Tomorrow, Benjamin Rybeck’s first novel The Sadness hits bookshelves thanks to Unnamed Press. Rybeck is the marketing director at Houston’s beloved Brazos Bookstore, and his debut is a noir set in Maine, where an indy filmmaker searches for a local actress who disappears after starring in a cult film.
Tom Perotta, author of The Leftovers (which spawned the HBO series), called it “a moody, fascinating novel about fame, disappointment, and the burdens of family.” Here’s an exclusive excerpt.
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Although Kelly originally envisioned a limousine conveying the group of them to one of the fancier restaurants downtown—Fore Street, or maybe even Hugo’s—reality, as usual, proves much duller: they all merely march around the corner to the old cafeteria, unchanged in the last eleven years. One table is set extravagantly, with wineglasses and cloth napkins and sparkling silverware. Someone has paid for one of those fancy restaurants to come here.
Seated around this table on plastic chairs, the diners—Kelly, Max, Penelope, Ghusson, Allen, Crookshank, Wheeler, and five older donors who have probably never seen any of Penelope Hayward’s movies— make polite conversation over salad, bread, and wine.
And then stupid Garrett asks, “So did someone forget to make a reservation?”
So, yeah, Garrett’s here too, all because Kelly intercepted him before he reached that o cer. She proposed a deal: If she got him a seat at the dinner table, would he drop his nonsense about reporting her? After shaking on it, Kelly walked Garrett like a dog to Penelope and said, “This is my”—the word made her feel faint—“boyfriend, Garrett. He went to school with us, remember?” Garrett smiled and positioned himself heroically, prepared for Penelope to embrace him or something. But the movie star maneuvered her ear closer like a hard-of-hearing grandmother and said, “Sorry, what was your name?” Garrett looked on the verge of vomiting.
Now, Kelly feels obligated to run interference for Garrett’s passive-aggressive joke about the reservation. So she says, “It’s a cool idea, having dinner in the old cafeteria.”
“Isn’t it?” Penelope looks delighted. “Isn’t it more fun than some stuffy restaurant?” She turns to her right, where Max sits playing with his bread, squeezing off hunks and rolling them with his thumb and index finger into balls. “Isn’t it marvelous to be back?” Penelope asks him.
Max strengthens his focus on the bread.
Mr. Wheeler leans forward and puts his hand under his chin as though posing for the cover of his autobiography, while the old woman next to him forks some salad into her mouth. “So you graduated with Penelope?” Wheeler asks Kelly.
Penelope answers, “She’s my oldest friend,” and refills her wine glass.
Kelly wishes she still had salad, like that old lady down the table— wishes she hadn’t finished hers in a frenzy the last time she felt embarrassed, five minutes ago. So she puts her hands under the table and feels along the edge. Crusted boogers? Wads of gum? What kind of nastiness affixes itself to the undersides of tables in high school cafeterias?
“These friendships last an eternity, don’t they?” Penelope throws her arm around Kelly again and squeezes her even more tightly than before. Kelly’s chair rocks; for a moment, she thinks she’s about to fall. To steady herself, she puts her hand on the table and hits the edge of an empty plate, flipping it upward and making a racket.
“Careful, you two,” Ghusson murmurs, eyes downcast; she holds her iPhone under the table and moves her thumb.
Kelly holds her breath. As when caught in quicksand, stillness is the best strategy.
“Of my old friends,” Penelope says, “Kelly and Max are the only ones who came today.”
A waiter swoops in from behind and reaches over Kelly’s shoulder to snatch the empty bottle of wine from the table. “Shall I open another?”
“Yes. Oh God, yes.” Penelope relinquishes Kelly, who rubs her aching shoulder.
In a minute, the waiter returns with fresh wine. He grasps its neck with well-manicured hands, uncorks the bottle, and refills glasses, starting with Kelly’s. She never asked for more, but probably he thinks she’s important, given her proximity to the movie star. As the wine waters her glass, she stares at the tattoo on the waiter’s knuckle. She knows it can’t be, but it resembles a teensy-weensy scrotum. Other people around the table gesture for more wine. The waiter knocks the hair away from his eyes as he pours.
“So.” Garrett extends himself across the table. “Huh?” Penelope’s focus leaps upward, away from the wine.
Ghusson perks up. Whenever Garrett begins to speak, the assistant raises her eyes from her lap as if suddenly blinded by her phone’s LCD screen. Garrett continues: “Are you planning to attend Day Without Water tomorrow? And if so, what do you expect the nature of your interaction with Ford Hunter will be? Will you be attending his book signing?”
“We’re not doing an interview right now,” Ghusson says, squeezing her napkin.
Penelope glares at her inquisitor. “What’d you say?”
“Penelope.” Lockjaw seems to suddenly afflict the assistant. “No questions.”
“Let him repeat it,” Penelope says. “You don’t know how much—” “Let him repeat his question. I can handle myself.” Ghusson rolls her eyes, unclenches the napkin, and returns to the phone in front of her, madly manipulating its screen. She waves her other hand in the air. “Proceed.”
All eyes go to Garrett, the character in this play on whom the spotlight has begun to shine. “Firstly, I asked whether you’re planning to attend Day Without Water tomorrow.”
Penelope’s face turns lopsided. “Do you think I should attend, given everything that has been written about me lately?”
Garrett starts to speak. “You go every year, so—”
“Max.” Penelope turns to her right. “Should I attend Day Without Water?”
Max lifts his eyes from the knife and fork in front of him, and he glances around the table, startled to see all these people here. “Should you attend Day Without Water?” His voice sounds like twigs snapped on a forest path. It pains Kelly to hear his voice crack. He puts his hand over the breadknife. How quickly can Kelly reach him if he weaponizes this utensil?
“What is Day Without Water?” one of the older women says at the end of the table. Out of touch, yes, just as Kelly suspected. Maybe she lives somewhere in the suburbs.
The eyes still on Max compel him to answer. “Day Without Water is an event that happens on the Maine State Pier every December.”
Penelope widens her eyes. “On Darren Stanford’s birthday, saints be praised.”
Max nods. “It’s a sort of festival. A winter festival. It used to be a Bloomsday sort of thing. Now, it’s more about buying local. Craft vendors and restaurants set up booths on the Maine State Pier. They screen movies. Bands play. It’s trying to approximate, say, the Old Port Festival, but smaller and during the winter instead.”
“It might be too cold for me now. Brrr.” Penelope rubs her own body, miming coldness for the benefit of—of whom, the hearing impaired?
“Yeah,” Max says. “But the organizers bring in heat lamps and tents with thermal insulation.”
“Basically,” Penelope adds, “Darren Stanford is the James Joyce of Portland. Pity I never read Ulysses. Did you?”
“No,” Max mutters, “but I saw the lm version from 1967, which Joseph Strick directed. Also, there’s John Huston’s The Dead, his final work, which is a more famous Joyce adaptation but, uh, still not very good. There’s something pretty untranslatable about Joyce into film. Huston has to remain faithful to the lack of dramatic tension that Joyce has in his story, but doesn’t get to utilize interiority in the way that Joyce does—not, at least, until the clunky final narration, which is pretty embarrassingly bad. I never much liked Huston anyway, though. The French didn’t like him either. The French critics, I mean, of Cahiers du Cinéma. They liked him even less than they liked the British directors, about whom Truffaut once famously wrote that the phrase British cinema was an oxymoron. So, um, yeah.”
Nobody moves, not even to sniff or to swallow. Leave it to Max to drain all the energy from the room. As though knowing this, he lowers his eyes again, like a machine that has served its function and, therefore, powers down.
To kill the silence, Kelly blurts out, “My brother’s really smart,” then has nothing else to add.
Penelope puts her arm around Max and jostles him for a second, during which Max keeps his eyes lowered. Is she teasing him? Kelly has no clue. Maybe Penelope has no clue either.
“Ms. Crookshank,” Penelope says, turning her attention toward the other end of the table, “do you remember how Max used to borrow film equipment from the yearbook staff?”
Crookshank nods, face hazy with memory. “Of course.”
“He used to borrow cameras, microphones, all that stuff. He was Deering’s resident movie guy. He’d seen everything.”
Garrett flinches. All this attention for Max, but none showered on Garrett. Poor, poor boy—look at him pout. Kelly forces as much wine down her throat as she can handle.
“So,” Penelope says, letting go of Max and looking at Garrett, her impromptu interviewer, “I suppose my schedule tomorrow—whether or not I attend the festivities—will depend on what Chelle says I can fit in. And what was the second part of your question?”
“Penelope,” Ghusson hisses, one last effort to stop what’s coming.
Garrett dabs his mouth with his napkin, even though he hasn’t eaten or drunk anything recently. “I was just wondering, since Ford Hunter is going to be at the festival tomorrow, if you were planning to, I dunno—”
“Confront him?” Penelope raises her eyebrows.
“No, no. Just more in the neighborhood of, um, what’s your take on his account of the making of Land Without Water?”
A laugh squeaks from between Penelope’s sealed lips. Prying them apart, she says, “Well, first of all, that question is syntactically confusing. Here at Deering, I learned very sharp skills of elocution and articulation—skills evidently lost on you.”
Maybe hoping to issue a lame self-defense, Garrett raises his hand.
The movie star steamrolls him, continuing: “Nevertheless, let me provide some context to those at the table who haven’t read Ford Hunter’s book.” Her audience—even the older people—rapt, she clears her throat as though preparing to deliver remarks at a high school debate tournament. “Among other things, Ford Hunter wrote, ‘Land Without Water’s ultimate greatness is a miracle considering the difficulty of working with Penelope. Her performance succeeds because Darren Stanford and I knew how to manipulate her into what was needed: the embodiment of beauty and transcendence, both of which she, as a human being, so clearly lacked. Now, she’s just another Hollywood bimbo who traffics in sexuality.’”
“Is that really a direct quote?” Mr. Wheeler asks from the other end of the table.
“But of course. I’m an actress. I learn my lines.”
Turning to Garrett now, Penelope’s eyes look wild. “These are the sorts of comments you’re asking me to respond to, the assumption therein being that some truth must exist to these comments, otherwise why would you ask me for a response?” Penelope becomes expansive in her gestures, winding her hands up, swinging them around. She knocks over what remains—not much, just a centimeter—of her wine and doesn’t seem to notice; instead, she points at Garrett. “When you ask that question, you give the benefit of the doubt to Ford Hunter. Sexism, pure and simple. I’m aghast. I mean, have you ever asked Ford Hunter to defend his book?”
Garrett shakes his head; his eyes dart around the table, maybe searching for succor. “I haven’t asked him anything. I’ve never met him.”
Probably an unfair amount of pent-up frustration has avalanched onto Garrett, but Kelly feels embarrassed that she brought this guy along—that people think she and he are dating. She wants to speak up before the disdainful glares turn away from Garrett and to Kelly instead. Never did she imagine how badly he’d muck up his opportunity.
“So,” Penelope says, ignoring Garrett’s meek response, “would I confront Ford Hunter? The answer is, I don’t know. How close would he be standing to the water and how many years in prison would I get if I drowned the little piece of excrement?”
“When we choose to dignify that book with a response, we’ll release a statement. If you repeat anything she just said”—Ghusson wags her finger in Garrett’s face—“I’ll be drowning you.”
“So tough! Ooh!” Penelope shivers comically, then rolls her eyes. “It’s just a movie. Max, you’re a cinema savant. What do you think of Land Without Water?”
Max stares at Penelope with lips pulled back, teeth slightly bared. Then he looks down.
Heat rushes Kelly’s neck and face. “Max,” she says, hoping this syllable—merely his name, grunted—will communicate everything she needs to: that he can’t pull his usual shit here, not only for his own sake, but for Kelly’s sake as well. Where’s that twin telepathy everyone al- ways mythologizes? Max’s fingers tap Morse code against the table. Everyone watches him, awaiting his answer. He squints as his fingertips dance. Kelly sees either fear or anger etched into her brother’s face.
Which would she prefer?
After a moment, he lifts his eyes again. “I dislike Land Without Water. Darren Stanford seemed obsessed with the construction of something hip and cool, but not something honest. I see none of The Sadness in his film.”
“Well, I thought it was very sad.” Someone at the table’s other end says this, but Kelly has no idea who: the older folk have all blurred together as wine and dread massage her temples.
Max puckers his lips but refrains from reaching for water or wine. Despite his discomfort, he says, “I didn’t mean sadness. I meant The Sadness.”
The elderly squint, puzzled, as though Max is an odd piece of hexagonal fruit placed on the table—a piece of fruit nobody knows how to eat. “I apologize. I’m not explaining myself well. I know I seem queer to you all, but I don’t have much practice talking to people. Sitting here is a little overwhelming—kind of like one of those films where everything blows up all the time.” Everyone chuckles. Everyone chuckles? The tension breaks. Kelly realizes that, at some point, she lifted herself an inch off her chair, ready to lunge. She lowers herself like an adulteress returning to bed at three in the morning, trying not to awaken her spouse.
“The Sadness,” Max goes on, “is a notion my mom had of what great cinema contains. It refers to something that’s off-screen, something in the soul of the director. Sometimes watching a film, it feels like the director was stranded on an island and starving and lonely and that cinema was his only way of escape. That’s The Sadness. And so the presence of The Sadness redeems some films that aren’t very well made, but its absence cripples some films that are. For example, David Lean’s films are impeccably made, but contain none of The Sadness and are therefore inferior to John Cassavetes’s films, which aren’t terribly professional but are drenched in The Sadness.”
The Sadness by Benjamin Rybeck
Published June 14, 2016
Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books and the Southern Review of Books. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.