One of the best reads for me the last few years was Scott Muskin’s debut novel, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar, and the story below is my attempt to make sense of the 2009 book and its author, whose work has gained him some measure of noteriety. Expectantly awaiting his next novel.
Author Scott Muskin – What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing Writing About All this Mishigas?
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Jewish Press
Omaha native Scott Muskin’s well-received first novel, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama’s Boy and Scholar, tells a funny, enlightened, inconvenient journey of self-discovery taken by the title’s protagonist-narrator. This satirical adventure leaves Hank scarred, liberated and, better-late-than-never, wised-up.
The novel was the inaugural (2007) winner of the Parthenon Prize for Fiction, a national competition to boost unknown authors.The Prize, which honored Annunciations out of more than 350 submissions, netted Muskin $8,000, plus a full, traditional book publishing contract. The final judge was author Tony Earley (Jim the Boy). Muskin will be in Omaha for a 1 p.m. Bookworm signing on April 18.
Annunciations was released this winter by Hooded Friar Press, a Nashville, Tenn.-based literary house that describes itself as “dedicated to publishing high-quality books by new authors.” Muskin’s clearly arrived as a new voice deserving attention.
He’s the son of Omahans Linda and Alan Muskin, members of Beth El Synagogue. His mother was a Millard Public Schools teacher. His father owned Youngtown, a chain of stores selling children’s furniture, toys, assundries. Alan’s father and Scott’s grandfather, Stuart Muskin, co-founded Youngtown, originally a Kiddie-Cut-Rate. The father character in Annunciations is a toy merchant from Omaha whose two boys, Hank and Carlton, were raised there. Most of the book’s set in Minneapolis, where Muskin and his wife Andrea Bidelman live in a 1920s stucco faux-Tudor home near Lake Nokomis. Muskin’s anchored the fiction in a reality he knows.
His story’s a modern, urban walkabout for a middle-class, secular American Jew who’s somehow managed to graduate college, start a career and marry without ever really finding himself or figuring out what he needs. Much less how to get it. His dysfunctional family is a case study. Smart, charming Hank’s schlepped through life, failing to hold himself accountable, letting old wounds fester, ignoring the very things that fill him with unresolved anger, unanswered questions, unfulfilled desires, unmitigated regret. An academic and free spirit by nature, he’s more attuned to Emily Dickinson arcania than to real life emotions and actions.
“Hank expected more of himself. He had larger dreams, of living a more passionate life,” Muskin said by way of analysis in a phone interview from his home in the Twin Cities. “When he starts to act on those, that’s when the trouble starts. Be careful what you wish for — that’s what’s driving the plot of the novel.”
Hank, a smart-alleck nebish who cops a superior attitude, is long overdue a comeuppance and he gets a doozy. Along the way, the putz learns to be a mensch.
Well-meaning in that lackadaisical way men are, Hank’s flippant defiance mucks up the works whether dealing with his estranged wife Carol Ann, distant father Daniel, troubled brother Carlton or the memory of his dead mother. Morally weak Hank acts out with his sister-in-law June and promptly runs away from his problems. Like an addict who believes the world revolves around him and conspires against him, Hank’s submerged in a bathos of ego, lust, self-pity, resentment and entitlement. A saving grace is his humor, which can cut through the clutter of his myopic vision.
It’s a witty and poignant exploration of the self-centered male psyche in identity crisis. Hank represents a type of male many women are familiar with — the kind who require a rude awakening to grow up. His stumbling, guilt-ridden initiation into adulthood rings true. Especially resonant is his strained relationship with his father and brother, who represent aspects of himself and his past he’d rather forget.
“I think one of the central dynamics of the book is that tension between silence and the unspoken energy in a family or in a relationship and the ways that that silence ends up finding voice,” said Muskin. “It’s not like it’s not there. It’s just being said in different ways. A lot of the interactions between the characters are animated by the ways it’s being unsaid. It does come out sometimes quite messily.”
Like most first novels Annunciations is personal. Muskin wrote it, in part, as a catharsis for the rough patch he went through around the time he started it.
“Well, I was getting divorced at the time or I was just divorced,” he said, thus the book is on one level “a working out of some of those things.”
The drama. Life happens.
“And I then found this voice to fictionalize it, which is a must. You’ve got to fictionalize it,” he said, otherwise it’s a self-indulgent rant. “I’m into real people and the real struggles they go through. Flaws and idiosyncratic obsessions — everyone’s got them. Shining a light on people who take a hard look at those things in themselves I find fascinating.”
Muskin found in Hank a literary avatar.
“I’m a quite biographical writer in terms of being able to find the emotional core of a situation if I’ve been through it or somehow been there. I then turn it or filter it through the prism of the character, and that’s important because then it forces you to think about the character’s perspective on things. You create three dimensionalites just by doing that — the interaction of the author, the character and the reader. It’s a way of getting closer to the universal.”
How close is Scott to Hank and vice versa?
“There’s a lot of similarities between me and Hank,” said his creator, “but there’s also a lot of differences, and the differences were more generative and healthier for the novel then were our similarities.”
For example, Muskin has a sister, not a brother, and the two of them get on fine. Finding the right voice for his protagonist let Muskin examine sibling rivalry.
“The book really took shape when I stumbled upon this voice,” he said. “I had been reading Richard Ford’s Independence Day and I remember thinking, ‘This is the kind of voice I want — a narrator who’s introspective but sardonic, thoughtful but sharp-witted, sharp-tongued. In essence, complex and likable and not likable.’ That’s the protagonist I wanted. I tried to steal that voice for a short story, not very successfully. Only when I put it into my own context did it begin to take shape.”
Short story writing was Muskin’s literary form of choice at the time. He’d had success placing pieces in literary journals and magazines. A collection by him was a finalist for the 2005 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. While his stories earned him admiration and praise and some were published individually, he said “no one was terribly interested” in publishing them as a collection.
A mentor of his in graduate school at the University of Minnesota first suggested his talents might best lay in novel writing.
“One of my teachers, Julie Schumacher, pushed me. She said, ‘You ought to write a novel. You seem like a natural for it,’ and I took that to heart, and I finally hit upon a voice that I felt could sustain the novel for the reader.”
So, what did Schumacher see that made her nudge him along the novelist’s path?
“She said that I was writing longish short stories anyway. It’s not uncommon for me working on a short story to generate 60 pages,” Muskin noted, “and that’s kind of a tough road to hoe because long short stories have less of a chance of getting published in magazines and things.”
Besides, he was already creating fiction from real life, lending it “a richness and complexity of character relationships, particularly family relationships, which are a lot of times the bread and butter of novels.” Except, he said, “I was expounding more than evoking.” It left him unsure if he was up to penning a fully-realized novel.
“I know a lot of writers who say, ‘My first novel’s still in a drawer,’ and I was terrified of that happening. It’s a terrifying endeavor to spend so much time on something and to not know what you have until you share it with a trusted reader. I wanted to make sure it was not puerile and jejune because first novels tend to be personal and you’re working out a lot of your own bullshit. I was certainly doing that, but I was hoping I was doing other things, too, to achieve like a universality.”
It was the fall of 2003 when Muskin delved into the project.
“I spent a month and a half in upstate New York at an arts colony. I did a lot of writing there. I just started writing and it sort of all spilled out. And I might have thought this would be a short story (to begin with) but as soon as I realized I was onto something I wanted to keep going with it.”
The novel’s development, which proceeded at different arts colonies, entailed a search.
“I started fumbling around for a narrative archetype to hang a story onto. I read a lot of Greek and Roman mythology and they’re just so great for giving evocative narratives where the grand passions are on display, and that’s what I felt I had in Hank — a grand passion he was trying to express.”
The evolutionary process of writing meant Muskin was open to literary influences and to reconfiguring plot lines, characters, et cetera. “I had envisioned the Carlton character as a friend whose domestic life Hank was going to be jealous of,” he said, “but once I realized Carlton wasn’t a friend but a brother that’s when I felt I had the triangulation I needed.”
The triptych of two brothers in conflict with each other and with their dissatisfied traveling salesman father hints at Death of a Salesman.
“That is definitely one of the archetypes,” said Muskin. “That Willie Loman character weighs heavily in this book, from the dad’s point of view. After all, he is a traveling salesman who’s not connected to his sons. His boys are competitive. And he has a favorite son. I’d be stupid to say I’m going to ignore” the parallels to that part of the Arthur Miller play, added Muskin, who said he took great pains to not make Daniel Meyerson “a postcard character” that’s a pale imitation of Loman.
Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was another model of sorts. Muskin used an excerpt from the Nobel Prize-winner’s novel to set out the theme of Annunciations: “In any true life you must go and be exposed outside the small circle that encompasses two or three heads in the same history of love. Try and stay, though, inside. See how long you can.” The quotation from Augie is used by Muskin as an epigraph, along with a quote from an unpublished Emily Dickinson poem: “A single thrill can end a life or open it forever.”
For Muskin, it became important “to keep” Annunciations “true to” the Bellows observation that a life “encompassing the same circle of love” poses complications by the proximity of that love. “That was pretty powerful for me,” said Muskin, who was inspired to “have a novel where we have only four or five characters and they’re all related to one another — strong ties that you can’t really do without, and that Hank tries to do without. It generated the plot for me that Hank would stray from his marriage with his sister-in-law. It all kind of folds in on itself.”
The author doesn’t conceal his appreciation for Bellows. “I’m a big fan,” said Muskin, who enjoys how dense Augie is “with voice…thought patterns. Bellows gets into the micro-micro of this character’s life.” Muskin said when he employed a similar approach in looking at the minutiae of Hank’s life “things really took off.”
Muskin’s style has also been compared to that of Jonathan Franzen and Philip Roth.
Unlike many writers who come to their craft through reading Muskin flipped the script by having his early passion for writing spark his later reading habit.
“I always wrote, but I didn’t always read,” he said. “Maybe it’s a boy thing — the opposite of girls stereotypically always involved in a book. I can’t really say it wasn’t because books weren’t around, but I didn’t really dive in until later in life.”
“Key teachers were very important,” he said in recognizing his talent. “In 1st grade I wrote a poem about trees that my teacher actually accused me of plagiarizing. I was mortally offended. We worked it all out. I remember my parents and her having several conversations about how creative I was with language.”
Encouragement continued through elementary school (Columbian), junior high (Horace Mann) and high school (Burke). He earned his bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College (Iowa) and his master’s from Minnesota. He’s well-ensconced up north by now but he admits he gets verklempt being away from family in Nebraska.
It was never in the cards for him to take over for his dad at Youngtown, which Scott helped the father close out. Writing was always in the young man’s future.
Freelance copywriting jobs permit Muskin’s literary pursuits. A stable income’s more important now that he and his wife are parents to a baby girl, Campbell. Around the gigs that pay the bills he toils on literary projects from the home office he built in his spacious garage, which looks out onto a garden.
“I’m working on several short stories,” he said. “They’re in the drawer phase right now because I’m not sure what I have. I’m working on a new novel. I just got a grant to do some research for it in Spain. It’s about a grandfather-grandson relationship. They’re both at a crossroads in life. The grandfather’s a larger-than-life character. They’re going to have adventures — I’m just not sure what yet. It’s also going to cover the grandfather’s Sephardic Jewish experience. It’s something I don’t know much about. I just starting getting into this. It’ll examine this sense of dislocation and loss — of being a minority within a minority.”
Never one to maintain a rigid writing schedule, Muskin said, “I’m a firm believer that life should be lived. There can’t be one without the other. It’s a balance thing.”
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