‘A Blue-Collar Modernist Masterpiece’: Well by Matthew McIntosh

The publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1813, the publication of Marcel Proust’s The Way by Swann’s in 1913 and the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and subsequent death, in 1963, are this year’s major literary anniversaries. There’s another, however, which has so far gone unremarked.

In Summer 2003 a friend gave me a blue Faber paperback original. The dust jacket featured photographs of hands, blurbs from major American novelists and a portrait of a young author who resembled ex-Chelsea defender Dan Petrescu. The title of the book was Well and, one quiet afternoon in the car park where I worked, I locked myself in my attendant’s shed and began reading. Immediately, I was absorbed by the mesh of voices that narrate each chapter, strange, infectious ennui proceeding to blistering accounts of drug-taking, sex, poverty, illness, basketball. A fizzing jump-shot of a book, set in a decrepit district of Seattle, like a more exhilarating Carver-country, its audacity was reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.

I’ve heard Well described both as a novel and as a collection of stories. I’d call it a novel but I also think Sherwood Anderson’s Winnesburg, Ohio is a novel. I like lives overlapping, tangling like those fingers on the cover, in long narrative schemes. More important than formal categorisation, however, is the way that McIntosh’s energised prose reaches emotional uplift in the affirming final chapter. Personally, the attraction was probably connected to geography and circumstance. My car park was in the north, the boring north, and reading about different degrees of desperation at the top left-hand corner of America resonated. Like Carver and Johnson, the author’s empathy with losers appeared to be rivalled only by his determination not to be one.

Much was made in publicity of the six years that it took McIntosh to complete Well. That didn’t sound long for such a strong debut but, although I wasn’t expecting anything new quickly, the years went by with no news of another book, no extract, stories or journalism. During this time, I ceased working in the car park, started working in an office and discovered that boredom could be physically painful. You know when your computer screen looks as interminable as the woolliest sky, your keyboard’s keys bore in to the bones in your fingertips and you feel numbingly recession-proof? Those hours, in that grim, memory-less no-place, tended to be when I revived the search for news of Matthew McIntosh. But the internet came back with nothing.

Until a breakthrough with publication of David Shields’s Reality Hunger. At the back of that thrilling, pretentious manifesto are Shields’s letters to fellow writers about their work. One begins: “The title starts out meaning ‘I’m doing well’, then it comes to mean ‘Well, I’m not sure how I’m doing,’ and then by the end of the book it comes to mean, ‘I’m at the bottom of the fucking well as is everyone.’” Clearly this was Shields writing to McIntosh and Shields, I knew, lives in Seattle. So when I interviewed him about Reality Hunger, I asked: “What is Matthew McIntosh up to?”

Shields explained that he taught McIntosh, encouraged his writing and loved Well. I’d read an interview where McIntosh was asked if his book’s “experimental style” was something he learned on a writing course. “No,” he answered, and went on to say that studying writing was “not a good experience.” I doubt that he was talking about Shields’s teaching. Shields told me that McIntosh was the son of a preacher and connected this to his book’s concern with faith. But Shields had lost touch with McIntosh and had no idea where he was now.

I hope Matthew McIntosh is writing something, but whether he is or not, on the tenth anniversary of his blue-collar, modernist masterpiece, I can say what the late Hubert Selby Jnr was able to say in 2003: “Well still resonates in my heart.”

Well by Matthew McIntosh

Copies are available from the Faber website – buy your copy here.


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