Literary Devices: Booze



In some of my writing, I have characters who use guns a lot, and every now and then I get some detail about guns wrong and I get flooded with notes from helpful people explaining my mistake. Which is fine and good. So, let’s turn the tables a little. I may not be an expert on firearms, but I am an expert in firewater (see what I did there? Me good professional word person).

I am in many ways, a walking cliché: The writer who enjoys his liquor a little too much. It’s certainly not my fault that my ancestors made alcohol both delicious, all-natural, vaguely healthy if you believe European doctors, and man’s best friend. I am the victim here, is what I’m saying. And my books often reflect this lifelong love affair with The Drink: In the Avery Cates books, in Lifers and Chum and We Are Not Good People my characters all drink heavily and while you might argue this also explains why the stories they find themselves in are so dark and awful (and yet, hilarious!) because getting shitfaced is itself dark and awful (but hilarious!) it remains a literary device I use a lot. Admittedly, I use the Booze Device mainly so my characters have something to do with their hands (see also: Cigarettes).

Still, if you’re imagining that I myself get all ginned up and plow through fifty pages of golden prose while my eyes are crossed (method writing, in other words), you’re wrong. I remember once Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane being interviewed and he was asked about playing live shows while high, and he dismissed it out of hand, saying something about how you can’t do that because the guitar strings would suddenly seem like they were as thick as firehoses and everything would go to hell (I’m paraphrasing). While a glass of the brown stuff has often been my companion when writing, it’s not like you can guzzle a fifth of bourbon and then write fifteen pages of really coherent prose.

Of course, characters actually in the book? Why not. From what I can tell no one wants verisimilitude when it comes to liquor in our stories.



Misanthropy for the Win



So, we’ve made some friends on our block with some neighbors, and it’s generally a good thing because the neighbors we’re friendly with all like to drink a lot. They’re generally all good people I’m happy to know, and the ones who aren’t we just sort of wave at and smile and keep moving – always keep moving. That’s the secret.

Since we’re living in a society and I am nothing if not a team player, we do favors for our neighbors and vice versa. For example, we all have copies of each other’s keys so that when the husbands (occasionally, wives, once, cats) come stumbling home, pantsless and blind drunk, with no house keys anywhere in sight, we can help each other out.

So this morning I am asleep, and the phone rings and wakes me. I look at Caller ID, and it says the grocery store across the street is calling. For a sleepy moment I actually wondered if they were calling to tell me they knew I ate that grape without paying for it six years ago, or that I’d once clogged the toilet over there when we were having our bathroom remodelled.

Then, I woke up sufficiently to not answer. Because it was the grocery store.

Anyway, the message clicks on and its my neighbor, who has locked himself out. Neighbor X is a great guy who shares my love of pre-dinner cocktails, sarcastic remarks, and that third, ill-advised bottle of wine, so naturally I got up and went downstairs to get his keys. And poor Neighbor X is standing there freezing his ass off in his pajamas. I did him the courtesy of not asking why he was at the grocery store at 5AM in nothing but his pajamas, because that’s what neighbors do for each other, natch.

The moral? Having friends rips you from your warm bed at 5AM. Having no friends doesn’t. Make of that what you will.


Let’s Cut Out the Middle Man: Send Me $100

Stock photography gives us everything.

Stock photography gives us everything.

So, increasingly it’s popular for writers who have, shall we say, less than great book sales (hi there!) to go begging for pennies on sites like Kickstarter or Patreon. This isn’t a bad idea, as we’re basically already beggars when it comes to our book contracts:

Writer: I am hungry and my wife just left me for a homeless man to improve her lifestyle. Here’s a book I spent six years writing.

Publisher: I’ll give you six dollars and a vague promise of a sandwich sometime next week.

Writer: SOLD.

Publisher: Now, I never said *American* dollars.

Writer: <stuffs bills into mouth and eats them>

And: scene.

Now, naturally enough if I were to go the Kickstarter or Patreon route, I’d no doubt take in some very dark, very unfortunate directions. Because, if you think about it, these sorts of arrangements are already kind of weird. Take Patreon: You offer me $5 a month and I offer you some flash fiction. Sounds innocent enough, except it has the ring of an organ grinder and me in a cute little monkey-appropriate outfit. My flash fictions would almost certainly become epic exercises in passive aggression, ending, no doubt, in the sort of murder/suicide pact that future writers will turn into Pulitzer-winning True Crime novels.

Plus, I would likely just get lazier and lazier, ultimately creating $1 support tiers where you’d get an angry, drunken voicemail in the middle of the night, and one-penny support tiers where you’d get a voicemail in the middle of the night that was just me weeping inconsolably.

And Kickstarter would start off fine and dandy, but there are two scenarios I’m seeing: One where no one donates, and I wind up being cited on comedy websites as how not to do a kickstarter, and one where I am fully funded and manage to blow all of the money in one weekend via an increasingly unlikely series of coincidences involving liquor and an impaired ability to make decisions. Either way: Tears.

Plus, to be honest, all these alternative ways of raising money are a lot of work. If I wanted to work for a living I wouldn’t be a writer. I wouldn’t have these delicate, soft hands and this fragile, glass-like lower back. I wouldn’t have this debilitating fear of other people, leprechauns, and sweat.

So let’s keep it simple, shall we? Y’all send me $100 each and I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. Deal?


The Time I Got Taken

You're right - I don't *have* any dignity.

You’re right – I don’t *have* any dignity.

Although my brand, as you all well know, is “Genius Alcoholic” (my justification for this branding is my expectation that just as my liver explodes and claws its way from my body in a death struggle, science will have advanced to the point where I can print a new liver at home and hire someone from the Internet to transplant it – or possibly have a new liver and a surgeon delivered via drone, either way), the fact is, I am sometimes surprisingly stupid. Like, amazingly, incredibly, bone-shatteringly stupid.

My agent just appeared in a blaze of purple fire, laughed manically while pointing at me for five seconds, and then vanished.

I’ve been freelance writing for a few years now, and have reached a point where every day isn’t a soul-killing hustle for work reminiscent of Samuel L. Jackson’s crack-dance in Jungle Fever, except instead of crack, I am dancing for writing jobs. These days I am quite fancy in my freelancing (I’ve considered wearing a monocle and top hat while working, yes, why do you ask?) but in the early going, of course, I was willing to entertain a lot of dubious writing jobs. Not subject matter, which continues to be something I’m more or less neutral on (I have written about some very, very horrible things and cashed the checks without a single regret) but dubious rather in the sense of basically dealing with shadowy figures from across the globe who regard paying writers to be a crazy idea.

Which, I know, I just described everyone. The world hates us writers, doesn’t it?

Anyways, back in those dark days I responded to some seriously red-flag waving job postings in the early goings. Most were merely frustrating: People who didn’t know what they wanted, people who thought telling you to write like some famously successful blog was enough instruction to go on, people who had no sense of humor at all.

Most of the time it was fine: I’d write a few pieces and we’d mutually wander off to other things. Not every business relationship can be perfect, after all. But twice – twice! – I got rooked, because I agreed to do an unpaid trial.

The Scam

It’s obvious, really: Always get paid for your work. Always. But, a little nervous about doing freelance, about not having a job, about testing this theory of mine that the only thing I am good at without reservation is writing, I made some bad decisions. So when an otherwise great-sounding job came along that required me to write one, single 500-word article for no money so the employer could determine that I had the writing chops came along, I agreed.

You can see where this is going.

Nope, never got hired, never got paid, and when I (belatedly) looked into it, I was one among dozens of writers who got rooked into it. In other words, we all collectively provided this guy like 15,000 words for free. In other, other words, he got his whole project written for him by suckers like me.

You might think I learned my lesson, and I did, but not well enough: A few weeks later I fell for it again. I initially turned down the job because of the free trial bullshit – but then the person came back and defended it, saying it was just a very short piece and they simply had to require it, and again it was otherwise so attractive (aren’t scams always?) I gave in. After all, I thought, if it was just a scam why would they bother emailing me? So I wrote about 300 words, and yup, never heard from anyone again.

So, now I’ve really learned my lesson. Really, really. Now, in the grand scheme of things I lost maybe $50 of my time, so it’s not like I’m going to scream KKKKHHHAAANNNNNN at the sky and rip off my shirt (ripping off shirts is super hard, anyway). But it does burn me that I got played. And reminds us all that we writers, we’re at the bottom of the ant hill, and we get kicked around a bit. But you know what? Your time is worth something, and you get to decide what that is. Everyone else then gets to decide if they agree, and pay for your services or not depending on that. It really is that simple.


Bring Me Your Finest Single Malts and Cheeses

This essay originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 12, Issue 1, 2006.

Ice is for suckers.

Ice is for suckers.

The Inner Swine Goes to Whiskyfest 2005

OPERATION: WHISKYFEST. Generally speaking, I’m not one for overly formalizing everything; there are people in this world who just don’t feel right unless every single activity has been choreographed and arranged according to in-depth bylaws. These are people to whom ‘expertise’ is darling, who love to be able to explain why something is better than some other thing, in great detail. Many of these people are baseball fans, who will bore you to death with long-winded diatribes about the infield fly rule or how to throw a breaking ball. Many others are wine enthusiasts for whom simply enjoying a glass of wine is not good enough, you must be able to feign an appreciation of 655 subtle characteristics, many of which were made up a century ago and still amuse the French to this day.

Despite my appreciation for a good breaking ball, I am not one of those people. I like wine, but my palate does not advance much past knowing what I like, which tends to be just about every single bottle of wine I’ve ever imbibed, with the sole exception of a bottle given to me by TIS Staff Artist Jeof Vita a few years ago, a nondescript green bottle with a plain label that read, in toto, CHEAP WHITE WINE. That wine was. . .not good, and I wish someone had told me it was a joke before I drank the entire bottle and spent a week shivering. I like baseball, too, but I grow weary of endless discussion of minutiae—I just like to have the games on about a hundred times a year and get out to a few games. I am, in other words, a pretty simple person. I like what I like, and I distrust unnecessary complexity.

Despite this lack of sophistication, I’ve come to love whisky in general and Scotch in specific. It’s amazing how you can be a kid and love cheap beer and peppermint schnapps and wonder why anyone pays more than a dollar and change for their liquor, and just two decades later you’re willingly shelling out lots of money for specific types of booze because you actually believe they taste better: Maturity is obviously just a code word for crazy. But I digress; although I’ve always had a taste for bourbon, I’d never really investigated Scotch or any other type of whisky. Partly it’s the cost—you can’t just shell out for bottles of booze on the off chance you’ll like it—and partly it’s just my general lack of focus and energy. I’m a lazy, lazy man and discovering new booze usually falls under the heading of more shit I gotta do. Eventually, however, good sense prevailed and over the past few years I’ve gotten into Scotch and appreciate its subtleties. This translates to: Jeff has been drinking an awful lot of Scotch.

So when my wife, The Duchess, presented me with a ticket to Whiskeyfest for my birthday and informed me that founding member of TISIC Jeof Vita was also planning to attend, I was immediately excited. It’s not often you are handed a ticket to drink—by your wife, no less—and I immediately went into training and plotting, determined to make the most of my sudden opportunity.



Baby Levon Rocks On at The DOT

But it really did happen.

But it really did happen.

Friendos, this originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 4, Issue 1, March 1998. That’s a long time ago. This is an absolutely true tale of what I experienced after my car was towed in New York back in The Day.

The fucking New York City Police towed my car the day after Christmas and I travelled to 38th street and 12th avenue to pay $150.00 to get it back. I wasn’t happy to be paying $150.00, but I wasn’t in full-postal mode because it was just after Christmas and I was resigned to the perpetual screwing the universe was handing out to me on a daily basis anyway. Once you get resigned to the screwing, as any prison bitch will tell you, it really stops bothering you. That’s pretty much the definition of resigned anyway.

So I wandered into the tiny, unwindowed, bunker-like DOT office on December 26th and immediately read and comprehended a big 3X6 poster on the opposite wall which explained the proper way to collect your car. It read:







New Inner Swine

cov203-4sizSo, it’s been six months, and that means it’s time for a new issue of that thing you don’t read, my zine The Inner Swine. Volume 20, Issue 3/4 (Winter 2014) is out; I pushed it to Amazon and B&N, and I also posted the whole issue to Ello because why the fuck not. I mean, I literally have no idea what to do with Ello – no idea – so I figured why not do something stupid like post 65,000 words to it in poorly formatted HTML? Since I also have no idea what to do with my zombie-zine since I killed the print version.

So I did. Go read it for free, you filthy animals. It contains an entire unpublished novel of mine, BTW.

For those of you who prefer a bit more sanity, you can pay a dollar for the slightly-better formatting of the


and the


And as is traditional, I now take a moment to reflect on the insanity that was making approximately 1,500 copies of this zine on the office photocopier back in the day.



This is the face of doom.

This is the face of doom.

I don’t know about y’all, but I have a problem with leaving things unfinished. Since turning in We Are Not Good People to my publisher, I’ve completed one novel (which I showed around to folks who all shrugged and evinced zero enthusiasm for) and since then I’ve started about four projects that more or less went nowhere, if you consider significant amounts of words to be “nowhere.” I’m not a big one for word counts, but it is a useful stat when discussing incomplete novels, so let’s say I have about 4 projects that got to be about 25,000 words or so and then petered out.

Usually this is because they lose that indescribable “buzz” that a living, breathing book has, at least for me. When a story is thriving, working on it is like picking up a live wire. I can feel that buzzing energy every time I put words to paper or screen. When that buzz is lost, I usually tinker for a while and eventually give up trying to make it move again. It’s like riding an elephant that suddenly keels over. For a while you’re bounding along going whoooooo and filled with adrenaline. Then you’re trapped under a ton of dead elephant and nothing you do, including stuffing dynamite under it and lighting a fuse, gets it moving again.

But, I hate to waste all those words. That means turning that dead elephant into a Frankenstein-monster via one of the following strategies:

  1. The Capper: Writing a brief ending of sorts that ties up your loose ends without much revision (“… and then the plane crashed. The end.”) and calling it a job … done.
  2. The Extraction: Taking some portion of the work that can stand alone as a short story with minimal revision and discarding the rest.
  3. The Combo: Realizing that some other unfinished monstrosity is similar in theme and combining the two into one much longer, less satisfying, but in some sense “finished” work.

None of these are ideal, but I will admit that #2 has worked pretty well from time to time. The thing is, I hate unfinished projects. I hate the waste, and sometimes in those 25,000 words there are 10,000 I think are pretty good, so I want them out there someday. So I’m often willing to roll up my sleeves, do some meatball surgery, and call what I end up with a success. Which, sometimes, it is.

Now I’m working on a new idea and I’m getting towards that point where the elephant either suddenly and quite surprisingly spread its Dumbo ears and takes flight, or staggers over dead, trapping me beneath its rotting carcass. I’ll keep you posted.


The King of North Street: I Was Once a Gifted Athlete

This essay originally appeared in The Inner Swine 19(1/2), Summer 2013.

Okay, first of all, the ravages of fucking time are fucking horrible, right? Sweet Jebus on a tricycle, I once looked like this:

Proof I've looked drunk since the day I was born.

Proof I’ve looked drunk since the day I was born.

Sweet hell, I was adorable. Shut up – I was adorable. Blond, soulful eyes, the correct proportion of nose to ears, I had it going on. Today I look like the fucking Crypt Keeper. Oh, this is the normal and perfectly natural process of aging? Maybe so, but it’s still personally horrifying, and if you’ve been riding this zine ride for 20 years with me you know this is all about me being personally horrified at things. If I was the type to wear a monocle, it would be constantly popping off in shock and dismay.

Anyway, if you are only familiar with what we will refer to as Old As Hell Jeff, which is to say any version of Jeff you may have encountered after he discovered alcohol and began drinking himself to death every night, you may be surprised to learn that there was a brief time in my very early childhood when I imagined myself to be somewhat athletically gifted. Whether or not I was actually athletically gifted or if I was just the least un-gifted on a block filled with children of questionable dexterity and physical fitness remains a mystery for the ages, but when I was a kid, man, I was fast.

I know I was fast because I won races.



Competence is Overrated



So, about 2.5 years ago my day job and I got divorced, and after the mourning period had been duly celebrated with hooch and crying jags, I launched a freelance writing career. The business plan boiled down to: Pay me any sort of legal currency and I will write anything you want, ’cause I write real good. Did I have visions of people writing me huge checks to interview glamorous people because I’m a famous author? Or, well, an author? Maybe. Did that happen? Dude, I can barely sell my own books, much less command big freelance money.

It’s been a haul. I started off writing some of the most boring shit you’ve ever heard of for ridiculously low amounts of money. Slowly, I built a client base, moved up the pay scale ladder, and today I can actually say I write for a living. Granted, “living” is a fluid term. What, you don’t supplement your diet with cardboard? Elitist.

But I digress. What’s really amazing about freelance writing, to me, is that it’s the first time in my life that I feel competent in my work.


Back in high school someone explained the acronym MEMO to me: Minimum Effort, Maximum Output. I instantly adopted it as my life philosophy, and overnight I gained ten pounds, my grades plummeted, and I started writing all my English papers without actually reading the books. I made my way through the rest of my academic career in this way: The goal has always been to get by without doing much work, so that I would have more time and energy for the things I did want to do, like write novels or play guitar or train cats to fetch liquor for me.

As a result, I haven’t felt competent in decades, because I am always barely paying attention to things and people, including people who are, say, attempting to train me in how to do a job. I spent a lot of time in panic sweats, completely and utterly unsure how to proceed. It’s a stressful way to live, let me tell you. At least, it’s stressful when you’re not napping or playing video games while ostensibly employed.

But now, it’s remarkable: For the first time in my life I feel competent. I’m doing something for money that I actually know how to do and that I’m good at. Granted, it often involves writing product descriptions about sex toys, or pretending to be knowledgeable about things I only heard existed when the job was assigned to me, but it doesn’t matter: If there is one thing I know how to do, it’s write.

It’s a giddy feeling for an old-school incompetent such as myself. The best part? Drinking is finally officially in my job description, mainly because I wrote my job description. Huzzah!