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Searching High And Low For The 'American Spirit'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Matthew is in his mid-40s. He lives in New York. He is an executive at a nondescript media company - or at least he was - until Matthew lost it. Lost his mind, lost his soul, lost his marriage, lost his grounding - probably all of the above. But he is definitely lost and his effort to get un-lost takes him on a crazy trip. He tries a stint as a drug dealer, enrolls in a ceramics class and looks for some grand life plan in the skies over Yellowstone Park. Matthew is the everyman hero in Dan Kennedy's new novel. It's called "American Spirit." Dan Kennedy joins me now from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being here, Dan.

DAN KENNEDY: Thanks for having me. Hi.

MARTIN: So, Matthew - he's unemployed and rather unmoored. Somehow he ends up in a parking lot, he gets hit by a car. Then he decides he needs to buy a gun.

KENNEDY: These, yeah, are some of the decisions that he makes to try and get things back on track. He decides to get into jogging but it's kind of - he's drinking I should mention, which isn't a good idea for Matthew, and that's when things go sideways with the jogging effort in the parking lot there. And he tries to mellow out a little bit and take some free courses at the community center, and fortune sort of smiles when he takes a ceramics class at the community center. And he starts making these coffee mugs with all the weird stuff that he, the little slogans that he emails himself when he's drunk in the car at night and parked.

MARTIN: For example?

KENNEDY: God will help you find a gun if you're grateful and trying, and stuff like that - just the little fractured maxims that he thinks are going to get his life back on track when he discovers them in his email in the morning when he wakes up hung over - mailed from himself, of course. And he starts painting those on the side of coffee mugs and they start actually selling around the little fairs and stuff like that. They're pretty weird but people like them.

MARTIN: So, where does the American spirit come in? I mean, is this just the title or is there something about Matthew that embodies some strange manifestation of however you define the American spirit?

KENNEDY: When I put "American Spirit" on the manuscript, I just kind of thought, well, this is the cigarette that Matthew smokes all day. So, this fits. Let's throw "American Spirit" on there. And then the second I saw it hit the title page, I was like, whoa, that kind of says a lot about what's going on in this book with him. And fly around the country a lot, like doing shows with my work with the Moth and...

MARTIN: This is a radio show where you do a lot of storytelling.

KENNEDY: Right. We do a lot of live shows and meet a lot of people around the country. And I just think something is happening to the American spirit. You know, the loss of jobs, like money is pretty thin in a lot of places, a lot of marriages under pressure. But at the same time, at the risk of sounding glib, it's also this time when people are finding out a lot about themselves, like Matthew, and there are a lot of happy endings in these stories. I mean, Matthew would not have found the fortune that he finds doing something that he loves had he not had to embark on this journey when everything went sideways.

MARTIN: So - you know this question is coming, but Matthew's in his mid-40s, you're in your mid-40s. I mean, how much of this is autobiographical, if any of it?

KENNEDY: It's, you know, it's a real stretch. I have no idea what it's like to lose your job at a huge media company. Considering my last book was about losing my job at Atlantic Records in New York. On the other hand, I look at a lot of this stuff, and a lot of it is just pure fiction really. I will say 1998 was a really weird time for me.

MARTIN: What was going on?

KENNEDY: Well, you know, I was just basically sort of caught up in drinking too much in the New York scene. And a lot of the stuff from real life I couldn't put in there. Like Milton, my former therapist, is in the novel. And the fact is on my last session of therapy, the last session of therapy I've ever been to, I found my therapist dead. And...

MARTIN: Truly?

KENNEDY: Yeah. That's why I haven't been back to therapy, and that was, like, 10 years ago.

MARTIN: Because you discovered him dead?

KENNEDY: Yes. And, you know, and I - we had been talking the week the sessions prior about how you only have so much time in life and how, you know, you have to choose activity and you have to live and you have to move forward, you know. I thought...

MARTIN: Dan, we do have to just clarify a little bit. You walked in and he had had a heart attack or...

KENNEDY: Yeah, yeah. He had had a heart attack and - but, you know...

MARTIN: I mean, that's kind of traumatic to walk in and discover the body of your therapist.

KENNEDY: It's traumatic but, you know, the irony is therapy gives you the tools to deal with that. You know, so I think it's a self-contained sort of situation. But I thought about putting that in the book. I thought, well, you know, we'll put that scene in the book. Matthew will go in, it'll be his last session of therapy. But you put that scene in a novel, and it's like, oh, you know what this looks like? This looks like the guy who tells true stories onstage went a little overboard when he got to write some fiction, you know. So, it was like, yeah, take that out.

MARTIN: You do make a reference to a pretty big best-seller: "Eat, Pray, Love," the Elizabeth Gilbert book. This is, in some ways, a more irreverent male version of that. Is that fair? I mean, you do put it in there.

KENNEDY: I think it's probably fair. I mean, I would love to act super brainy and say, oh, they're entirely - I can't be, you know, pigeonholed into - you don't understand that. But, yeah, absolutely. You know, it's...

MARTIN: Matthew does kind of meditate at some points.

KENNEDY: Yes. Matthew tries to meditate but things go really wrong during the meditation class. And that ends up being a fight.

MARTIN: I wonder if analyzing the midlife crisis - I guess we could call it that, for lack of a better phrase - were you able to identify some characteristics of this experience that are universal?

KENNEDY: Yeah, I think so. You know, meditating is one of them. Like I took a class here in New York, a meditation class, and I did it once and I sat there. And I realized, man, I get so resentful in a room full of quiet people with our eyes closed. You know, it's like what's that guy moving his keys around for? You know, like, oh my God, could somebody please just turn off the air conditioning so it doesn't click on every two minutes? Like, I know this is probably the wrong thing to say but I was like I think I'm better off with my eyes open, like, talking. I don't seem as angry.

MARTIN: I thought you were going to say I think I'm better at this than anyone else in the room.


KENNEDY: Well, that is literally the next thing that comes in. It's like sort of like I hear a lot of people talking about how competitive yoga is. And I think, you know, it's got to be true, I've never done it, but the couple times I've tried to meditate, I'm like I am nailing this. And inevitably, like, when I do it on my own, I'm pretty good at it, but the worst thing I do on my own is I'll pick up my iPhone and start tweeting in the middle of it. I'll be like, you guys, I'm crushing meditation right now. I super feel awesome.

MARTIN: I am so in the moment.

KENNEDY: I am so nailing calming down. The other thing, like, with middle age, I have a few friends who go on these silent retreats where I guess you just go up to the mountains and you don't talk for, I mean, a long time.

MARTIN: For days.

KENNEDY: Days on end. And then they come back and blab about it for, like, the next month and a half. So, I think the novel ended up being a place to address a little bit of the ridiculousness of all of these things that we start, you know, trying to grab for like they're life preservers the second we realize we're halfway through this trip, you know.

MARTIN: Dan Kennedy. He is the host of the Moth Storytelling podcast. His new novel is called "American Spirit" and he joined us from our studios in New York. Dan, thanks so much for talking with us.

KENNEDY: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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