a literary review
Jay’s short story, “Neck Bone,” appears in our just-released Issue 25, a milestone achievement that features authors and artists in conversation with the theme “My Americana.” Though brief in length, at just under 1500 words, “Neck Bone” mines the complexity of a young man’s life as he grapples with loss and his future, finding grace in unlikely relationships. In this interview with prose co-editor Lauren Alwan, Jay shares thoughts on the story, on writing, how his college theater studies influences his characters’ dialog, and why Alien is one of his favorite films.
In “Neck Bone,” the narrator is navigating loss and disillusionment, and in the course of a few paragraphs, we learn much about his outer and inner life. You mentioned the character was inspired by someone you know—could you talk about how you came to write the story?
The narrator of “Neck Bone” is an amalgamation of myself and my nephew, who is biracial. He once confessed he struggles with what to mention first when people inquire about his ethnicity, as if he must prioritize one parent over the other. I was never a bartender, but I did spend a few years working as a go-go dancer in my early 20s, none of which made it into the story except for the one detail about how tips are better if you show more skin. Regarding loss and disillusionment in the story, when I was 24, my mother died of an autoimmune disorder that took her within two months of diagnosis. She was 52, the age I am now. Aftershock settled into grief and grief gave way to depression, I spent a few years feeling rudderless. That person, who I was then, is who narrates “Neck Bone.” As for Neck Bone himself, he’s entirely fictional. When I was in grad school, I wrote a character exploration on the kind of person who might enjoy driving for a living. It was not good. I put it away. Decades later it resurfaced as I was going through my files. I reread it, cringing throughout, but there was one line that held the weight of an entire story, a speculation that repo men must maintain a dispassion that borders on cruelty. The lesson here is to keep everything you write, no matter how awful. Even the bad stuff might eventually yield something good.
The story looks unflinchingly at loss and class divide. The speaker, for one, is navigating his way toward college in the wake of his mother’s death, while the titular character repossesses cars—and one in particular, from an electrician, Stan Dembrowski, who’s trying to support a family. Can you tell us a bit about portraying economic class and struggle in your work?
A central conceit to the story is that higher education guarantees greater lifetime income which directly correlates with happiness. This is terribly reductive, despite what my immigrant parents so staunchly believed. In America, there are many factors that contribute to contentment, not the least of which is the family one happens to be born into and their values around education, work ethic, and materialism. I’d hoped to avoid sounding judgmental about blue-collar jobs; My father got his Ph.D. in vocational education, and my father-in-law was a sheet-metal worker. But I felt the arc of the story necessitated shedding an unflattering light on the working class: the narrator’s father is a philandering alcoholic, Stan Dembrowski lives beyond his means, and Neck Bone lacks a moral compass. In fiction, making a character ignoble simply to shape an antagonist is lazy writing. Every character, virtuous or dishonorable, needs relatable motivations.
The speaker in “Neck Bone” is a young, mixed-race gay man who works at a bar, “J.C. Pumps,” while attending community college part-time. Through his eyes, we see the world of the bar, of Neck Bone’s apartment, and other carefully detailed scenes—including the glove compartment of a repossessed car. Can you talk about using detail, and how you make those choices?
I am of the German Expressionists school of thought; Exteriority should reflect interiority. All the spaces the narrator describes are confining and static. The glove compartments literally contain problems no one wants to address. J.C. Pump’s hasn’t changed since the 70s. Neck Bone’s apartment doesn’t have a bathroom and overlooks a Wendy’s. That little detail comes from my husband. Once when he was traveling for work, he asked the hotel clerk for a room with a nice view. The clerk said, “This is the Central Valley, sir. Every room overlooks the Wendy’s across the street.” My husband sent me a picture of his view of the Wendy’s parking lot. It seemed a distinctly American tragedy. The only space in the story that isn’t confining is the yard when the narrator and his father finish raking the leaves, which is meant to offer a sense of liberation. It’s still melancholy but no longer hopeless.
The voice in “Neck Bone” is another way the piece looks at class divide. There’s a difference between how the various characters speak, and the speaker’s narration of the story, which makes for wonderful textures of tone and voice. Can you tell us a bit about how you see the role of voice in your work?
How a character says something is as important as what they’re saying. I majored in Theatre Studies at Yale, with a concentration in Playwriting. In my first playwriting class, the professor told me, “All your characters sound alike, and they all sound like you. I suggest you talk less and listen more.” Brutal but honest advice. So I started paying careful attention to how people spoke. Did they speak in long, languid sentences or in short, incomplete bursts? Do they speak from the diaphragm or do they swallow their words? Cadence, pace, jargon, accent, directness, or circuitousness all help a character sound distinct. I tend not to rely too heavily on dialogue in my stories, just enough to add dimensionality to the characters, but I make a habit of reading aloud what little dialogue I do write. If the lines don’t feel right in my mouth or I stumble, I change them so they come out smoothly and align with the character. If the story is first-person limited, I basically treat it like a monologue, as if it were meant to be performed on stage.
Can you share a recent favorite read? And what are you working on now?
Nic Pizzolatto’s collection of short stories Between Here and the Yellow Sea is stunning. The eponymous story is perhaps the best I’ve read in a long time, one of those rare narratives that pull you in completely unexpected directions, and yet, in the end, every choice turns out to be perfectly logical. It’s kind of mystifying.
I am currently working on a short screenplay about two gay friends who get high and go see an exhibit on human deformities, and I am rewriting a personal essay about the year I lived with my father while he pursued his Ph.D. at Oklahoma State University. I was nine years old and largely left to my own devices. Having been born and raised in Micronesia, I felt completely alien in Stillwater, Oklahoma. In fact, Alien was released that year, and to this day, it remains one of my favorite films.
Read “Neck Bone,” in the museum’s Issue 25, here.
Jay Ruben Dayrit’s short stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, Minnesota Review, Santa Clara Review, Sycamore Review, WIRED, and The Yale Quarterly. He is a recipient of the Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and an Artist-in-Residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. He has taught creative writing at Kearny Street Workshop and San Quentin State Prison. Originally from the Federated States of Micronesia, he now lives in San Francisco.