Even though the act of writing is incredibly boring, everybody wants to know the stories behind the writing of books. At any author reading, people ask how long it took to write the book, about how much of the novel is based on real life, and if the author learned any valuable life lessons during the writing of the book. Good authors learn to make up a story—a fiction behind a fiction—to satisfy the audience and perpetuate the public's belief in the romance of writing for one more day.
One of the most compelling attributes of local novelist Doug Nufer's fiction is you can tell that every book has a genuinely good story behind it—no fictionalizing required. Sometimes, he's done a ridiculous amount of Method-style research on a particular genre—On the Roast is a pitch-perfect tribute to the boring, artless corporate biography; The Mudflat Man/The River Boys is a smarmy, exploitation-style love letter to trashy dime-store flip novels. Other times, he'll work under heavy Oulipian constraints (Negativeland is a road trip novel in which every sentence contains a negative; no word in Never Again—even articles—appears more than once), and a big part of the drama comes in watching him perform that high-wire act. As you read his books, you imagine the act of writing as something exciting, an archaeological expedition into a little-considered subgenre of writing, or an experiment that could go wrong at any moment.
Nufer's newest novel, By Kelman Out of Pessoa, is more of a Method experiment than an Oulipian one. The setup: For one year, Nufer went to Emerald Downs and bet on races on behalf of three fictional characters. Kelman is written from the points of view of those three characters—Cal Nipper, Kelly Lane, and Henderson Will—which means that all the races (and all the winnings and losses) in the novel are based on fact. It also gives Nufer a splendid opportunity to find the poetry in the highly specialized language of the track:
He picked Fresh Broccoli, the winner of the next race, but, to fill the exacta, he picked a horse that finished last: Soup n Crackers. If anything, he figured the winner to be the one to drop out of the money, since she had to duel another speedster all the way to the wire, but the other speedster finished second... Nipper shrugged off the losses. All that bothered him, he said, was the time it took to place a bet. It wasn't going to be a quick day for any of us, but he had nothing better to do.
(An aside about the title of By Kelman Out of Pessoa: I hate it. As Nufer explains in the foreword, there's a logical reason behind the naming of this book—he combines a gambling technique from a James Kelman story with Fernando Pessoa's idea of "heteronyms," or an author writing works from the perspective of fictional authors—but it's not a name that a reader can be passionate about. And considering the influence that Kelman had on this novel, and considering that Kelman writes the best titles in modern fiction—"Not Not While the Giro"; "Greyhound for Breakfast"; How Late It Was, How Late; You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free—it's a lousy tribute to the author.)
To add to the heteronymical fun, chapters are mostly written about one character by another character. Things get complicated when two of the gamblers become lovers, and the novel is plagued with continual suggestions that maybe one of the gamblers is making the other two up.
And all the while, the three characters drive back and forth from Seattle to the racetrack, to bars in Georgetown and apartments on Capitol Hill. It's Nufer's Seattle, and it's a beautiful, weird place, as when Henderson Will writes about Kelly Lane watching Cal Nipper looking out over the Cascades and realizing that he barely registered them as
a backdrop for his view of the industrial landscapes of warehouses, office parks, and international mini-mall shopping centers that seemed to have sprung up out of the marshy bottomlands in the last five years, with their Mexican, Thai, and Ethiopian restaurants taking back the land from a beauty products factory and an aircraft fuel waste dump.
There are so many viewpoints here, so many puppets watching each other dance around a stage constructed from fiction and reality, that we can't help but wonder about the man who makes them all dance. In Kelman, you get a better look at Nufer than you've ever had before, because the entire book carries with it an unwritten memoir of Nufer's own experience at Emerald Downs. You want to see even more, but you can't; the wonder of Doug Nufer is that he contains so many perspectives, you can't look at him directly without your attention being directed somewhere else.