In June, Noah Cicero came to New York to read at KGB Bar from the rough manuscript of his new novel, The Insurgent. Another novel, The Human War, was just released in the U.K. by Snowbooks and sold to publishers in Greece and Germany, so Cicero arrived in uncharacteristically high spirits, despite having just driven nine hours from Youngstown, Ohio, where he works as a dishwasher at Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon.
The KGB reading was hosted by 3:AM Magazine ("Whatever it is, we're against it") and included several other young writers, among them Zachary German and Tony O'Neill. Cicero read last, the prime slot of the evening. Before a crowd of about 40 people, Cicero read a stream-of-consciousness rant by an Iraq veteran who, having returned to his rural home, rages that the experience of battle turned him into a "Cho" -- referring to Cho Seung-hui -- and fervently opines that "being shot at is my least favorite thing to do." The audience seemed pleased.
Cicero, 26, is burly and unshaven, with a madman's halo of wavy, golden-brown hair. His voice is high, harsh, and reedy, and it trembled with agitation as he read. Once he sat down again, a pretty brunette girl dressed in tight, low-waisted jeans leaned over with an excited grin and whispered something in his ear. She was a fan of his writing and had contacted him on MySpace a week earlier. He was grinning a little, too.
Cicero rarely meets his readership, even the pretty brunette contingent, because it's expensive for him to travel. In Youngstown, a city flanked by the hulking ruins of steel mills, he earns $7 an hour washing dishes at Lone Star. His car is 17-years-old, and the house he shares with Bernice Mullins, a dancer at the nearby Lampost Lounge, has a total of three rooms. Sartre, Mailer, and Erskine Caldwell paperbacks are stacked on most available surfaces, and a handwritten version of Wittgenstein's Tractatus ("7. Of what we cannot speak we must be silent") is tacked to the wall. There's also a shrine -- it's Bernice's -- of memorabilia from Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Over breakfast at the nearby Yankee Kitchen ("The hamburger place famous for its eggs," according to the menu), Cicero ate a bacon cheeseburger and described his career goals as a writer. "Ideally, I'll get a little money from the books, maybe get a teaching thing somewhere. Bernice'll eventually manage the Lampost and with that money we'd be able to move out West after a few years." He pointed to a pale young woman walking out of the restaurant. "If you talk to that girl for five minutes, she offers to send naked pictures of herself to your cell phone. She's real lonely."
Like most authors who publish on independent presses, Cicero earns virtually nothing from his books. "I don't know how to get that Foer money," he says. He'll get a small sum from The Human War's European advances, but nothing from its U.S. publication by Fugue State Press, and he published a recent novella, Treatise, via the print-on-demand site Lulu.com, where it's also available for free download because he specified that he didn't want to receive proceeds from its sales. The publication of another book, Burning Babies, was canceled after Cicero stopped getting along with its would-be publisher.
Burning Babies opens with a young man killing himself in a van by the side of the road; it's a thinly fictionalized account of the suicide of Cicero's older brother, Michael. After Michael's death, Cicero stopped speaking to his parents, who he felt had treated his brother poorly. He hasn't spoken to them in three years, but we drove past their house several times when I visited Cicero in Youngstown. "Look, the driveway's empty," Cicero said. "We should break in and I'll get my brother's things."
Leaving Youngstown -- going west, to a state with more open spaces and, most importantly, fewer people -- is a theme in Cicero's conversations. He has few good memories of his hometown. When he was 12, he went swimming in nearby Mosquito Lake and got spinal meningitis "from the geese shit." Later, working in a plant that manufactured beer cans, he was bitten on the chest by a brown recluse.
There are strip clubs in Youngstown like the Lampost Lounge, however, where a lapdance costs five dollars. That makes the nights -- the nights he isn't sitting at home writing or working in the kitchen at Lone Star -- a tad more tolerable. Leaving his house after dark on our way to the Lampost, I asked why he'd left the light on and the front door open. Wasn't he worried about being robbed?
"If the door's open, they'd think somebody's home," he said. "Anyway, the only thing in there worth stealing is the Nightmare Before Christmas stuff, and they wouldn't know to take that. It's actually worth a couple thousand dollars. There's a whole big culture of people who collect it."
Why would anyone collect Nightmare Before Christmas memorabilia?
He shrugs. "I don't know. People gotta do something. They're not reading non-genre fiction, that's for sure."