As I sat in the dive bar outside of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, drinking a Bud Light while a certain Rooster played with his gun near the jukebox, I wondered if that was really what novelists did. The one-armed man next to me had finished his pack of cigarettes and was looking at me as if I too could be flammable. It was 7 p.m. on a Wednesday. I cleared my throat and asked, “Can I put something on the jukebox?” The whole room froze around me.
I don’t know where romances come from, but I know where they happen: in places of perplexity and unease. While preparing my last, Less is lost, I asked myself: What is confusing me? What am I afraid of? The answer came, spelled out like blocks of the alphabet: ALABAMA. I had never really visited the South, even though that’s where my family is from. They are long gone. My mom, who in college had to wear long gloves on Sundays, is now a retired lesbian chemist in San Rafael, California. My father has lost all trace of his Kentucky accent, and the many foreign languages he speaks camouflage him in strangeness; some people assume he is Norwegian. I never knew the South, and after the 2016 election it became a bigger mystery. So I rented an RV in Atlanta and zigzagged through the cotton and sugar cane fields. I had two rules: I could only visit small towns and I had to sit at the bar. And I took notes.
The notes were hardly a novel: tombstones in a hunting dog graveyard, long-haired musicians playing Tams in Natchez, RV parks warning of alligators in the bayou or “critters” in the woods, many of them with managers who asked me where I was from. When I told them Maryland, they frowned and said, “Now, from your accent, I thought you were Norwegian.” My fake southern accent didn’t fool anyone. The Oakley glasses I bought at Walmart haven’t fooled anyone. They all knew I wasn’t from there and they all knew I was gay. No one threatened me, but after all, I was middle-aged, male, and white. I bought rounds of beers and put music on the jukebox. When asked, I danced to the Tams. I called everyone sir or madam.
This article originally appeared in the SEPTEMBER 2022 issue of Esquire
At this bar next to Muscle Shoals, I picked a song and bought a penguin beer. I heard his story. I left when Rooster ordered more shots; I left before things got out of control. In the RV park, I stared in terror at the gator river. I was up all night listening to critters. In the morning, I had my novel, a comic novel. The comedy was not about the inhabitants of this bar, of course. It wasn’t about my family or an RV or the election. Somehow I had to come all this way to find out that the comedy was about a middle-aged, gay, somewhat Norwegian man wandering down South. The comedy of my own expectations, mistakes and bewilderment. The comedy was always, always about me.
Andrew Sean Greer is the best-selling author of six works of fiction, including the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner Less.