Photo credit: Dan Eccles
On March 19, 1983, Colin Jones fought Milton McCrory for the WBC Welterweight championship in Reno, Nevada, where I grew up. I was 15 and kept a picture of Colin Jones by my bed. Next to him was an old newspaper clipping of John Steinbeck
, one of Springsteen
, and one of the cow-punk band Rank and File. Saints on my walls, hoping somehow they would save me or help me become more like them and less like me. I spent years in my room, lying in bed, listening to records, wishing I was a hero of the working class like Steinbeck, or writing great songs like Springsteen, or was tough like Colin Jones. But I was never tough or talented. I was just a good daydreamer.
From an early age I could disappear for hours at a time. I could be at school or with my mother and brother; I could even be talking with them and still not be there. I could disappear and live inside any TV show or movie I liked. It didn’t matter if it was good or not. I just joined up. At the time of the Jones vs. McCrory fight, the Thorn Birds
miniseries was on TV, and I was in love with Meggie Cleary. I would go to bed, put on Yes or Dire Straits records, and suddenly I was in the Australian outback and Meggie Cleary was in love with me and I knew how to do everything: fix cars, ride horses, do the books, cook, fly a plane, and be good in the sack.
But when I got up in the morning I was still stuck being me. My mom would stomp on the floor above my room to wake me up. If I didn’t get going she’d get mad: “Goddamn it, Will! I’m gonna be late for work!” She’d stomp more. I’d look at Colin Jones knowing he’d already be up. He was a Welshman who ran five miles to work, dug graves by hand all day, and then ran home, and in the evening trained. They said he hit harder than nearly anybody, and that one of his only faults was that he trained too hard. He worked too hard. That’s a saint.
Horace Hopper, in Don't Skip Out on Me
, comes out of all that. The idea of dreaming that you’re better than you are. The idea that you could be a champion of something. And by being a champion, you’re worth something. People will keep you around for a while if you’re a champion. Your family will put up with you and a woman might even go out with you. You’ll find acceptance. A home. But unlike me, Horace gets out of bed, runs the miles, and works out. He’s a broken man, but he tries in his own way not to be broken. He picks a bad plan to save himself, but he sticks to it the best he can. He tries. He’s another saint of mine.
But a novel is tricky thing. You think you control the world, you think you’re the king, but the characters take over.
I had the clipping of Colin Jones by my bed for at least three moves, until I was in my early 20s. Then, somehow, his clipping went missing, along with Steinbeck’s and a photo of Dwight Yoakum with his arm around my mom. A manila envelope full of pictures gone. But I replaced them. I had a picture of the actress Myrna Loy, one of Maria McKee from the band Lone Justice, and various pictures of Hollywood cowboys, including Ben Johnson.
I was older, sure, but still I’d lie in bed and daydream. I would be with Mryna Loy and we lived on a ranch in Nevada. I was like Ben Johnson. I knew everything about horses, I never got hangovers, I wasn’t insecure, I built Myrna a house, I invented things, I stood up to the forces of evil, we had a hot spring, we had kids, we had money, I’d get in fights but I’d always win, I’d save kids who got lost in the wilderness, I’d have crazy old miners as drinking buddies, and always at the end of a hard day Mryna would be there, a fire in the fireplace, an apple pie, and we’d end up naked listening to records and drinking beer.
That’s where the character of Mr. Reese comes from. The dream of being unbroken. The idea that you could be a man who stands up for what he believes in, who won’t run away when scared, who won’t give up easily, who won’t live in bed listening to records or letting his life pass by in a daydream. Unlike Horace, Mr. Reese isn’t trying to fill in a hole in himself. He isn’t burdened by self-hatred and shame and the constant fear of abandonment. He wasn’t broken as a kid like Horace. He’s just a man who tries his best to love the people close to him, to work hard, and to be honest and decent in an unforgiving world.
In writing novels, I always want characters like Mr. Reese to save characters like Horace. I’m always after that idea of saving and being saved. And I also hope that if I write about people like Mr. Reese, he’ll rub off on me. Because I’m a lot like Horace. But a novel is tricky thing. You think you control the world, you think you’re the king, but the characters take over — meaning your real heart takes over. And my real heart ain’t easy. I start out with the dream of being a boxing champion like Colin Jones, but then my real heart brings in the actual punishment. My real heart puts my favorite things in a boxing ring, and in a boxing ring people get beat up, people lose, only a few ever seem to win, and no one gets out unscathed.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of The Free
, Lean on Pete
, The Motel Life
, and Don't Skip Out on Me
. He is the singer and songwriter of the band Richmond Fontaine and a member of the band The Delines. He lives outside Portland, Oregon.