“I will be your tour guide through hell,” Joe West likes to promise. Joe Schwartz is his real name, and he works at the St. Louis Public Library, has for nineteen years, started as a custodian after a series of jobs filled with sweat, risk, and male camaraderie. Hell is not the central library, where his kingdom is the auditorium and he now coordinates events and programs and is generally adored. Hell is the landscape of his latest novel, byline Joe West for a reason we will reach later. For now, just call him Joe.
The book is called Strange Fle$h, and its dubious hero is Freddie Bickel, a security guard sure he has failed at life. “It’s a bunch of people hustling each other,” says Joe. “Change or die, those are your choices.”
I gulp. Then I read the book and blurt what he tells me is a common, if backhanded, reaction: “It’s good!” It is also rough going, full of profanity and raw pain and irreverent wit and plot twists so improbable, you believe them. Nothing is slick or polished. The words cut through. As I read, I wondered, is this a book about strange angels or bad parenting or how a kid can save your life? Or is it about being poor and making lousy decisions or about injustice or corporate bullshit or the monotony of living? Or maybe theology? “God’s winking at me,” Freddie says at any lucky break, but at his lowest point, he decides, “I’m the joke.”
Curious about Joe’s life, I pepper him with questions. His first job was galley hand, going from oil rig to oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. “I was supporting my kid brothers, who were five and two,” he explains. “My stepdad left us when I was eighteen.” The sense of responsibility nearly overwhelmed Joe. “I guess I could have pulled the classic Houdini,” he says, “but it never occurred to me. Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, school holiday, I was there with the presents, the turkey.”
He had to be: “My mom could never quite get what life is. It eluded her.” Watching her shift in a white heat from high to low, bipolar disorder occurred to him. Did she ever seek help? “Oh, no. That would mean she was ‘crazy.’”
In Strange Fle$h, Joe quotes his mom’s retort when he wanted anything: “Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which one fills up first.” He always knew what she wanted, though: the best possible Mother’s Day present was “a twenty-four carton of Busch Light and a pack of cigarettes.”
And his father? “He left when I was eight. I haven’t seen him since. I know he was a Jew, and I wasn’t allowed to be a Jew because my mom was not. I just have a quick wit, I can play an instrument, and I have a tiny schmeckle.” He gives me a lopsided grin. “It’s okay. Not belonging is something I’ve dealt with all my life.”
Joe decided early on never to marry or have kids, terrified he would be an abusive parent. Life changed his mind, and now he has a wife who sounds like a lot of fun, two sons he adores, and a lovely middle-class home that still feels “like a fantasy.” To his boys, this life is baseline. On the rare occasion that he tells a story from his past, “they go a shade of pale. ‘What the hell, Dad?’ They can’t relate.”
If they read Strange Fle$h, will they find their father’s life?
“The only thing that’s autobiographical is that I know the experience of being poor—real, real poor. We were lucky to eat each week. I can’t tell you how many people’s basements we lived in. I’ve been asked to leave school because I smelled—we couldn’t afford laundry soap. ‘We can barely afford cigs and beer, Joey!’”
As he talks, I sense more that is autobiographical, in the way that the self enters any work of fiction. The toughness of the women in his book, for example, echoes his mother. In fourth grade, he got into his first fight: “This kid wanted to tussle, and he hit me, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, my mom hits me harder,’ and I beat the hell out of him.”
The novel’s delicious skewering of the corporate world, Joe pulled from a stint as a paralegal: “Jesus, the money these assholes spend on fucking birthday cakes, bagels, donuts, coffee, and the occasional taco bar every month is enough to pay all the custodians for a week,” he writes. “Why not have a cigarette day? Or a beer blast afternoon? These people never give things away that anyone actually wants.” For those in charge, “the monotony of living is something they have never had to deal with, much less without applause.”
In the book, Freddie falls in love—with two women, that is the schtick, but really with the younger woman’s vulnerable, sweet son. Octavius is on the spectrum, gets misunderstood by strangers, does not quite belong. Freddie wants to help him but is scared to death of the responsibility, which lets him imagine how scared his own father must have been. This makes it sound like Freddie is really Joe, but his next words cancel my assumption:
“If there’s an autobiographical character in this book, it’s Octavius. I thought of all the shit I went through as a kid and how I dreamed of someone rescuing me.” Joe makes sure Freddie never hits the boy, never yells or swears at him, always keeps his promises, blows all his cash to take him to the ball game. When Joe was ten, his stepdad took him to a playoffs game at Busch Stadium, then deliberately lost him and went to Soulard to get drunk. But in a book, you can rewrite the past.
Also autobiographical is the insight, earned hard, that when you are poor and desperate, “you don’t do drugs and alcohol for pleasure. You do it to not think about how bad your life is.” When Freddie swallows a stolen morphine pill, he thinks, “In about ten minutes I expect I’ll feel good, and by good I mean nothing, and in my world that is about as good as it gets.”
Which brings us back to poverty. What do those of us who have enough—food, money, shelter, hope—fail to understand? “That it’s painful,” Joe answers instantly. “It’s really, physically painful. It is the source of mental illness for a lot of people: that constant worry turns into depression, and without money, you don’t get the pills or the care or the comfort that bring relief.”
Being poor also “makes you very aware that you aren’t welcome,” he adds. “But every now and then, somebody reaches down and gives you a hand up.” He was born with a club foot. At the grocery store, a Shriner noticed and approached his mother about surgery. “I can’t afford any of that shit,” she replied, and he assured her there would be no cost.
“Did that soften her attitude?” I ask, already smiling, sure that such kindness would be transformative. “Nope. It never got better for her,” he says, voice flat. “There’s people who don’t want to be happy. They’re comfortable in this misery. That way, they can figuratively open their shirt and show you how they’ve been wounded all their life.” He breaks his gaze and looks away, flooded by the past. “It runs thin. God, man, accept it and move on. People will help you if you let them.”
He loved his mother without liking her, and he checked on her faithfully every week and needed a Xanax afterward. “It’s like having a car that won’t run—you can go sit in it, but all your wishful thinking isn’t going to make it run.”
At least she always urged him to read. “She was extremely intelligent,” he says, “just could never keep it together very long.” Reading let him educate himself, and then reading turned into writing. When he tried his hand at fiction, he showed a coworker at the library, a former college comp. teacher. She sat him down and said, “You can really write. But this is shit.” So he started mowing her lawn, and in exchange, she gave him back page after page he saw as “soaked in blood”—and welcomed. After many sessions, she told him he had earned the equivalent of an MFA and added, “If I’d had one kid who cared as much about writing as you do, I would’ve stayed in teaching.”
Strange Fle$h is a gritty, intense, wild retelling of the Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. “As someone who spent a long time voluntarily in churches trying to figure all this out, I’ve read the Bible cover to cover quite a few times,” Joe says. “It moves very quickly through stories—there’s a lot left out, a lot of feelings.”
Still, the framework is powerful—even for a nonbeliever. “I used to believe in God,” he says. “I used to go to church. I was fully vested. And then, over time, it just seemed like religion was a real money grab. You take an imaginary story as solid truth and no one can back you off of it. It’s a story we tell ourselves in the dark to get through to the light.”
In the novel, Freddie’s friend Thom says God is a Ponzi scheme. Later, Freddie decides that “this idea of there being an invisible, perfect God is society’s way of having a really awesome excuse to beat, incarcerate, and kill anyone who disagrees with whoever has the current upper hand. Today it’s the Christians, tomorrow…who the fuck knows? But we all bow to whoever can make it rain, whether it is Buddha or The Flying Spaghetti Monster. We will do whatever it takes not to be burnt alive at the stake for heresy. Fuck being right. Being alive is painful enough without hitting a hornet’s nest with a stick. And yet we still believe that we have religious freedom. Ain’t that a kick in the pants!”
Under the sarcasm is hurt, a sense of being fooled, lied to, betrayed. “It’s not the Old Testament that gives you the song and dance,” Joe says now. “It’s the New Testament that’s really shaking the tambourine.” He pauses. “I’ll say this: I wish there was a God. But I think the only kindness in this world is going to come from another human being.”
In the book, that human being is Thom, a guy who sleeps rough and, though he constantly begs Freddie for money or cigarettes, genuinely loves him and shows it. When Thom dies suddenly, Freddie surprises himself by standing to speak at his cardboard-coffin funeral. “I always felt better after seeing him,” Freddie says simply, “and for a few minutes, I found that other person in life we’re all looking for, someone who makes you feel better about being you, and helps you stop thinking about your problems. Living just got easier whenever I talked to Thom, and it was enough to make me believe in God or whatever it is that runs this universe.”
There was a real Thom: Thom West, a radio personality in St. Louis, first on The Point, then on The Viper. He read Joe’s collection of short stories, Joe’s Black T-Shirt. Included was “Father’s Day”—the story that let Joe stop drinking, because writing an imaginary letter from his father had healed the hole in his chest. That story touched Thom West, and the two men became friends. Thom made an audio version of one of Joe’s stories. Then, suddenly, he died. Joe was grieving his friend as he wrote Strange Fle$h, and when he finished the book, his new pseudonym was obvious. Joe West would be a stronger name—the short, plain, masculine sound of it, and the connection to Thom.
As an author, though, Joe West is stronger because he is also Joe Schwartz.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.