A Sum of Misunderstandings
Chris Leslie-Hynan crafts a Slippery Narrator—And an alternate Basketball Universe—in His Debut Novel
Propeller: Chris, what is so much 19th century syntax doing in a 21st century novel?
Chris Leslie-Hynan: Much of the joy of writing Jess was in how his narrative voice is a sum of his misunderstandings. He misunderstands what he thinks of as black culture, he misunderstands women, and he misunderstands the bankrupted old-money background he’s repping. His ideas of class and servitude and aspiration are British and antiquated, and this allows him what is hopefully a singular narrative voice full of strange collisions. I also just wanted a narrator who could sound like Henry James in one paragraph and Gilbert Arenas the next, as any lover of language would. The desire comes first, and then the character grows wider and wilder to make it plausible.
Propeller: Who would win in a game of one-on-one, Gerald Green or Calyph West?
Leslie-Hynan: My understanding is that pretty much any game of one-on-one with Gerald Green is won by the guy who gets the ball first, as Gerald never misses and never gets a stop. But in the pursuit of basketball arcana let’s imagine Gerald vs. an amalgam of Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw, as these were the two players who were erased from the basketball universe of the novel to make way for Calyph. I think I’d go with Gerald.
Propeller: The narrator, Jess, has some nice moments of self-deprecating humor, but here and there throughout the novel he does unpleasant things to people. How do you anticipate readers will react to him? To what extent will they find him likable or reliable?
Leslie-Hynan: He’s a creepy dude, isn’t he? He wasn’t, at first, but the book needed him to start acting on his desires. I confess that when I first pondered what a member of a conventional book club might think of him, a look of distant terror probably passed over my face, but that was just a lapse of faith on my part. He isn’t always likable and he certainly isn’t reliable, but he risks much, fears greatly, and yearns boundlessly, and I think all such narrators are compelling.
Propeller: Given Jess’s reliability issues, and that the middle sections include a number of self-described exploits (or near-exploits), do you expect that readers will reflect on the plot after finishing the novel and wonder how much of it can be chalked up to his pathology?
Leslie-Hynan: I hope not. I feel like I’m building an understanding with the reader about when Jess is being reliable and when he is not, page by page. That understanding is going to shift from reader to reader, based on the level of credulity or suspicion they bring to the text, in a way that I have no control over, but that’s okay. I do hope that, in the end, they aren’t left in any great state of confusion about what happened or didn’t. I wouldn’t want to be confronted about the factual record like I’m holding the teacher’s edition with all the answers in it. The mystery is elsewhere, I think. For instance, Jess has a pattern of falling into scenarios with women that might lead to a sexual encounter, but never do. Did these scenarios all happen? Well, yeah. Were they all the scenarios of mutual attraction that Jess perceives them as? Well...
Propeller: Like you, Jess is a Portlander from Wisconsin. To what extent is this book autobiographical?
Leslie-Hynan: Well, I certainly never would have written it if I weren’t once, like Jess, a middle schooler in a white, white culture intoxicated by the notions of blackness that came to him from far away through basketball and rap videos. I did practice the East Bay Funk Dunk whenever I could find a low-enough hoop, and I even have a vivid memory of crying when Isaiah Rider’s last Rebels team got snubbed from the NCAA Tournament and bending bits of a broken rabbit ears antenna into the letters U-N-L-V. Jess’s job delivering food was my first job out of college. I guess you could say Jess represents my interests bent to the wrong purposes and my history as told by a liar.
Propeller: I’m aware that you play a lot of poker. Though the novel doesn’t directly involve poker, there is some betting, bluffing, etc. Is this just coincidence?
Leslie-Hynan: Probably not. I had a real desire to keep poker out of the book, although Calyph does know how to play and does teach Jess, because one of the byproducts of playing a lot of poker is that you learn how painfully corny nearly all poker metaphor is. But good poker does contain an element of psychological warfare, and Calyph and Jess are engaged in psychological warfare throughout the novel. Calyph is better at it than Jess is, I think, but Jess certainly has an innate sense of what he can get away with without being called out on it. As Jess got stranger and stranger throughout the drafting of the novel, it was helpful to have my own growing knowledge of this fundamentally ruthless, acquisitive, and exploitative mindset to draw on.
Chris Leslie-Hynan is originally from Wisconsin and attended Carleton College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Ride Around Shining is his first novel.