Oliver Lee Bateman writes, “I lived in a state of parallel play alongside the denizens of what struck me as a strange, distant world.”
Going to Montana completed a process of reclusion that had begun when my family moved to the eastern wastes of North Carolina. I was still a young boy then, and it’s possible that I could have integrated myself into this new environment. In fact, it probably would have been beneficial to me if I had done so. But I didn’t, and instead carefully resisted the development of an accent or any other attachment to the local culture.
So when I left North Carolina and traveled to Glacier Park, it amounted to going from no place to the middle of nowhere. Sure, I missed my friends and relatives, but my affection for them wasn’t rooted in any deeper love for the South. Most of them would eventually leave the area, anyway.
I don’t know what I was expecting in Montana. Did I plan to work as a substitute physical education teacher, or as a debt collector? Did I anticipate joining the United Food and Commercial Workers and launching a high-powered career in stocking produce? Did I figure that I’d be spending lonely night after lonely night in a damp basement, writing some of the worst, most derivative creative nonfiction known to man?
The answer is “of course not”—how could it be anything but?—yet I can’t envision any alternative to these outcomes. In other words, I had to do what I did, because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I was nineteen when I graduated from college, and I wanted nothing so much as time to myself.
I can no more state whether I hated the jobs that I worked while residing there than I can recall a specific memory from my childhood or adolescence. And is that such a strange thing, when you think about it? I believe that I’m simply being honest about an incessant process of memorialization that, decades later, usually results in a distorted picture of one’s own past.
What recollections do stand out, then? Journeying to the farthest-flung and most disturbing corners of what passed for the Internet back in the early 2000s. Exercising at a local gym where drifters and militiamen maintained memberships, in principal part for access to the showers and toilets. And most significant of all: Launching the Moustache Club of America, a creative writing project that had grown out of an earlier series of collaborations with my dear friend Ryan.
It was while I worked into the night on the Moustache Club–hidden away along the Canadian borderline, separated from the mainstream of American life–that I began to understand an especially poignant passage in John Barth’s short story collection Lost in Funhouse:
He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator — though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.
For so much of my life, that’s how I had felt. Although I never completely figured out what the hell was going on, I certainly wished I hadn’t “entered the funhouse.” And yet, as I sat there working with Ryan on the project that would eventually come to define all of our subsequent work, I realized that there wasn’t much I could do about these confused feelings. Nothing, that is, except “construct funhouses for others,” which in this case consisted of the corpus I was slowly but surely producing.
It wasn’t good writing, at least not at first: it was sloppy, uninteresting, and overwritten. Much of what appeared on the original website was intended to be funny, but instead wound up coming across to our handful of readers as hurtful and stupid. Nevertheless, ideas I’d recycle in later years–stories, gags, plot points, and even a really early mock-up of the “Awkward Conversation” piece I published here on the Good Men Project–were hashed out over marathon AIM chat sessions conducted back in those good old days.
After a meaningless 9-hour workday of harassing debtors, refilling the banana rack, or collecting red balls from over-eager middle schoolers, I’d stumble home, retreat to the basement, fire up my Gateway PC, and start type type typing away. I’d sit at the keyboard for hours on end, getting rid of much of the bad writing that was left in me. The starkness of that environment in the winter–an environment that I braved only to go to the gym or whatever terrible job I was then holding–facilitated this sort of withdrawal. Sometimes the snow was piled 25 inches high outside the house; sometimes the temperature dropped to 10 or 20 degrees below freezing.
It was, in its peculiar way, a wonderful experience. By the time I left Montana in 2004 to attend law school, I had written hundreds of pages of garbage. Mind you, I didn’t think it was garbage when I wrote it. Yet it was, and now it’s gone. I wouldn’t be writing anything like that ever again. The original Moustache Club endured for two more years, improving somewhat in quality before I pulled the plug on it in 2006. What’s there now–a professional-looking page maintained by several regular contributors–is nothing like what it had once been. The name is the same, of course. It couldn’t be anything but: it’s what we’ve insisted on since the beginning, even if many of its confused visitors often arrive there while searching for an actual mustache club.
During the past eight years, I’ve accomplished a whole bunch of things I never thought I’d be able to do…including landing my dream job earlier this week. In spite of all that, would I still rather be “among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed?”
Nah. Those worries were kid’s stuff. I just needed some time to get my shit together. We all do.
—Photo Jo Jakeman/Flickr