Most books you pick up at your local bookshop have a comfortable narrative trajectory. We become numb to their powers and most books end up making us feel more or less the same. But Ryan Ridge has found a new way to capture our attention. His work is playful and intense at the same time, what he calls “serious fucking around.” American Homes, his latest, is an experiment in form and narrative but it provides a look into the honest absurdity that is American life. Ridge was kind enough to answer a few questions and give Nerve and exclusive excerpt from his new book.
An exclusive excerpt from American Homes:
Mode of room and occupant division, partition. Method of ceiling support. Walls (AKA “Babylon Shields”) fortify and defend the dwelling from various scourges and contagions. Not unlike cells in the human body, Walls are the basic building blocks of American Homes. Without Walls, American Homes would assuredly fall. When an American Homeowner places his back against a Wall, he may be suddenly overwhelmed by hopelessness and dread—in which case said Homeowner may turn around and bang his head against said Wall until he feels more optimistic. According to NACSA (The Nu American Center for Statistical Analysis), these occurrences happen approximately every thirty-seven seconds in the Land of American Homes.
NOTE: Should you ever see strange handwriting on the Walls of your American Home (perhaps the phrase “die pig” written in uncooked bacon), vacate the premises immediately. Either that or take shelter in a secure location (See: Panic Room).
Groundward surface of room. Often wooden, sometimes carpeted or tiled. Where occupants walk and sometimes moonwalk. Also referred to as “Debris Magnets,” Floors attract dirt and dust and other household detritus such as food and fingernails and pretty much anything broken or broken-hearted. When an American Homeowner is feeling hilarious, it is customary to drop to the Floor in convulsive laughter. When an American Homeowner is feeling afraid, it is customary to hit the floor. When an American Homeowner is feeling intoxicated it is not uncommon to mistake the Floor for a Bed (See: Beyond Bed Bath & Beyond). On a separate but somewhat related note: Floorganic Chemistry is a discipline within chemistry involving the scientific study of the structure, composition, and cleaning practices of domestic Floors. It is said that Floorganic Chemistry was born in a Chicago basement when Ives W. McGaffey invented the first hand-pumped vacuum cleaner. Other famous Floorganic Chemists include: Archibald Shag (Milwaukee, WI, the Inventor of the Shag Carpet) and Englishmen Fredrick Walton who designed the first linoleum floor in 1860.
Upper boundary of a room. Places where occupants stare when they are drunk on drugs or religion (or sometimes just bored). Also referred to as “Sky Hoods.” Ceilings are perpetual provocateurs, arrogant reminders of our own failures and limitations. If an American Homeowner hits the Ceiling, nine times out of ten the Ceiling has done something to deserve it.
NOTE: If you find yourself living in an American Home with a glass Ceiling it is recommended to move into a different American Home.
NOTE: If you find yourself in an American Home with a glass floor, you are probably not in an American Home at all. More likely you’re on a fishing boat like myself. Me? I am way out at sea, drinking whiskey, and admiring this crazy ceiling of sky. It’s positively nuclear tonight. I wish I had some steps to take me there. When Jimi Hendrix kissed the sky, he excused himself. I would not.
Figure––Hitting the Ceiling: An American Homeowner warms up before hitting the Ceiling.
A Part A
A Part B
A Part E
Belated Birthday Party
Welcome Home from War Party
Tell me about your book. What do you want people to know about it?
With American Homes I set out to write a book about houses. I wanted it to be a book of ideas. The first line is: “American Homes is a book of ideas.” My main idea was that I wanted to say something new about America and about the way we live now (in this adolescent century) via the domestic spaces we inhabit. I wanted to say something serious and profound, but then I started fucking around. Ultimately, the book is an amalgam of those two opposing impulses. You could say that I’m seriously fucking around with this one.
When people ask me what the book is about I say architecture, but really what it’s doing, I think, is documenting a cartoon-version-of-myself searching for the sublime in the ordinary. Whether or not that type of investigation makes for compelling reading, who knows?
What was the process of writing it?
I first made notes for the Doors chapter when I was living in Louisville, Kentucky, about eight years ago, but I didn’t do much of anything with those notes. By the time I actually started writing the book, I’d moved to Southern California and had been settled there for a couple years. I wrote the first third of the book on the top floor of a faux adobe walk up in Irvine. The apartment overlooked a miniature marsh and at night you could hear a continuous chorus of frogs until dawn. I’d write from midnight until late with the window open, listening to the frog songs, and then I’d break in the odd hours to smoke on the patio and see packs of coyotes hunting trash or stray cats in the parking lot.
In those days, the Apartment Renters’ Association had an ordinance where you couldn’t let your pets outdoors on account of the coyotes would eat them. You actually had to sign a contract when you moved in: I will not let my pets outside, ever. (I never let my cat out. I had a buddy who did and pretty soon he didn’t have a cat.) Now I’m told that they have an ordinance where you can’t keep pets period, inside or outside, that you can’t keep pets at all, and another one where you can’t smoke outside, or inside, that you can’t smoke cigs at all, and I assume that all of this progress has taken care of the coyote situation as well.
The second and third installments of the book were written in a Melrose Place-style apartment complex on the shoddy shores of downtown Long Beach. Unlike Melrose though, this place didn’t have a pool, but it had plenty of termites in the floors and an ensemble cast of junkies and wingnuts running amok in the alleyway at all hours. Lots of memories there… Like the time the guy in Unit 1 got so strung out on meth that he thought the CIA had his dead grandmother trapped inside the maintenance closet and so one Sunday morning he attempted to blast her out with a stolen Beretta… Or the time my wife and I got accidentally Maced at the liquor store up the street because we happened to be perusing the beer cooler when this wild man walks in and smacks the clerk over a cigarette price dispute and the clerk freaks out and Maces him and everyone else in the place…
Or the time when CSI Miami filmed an episode about a dead hooker in our courtyard and I asked one of the crewmembers why they’d scouted this location in particular (why this place?) and he told me it was because it looked exactly like a rundown Miami brothel. Exactly, he said. And I believed him. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
Meanwhile, there was so much drama in the LBC, and it reached a saturation point one night when three gangsters jumped me outside our apartment and probably may have killed me or severely brain-damaged me if it weren’t for the bravery of a neighbor. And getting beaten senselessly by strangers makes you sort of philosophical. My philosophy was this: let’s get the fuck out of this town, and so my wife and I, we packed up and headed back to Kentucky.
American Homes was subsequently edited in my childhood home, which we’re currently renting from my parents here in Louisville. In many ways things have come full circle. The last line from the book is this: “Welcome home.”
Tell me about Kentucky. What bourbon do you drink? What racehorses do you love?
Andrew Jackson once said he’d never met a Kentuckian “who didn’t have a gun, a pack of cards, and a jug of whiskey.” And I think that sort of frontier spirit is still pervasive here, subtler maybe, sure, but still present, omnipresent. Indeed freedom is alive and well in the commonwealth. After all, this is the Land of Unbridled Spirit… And spirits, too… Speaking of, my go-to bourbon is Four Roses Small Batch. Best bang for the buck. Woodford’s real good, too. Then there’s Wild Turkey if you’re looking to get wild.
With regard to horses, there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since the year I was born. Last year, I really thought that California Chrome was going to do it. That was a special horse, my favorite in recent memory. But who knows? We may never see another Triple Crown winner again. The sport has changed so much. Still, I’d love to see one in my lifetime. Fingers crossed.
Do you believe in a higher power?
I believe in luck, which also leads us to love.
What is the joy of which no one speaks?
What do you hear right now?
Simon Joyner on the stereo. Sturgill Simpson on deck.
What book did you last read?
Nonfiction: The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by Dave Morris. It’s an important book. Everyone should rush out and read this one.
Fiction: Nevers by Megan Martin. Cool stories. Clean sentences. Uninhabited narrator(s). Recipe for rad. I loved every word. And it’s a beautifully designed book as well.
Did you grow up in a literary home? Who first gave you books?
My mom is a big reader, always was, and she got Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater into my hands at a formative age. I think I was thirteen, fourteen maybe, when I read it and I can still remember one line verbatim: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
That sentence did two things: 1.) It turned me into a sap and 2.) It probably also turned me into a writer. I’d call reading Vonnegut early a pivotal thing. He was the gateway.
Who did you last talk on the phone with? What did you talk about?
I talked to my friend, Alan, in Minnesota. He’s also a writer—a recent debut novelist of some acclaim—and we discussed (since there’s not much money in writing anymore) alternate careers at car dealerships. He thinks that the real money’s in foreign cars, but in order to sell those you have to work your way up, that you have to start out selling Buicks before they’ll let you on or near a Mercedes Benz lot. And I said that my guess is as long as you have a good flask and some bad jokes you can sell just about any car in America. Shit, Vonnegut sold Saabs. But I’d like to sell DeLoreans. Now all I need is a time machine. All I need is a DeLorean.
Are you a writer of the road or the room?
I’m a writer of the room with a roommate. My wife, Ashley Farmer, is also a writer and we write in the same room. One advantage: instant audience.