The first royalty check came in at just over sixty thousand. In less than six weeks, Joe McElwee’s first thriller had earned back the advance and cracked the top ten of the New York Times bestseller list. His publisher hinted that the next check would top one hundred and fifty grand.
“And that’s just the US trade and hardback market,” his agent told him. “We haven’t even gotten to foreign rights and streaming.”
McElwee already had plans for the money. First, the car. Though he felt some affection for the twenty-three-year-old Chevy that had hauled him back and forth to adjunct professorships on a circuit of second-tier public universities, the Malibu had been wheezing blue smoke for the past twenty thousand miles. The seats were ripped, blotches of paint had faded and chipped from the hood and trunk, and the suspension was shot.
McElwee likened the car to an elderly dog: arthritic, hazy eyed, and deaf, but faithful to the last. He couldn’t abandon it any more than he could have turned his back on a mutt who had stuck with him through his coldest, hungriest days.
Now that he could afford a new vehicle, he began to think differently. He told himself that even the greatest racehorses were eventually put out to pasture. It was the humane thing to do. Give the beast some rest.
When he tried to picture what “pasture” looked like for an old beaten-down sedan, the image of his abandoned Chevy rusting in a junkyard pained him. He forced his mind instead to the Mercedes dealership. He’d twice driven past without stopping. All those years of instant coffee breakfasts and rice-and-bean dinners made him feel like a creature of a different species, an impostor who didn’t belong in an upscale car dealership.
The other night, he dreamed he was in the showroom, asking the dealer about a sensible entry-level CLA-class sedan. The dealer smiled and whispered with a polite and knowing smile, “Why don’t you make this easy on us both and just leave?” McElwee looked up to see another salesman shooing him out with a subtle hand gesture, the way the maître d’ of a fine restaurant might discreetly rid his establishment of a homeless person who’d wandered in off the street.
The first check, the sixty thousand, had just cleared that morning. After years of living hand-to-mouth—the associate professorships were part-time gigs that paid near minimum wage—he had developed a fear of spending money. He had splurged and bought two new suits on credit before the check cleared, then kept them in the closet for two days, wrapped in plastic, in case he had to return them.
Now that the money was in his account, he felt safe to wear his new clothes. When he’d given readings in the past, he’d dressed like a man without money: jeans or khakis, always faded, and an ill-fitting button-down shirt because Goodwill and the Salvation Army didn’t always carry his size. Beggars can’t be choosers.
For today’s reading, he chose the lighter of the two suits, a medium-blue, pure Merino wool costing more than a full month’s rent. The first step in gaining the respect that had eluded him for all of his professional life, he told himself, was to look respectable.
A little voice inside his head said, “I don’t buy that.”
He told the voice to shut up.
The voice said, “If you want respect, be respectable. It’s not something you put on. It’s what you are inside, how you act in the world, how you treat others.”
McElwee asked the voice if the guy on the Mercedes lot would respect him more in his Goodwill hand-me-downs or his sharp new suit.
Then came another thought, one that had nagged him earlier that morning as he dressed. Was a nine-hundred-dollar suit good enough? If he wanted to make a mark in the world, why had he skimped? Why not go for the two-thousand-dollar job?
Funny how money changes you, he thought. One day, I’m terrified at the extravagance of dropping nine hundred bucks on a new suit. The next day, it’s not good enough.
Is this how rich people think, he wondered. Is this why they never think they have enough?
When the thought became uncomfortable, he dismissed it and turned his mind to the money to come. The publisher had signed him to a one-book deal. Obviously, they wanted to extend that now. After today’s reading, he’d head to New York to meet with his agent and publisher.
The publisher wanted four more titles to follow Extraordinary Joe. The protagonist of McElwee’s first thriller was the most popular element of his wildly popular book. Outwardly, everything about the character seemed ordinary. He was a man of no means with average looks, driving an average car. He’d learned to fight in Afghanistan, where he developed the PTSD that made him hide from the world, keep a low-profile janitor job, and appear modest.
Only, this ordinary Joe who had seen too much of the world’s suffering had an extraordinary sense of justice and a quiet but relentless vengeance against those who picked on the poor and vulnerable, the people he most identified with. The unremarkable-looking Joe could slip in and out of a scene without being noticed. And when he needed to, he could draw on his extraordinary powers to inflict justice on the people most in need of it. His military training had made him an efficient and effective killer, and his deep well of inner determination made him a relentless foe.
“How did you come up with such a compelling character?” his publisher asked over dinner at a Manhattan restaurant that McElwee could never have afforded.
“Oh, you know. I just looked within. I think if we look deep enough, we all have that person inside us. That person who wants to fix the world with his secret superpowers.”
“That’s exactly what readers identify with.” His publisher was a few years younger than him. Late thirties, he guessed. Professional, attractive, intelligent. “That sense that they have extraordinary things inside them that the world can’t see behind their ordinary outward appearance. Was it painful? Did it hurt to dig that deep to find that character?”
No, thought McElwee. I just copied him from a thousand other pulp thrillers. He’s a simple archetype, and a stupid one. Boil him down to his essence and you have The Incredible Hulk. Hulk see bad guy hurt nice person. Hulk get mad. Whole body puff up like erection. Bad guy get punished.
Out loud, he said, “Yeah. A little.”
What hurt was that during all those years of writing intellectually honest, heartfelt stories, he couldn’t make a buck. He had to scrape by teaching creative writing to undergrads—some idealistic, some self-absorbed—who would eventually go on to jobs in marketing or law or tech, vaguely holding on to the dream that they would someday write a great work of fiction that would be admired for generations.
His advice to them was always the same: Get a career. If you do well at that, you can write in your spare time.
Otherwise, you’re on this hamster wheel, driving from college to college, reading endless reams of poorly written, well-intentioned prose, trying to be constructive in your feedback, trying to nurture fragile egos, trying to keep your head above water.
It’s bearable when you’re a drunk. Through his late twenties and early thirties, he had managed just fine. The publisher rejections hadn’t yet accumulated, hadn’t yet become a way of life. It got harder after he sobered up and realized how many of his high school friends had jobs, houses, spouses, kids. What bothered McElwee wasn’t that they had those things, but that they could afford them, that they had choices, whereas he, at forty-three, was still living the ramen-noodle dorm room existence they’d outgrown decades ago.
McElwee fixed his eyes on the road sign ahead. One more hour to the bookstore. He’d catch up with Veronica, the owner, read for an audience of perhaps a few dozen, sign some books, then turn around and drive two hours back home through a darkening mid-December afternoon.
He’d park the car three blocks from the store. He didn’t want his new audience to associate him with the old chugging Chevy, the arthritic dog belching a trail of blue smoke. He wanted them to see his new suit.
Something pained him about that, about not wanting to be associated with his own past, the past that had made him who he was. The car was the one thing in his life that had never betrayed him, and now he was embarrassed to be seen with it?
Is this what money does, he wondered. Is this the price of success? Or am I just being a sentimental sap?