“‘Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug’ grabbed me from the beginning with its disarming and charmingly manic exordium, which introduces us to the rollicking voice of the eponymous narrator. The author does an excellent job of drawing me into Sammy/Andrew’s world, creating a vivid sense of the stakes and themes of the book in a few paragraphs. The excerpt also has an assured sense of scene, character development and milieu, a wonderful ear for clever dialogue, and a strikingly original eye for detail. I’m also impressed by the balance the opening chapters strike between comic and melancholy—there’s a light touch here that makes me trust this writer. Based on these lively opening twenty pages, I’m definitely hooked and eager to read more.”—Guest Judge, Dan Chaon. We are thrilled to share (at last) the grand prize winning excerpt of our first Novel Excerpt Contest, which is now open for submissions for our second year. Dive into Lester’s opening chapters at the link below!
The casket was open. Satin bulged around his face like a boxer’s mask. His cheeks had flattened, his nose seemed to have sunk, his lips drooped down the sides of his face, and under his makeupped skin were strange colors, greens and purples and reds, like fish at the bottom of a clear creek. I thought of what the eighth grade art teacher had said, that the reason Impressionist paintings looked like they did was because the artists painted the colors we saw but our brains canceled out. Look long enough at a white onion on a white backdrop, the art teacher had said, and you’ll see every color imaginable.
Well, here I was, looking.
A TRUE DORK
My name is Sammy Slug, and I faked punk.
This is the story of me, and of Gibbs Mott, and of a poor kid who lost a brother and two fingers when all he wanted was to be my friend. This is the story of a sorrowful young mother, and of my sorrowful mother, and of the many arrays and arrangements of love: some of them true, one of them mine. This is the story of slapdash schemes to make money, of running and running away, a story of basements and bedrooms and back seats of cars, of three deaths and a birth (although not in that order), and of blunders, faults, forgeries, and fuck-ups.
This is a story about good music, bad beer, plaid sport coats, and malodorous adhesives. It’s the story of learning who you are, and trying to forget who you are, and then trying to be someone else, and later trying to get back to what you started off as, and finally throwing up your hands like whatever, because if you’ve read anything worth reading or seen a single good movie in your life or thought for more than like four seconds about the trends and faults lines of contemporary American life, then you know the simple truth: you can’t go back to whatever it was you thought you were.
And you can’t fake your way forward, either.
They called me Sammy Slug, but I was born Andrew David Steevers on a cloudy afternoon in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, birthplace of a true dork. My mother’s name is Gloria, daughter to an office machines salesman and a housewife, who is at present living in a basementless bungalow near Clearwater Beach, happy as a Gulf oyster, thank you very much. My father taught remedial pre-algebra and coached cross country and once narrowly missed a slot in the Olympics. I have no siblings and good memories of a happy childhood: cookies in my lunchbox, fires in the fireplace, VCR rentals on a Friday night. The world seemed to widen ahead of me like a good cross country course, orange plastic pyramids marking every turn.
Then, without warning, we moved, and my father died, and the first part of this story began.
THE POLIS & ITS GODS
My father had a speech he liked to give at the beginning of every season. After warm-ups, he’d round up his runners, settle them into a shaded patch of grass behind the bleachers, and wait for everyone to hush. He’d look from one eager, impatient face to the next, and, when he was satisfied that each kid was listening, would ask what they thought they were here to do.
“To run,” somebody would say.
“To win,” another would propose.
“To do my best?” might venture some idealistic soul.
He’d nod, pace, murmur. “To win conference, right? To beat the pants off the other kid?” He’d pause. “For victory?” He said victory like I might say alfalfa? as I picked through a salad.
One of the better younger runners, a kid who hadn’t heard it all before, might raise a timid hand. “You mean lowering my PR?”
My father hung his head and smiled at his Sauconys. “No, no. You’re not here for yourselves at all. You are here, ladies and gentlemen, to participate in a storied tradition, one that stretches from the cradle of civilization to the latest kid to dare a friend to see who can run to that mailbox and back first.”
The freshmen twisted their necks while the seniors said calm down, there’s no actual mailbox, just a figure of speech.