche?
I guess I hadn’t noticed that, but that describes my writing for sure. It does not have a niche and I don’t know that it’s like “Hooray!” but it’s just who I am. I’ve come to terms with it. Let’s put it that way. I don’t want to write the same book twice, and I’ve realized a lot of writers that I have loved over the years, they get very popular eventually, but they seem to do the same thing over and over again. That’s not who I am.
I have had one book on St. Martin’s [Griffin], and then after that, none of my books. My agent couldn’t sell them. So I have come to realize that my stuff is just a little too weird or uncategorizable or something, it doesn’t fit in with the mainstream literary scene, and I’m totally fine with that. Because honestly, I like stuff that surprises me, that challenges me, that is different. I love that stuff. I’ve been converted to reading almost soley books from independent presses.
When Hobart published “Sanguine” last year, I remember thinking, “I don’t know what to make of this. I have a strong emotional reaction but I don’t quite know why.”
I think there is something ineffable about emotion. You can’t just put a name on it and say it’s this or that, because that reduces it to something simple, and emotions are not simple. Human beings are not simple. So I think that’s a great compliment, because I’m trying to manifest some of the complexity of human nature.