Dave Buckhout’s breezy Facebook post (“Well folks, it only took 51 years but I — finally — have a full-length novel going to print”), which announced the publication of The Regular (Atmosphere Press, 289 pages), hinted at the monumental effort required to spin characters out of thin air and weave a tale worth telling. But as any writer who’s survived the fresh hell of multiple drafts, boatloads of editing and fantasies of bailing on the whole shebang to become a painter or a poet (as did Buckhout) can attest, staying creative under pressure is a beast.
When asked to explain his motivation, the Atlanta-based author says, “Why do I write? Hmmm. . . . well, the short answer is: I am a masochist who weirdly enjoys toiling away, by himself, for thousands of hours with no guarantee that it won’t all be a grand waste of time. But the more positive and expansive answer would be that I am a serial observer. I am always giving things a sideways glance, trying to see them for what they are and what they might represent.”
Now that readers have a chance to meet The Regular’s protagonist, Marvin Goodspeed — a mash-up of several real-life characters who Buckhout encountered during what he calls his “more regular bar-hopping days” — the serial observer looks forward to seeing how other people navigate Marvin’s fictional slice of Atlanta and, possibly, find meaning in his weirdly wonderful world.
Putting his work in the hands and minds of others is the fun, eye-opening part of being a writer, Buckhout says. By the same token, he likens the feeling to watching a toddler walk on its own for the first time: thrilling but a bit fraught.
As he adapts to walking the line between sweet relief and trepidation, Buckhout visited with ArtsATL to share his perspectives on circular logic, the benefits of exploring Atlanta on foot and the ever-present voice in his head that encouraged him to stay the course.
ArtsATL: What is The Regular about?
Dave Buckhout: At its core, The Regular spotlights the effects of ingesting myth to such a degree that it becomes instinct. Once entrenched, myths create their own weather. They obscure the line between fact and fiction, often to a disorienting degree, and often by design. But they also take on a tangible reality with shape and form and, more importantly, a history. Investing so completely in the myth of self, or the myths that a society chooses to tell itself, comes to seem much like an addiction, in that the fake security for which a myth provides cover saves one from a reality too existential, too devastating, to accept.
ArtsATL: How would you describe Marvin Goodspeed to a stranger?
Buckhout: Goodspeed is that type of human who seems, at a glance, like more than meets the eye. He is the embodiment of the iceberg metaphor: that 90 percent remains hidden from view, that there is much more to his character and that which drives him beyond his being an abrasive, occasionally abusive, drunk. Goodspeed is a product of his environment, if ever there was one. It is so symbiotic a relationship that he serves as a stand-in for the modern South itself: a place that bends over backward to spur societal and cultural change, and a place that has absolutely no interest in changing. As with his home, Marvin Goodspeed is a living, breathing contradiction.
ArtsATL: Marvin is a keen observer of other people’s failure to question their slow death as cogs in the wheel of capitalism. But his devotion to the cause of what the narrator calls “progressive laissez-faire,” is equally self-destructive. Can Marvin see the irony of criticizing strangers for being co-conspirators in their own demise while habitually drinking himself to the point of oblivion?
Buckhout: This is a great question, one that I’m not sure I ever answered in full, and for which I feel OK for not having answered. I like the idea of an author dropping in an item that remains speculative, requires the readers to draw their own conclusions. It creates a sense of camaraderie, a bond between author and reader as we both try to figure it out.
But in the end, whether he does or does not see it isn’t entirely clear. Personally, I do not see how it is possible that anyone can hold such diametrically opposed extremes in their thoughts or actions and keep on as if it were just another day. And yet, we see it all the time. I see it in myself — saying one thing and doing another.
ArtsATL: Marvin walks everywhere, which allows him to experience the climate, change of seasons and his East Side neighborhood in a way that would be a revelation to anyone who depends on a car or public transit. By the same token, his path is tightly circumscribed by a constant flow of traffic. Why did you want to explore Atlanta from a pedestrian’s perspective?
Buckhout: That is right on, and isn’t that so true of Atlanta? Its limitations, largely due to the insane transit plan that we all have to put up with, are what dial us in ever so tighter to our home base, make us want to make the most out of it, wherever that is. In Goodspeed’s case, trundling about the fictionalized Inman Park and Little Five Points that he inhabits served a few purposes. First, it kept it manageable and allowed me to hone in on an area I knew in fine detail.
The first place my wife and I lived together was an old Craftsman-era duplex in Inman Park. I would walk the neighborhood every day because there was so much new to discover at that slow pace. Of course, not all of Atlanta’s neighborhoods offer such a palette of architecture and setting and aesthetic. But regardless of locale, I feel most people would be surprised by what they pick up — the sights, smells, and as you mention the slight subtle seasonal revisions that become suddenly obvious. I have long been a true believer in walking the same neighborhood over and over. It yields to the observant in surprising ways.
Secondly, choosing to zero in on this stretch of historic neighborhoods served well to spotlight Goodspeed’s anxious need to keep some things familiar, an instinctual — and I would say environmental — suspicion of the new. Of course, this is yet one more irony and contradiction, in that the nature of these neighborhoods has changed so very much.
ArtsATL: Marvin rails against change in general, and the evils of gentrification in particular. In his mind, what would victory look like in the battle to staunch progress?
Buckhout: Here is another example of my not being too sure. As mentioned earlier, Goodspeed is the purveyor of this odd contradictory blend of progressivism and conservatism. How does that even work? Honestly, I think Marvin Goodspeed would view success as the new and the old canceling each other out, his current world encased in amber.
ArtsATL: You thank Charles McNair, who was featured in February’s BookMarks column, for urging you to “keep at it, at it and at it, no matter what,” in your acknowledgements. How did he fortify your resolve?
Buckhout: I met Charles through the wild all-night communal music jam sessions he would have in his attic. Knowing he was an author of some renown, and yet not wanting to pester him with esoteric questions, I just tried to enjoy his presence. That alone gave me all the inspiration I could need. Charles believes in the power of creative art as much as anyone I have ever met. It lights up his universe. And when you are in his company you cannot help but be lifted up. He does something no one else I have known can pull off quite so effectively, in that he puts you on the spot, creatively, as a way to build you up. He shows you that you have it in you, that you can do it if you just be true to your own instincts and keep at it. Charles truly believes that if you have a creative vision the only thing standing between you and achieving it is yourself. He makes you realize just how powerful you really are.
Visit Dave Buckhout’s website to purchase signed copies of The Regular and to keep abreast of pending author talks as pandemic restrictions ease. There are multiple shoutouts to bands and songs throughout The Regular, all of which made the cut on the playlist Buckhout curated on Spotify.
May book picks
(Each month, we feature new reading suggestions from book lovers across Atlanta’s arts and culture landscape.)
In her debut poetry collection The Wild Fox of Yemen, (Graywolf Press, 112 pages), Threa Almontaser takes us into her world, one divided by her Yemeni past and American present. The Wild Fox of Yemen is a book of otherness. The speaker lives in otherness — an immigrant in the U.S., an outsider to Yemen. Her identity is split, and the poems mix languages unapologetically, without gloss (in any sense of the word). The language is broken, out of sorts. But the speaker is not. This is a beautiful book.
From the poem “Muslim With Dog”
. . . There is a golden retriever being trained
to chase kids at the border. There is another
by a fireplace, head on someone’s knee as they’re stroked.
Both work hard for their purpose.
Neither wants to crouch alone in a parking lot
quivering against whatever wind
is rising . . .
— Danielle Hanson is poet-in-residence at Arts Beacon and poetry editor for Doubleback Books. She’s the author of Ambushing Water and Fraying Edge of Sky. Threa Almontaser will be in conversation with Edwidge Danticat, John Freeman and Yusef Komunyaaka as part of the PEN World Voices Festival. Register here for the digital event on Friday (May 21).
One of the really nice things that came out of 2020 was that I joined a literary fiction subscription book club. Audiobooks are my staple while working in the studio, but I found that I prefer to read once I’m home.
My favorite read is A Girl Is a Body of Water (Tin House Books, 560 pages) by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story centered on Kirabo, a 12-year-old Ugandan girl, as she grows up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
This sweeping family portrait is a fascinating examination of storytelling blended with the experience of feminism and womanhood across generations within Uganda. I found it humorous, tender and absorbing. And it gave me a little taste of traveling to a new place without leaving home.
— Tracy Murrell is an Atlanta-based visual artist. Her first solo museum exhibition, Dans l’espoir d’un Avenir Meilleur (In Hope for a Better Future) . . . Exploring Haitian Migration, will open at Hammonds House Museum in August.
In 1997, at Cafe Carlyle, we had the pleasure of enjoying ringside seats to the dazzling show Eartha Kitt performed on her 70th birthday. Her daughter, Kitt Shapiro in the lovely new book, Eartha & Kitt (Pegasus Books, 288 pages), describes her mother as the passionate and generous soul we experienced that magical evening. The book chronicles the decades of pain and struggles behind her incredible talent as a performer and provides a portrait of a kind and wise human being.
— Margareta Larsson is a senior lecturer at Georgia State University
From the very first pages of Crying in H Mart (Knopf Publishing Group, 256 pages), I became immersed in the journey of Michelle Zauner and felt very connected to her experience as the first-generation American daughter of a Korean mother.
My mother and her parents were born in Poland, and my dad’s parents came from Russia. But Michelle’s perspectives on her parents’ vision of why their child needed to be perfect resonated with me. Her connection to Korean food mirrors my understanding of how cuisine can sustain a family’s cross-generational ties to their homeland and culture. Even the premature death of her mother and the accompanying angst were eerily familiar to me.
While it comes as no surprise that the singer/songwriter behind Japanese Breakfast could write a memoir that made me feel like I was in the presence of her family, I am in awe of her gift as a heart-wrenchingly, beautiful storyteller.
— Ron Simblist is the founder and artistic director of Chatt Hills Music, a nonprofit program dedicated to enriching communities and lives — from Chattahoochee Hills in the Serenbe Community to Asheville, North Carolina — by presenting high-quality music. Visit the Atlanta History Center’s archives to hear Michelle Zauner and Chanel Miller talk about Crying at H Mart. The virtual event was recorded live on May 7.