Picture me, perennial college dropout, working in a used bookstore in
central Maryland circa 2009. One of my bibliophilic regulars makes a
habit of passing along obscure titles for me to investigate. Hands me a
certain worn hardcover with assurances of its rarity, attests to the
writer’s genius, instructs me to read without delay. The book is
Lookout Cartridge by Joseph McElroy. An unfamiliar name, but my
regular has never steered me astray. I take the book home and find my
impressionable mind melted at the virtuoso wordplay. Here is something
I seek out more. I scour the shelves.
M …Mc …McCarthy …McGuane …McInerney …McMurtry. No McElroy to
be found. I pester the regular. Solemn, he shakes his head and speaks
the wretched words, Out of print. Years pass. I keep hunting. A first
edition of Women and Men turns up, then a scarce paperback of Plus.
To this day I haven’t given up on finding a reasonably priced copy of
Smuggler’s Bible. Joseph McElroy is one of the greatest living
American novelists. Why the hell are so many of his books impossible to
Enter Dzanc Books. This fine press has been steadily publishing new work
from McElroy and reissuing his earlier classics. Their latest is Hind’s
Kidnap, originally released in 1969. Described as a “city pastoral,”
the labyrinthine plot follows the titular Jack Hind on an obsessive
odyssey to solve a years old kidnapping. The details of young Hershey
Laurel’s disappearance are vague at best—“neither had ransom been
asked nor a kidnap note received”—though McElroy’s second novel is
Following a mysterious tip, Hind progresses from one interlocking location to the next—a city pier, an office complex, a New England golf course, a health club, a university—with little to go off other than a series of enigmatic notes. The characters that Hind chases down are treated less like human beings and more like clues to be decoded, then discarded. The world of HK is one in which any word or action might contain hidden messages, potentially revealing answers to the seemingly endless stream of riddles we face. Hind becomes so wholly absorbed that he disregards his estranged wife and child in lieu of pursuing the Laurel case, even though Hind has no real relation to the missing child. His motivations are ambiguous. In fact, no one seems to care that the boy has gone missing except for Hind. About halfway through, the novel pivots when Hind has a change of heart, and he determines to reverse engineer a “dekidnapping,” literally working his way backwards to absolve his selfish tactics, to see his friends and family as people instead of clues he can use as means to an end.
Filled with rich, multilayered sentences and keen philosophical
observations, Hind’s Kidnap is a challenging but rewarding read.
Equally complex and comic, McElroy’s mastery of language is on full
display here. Like Jack Hind, you will search for answers, scour the
pages for clues, pine for resolution. Best to acquiesce and let the
narrative guide you where it will. “No need to prove or claim—merely
to possess in oneself and to be possessed by, the few knowledges one’s
small originality desires. To settle for such a possession is not to be
a coward, but a shepherd.”
At 91, Joseph McElroy shows no signs of slowing. With a new novel
nearing completion, a collection of essays forthcoming and a
long-anticipated work of nonfiction about humanity’s relationship with
water due out at some point, there has never been a better time to be a
McElroy fan. He graciously corresponded with me via email to discuss
Hind’s Kidnap and more.
Read our conversation below and purchase Hind’s Kidnap from Dzanc
To start off, can you shed some light on the origins of Hind’s
Kidnap? Where did the initial seed come from? (My wife is due to give
birth soon, so conception has been on my mind)
The book is full of light – the streets, the people. Down almost to
photons of the everyday. Is your question accidentally its own answer –
even a theme of this novel? I mean your will to be distracted from the
thing itself. I’m working on a novel right now that’s been in my mind
for at least sixty years. What would you make of these origins you
speak of if they existed, Matt? Beginnings of Hind’s Kidnap? a
long-ago case still open but perhaps forgotten. The idea of
appropriating or even stealing another person – into another life that
is still possible. Sitting on a pier by the river … A city, though,
where everything can be found and lost. The novel is the thing, Matt. In
this novel as in your life, you pay attention to what each sentence
says. It may bear on you. Henry James, someone on whom nothing is
lost, set as a standard. I think I’m going to be answering some of your
questions with questions.
On the surface HK is a mystery novel, though I might describe it as
an anti-mystery or inverted detective story. You’ve also described it as
a fable. Your work sometimes plays with or bends genre tropes (Plus
contains elements of science fiction, for instance). What do you
consider the uses and limits of genre?
Is your question just statements? What surface? What do you think you
mean? But you’re right, Matt: my city may be an unformulable alternative
to the incisive solutions a mere detective story arrives at. But
mysteries displace our attention yet then in favor of other trails that
nonetheless lead back. Yet D.H. Lawrence calls the Novel “the one bright
book of life.” Yes there are genres in my head, old set forms. Easier to
identify in poetry. I regularly write sestinas for friends, living and
dead, about current events. The medieval but very modern sestina with
its arbitrary-seeming clarities of repeated end-of-line words for six
substantial stanzas is a container that shapes and opens thoughts
unexpectedly. I wrote one for the Harry Mathews’ memorial in New York
and it made it into Best American Poetry of that year. Harry taught me
the sestina. He said it was impossible to write a bad sestina. My novel
about a brain in earth orbit, Plus, is fuller and more disturbing or
poignant than sci fi tradition, I believe; but the science is there –
and the fiction strong, where fact is more deeply factual than what you
might experience in documentary non-fiction, yes I believe that that
often happens. An idyl (if you want an ancient form) though in Plus
in its own way tragic and exalted. Hey, the genre of the Interview, it
occurs to me! with its slippery self-advertisements and near-lies and
sometimes ambivalent questions; though my voice here is quite frank.
Asked once for an interview to go with a volume of essays about my work
brought out by The Review of Contemporary Fiction, I reversed the
angle or nerve or decorum and turned the genre outward and came up with
three connected interviews conducted instead by me with people who’d
been important in my life.
As a “city pastoral,” HK presents a vivid depiction of New York,
especially Brooklyn Heights. I’d say the boroughs are as much a
character as Jack Hind in the novel. The city embodies all these
different paradoxes—artificial and natural, concrete and abstract,
static and dynamic. I lived in Bed-Stuy from 2010-2011, and when I
returned for a visit in 2018 I found the landscape completely
transformed but also eerily familiar in many ways. I imagine you’ve
witnessed tremendous change in NYC over the years. How has being a New
Yorker informed your writing?
What is your question? Does pastoral inspire vivid depictions of the
actual city? Maybe so. But only if pastoral by contrast with urban shows
us what we never thought the city was. Here in HK a strange lightness,
an unpredictable lift – a fable with roots that keep growing. Pastoral
would seem to go against or simplify the industrial and populated and
loud and uncomfortable and brainy complexities of the city – anyway, in
the mid-1960s of Hind’s Kidnap a curious uncertain waiting here and
across the nation – entwined with new technology and wild
performing-arts energy here in New York seeming then to prevail, like a
haunting even beautiful and threatening next thing about to upend us –
does this answer belong above in the first question? If city pastoral is
a contradiction how would that recreate my city in HK? By paradox, I
suppose. A teacher of mine at Columbia, Mark Van Doren, said the country
was too beautiful to live in year round. The HK New York is sometimes
a necessary idyl yet manqué. You won’t get me to talk about Bed-Stuy
when I was 5 years old and my father’s family had lived there since the
1920s. And “being a New Yorker”? My fiction tells you better than I
could. Are cities unlike small towns half-designed to change?
I found HK rather comic at times, filled with puns and double
entendres, though I’ve read you didn’t intend it to be satirical.
Certainly it’s a strange book and many of the scenes are quite funny. Is
the humor intentional or more of a happy accident?
“Rather comic” will do, I guess. Your alternatives aren’t mine.
Everything is intentional but do I try to be funny? no, just to tell
some imagined whole truth. The book belongs less to me now than to the
reader, which is a happy accident when it happens.
Your work has often been labelled “difficult” or even
“incomprehensible,” which to me is unfair. Reading HK might be a
challenge for some, as there’s lack of context and frequent jumps in
time and perspective. The style mirrors the narrative. In the same way
Jack Hind can never be certain what (or who) is or isn’t a clue, the
reader likewise must rely on conjecture to piece everything together.
We’re carried along in Hind’s quest to break the kidnap and then reverse
engineer a dekidnapping without understanding his motivations. Even if
we don’t know how it’s all going to add up, it’s an immersive,
propulsive experience. What’s your approach to balancing ambiguity and
Thanks for “immersive, propulsive.” Who said the work is
“incomprehensible”? Don’t you triangulate yourself here, the good guy on
my side vs those mysterious but explicit others?
About “difficult,” I like my readers for the interesting difficulties of
The dekidnapping is not quite a joke. In my gut, no joke at all.
Balancing ambiguity and clarity? It’s built into our intelligence and
our sentences, mine anyway, which are often narratives in themselves.
Ambiguity is a fuller clarity, if you look at your own moment-to-moment
Feel free to disregard this question if you prefer not to elaborate,
but I’m curious about book II in HK, which is an extensive, disjointed
monologue written from the POV of Hind’s wife Sylvia. What is the
significance of the letter “V” in this section?
Two questions here? I can’t tell. The “V” words beginning each paragraph
are like related materials helping this pivotal central and centering,
partly interior monologue hold together. I don’t think the character
Sylvia in her mind exactly says them though maybe somewhere in the
reader they are voiced. Some beautiful words here, what they mean,
many kinds of motion. Viaticum. Vanish … Think of colors on a
canvas in some rhythm of coherence. Nothing difficult, just intimately
alive and full of veins and arteries and a will to live and understand.
This woman’s monologue, the wife’s truth, holding the whole
as-yet-unfinished novel together; hence future as well as past. What
differences do you find between this middle section and the first and
third parts of the book, which are Hind’s POV? Did you notice that the
sequence of places in the first is reversed in the third?
In your essay “Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete
you write, “what I was after in what I was writing was the relation
between Outside and Inside.” I think you achieve this in HK, which is
full of both rich, hyper detailed descriptions and carefully
constructed, nuanced personalities, both of which bleed into one
another. What tricks can the writer employ to dissolve the boundaries
between interiority and the external world?
Bleed, yes. Thanks for answering your own question. We are a little
strange, more so than we thought. And this is material of which we all
are made and with which we make something of each other, I do believe.
Linguistics features prominently in HK. The guardian tells Hind,
“Language is the trap.” The idea of language ensnaring rather than
liberating us intrigues me. A simple word like “of” is revealed to be
deceptively complex, the meaning nebulous and shifty depending on its
usage. Over half a century after HK’s initial publication, what has
kept you engaged with language and storytelling?
Ensnaring is also committed. Quite apart from “Women’s Lib,” an
antiquated phrase surfacing in the language in mid-1960s, what you
describe must mean that I find Freedom only in its apparent opposites.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a writer in America
today, specifically about what constitutes “the great American novel.” I
could ask a dozen people and get a different answer from each. The
United States is such a mercurial, contradictory, fragmented place,
which is reflected in the writing we produce. You get grouped with the
likes of Gaddis, Gass, and Barth, these literary giants of the 20th
century’s latter half. Do you feel there’s a unique quality that
signifies American fiction? Is there a book you’d list as the definitive
You’ve been thinking? So have I. If you got a dozen different answers to
the above, with reasons for each choice, that would be something,
wouldn’t it? I knew those three writers, though I don’t know about the
You taught creative writing for many years. What advice might you
offer young writers who are fresh to the craft?
Keep your autobiography at arm’s length and find the real story. What
did Oscar say? Best thing to do with good advice is pass it on. Borges
suggests that you read your work as if someone else had written it.
I’m delighted to see you’ve got several titles slated for release. Can
you tease anything for us regarding your upcoming projects? (I’m dying
to read your book about water).
A play at last. Meanwhile, at
– the link for a new online journal – you can find an excerpt from my
new novel, almost finished, set in 5th-century-BC Greece. The name of
the journal is not the title of the novel.
The non-fiction Water Book has rewritten itself. It locates in often
technical detail the constantly changing global crises of water also in
us, almost as if the 70% water of which we’re composed might be involved
in the thinking. Or not. Thus, Outside and Inside again?
Joseph McElroy is the author of nine novels, including A Smuggler’s
Bible (Harcourt), Hind’s Kidnap (Harper & Row), Ancient History: A
Paraphase (Knopf), Lookout Cartridge (Knopf), Plus (Knopf), Women
and Men (Knopf), The Letter Left to Me (Knopf), Actress in the
House (Overlook), and Cannonball (Dzanc, 2013). His short novella
about India, Taken From Him, is available as an Amazon Kindle
Single. Another novella, Preparations for Search, appeared in 2010.
Night Soul and Other Stories, a volume of short fiction, was published
by Dalkey Archive Press in 2011. A volume of his essays, Exponential,
has been published in Italy and in expanded form will be forthcoming
from Dzanc. His non-fiction book about water is close to completion. Two
plays are forthcoming, and a children’s book, The Island, illustrated
by G. Davis Cathcart. McElroy received the Award in Literature from the
American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the
Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D.H. Lawrence Foundations, twice from
Ingram Merrill and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among
other universities he has taught at Columbia, Johns Hopkins,
Northwestern, University of New Hampshire, Temple, NYU, the University
of Paris, and the City University of New York. McElroy was born in
Brooklyn, New York in 1930. He was educated at Williams College and
Columbia University and served in the U.S. Coast Guard.