02
May
10

Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME

Once, years ago, when my first book came out and I was enormously excited about said book coming out, a much more experienced writer told me,

“One’s a good start, but it’s not a career until you have three out.”

“Really?” I said.

“Over fifty percent of first-time novelists never publish a second,” he said.

This scared me a bit, since it had taken me ten years to learn enough to write my first and I’d thrown away at least two bad novels before finishing my first (or, third, depending on how one looked at such things). “So why isn’t two a career, then?”

“Well, it’s like in math. One doesn’t mean anything. Two can be a coincidence. Three’s a pattern. Until it happens three times, it’s not a pattern. And a pattern is what constitutes a career. It means that’s what you do, for better or worse. You’re a writer.”

I’d never, at that time, heard of this fifty percent deal with first-time novelists, but it turns out, according to various studies in publishing, to be true. A lot, if not a clear majority of writers have only one book in them—which stunned me when I first heard it and still surprises me now. Why would you go through the effort and labor of learning the very difficult craft of putting a book together only to stop after the first? But I guess some writers only have one in them—one thing to say, and then they get on with the rest of their lives.

And the second book not making you a career writer? I suppose that’s open to debate, but it is true, in both math and in publishing and murder (you’re not a serial killer, after all, until you hit three, either, though I heard that is being challenged by certain FBI profilers, among others) that three is a pattern and it means that you’re probably in it (whatever your “it” happens to be) for the long haul.

So, enter Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME (Overlook Press, publication date, May 10th), which is as you may have guessed from this preamble, her third novel. Arnoldi, best known, perhaps, for her first novel CHEMICAL PINK (which was a long running LA Times bestseller) has returned, in many ways, to the overall feel, characters, structure and pace that made that first novel such a hit. In between, she published THE WENTWORTHS, a dysfunctional family drama/satire about a wealthy Westside LA family from 2008, which showed a growing confidence and ability in her craft.

POINT DUME is, in short, a combination of the best aspects of her earlier two books. It has the edge and grit and unconventional characters and unexpected scenes of CHEMICAL PINK along with the refined craft and narrative chops exhibited in THE WENTWORTHS.

The novel, while brief and breakneck paced, takes in a wide range of subject matter and characters. It is, in fact, one of the longer short novels you’re likely to read this year (in the best sense—the way THE GREAT GATSBY is a long short novel, surprising for all the ground it covers in a relatively few amount of pages). Arnoldi balances five major POV in the novel—from the memorable self-reliant surfer Ellis, the eccentric pot-dealer Pablo, Janice a bored and quietly despairing homemaker and one of Pablo’s main clients, Janice’s husband Frank (who’s mid-life crisis infatuation with Ellis he misreads for love), and the sad and trapped Felix, who’s been recruited (forcefully) by the Mexican drug cartel to grow pot in the public lands around Malibu in the hills around all of the other character’s homes.

This unlikely cast of characters is brought together in a series of events that always arise organically out of character desire—never because they’re forced into action by the author. Arnoldi writes in a manner that Flaubert talked about—the writer being invisible, filing her nails while the characters act of their own accord. There are two dominant schools of thought about the author’s job. Some believe the author, like a good baseball umpire, should remain unseen. That the only time he or she is noticed is if they’ve blown a call or made a bad move. Then, of course, you have the overt stylists, calling attention to themselves (either in obvious ways, such as in the metafiction of writers like Ray Federman, or the high-wire “look no hands” prose styling of someone like Lee. K. Abbot, who reminds you he’s there by showing off the conscious beauty of his own prose). Arnoldi falls into the former category—never showing the puppet master’s strings on the movements of the characters.

And it works very well. The book hits on a lot of major issues—obsessive love and desire, the death of surf culture invaded by materialistic trend seekers…people who used to be called yuppies (god knows what name they carry these days), illegal pot farms on public lands (an increasingly large issue in California), the savage, dangerous and thoughtless use of human trafficking, the increasing presence of Mexican drug cartels in California, and the environmental cost of it all.

In the end (without giving away the plot twist that brings all these character’s lives together), Arnoldi’s realistic novel takes a turn toward the Naturalistic novels of Zola and Frank Norris. The book’s climax, in many ways, is reminiscent of Norris’ amazing (and, sadly, largely forgotten) 1902 masterpiece THE OCTOPUS (a Naturalistic history of the building of California in the late 1800’s), with the earth re-establishing its dominance and its inevitable lack of concern for the petty desires of humans.

Along the way, you get a rollicking ride. The book is full of memorable characters, tight, lean prose, better sex scenes than most people seem to write these days (why is sex so awful in most books?) and filled with some downright funny and harrowing scenes. It’s, in the best sense, a well-paced, well written page-turner. Check it out.

For more info on Katie Arnoldi, check out her website:

www.katiearnoldi.com

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7 Responses to “Katie Arnoldi’s POINT DUME”


  1. May 9, 2010 at 4:40 am

    Well, Rob, there are plenty of one-hit authors who have done rather well for themselves. Harper Lee is perhaps the most famous, but there is Ralph Ellison, Boris Pasternak, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Mitchell, and of course the best selling book of all time has an author who only published once. So, while I agree that you can draw a line from any two points and that it takes a third point to define a trend, sometimes a singular vision is enough. I keep saying that one of these days I’ll write the great American novel, but it seems that days a dwindling and I’m no closer. I only need to do it once. Hope you are well, friend.

    • May 9, 2010 at 5:08 am

      Hey John-

      Never meant to suggest that there weren’t one-hit wonders who did fine by themselves (and in the case of Lee and Ellison, they did truly great books…I’m not sure I’d count Wilde as a “one-hit” author, as he was a writer of several plays and some amazing essays, so there’s a career there…a vision that shows itself over several pieces of work). I do, however, find it (one book) less impressive than someone who does several of them and hones and develops their craft over a number of years and books and deals with issues of the craft over a series of works. It’s, as Harry Crews said, much harder to write your 19th book than your first–you know so much more and you’re aware of MANY more choices at your disposal and you have to choose the best one. Your toolbox is much more full of options.

      But it’s probably better to do only one book if you only have one book in you. And there are plenty of examples of people doing one great novel and never doing another (FAT CITY is another that comes to mind), but it’s not really a writing career. And, as I said, it’s incredibly common for people to do only one novel (roughly half of all published novelists), so, sure, some of them are great ones. Never meant to say otherwise. That doesn’t make it worse to do only one, but I do find it less of an accomplishment as far as a career goes. Some people only have one in them. And one great book is one more than most people write-even people who write several of them.

      But as far as “the great American novel,” I think it’s a silly concept. I don’t think there is such a thing, anymore than there’s the great American person or the great American building. There’s too much complexity, too much wonder, and too many great voices to reduce that complexity of a culture (and world) to one vision. There are a lot of great novels–more than anyone could read in a lifetime–but no one of them could be said to be the single great one for everyone. Thanks for stopping by–hope you’re well, too bud.

  2. May 9, 2010 at 5:13 am

    Also, just thinking out loud, Ellison had one novel, but he had more than one book (“Listening to Jazz” is one of his non-fic ones), and he wrote and kept publishing most of his life, even if he didn’t ever do that second novel (or publish it, at any rate…it was rumored to exist fr many years).

  3. May 11, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    My dad the editor says that the majority of writers only have one book in them, (it’s borne up by statistics), and that there’s a big difference for people in editorial and publishing between working with career writers and people who are just forming their One Good Idea. The content of that difference is a long lecture he used to give at UC Berkeley to students in a publishing program–he wanted to teach them how to recognize the people who were going to have some longevity. What’s most interesting to me is that now all the people who say “I could write a book about my life” are starting to DO it, and self publish. There were four times as many self-published titles last year as traditional pubbed titles. So all those one-offs are happening with even more ferocity.

    • May 14, 2010 at 2:40 am

      Thanks, Vanessa. Wow…FOUR times as many self-pubbed than traditional last year? That’s something. I’m not sure how I feel about it. There are, for sure, some great self-published books in the history of literature (Whitman, some of Oscar Wilde’s poems, the first work of Kathy Acker), but I think the explosion of them of late is, in general, a bad sign–for those writers, not for publishing. It’s been my experience that:

      1) People think because something happened to them, it’s interesting (which is not true, by itself). I always think of that great line from SEARCH AND DESTROY: “Just because it happened to you does not make it interesting.”

      2) Too many developing writers (and this comes from 17 years of teaching and editing) want to HAVE WRITTEN a book, but don’t want to go through the hard work of actually learning how to write a good one and pay their dues. Self-publishing makes the PRODUCT too easy to achieve without the person having understood the reality of the process.

      However, I’m torn–as there are a LOT of very good books that, for a variety of reasons, are not accepted in traditional New York publishing. And I do like it when the means of production are in the hands of the worker.

      But most people who choose the self-publishing route don’t realize that they are damning their work to even more obscurity than normal publishing (pretty obscure these days in itself) offers.

      I think (and I realize,V, you weren’t making any arguments pro or con on self-pubbing…just stating an interesting stat) the self-pub model works a lot better in non-fiction/self-help than in fiction. If someone has a built-in audience they can tap into (let’s say your book is about being the parent of an autistic child…it would be easy to find that book’s audience via the internet and word of mouth, and so on). But for fiction, which, by its nature is less about subject matter and more about execution and excellence, it’s very hard to find the audience without the winnowing process of publishers.

      But, it’s an interesting stat. And I’ve always found it odd that self-publishing is looked down on so much, when, say, a self-financed film is respected as an endeavor. Or a self-produced play or DIY album.

      The BIG problem with that (common and ill-informed, I’d argue) attitude of “I could write a book about my life” is that most people think that subject matter–and not execution–is what matters in fiction. There are great novels written about subjects I had no interest in. There are terrible books about fascinating subjects.

      People need to know how to write, and most people don’t. There’s an incredible arrogance in a lot of self-publishing. You don’t see many people say, for instance, “I want to write a symphony and people should be interested–just because I want to…not because I have anything new to bring to music.”

      I wouldn’t think I could be a surgeon if I took a year off–those men and women study their profession for years to be qualified to do what they do. And if people would study the history of literature, they’d realize that the VAST majority of published writers have spent thousands of hours studying their craft before a word ever goes public.

      The problem, I think, is that most people think they can write fiction because they USE words and write all the time (unlike my symphony analogy above). But they don’t realize that most of the way we’re trained to write in school (the five paragraph essay and so on) has nothing to do wit the way fiction comes alive on the page. People are, in general, trained to write in the forms of essay and argument–neither of which are of any use in fiction writing. People think they can write about their “one good idea.” But they don’t realize that fiction isn’t about ideas…as Kundara says, “One idea may not be enough for a poem…but one good question may be enough for a career.” Fiction is, among other things, not a form for people who think they’ve figured the world out (a group of professional bores, those types are)–but for people who are TRYING to figure the world out (and THAT is something non-writers never seem to get). But, that’s another issue.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  4. May 12, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    Hi Everyone,

    About Ralph Ellison–

    I just saw this for the first time at the bookstore:

    http://www.amazon.com/Three-Before-Shooting-Modern-Library/dp/0375759530/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_2

    Looks like it came out early this year. I think this is that second novel you were talking about, Rob.


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