Matthew Norman thrust his bulk upon the device, and with a hot breath into its data port, he de-virginized my Kindle. Let me back up. He’s the author of Domestic Violets, a novel released back in 2011, the story of Tom Violet and his milquetoast existence out in some fictitious middle-middle class somewhere. I had been meaning to consume the title for a little while now, and after years of smugly chortling at the fast forwarding world of electronic books, I finally caved and burned a few gift cards to pick up a Kindle. I love it. I held the device for all of four minutes before I threw it on a dirty mattress, aimed my VHS camera, then slowly sauntered up to the thing in dirty underwear while grunting along with Stuck In The Middle With You. So, Domestic Violets—this tight number about a guy shuffling through his day-to-day in the vast American white collar wastelands—I paid a couple of bucks, downloaded it, and spent the weekend properly glued. Domestic Violets is real, fresh, an engrossing novel by a real professional, but with everything feeling terrifyingly familiar. This is possibly—maybe just a little—because slightly over a dozen years ago, I spent my days in a cubicle about seven feet from the book’s author.
For the better part of 2000 and just a bit of 2001, I spent my weekdays in a cubicle at my first real advertising agency, a nineteen year old pasty fork in the ass for anyone who had the misfortune of attempting real work. While I was massively under-qualified to perform any task other than scratching my taint with the end of a stapler, the place was a top-down, soup to nuts clusterfuck. Each day you’re reincarnated as the mighty steed, Artex, and each day, you slowly lose will and give in to The Nothing. Not that I was much help, mind you. After fourteen months on the job, my specialties included crashing my computer, spilling printer toner, and audibly farting up whatever chemicals Taco Johns put in their tater-tot based “nachos.” While I was a 3D animator, a job that the agency did not need and a job that I could not perform, Matthew Norman, 24 or 25 at the time, was a copywriter, sitting an aisle away and always appearing busy. I’ll never forget the first words the man ever said to me: “You should probably go apologize, before you get fired.”
Out of around forty employees, there were only nine of us without the word “executive,” “president,” “manager,” or “director” in their title, and Norman and I were two of them, and we were two of (I believe) only four males that worked in production. So, as one does, we pissed away the days in this narrow row of fancy looking half-cubicles—me desperately trying to find something to do, and Norman likely alt-tabbing between the first draft of Domestic Violets and some U2 fan page on his jelly-blue iMac. The place was expensive, this agency, and everyone inside reeked of a goddamned trust fund, waffly strangers and loud-smelling business people, speakerphones and a job riddled with folks who had likely never required math to pay a bill. I counted Norman among them, but with Norman, I took notes.
He was a dry bastard—wry, clever, handsome and irritatingly thin. Every time he came to work, I imagined the super cool apartment he strolled from, high-fiving his roommate as he sipped a coffee and tightened his scarf, hopping onto some commuter train filled with blow-jobs and money. Matthew Norman rarely smiled, and while we never developed a friendship, the man kept me afloat with a strange and terrible mix of nonplussed acceptance, and likely, a morbid curiosity as to just how and why I was working there. I laugh at the montage, but it was real: Norman sighing with defeat as I had run out of checks to pay for my chicken fingers at a bar, again as he bought me a meatball sub the following week, and again at Panera Bread, slowly flipping open his wallet to temporarily fund my obvious inability to finance a business lunch. We were forced into becoming khaki-socked work-husbands, sharing the occasional deviant inside joke or rote argument every time he dabbed his pizza with a napkin and ate it with a knife and fork like a goddamn dandy. Silently dipping out for an extended lunch in his OJ model Ford Explorer, Norman would place his hand on my thigh for a quick bout of a game with an inelegant sobriquet, “gay chicken.” I always lost.
Tom Violet, interviewed:
“We sit in meetings and we use important-sounding, utterly meaningless words to impress each other, but so few of us are actually doing anything to improve the world in even the slightest way. Sure, we may be able to buy iPhones, but we’re handing over our souls and happiness in the process.”
Since leaving that job well over a decade ago, only partially of my own accord, I’ve been dabbling with writing, the occasional blog and derivative nonsense, all the way up to now, dear reader, at The Wayward Irregular. I self published that book of essays a year or so ago, the one I told no-one about, did zero marketing for, and am already ashamed of—and now I’ve been toiling away on Tincture, an actual book-book with music and narration and forethought. Norman, it appears, has been doing the same, but for realsies. Domestic Violets is a real novel, published by Harper Perennial, which means Norman has an agent, an editor, and probably someone who’s danced while he waved an oily turkey leg at them.
It’s loaded with hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and after reading it myself, I can say it easily deserves the accolades. The thing is guaranteed to be an Aaron Eckhart vehicle or maybe a new role for John Hamm, and unless I mis-read the casual web stalking I did of Norman recently, the book was indeed optioned for film rights. Norman is destined to provide some half-assed red carpet interview at the premier of the Domestic Violets movie, then wake up the next morning with polaroids of him and Harvey Keitel doing coke out of a flower pot.
Regardless of who plays the morose lead, Tom Violet, when I read the book, Norman himself filled those penny loafers. Tom Violet and Matthew Norman became one in the same as each familiar tone of the book rang out in my brain, and at the end of everything Norman provides a coy explanation on how much of the book is autobiographical. I half remember a beautiful intern casually flirting at his cubicle, and while there’s no Gregory that I know of (the antagonist), we both worked with a Doug and an amalgam of Katies, Tom Violet’s two minor bastions of hope, and we both often wondered, What exactly am I accomplishing here?
Every page of the thing inspired me to hit the keyboard, to keep moving on Tincture and to un-lazy myself with the Irregular. I batted around brief feelings of jealousy and intrigue, but when I land on things, I can’t help but feel immense pride for Norman. In Dreams with Sharp Teeth, (and I know I keep bringing this up), Harlan Ellison tells the camera something along the lines of, “You aren’t a writer, until a writer calls you a writer,” and I can’t seem to shake the sentiment. In my interview with Shaun Farrell (who himself has sold stories), he kept calling me an author, which was an incredible thing to hear, but every time I just kept wincing, thinking “I’m a fraud! R.A. Salvatore just plugged your show, and three seconds later, you’re talking to me? What a terrible mistake you have made.”
As page after page of Domestic Violets passed, I just keep shaking my head, thinking This is how it’s done, and I’m fucking this up, struggling to not discount my small but loyal audience and the encouragement they’ve provided over the years. I start to imagine myself in my late fifties, signing autographs in a Denny’s conference room for six or seven people, crying in their dirty restroom while some haggard groupie gives me a hand-job at gunpoint. Then, I hit a line by Katie, one of the characters in Norman’s novel:
“The world loses artists all the time because they think they need to be just like everyone else. They let other people determine who they’re supposed to be. And it sucks.”
Indeed, Katie, you olive skinned young thing you. Instead of worrying about a literary world I’ve yet to even try and mingle with, just write, damn you, write.
Norman contacted me a few months back, sort of, via LinkedIn, a website with a questionable purpose. I likely popped up in one of those semi-depressing “Do you know?” auto-generated boxes in the side column, so he clicked the button that said, “Yeah, whatever.” When it hit my inbox, I had forgotten I actually knew the man, and shot him an excited email to see what the world had wrought after all these years, discovering his book and his accolades. Jesus, it’s Matthew Norman! I remember that guy and his obnoxiously perfect hair! Mine’s all gone now! How’s your hair? Awesome, I bet! What’s new? Is something with your hair new?
A week later, sans reply, I found myself back in those nineteen year old shoes, feeling like an irritant to my environment and wanting to drown my sorrows like I did back in 2000, with expensive buffalo wings, dial-up internet pornography, and a grocery bag stuffed in my mouth. Things got dark back then.
I was shocked at how paralyzing the thought of someone imagining the version of me from twelve years ago can be. Then, I remembered I’m in my thirties now—with the prescription for blood pressure medication to prove it—so I shot the man a follow up, basically prefaced with a terse, “Really?” We exchanged the email equivalent of trying to catch up with an old acquaintance right as the lights in a movie theater go down, but this is all we really had to share anyway—we just don’t know each other, never really did. Since those days, we’ve both “suburbs’d it up” with wives, houses, cars, and meaningful jobs, so the internet tells me. His book is good, great really, and I recommend you pick it up, as it’s guaranteed to read differently for you than it did for me. I challenge you to not cast the movie as you read. Pro tip: You will fail at this.
Twelve years ago, in the middle of a terrible break-up, I hadn’t spoken for most of the day, an unusual thing given my general volume. A single brown M&M pings off my monitor, and I look back at Norman, the man giving me his perfect deadpan.
“Dude,” he begins, “Bro, dude. Dude.”
“M&Ms are amazing. Have you tried these?”
I spent my early twenties trying to be just like him, failing at it, and finally learning years later that I had my own voice, the smooth, perfect, hot-and-bothered salted caramel you can hear delivered via iTunes on an Irregular basis. The Irregular owes its own special sauce to Norman’s powerful influence on me in those early years, and every word of this sentence should be in bold type. He’s the original article, this guy I barely knew, but I like to think of him as one of those people in that long line, the memories that nod to you from an ethereal back row as you take the stage amongst riotous applause.
Music in this episode:
Domestic Violets, on Amazon (paperback):
Domestic Violets, on Amazon (Kindle):
The Norman Nation:
My 2-part interview at Adventures In Sci Fi Publishing:
Tincture, An Apocalyptic Proposition:
Post image thanks to the gallery of The Forest History Society.