St. Louis Serenade: Seven years in the making, Kyle Beachy's debut novel is a love letter to the Gateway City

Feb 4, 2009 at 4:00 am

On a snowy January afternoon in Manhattan, Kyle Beachy is on the prowl for rare books. In New York to visit his girlfriend, the St. Louis-bred novelist stops into Left Bank Books, a cluttered West Village hole in the wall. Unlike the unaffiliated St. Louis shop of the same name, this store is piled to the ceiling with hard-to-find tomes. Beachy makes a beeline for an enclosed case and emerges with a pair of Don DeLillo hardbacks.

"This is a really stupid hobby to get into, collecting first editions," he says, showing off a blue-jacketed copy of Ratner's Star that sells for $45. Pointing to the back cover of the 1982 novel The Names, Beachy marvels at the photo of the bearded, sage-looking author, whose work Beachy is teaching this semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "I have no money," he adds, "but I'm such a sucker for DeLillo."

He plunks down his credit card and walks out, feeling satisfied though a little guilty. "I guess I just won't eat for a few days," he later writes on his blog. When we meet again the following week for a beer in Brooklyn, he sheepishly takes a phone call from his house cleaner and then practically apologizes for enlisting one. "I don't have cable," he notes, referring to his two-bedroom condo in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood.

The 30-year-old Beachy, who grew up in Ladue and Olivette, wears the boyish good looks of ER's Noah Wyle. On this winter day, he's dressed stylishly in a cowboy-style snap shirt rolled up to his elbows and brown skate shoes. He wears a thin layer of stubble with his glasses perched on his forehead. Though eloquent and quick with a joke, Beachy is often distinctly self-conscious, especially when it comes to the subject of his childhood privilege. "I don't think people have given me a fraction of the shit I've given myself for it," he notes.

The burden of wealth is a central theme in Beachy's debut novel, The Slide, published last month as a paperback original by Random House — and to critical acclaim. From Entertainment Weekly to Publishers Weekly, the book has drawn raves, with Booklist asserting that Beachy "perfectly captures the brain-fogging mugginess of summer in the Midwest and the quarry-deep reticence of midwesterners in a funny and endearing novel...."

Best-selling author James McManus called the novel's protagonist, Potter Mays, "the most ethical sexual deviant this side of Portnoy — or Hamlet." ("I think to put Potter's name anywhere within twenty miles of those characters is outrageously complimentary," responds Beachy.)

Something of a love letter to St. Louis, The Slide features nostalgic scenes set around town. At Fair Saint Louis, men wear "Blues hockey jerseys and jean shorts" and smoke menthols, while at the erstwhile Creve Coeur disco Baja Beach Club, Jägermeister shots are "passed from adults to children." Beachy's characters visit Mike Shannon's Steaks & Seafood, the Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium.

In one particularly memorable scene, Potter journeys to Maplewood's Deer Creek Park with his jailbait-next-door neighbor Zoe Hoyne, where they ride the rocket slide. At the top of the slide's highest ramp, he says to her:

"I'm embarrassed to say how long it took me to get the nerve to go down this thing. I had no problem with the medium one, which is actually steeper and faster than this one. I think it was the darkness that scared me. The tunnel curves around the pole so you have no idea where you're going once you're in. Jesus, it used to scare me."

"There's definitely a metaphor there. Scared of the dark future." She patted my elbow.

"You're not allowed to patronize me."

"Oh no. I'm with you on the scariness thing. If the hot older neighbor is scared, I'm petrified."

The book is a coming-of-age saga that shares thematic elements with The Graduate and the writings of Nick Hornby. More than seven years in the making, it is loosely based on Beachy's 2001 post-college summer. The 22-year-old Potter moves back to his parents' house, drives a water truck and roots hard for the Cardinals. (Although, unlike Beachy, Potter also befriends a fifth-grader, infiltrates a religious cult and talks to his dead younger brother.)

It's a spirited, oft-hilarious piece of fiction, and an unlikely achievement from a literary newcomer whose work was rejected precisely 117 times before he found an agent.

Beachy admits he "bawled like a little girl" when he finally found representation, but says he never lost hope. "I always had faith in it," he says. "If you shake something long enough, it eventually falls into place."

Kyle Beachy had a charmed upbringing in west St. Louis county. His father, Roger, was a Washington University biology professor whose work opened the doors for the first genetically modified food crop — a virus-resistant tomato — and who now heads the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. His mother, Terry, is a retired speech pathologist. Together they raised Kyle and his sister K.C. in a three-bedroom house on Godwin Lane in Ladue.

Beachy later moved to Olivette with his mother after his parents split up and graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School near the top of his class. Though he occasionally caused trouble by clowning around in history class or skateboarding recklessly, his teachers and parents adored him. "Kyle very seldom, if ever, disappointed us," says his father.

As a short, scrappy centerfielder, he hit .533 for the school baseball team his senior year, a record that stood until last season. "I didn't know he was going to be that good," recollects his old coach Jim Wolfe. "And then, boom, all of the sudden he was that good."

Beachy was a popular kid, frequenting posh parties at places like the Schnucks' Ladue home. Yes, those Schnucks. "Their pool house was two stories and Italian decorated, with archways and a statue in the pool," Beachy recalls. "I remember there were all these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds taking beer bongs."

He graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, California, in 2001, with degrees in philosophy and English, and returned to St. Louis to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. Though he had the transcript and test scores to pursue law or finance, those subjects aroused no passion in him.

Instead, he took a job delivering jugs of water for the Pine Valley Water Company and enrolled in a creative-writing class at Wash. U. That August he departed for Vail, Colorado, where he snowboarded, worked at a bookstore and devoured Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace novels. He also read Jonathan Franzen's new literary sensation, The Corrections.

"I admired the writing," he says of the Webster Groves native's 2001 opus, "but he wrote about my hometown in a way I didn't particularly like."

The Corrections' dysfunctional Lambert family hails from a fictional Midwestern city called St. Jude, a thinly veiled version of St. Louis that has been renamed for the patron saint of lost causes. The East Coast-transplanted Lambert children view it with varying degrees of contempt. Describing eldest son Gary's visit to the town's Museum of Transport, Franzen writes:

Oh, the sadness of the place! The earnest St. Judean rubes all around him seemed curious and undepressed. Happily filling their misshapen heads with facts. As if facts were going to save them! Not one other man with a decent haircut or an abdomen as flat as Gary's.[...]

[T]hey were all extremely deferential. They didn't jostle Gary or cut in front of him but waited until he'd drifted to the next exhibit. Then they gathered round and read and learned. God, he hated the Midwest!

Beachy says, "Because my experiences of returning to St. Louis were always meaningful — if not wonderful — it was frustrating that these characters didn't want to return there. St. Louis for me has always meant home. I had this feeling of, I want to undo this. I want to write the other side of this."

It was The Corrections that helped inspire Beachy to begin writing The Slide. Now more than seven years later, he teaches essay writing and literature at the Art Institute. But unlike the New York-residing Franzen, his hometown pride shines through in his writing. "He really likes the fact that he can call himself a New Yorker," Beachy says. "But I absolutely consider myself a St. Louisan."

Electing not to spend his days lounging by his friend Stuart's pool or in his parents' luxurious, oft-remodeled Ladue home, Potter Mays forces himself out of his comfort zone by taking a job as a water-delivery man.

Borrowing from Beachy's brief employment with Pine Valley, Potter pilots a rickety truck from north-city neighborhoods (full of children "clenching bright Popsicles that melted over their hands") to the distant south-county burg of Oakville, where houses are "low and wide and brick, with cramped yards and garages full of hardware and bed frames and garden hoses."

Here he encounters precocious eleven-year-old Ian Worpley, who lives in squalor without parental supervision for the summer. The pair strike up a friendship and journey to such spots as the Tower Tee batting cages and the Spirit of St. Louis Airport.

On a sojurn to Ted Drewes, Ian orders "an elaborate mixture of cinnamon custard and apple chunks and pie crust, cinnamon powder and a viscous brown topping" and announces that his mother has mysteriously moved out.

We drove back to Waldwich Drive listening to one of St. Louis' four classic-rock stations, songs filling what would otherwise have been a nauseating silence. Time was running out. I racked my brain for a fact, some niblet of wisdom to share with this kid whose mother had disappeared. One hundred twenty thousand dollars spent on my education — I should have facts to spare, wheelbarrows full of excess knowledge.

"I never met a problem frozen custard couldn't fix."

I heard the kid's laughter like a bag of popcorn, lighter than you expect. He laughed through the better part of the instrumental intro to Boston's "Foreplay/Longtime," then stopped abruptly and told me I was crazy.

Feeling a wave of empathy, Potter sets off in search of Ian's mother, planning to return her to him. The mission takes him to a religious cult in wine country. Things don't go as planned, but Potter hopes to atone for his privilege.

Beachy hoped to do the same thing — by dedicating himself to his writing. "The thing that frustrates me," he imparts, "is when people don't do something with their talent, their time and their financial opportunities."

Having decided that writing was a noble path, Beachy devoted his full energies to his novel after returning to St. Louis from Vail. Though The Slide's final version employs a straightforward first-person narrative, early incarnations of the book were messy and experimental, featuring multiple voices and borrowing heavily from author Thomas Pynchon.

"It had a very Pynchonesque manner, which at the time I thought important books did," Beachy recounts. "I wanted to write a very philosophically relevant post-modern novel about maturity and entertainment and 21st-century America," he goes on. "I was reluctant for a long time to accept that it was a love story."

Like Potter, Beachy spent many days contemplating what had gone wrong with a college girlfriend. "I think everyone at some point questions if monogamy is sustainable," he asserts, adding that he eventually realized the book's central question was: What is this word, "love"?

In the novel, Potter's girlfriend Audrey is summering in Europe with an attractive bisexual friend. She regularly sends him inscrutable packages, such as a starfish with its legs broken off.

Unable to determine if he's in love with her, he hires his friend Stuart Hurst — a wealthy and unemployed pothead who dubs himself an "Independent Thought Contractor" — to decide for him. Further muddying the waters, Potter becomes dangerously close with Zoe Hoyne, the Lolita-like sixteen-year-old next-door neighbor he's tutoring for the SATs.

Meanwhile, over beers and the Cardinals game at the Ladue restaurant Sportsman's Park, Potter's father awkwardly announces that he and Potter's mother are divorcing. (In yet another real-life parallel, Beachy's parents also broke up, though they remarried five years later.)

I felt two overwhelming desires. The first was to pay for this meal with money I had earned delivering water. The second was to get myself immediately and carelessly laid.

"This is going to sound horrible," I said when the waitress brought the bill. "I don't say this sort of thing ever."

"Right." She stuck both hands into her apron.

"Do I know you? You went to my high school."

"Don't think so."[...]

"My parents are getting a divorce," I said.

"Oh. Sorry. Do you need change?"

"Romantically, I was trying to figure out what I was doing," Beachy says. "I was at a place where I had just seen a relationship that was very important to me come to an end. I had watched my own parents get divorced.

"I wanted to write about a character in a time of turmoil — both in terms of love, and professionally. Periods of transition are periods of human drama. The book came from my own transition."

Beachy showed his manuscript to peers and teachers while earning his master's degree in creative writing at the Arts Institute. He didn't always appreciate their feedback. "There were times I felt like the book was done," Beachy says, "but they would say, 'You have a lot of work to do.' I would say, No, fuck it, I don't want to."

Still, he relentlessly pursued his book throughout grad school. "Ever since I've met him, he's always been working on this damn book," says his Chicago-based friend Dave Cohn, a rapper known as Serengeti. "He's real focused. There's no stirring him. You'll ask him to go out, and he's like, 'No, I gotta stay home and write.'"

Despite his best efforts, however, literary agents wouldn't bite, and without a literary agent it's extremely difficult to win a major publisher's interest. It didn't help that with only one short piece of fiction and a handful of articles to his credit, he was virtually unpublished. "They would say, 'I don't know how to sell it,' or, 'I don't think I'm the person to sell this,'" Beachy remembers.

Still, Beachy held out hope. "I had this idea that published authors attend either Iowa or Columbia and amass this collection of stories, and then suddenly have an agent and a book deal. I saw it as a world I was outside of, so that when I was facing rejection I had something to fight against."

In the fall of 2006, agent number 118, Jennifer de la Fuente, picked the book off of her slush pile. The San Diego-based agent fell in love with it and immediately called to offer representation. "I just felt this sense of relief. It felt completely real and wonderful," Beachy recalls, adding that he started crying on the subway. An old woman sitting nearby offered him a Kleenex.

"I thought his voice was so unique, so fresh and funny," effuses de la Fuente. "I love the Midwestern-ness of the novel, the salami sandwiches, the frozen custard. You can tell how much he loves his hometown."

After working with Beachy on an edit, she quickly sold the book to Random House imprint the Dial Press for a five-figure advance in January 2007. Remembers editor Noah Eaker: "I was laughing aloud from page one, which set the book apart immediately from most manuscripts that cross my desk."

As for the book's moniker: "We toyed with several titles, but in the end I wanted something compact with a meaning that could unfold as a reader became more familiar," writes Beachy in an e-mail. "A simple title. So many books recently have crammed all the hugeness they can into their titles, all the 'Heartbreak' and 'Beauty' and 'Wonder' and 'Glory' and 'Splendor' and so on."

Though thrilled about having the book published, Beachy doesn't see his struggle as an especially valiant one. "Yeah, I had my share of rejections," he admits, "but I haven't had a particularly hard existence. I didn't grow up as a child soldier and make it to America and share my story."

His words are eerily similar to Stuart Hurst's in The Slide, who explains to Potter that folks of their station shouldn't complain. "You and I don't live in Cambodia," Stuart says. "There aren't land mines in our backyards that could blow our limbs off every time we go out for a jog."

The Slide arrives at a perilous moment for the publishing industry. Reflecting widespread economic woes, book sales are down, and in November Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced a buying freeze on new manuscripts. Layoffs and corporate restructuring at companies, including Random House, followed.

Even in strong markets, quiet novels are often overshadowed by celebrity tell-alls, diet cookbooks and legal thrillers. So while Beachy is optimistic about his book's success, "whether it explodes in popularity or makes an impact on the circus of our culture, that's no longer up to me," he cautions.

He says economic realities and other factors played into the publisher's decision to release the book in paperback, but insists he's not disappointed. "It's a lot easier to push a $13 book on people than a $25 book," he says, "especially if nobody has heard of me before."

Beachy adds that his next book will involve "bones" and "skateboarding," though it's too early to say more than that. For now he's focused on his lit classes at the Art Institute, this semester teaching "Television, Trash, and Dread: Don DeLillo's America," and planning next year to add a course on David Foster Wallace's lengthy tome Infinite Jest.

Otherwise, his future's wide open. He has no plans to join his long-distance girlfriend in New York, partly because he's attached to his Art Institute gig and partly because he loves Chicago's proximity to his hometown. "I get to St. Louis often," he says. "It's only a five-hour drive — I can take my dog." (Whose name, by the way, is Lolita.)

"I can't think of anywhere I'd rather raise children," he continues. "I want to raise them where there's a value placed on being a good person — holding the door, saying 'hello' and 'thank you,' and blessing strangers when they sneeze. I just think that people who are raised in St. Louis are good people."

Unlike Jonathan Franzen's characters, however, when Kyle Beachy says such things, he means them as compliments.