Not all talented writers start out hoping to be 300-pound monsters in the National Football League. According to a Google search, it’s not even in the top-10 list for author stereotypes, which includes alcoholism, poverty and cats.
But it was the dream of Richmond-based writer Patrick Dacey growing up in Centerville, Massachusetts, before an injury dislocated two vertebrae in his neck and he was kicked out of school for smoking pot. The alcoholism came later.
Now more than a decade sober, the 36-year-old has an inwardly quiet demeanor, focused gaze and occasional crooked grin that betrays more than a hint of early mischief. He’s just returned from a trade show in Denver where he was promoting his remarkable first short-story collection, “We’ve Already Gone This Far” (Henry Holt) which is making noise in the literary world.
George Saunders, America’s preeminent short story writer and a former teacher of Dacey’s at Syracuse University, wrote the cherry-on-top cover blurb calling the author “one of my favorite young American writers … [with stories] that are dangerous, funny, sometimes savage … [and] a strangely kind and hopeful heart.”
In other words, sort of Saunders-esque, though Dacey disagrees.
“George is great but his work is more ultra-realism; he’s in a future period. I take realism for what it’s worth: flawed, comedic, all of that,” Dacey says, acknowledging that the writers had a similar learning curve, both coming to writing later in life. “When I was trying to be deep and Hemingway-like, it wasn’t working.”
Saunders the teacher stressed discipline and economy with language, he says.
“He says he became a worse writer when he was doing the MFA program at Syracuse and found his voice later,” Dacey recalls. “If any influence comes out in my writing, it’s being quick. Unlike a novel, you have to grab the reader right away.”
The new collection is set in the fictional town of Wequaquet, based on his hometown. The stories are connected in place and time, post-recession, involving the aftereffects of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In one story, a lonely woman attacks a small memorial to her neighbor’s fallen soldier son. Another delves beneath the gruff exterior of a retired football coach who, after losing his wife to another man, bonds with the deadbeat former player “who’s never gonna make it.”
Dacey’s naturalistic writing always feels clear-eyed and assured, his most mesmerizing stories capable of breaking free from their surroundings like a running back turning a short-yard gain into the improbable, tackle-breaking touchdown.
“Short stories just feel more natural to me,” Dacey says. “This is how we talk. We tell each other stories, not novels.”
Parts of the book were inspired by people in Virginia, he notes, including a former Army sergeant named Phil Jacoby whom he met on a golf course and who helped with details for the closing story, the brutal and apocalyptic “Lost Dog,” set in a combat zone.
For Dacey, the path to becoming a writer was fraught with real-life experience. He worked as a reporter in Hyannis, taught English in Mexico and China, where he stopped because he was smoking too much opium, mowed fairways and putting greens in New Kent (“I was terrible at it,” he says) and worked the graveyard shift at the Healing Place, a local recovery and detox center. He’s taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and currently teaches a creative writing class at the College of William and Mary. He still hopes to find another job in Richmond.
He says it took 10 years and two agents, 247 rejections and “two shitty novels” for this collection to arrive. But Dacey now has a two-book deal, another novel set in China in the works, and a script for a television show. He wakes up every morning at 4 and writes for two or three hours, he says — “no matter what.”
Nobody in his family understands where his talent comes from, he says. His mother was a painter but most of the family business was in construction. He grew up working for his father lugging early ATMs into strip clubs across the northeast.
“I saw a great interview with Neil Young on Charlie Rose where he says he doesn’t know where his songs come from,” Dacey says. “There’s just a source that he feels and puts it down. I thought that was refreshingly honest.”
Remarkably, three of the new short stories were written in one day, he says. At the time he was broken-hearted and going through a divorce, renting a room by the week at the Affordable Corporate Suites in Roanoke — that name’s not changed in the book. Their son had been born prematurely and was hospitalized for three months, forcing Dacey to suddenly leave his job at VCU.
“Something broke between us and we couldn’t survive that,” he says, explaining that their child recovered, his wife moved back to Richmond and he soon followed, taking the graveyard shift at the Healing Place.
Working from his tiny Church Hill apartment, where his kitchen was his living room, the writer soon experienced a surreal bidding war for his stories. While he says two-book deals are rarely suggested, Saunders advised him to “take the money.”
The upcoming novel follows the intergenerational conflicts of a family from the housing crash to modern day. “I feel like writers of my generation are scared of writing about what’s happening now,” Dacey says. “So that’s what I want to be doing.”
He recently read aloud the short stories in Denver and is beginning to hear the humor more clearly with some distance.
“‘Acts of Love’ was toughest because it was so personal,” he says. “My parents got divorced when I was 11. So I felt like a failure when [my divorce] happened. I loved being married, loved my wife and wanted to have a family. But I could see things I did wrong in the marriage.
“‘To Feel Again the Kind of Love That Hurts Something Terrible” was another one [The initial title for the book, which his editor suggested changing]. That’s the big thing about the book: this idea of love being something we want, wanting to be loved — which is easy to say. The bigger thing is we want to love something like we did when we were young. To be excited and love something that much … which is a need, I think, but instead feels something like an unattainable dream.
“I feel like when you’re writing and observing, there’s this other thing hanging over us. There’s always the news, the asshole beeping his horn, elections, the economy, and everything builds. Then I go and watch my son — and he’s just so in love with everything.” S
Patrick Dacey holds a reading and book-release party at Chop Suey Books on Tuesday, Feb. 16, from 6-8 p.m. chopsueybooks.com.