NEA Literature Fellowships

Jonathan Dee

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(2006 - Prose)

From the novel This World Is Not My Home

A wedding! The first of a generation; for the bride and groom are just twenty-two, young to be married these days. Most of the guests flew in last night, and though they are in Pittsburgh, a city of half a million, they affect a good-natured snobbish disorientation, because they come from New York and Chicago but also because it suits their sense of the whole event, the magical disquieting novelty of it, to imagine that they are now in the middle of nowhere. They have all, of course, as children or teenagers, sat through the wedding of some uncle or cousin or in quite a few cases their own mother or father, and so they know in that sense what to expect. But this is their first time as actual friends and contemporaries of the betrothed; and the strange, anarchic exuberance they feel is tied to a fear that they are being pulled by surrogates into the world of responsible adulthood, a world whose exit will disappear behind them and for which they feel proudly unready. They are adults pretending to be children pretending to be adults. Last night's rehearsal dinner ended with the overmatched restaurant manager threatening to call the police. The day to come shapes up as an unstable compound of camp and import. Nine hours before they're due at the church, many of them are still sleeping, but already the thick old walls of the Pittsburgh Athletic Club seem to hum with a lordly over-enthusiasm.

Mid-September. Since Labor Day, the western half of Pennsylvania has been caught in a late and dispiriting heat wave. Cynthia wakes up in her mother's house, in a bed she's awakened in only five or six times in her life, and her first thought is for the temperature. She pulls on a t-shirt in case anyone else is awake, passes her burdensome stepsister Deborah (never Debbie) sleeping in flannel pajamas half on and half off the living room couch, and slides open the door to the deck. Cool, tolerably cool anyway, though it's still too early to tell anything for sure. It can't even be seven yet, she thinks. Not that she's worried. The thought of her bridesmaids holding beer bottles to their foreheads to cool off, the thought of Adam wiping the sweat out of his eyes as he promises himself to her, only makes her smile. She's not the type to fold if things don't go perfectly; what matters most to her is that the day be one that nobody who knows her will ever forget, a day her friends will tell stories about. She turns and heads back indoors, past her own fading footprints in the heavy dew on the cedar planks of the deck.

She never imagined a wedding in Pittsburgh, because she never had any reason to imagine it until her mother remarried and moved out here three years ago. To the extent she'd pictured it at all, Cynthia had always assumed she'd be married in Joliet Park; but the very month she graduated from college, her father sold their old house and moved into an apartment on the Loop, and then four months later when she announced her engagement her mother Ruth went off on one of her unpacifiable jags (the last one had been at graduation) to the effect that Cynthia's stepfather Warren was "a part of this family" and she would not stand for any implication that this was less than entirely true. To force-march these outsized personalities back to the scene of the family's dissolution in Joliet Park, to listen to them bitch over the seating chart and over friends whose post-divorce allegiances were sometimes painfully unclear, was out of the question. It would have been a gruesome sort of nostalgia, and pointless at that. A wedding is rightfully about the future if it is about anything at all.

Jonathan Dee is the author of four novels, most recently Palladio (Vintage). He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper's, and a former Senior Editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and New School University.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

With the NEA's aid, I expect to complete my fifth novel, This World Is Not My Home, before 2007. The great gift of the Literature Fellowship is not money -- it's to be suddenly handed back all the days and weeks of the coming year one had expected to spend teaching a class, or researching and writing a magazine article, or any of the other moneymaking pursuits which, however worthwhile in themselves, still pull one away from what seems most worthwhile, the daily engagement with one's own art. Writing is not like knitting -- you can't put it away for a month or two and then pick it up again and expect to start exactly where you left off. It depends upon momentum, upon the freedom to do what all of one's literary heroes across the generations say a writer must do -- sit down and write every single day.