LET THERE BE LIT

SPINAL SNAKES AND GLOBETROTTING TREES

Matt Lany and his brutal, but fun, process

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Matt Lany is versatile. While his new novel The Tree reads like split-personality magic realism, his new poetry collection bears the unforgettable name HeartCockVaginaMind, and his novel-in-progress, Transplant, comes close to autobiography, though it’s about a young man whose spine is ripped out and replaced with a live snake.

If you’re sitting across from him at Hovan Mediterranean Gourmet in Five Points, however, you may be surprised by how normal he seems. He’s here with his 11-year-old daughter Eloise and her friends, after coaching three Little League softball games. He’s sardonic, even snarky, but kind, all of which registers in his stubbly smile beneath his baseball cap.

So it makes sense that though his writing is brilliantly imaginative, the way he talks about writing makes it sound like he’s building toothpick houses.

“I scour every sentence,” he says, “repeatedly and compulsively.” His “hopeless pursuit of precision” makes writing “brutal,” though he also admits it’s “fun.”

The result of such intense commitment is having no doubt that the work is good, as long as he can make it to the finish line.

“I’ll admit when I’ve written crap, and The Tree isn’t crap,” he says. “I’d throw it in the ring with any work that’s won the Newbery.”

For almost a century, the prestigious Newbery Award has represented the best in American children’s literature, and though I agree with Lany’s self-assessment, The Tree is one of those rare books that can appeal to readers aged seven to 70.

It concerns a group of boys who enter a hole at the base of a tree — “The tree comes at night. No person sees. It’s always this way” — finding inside an alternative world, inhabited by surreal, slightly Dickensian characters, giant carnivorous worms, and a hierarchy of levels where the boys meet other versions of themselves.

The tree hyperlinks around the world, selects certain children, and introduces them to versions of themselves they’d rather not meet.

“A decision is stored in a prism,” says the final narrator of The Tree, “and the prism is filled with light that goes back through time to the very beginning of time. Sometimes there is no good guy. Sometimes there is no bad guy. Sometimes both are the same person.”

If Lany occasionally reads like Cormac McCarthy infused with Neil Gaiman, his 11-year-old daughter is partly to blame.

“She’s a reader,” he says, “probably because her mom and I are readers, and one of my joys is looking for books for her. Reading is a value, a moral in our household. And because I’m busy, I only have so much time to read, and because I love my kid, I read what she reads.”

Though Eloise has already read Stephen King’s 1,200-page epic The Stand, they’ve also read literary graphic novels together and hundreds of YA novels, like Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

Though The Tree is autobiographical according to Lany’s “tendency to look in the mirror and be baffled,” he’s hard at work on a first-person Cajun-gris gris fictional superhero memoir called Transplant. 

The novel is set deep in bayou country where, Lany says, he himself “fell in love with a real live Cajun woman,” to whom he’s been married for 15 years. The new work’s main character has his spine replaced with a snake.

Lany knows what that’s like. About 20 years ago, the lower part of his spine was crushed in a near-fatal car accident. Spinal fusion surgery, which connects vertebrae and makes motion between them impossible, probably saved his life in more ways than one.

“I have to think about the way I move and how I sit and sleep and what I lift and make sure I stay slim to keep pressure off my spine, but the procedure saved my life, because unrelenting and vicious physical pain can lead you to a place where suicide becomes a logical consideration, and I’ve been to that place,” he explains.

He’s left that place behind, but the protagonist of Transplant lives there, “the difference being” that, instead of spinal fusion, “his spine is ripped out and replaced with a live water moccasin.”

Lany’s fiction is both poetic and playful, but his poetry contains more outright humor.

“Quick Jack cums quick, like / a deadline, like the bang / of a starter’s pistol, like the flick / of shadow seen right before / a ninja’s knife finds the warlord’s neck.”

The title HeartCockVaginaMind plays on the American military strategy of “winning hearts and minds” but celebrates the fact that, at age 45, “it’s not wrong to want to have a nap instead of sex.”

The absurdist distinction in Matt Lany’s poetry owes much to its density.

“On the small stage where a poem resides, there’s a great opportunity to get at something very particular and peculiar via wordplay, tilt the camera a little, and be brazenly honest.”

So the poem “Late Friday Night and I’m Watching Cops Again” ends with taking stock, “20, maybe 25, more years / before I croak — everything / in its proper place / for now.”

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