Authors: Dave Reidy
PRAISE FOR THE VOICEOVER ARTIST
The Voiceover Artist
connects a community of disparate Chicagoansârising stars and fading elderly, drunks and dreamers, performers and mutesâwho yearn to find their voices and prove their value to the world. In a chain of intimate, first-person narratives, each character takes a turn at the microphone, confessing to the reader the secrets that separate them from the people they love.
The Voiceover Artist
is a compelling and unforgettable exploration of the power of the human voice and the human heart.”
“With this voice-driven (literally) novel about a young man (literally) finding his voice, Dave Reidy moves into the front ranks of Chicago writers, Catholic writers, writers about stuttering, and writers about sibling rivalry: a list that will give you some idea of his range and literary ranginess.
The Voiceover Artist
is winning, smart, and generous.”
TWO-TIME PEN/FAULKNER AWARD FINALIST AND AUTHOR OF
THE TWO HOTEL FRANCFORTS: A NOVEL
“I often wonder what happens in a person's life to change him from a boy to a man. But brothers don't change from a brother into something else. They remain brothers. As a man, being and having a brother might start to feel claustrophobic. No way out. Dave Reidy's
The Voiceover Artist
examines this from every angle. This novel is brotherhood, is boyhood, is manhood. How poignant that these characters are searching for their voices while attempting to use these voices to make a living. There is family, life, raw realness to be found in their father's stutter, in their jealousy and love for each other, in every word of Reidy's book.”
The Voiceover Artist
is tender and beguiling. It is a wonderful story, told with artful directness about family, faith, forgiveness, and the large human struggle we all face to find our true voice.”
AUTHOR OF TEN BEST-SELLING WORKS OF FICTION, INCLUDING
“My first thought picking this book up was what if Binx Bolling [of Walker Percy's
] were really Catholic and winds up not glib in New Orleans but stuttering in Chicago? This is a completely errant, if not arrant, idea.
The Voiceover Artist
is a broad, ambitious, multifaceted, exacting set of portraits of some very twisted folk. They are their own analysts, viciously jockeying to win. Mr. Reidy can be frightening.”
WHITING AWARD WINNER AND AUTHOR OF SIX NOVELS, INCLUDING
YOU & ME
“Woven into the middle of this captivating story is the most accurate depiction of the Chicago improv world that I've ever read. When you open
The Voiceover Artist
, you can smell the stale beer and hear the clever quips.”
CO-CREATOR AND CO-STAR OF THE COMEDY CENTRAL SERIES
KEY & PEELE
“Rich and varied . . . an energetic parade of characters and voices . . . ”
“Moving and honest. [ . . . ] The love-hate relationship between Simon and Connor is a stirring depiction of a troubled sibling bond.”
Curbside Splendor Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except in the case of short passages quoted in reviews.
The stories contained herein are works of fiction. All incidents, situations, institutions, governments, and people are fictional and any similarity to characters or persons living or dead is strictly coincidental. Any views and opinions expressed in this book do not necessarily reflect the views of closerlook, inc. or its employees.
Published by Curbside Splendor Publishing, Inc., Chicago, Illinois in
by Dave Reidy
Library of Congress Control Number:
Edited by Gretchen Kalwinski
Designed by Alban Fischer
Manufactured in the United States of America.
“ . . . what true intimacy entails: supreme attunement alternating with
THE NEW YORKER
SEPTEMBER 13, 2010
BEHIND A DOOR
Â I'd closed against a father who wasn't home yet and the wintry draft seeping through the living room window, I sat on my bedâmy childhood bed, though I was twenty-four years old by thenâlistening to a clock radio, waiting to hear the right word. What I heard first was the voice of Larry Sellers, a man I considered a better friend to me than my brother ever would be.
From the age of thirteen, I'd devoured Larry's masterful renditions of the bargains to be found in my grocer's freezerâa twenty-count box of Van de Kamp's fish sticks on sale for three ninety-nine, or Dole Fruit and Juice bars for eighty-nine cents a pieceâbut his run as the voice of Jewel Foods had ended two years ago, and I hadn't heard much of Larry on the radio since then. As he called my attention to the Winter
Sales Event at Peoria's Prairie State Chevrolet, I heard the excess weight in his jowls and detected some shortness of breath, but Larry's voice was still a flawless instrument. I closed my eyes, immersing myself in the warmth of Larry's sonorous performance and floating over the waves of its subtly rhythmic rising and falling.
And then Larry Sellers said the right word: “Financing.”
I wasn't in the market for a car loan, so the tingling that climbed the back of my neck had nothing to do with zero-percent rates. The rightness of “financing” lay in its linguistics. “F” was a fricative. A fricative would do the trick.
I slid a greasy fingernail into a ridge on the volume dial and spun it toward me until it clicked. Radio off. I sat in the silence I'd made, a silence that was mine to break.
I pulled in my lower lip. The chapped skin adhered to the ridge of my upper teeth. I drew a breath through my nostrils. Then I forced air against the lip and the teeth, and at the mere thought of voicing the word's first vowel, my esophagus clenched in a wrenching seizure. What air I could snatch was quickly released in frantic nasal snorts. I could have strummed the tendons in my neck like the strings of a lyre. It went on, this strangulation from the inside, for more than two minutes.
When it was over, I triggered it again.
So commenced the processâwho could have known how long it would take?âof using the convulsive power of my stutter to jolt my vocal folds from the atrophy that set in seven months after I went silent as a seven-year-old boy. Once the heavy chain that choked and tethered me, my stutter had become the key to my finding a place in the worldâoutside of this child's room, far from this motherless, brotherless house, and maybe, incomprehensibly, on the radio, among the voices who'd kept me company throughout eighteen years of speechlessness.
Even then, I understood that my stutter and I would not go on exploiting one another so productively. Long after outliving its utility to anything other than itself, the stutter would be at my throat, awaiting any opportunity to take its sadistic pleasure at the expense of everything that mattered to me.
I HAD NEVER
done a studio session. I didn't have an agent. I'd started speaking again only three years before. But I already thought of myself as a voiceover artist. Five months after croaking the word that broke my lengthy silence, I decided that telling myself I am something moreâand then working to make a truth of that lieâgave me my only hope of ever pulling even with my brother.
In an attempt to nudge my self-conception closer to reality, I volunteered, a couple of weeks after moving (alone) to Chicago in early June
, to serve as a lector at St. Asella's, a church a few blocks from my apartment. I supposed that reading scripture aloud before strangers, with no opportunity for a re-take and no engineer to touch up my mistakes, would help to prepare me for the first time I'd step into a sound booth in a professional studio. And St. Asella's, in its summertime desperation for able-voiced volunteers, required no audition, only a stand-here-sit-there training session with a weary liturgical minister and a signed (though unenforceable) commitment to lector weekly through Christmas. So it was that I first found myself lifting a Book of Gospels above my head of straight, dull brown hair and following two altar servers down a church's center aisle to provoke in public the stutter that had prolonged, by many years, the silence I'd chosen as a seven-year-old boy.
The enormous pipe organ boomed in the church's choir loft, which was empty except for the organist. Sunday mass at a thriving parish might have featured a cantor, who would lead the assembled in song. It seemed that someone at St. Asella's had decided to drown out the few singing voices in its anemic congregation. As I walked, I took a waggle: four noiseless, almost imperceptible, lateral shakes of the head where it meets the neck. While rebuilding my voice three years before, I'd discovered that a waggle could ward off the tension that incessantly besieged my vocal folds. In large part because I took waggles whenever I needed them, hiding them, when I could, in a glance at a clock or behind the thoughtful expression of a person solving an equation in his head, I had not suffered a stuttering fit since May
âtwo years, one month and two days before this first attempt at lectoring. I marked the time from my most recent fit as a recovering alcoholic counted the days from her last drink. Why shouldn't I? Stuttering, like alcoholism, is a diseaseâmy father suffered from both conditionsâand neither has a sure-fire cure. And just as the urge to drink might clamor a little louder in a stressful situation, so my stutter's grip tightens when I become even a little anxious. As I marched toward the front of that church, the prospect of reading aloud in front of people was only the second most upsetting thing on my mind, so my stutter was giving my waggles all they could handle.
The day beforeâthe last Saturday in Juneâa pale yellow envelope with a Brooklyn return address had arrived in the mail. Enclosed with a note on heavy, artisanal card stock was a check for $
, the amount I had loaned to Brittany, my (former) girlfriend, to pay for the emergency extraction of her wisdom teeth.
Brittany and I had made plans to move to Chicago together after we left Southern Illinois University as undistinguished members of the
graduating class. Then, at the end of April, just a month before graduation, Brittany told me that she had changed her mind: she would not be moving with me.
I had not seen this coming.
My career prospectsâa voiceover artist with a stutter: it doesn't look promisingâwere one of about thirty potential reasons Brittany would not join me in relocating from downstate Carbondale to Chicago. But the reasons she gave me that day were about Chicago itself: the cold winters, the city's distance from her mother's home in Delaware, and the limited market for rare books, the treasures it was her dream to buy and sell for a living. When I asked where she wanted to go instead, she said she didn't know. Eventually, I understood that wherever Brittany Case was going, I was not welcome.
For the better part of a month, I'd been holding out hope that Brittany would find her new city of residence, Brooklyn, as lonely as I'd found Chicago and change her mind again. Unless she'd found a job or sold a very rare book, the check suggested that Brittany had decided it was worth the financial and emotional cost of dipping further into her trust fundâthe same fund her father was doing time in a federal penitentiary for having nearly emptiedâto sever the final tie between us.
The note said only, “Hope you're doing well, Simon. Britt.”
I had never called her Britt. Not once. The note's signature hurt more than the check did.
As I relived this moment from the day beforeâthe moment I realized Brittany was never moving to Chicagoâjust minutes before I was to read Bible stories to the parishioners of St. Asella's, I felt the slipknot around my vocal folds drawing tighter.
At the edge of the sanctuary, I bowed from the waist before the altar, sneaking a waggle on the way down. Then I walked around to the altar's congregation-facing side and placed the tall, red Book of Gospels on the wooden table. I stepped back to accommodate the heft of Fr. James Dunne, the parish's pastor and only priest. As he leaned forward to kiss the altar, I passed through the sanctuary and took the seat reserved for the lector, in the front pew on the left-hand side of the center aisle.
The organist held the final chord of the opening song for several measures and cut it abruptly. Fr. Dunne blessed and greeted the assembled. With my body angled toward the center of the altar, I stole glances at the people around and behind me. Near the front of the dimly lit nave, but not sitting together, were two African-American women dressed in skirt suits and broad-rimmed summer hats. In the front two rows of the narrower pews on the far right side stood six Filipina women of middle age. One of the women held her hands to her chin, the beaded string of a rosary interlaced with her fingers. There were a few older couples whose wealth was visible in their health-club vigor and the quality of their casual weekend clothes. A handful of younger adults, most of them women, sat further back, no closer than the middle rows. I counted five people who looked to be homeless in the last few pews, far behind the Filipinas. Despite the summer heat, one of the homeless women wore a heavy overcoat, and a navy stocking cap pulled low over her eyes. Her cheeks had baked to a deep, brick red in the sun.
The cover of the weekly bulletin I had scanned at the back of the church noted, alongside a faded illustration of a porcelain-complected, heaven-gazing girl I assumed to be St. Asella, that the parish had been founded in 1907 by a small group of nuns dedicated to serving the local Italian immigrants. If the people of St. Asella's had once had everything in common, from homeland to employment prospects to holiday traditions, they did not seem to have much in common anymore.
As Fr. Dunne continued the opening prayer, an aged woman walked slowly up the right side aisle with a four-footed cane in her left hand. At first, I assumed that her gentle, close-lipped smile was a mask intended to conceal the aching pain in her hip or knee, or both. But I understood almost immediately after having it that my first impression was wrong. The woman's smile, I remember thinking, seemed to emanate from within her, an authentic expression of a grace and self-possession I had never possessed. Her husbandâthey both wore thin wedding bands of dull goldâtrailed her. Taking short, unsteady steps, he careened more than he walked, but covered ground no faster than his wife did. He held her elbow with his right hand until they reached the third-row pew. I guessed that this habit had been modified as age took its toll on the man's independence. He was still escorting his wife, but she was leadingÂ him.
Also among the assembled were the wraiths that had haunted almost every mass I had ever attended: solitary older men whose loneliness was visible in their wispy, unkempt hair, ill-fitting eyeglasses and ratty windbreakers. I wondered if the men had any family to visit or friends to meet at a diner or corner bar, or if the walk to Sunday mass was their only regular foray out of tiny, dirty apartments. Either way, I wished they had stayed home. They were what I would have been if I had never reclaimed my voice, and they reminded me that a person without relationships is alone, no matter how many people stand around him, no matter how trusty the radio in his bedroom. But forging a friendship with any of the strangers at St. Asella's seemed a remote and distasteful possibility. Only my belief that lectoring would prepare me to make the most of my first voiceover session compelled me to spend an hour in their presence.
At least they were strangers, though. There's something horrible in facing, when you're suffering, someone who really knows you. For a few moments a day, you might fool strangers and yourself that you're feeling better than you areâmaybe even doing well, considering the circumstancesâuntil you speak with someone who knows you and you hear the truth of your condition in their voice or see it in their eyes: you are not doing well. Not at all. What I wanted that Sunday was the comfort of being around someone who really knew me, without the aching pain of seeing myself as I was. I wanted the impossible. So it was just as well that my brother Connor, younger than me by two years and more charming and self-assured than I would ever be, had not returned the voice message I'd left more than a week before to tell him that I had made the move to Chicago but Brittany had not. Nothing he could have said or done would have helped much, anyway.
“Lord have mercy,” Fr. Dunne said.
The order of the liturgyâsomehow, I still knew it by heart from years of attending mass with my familyâcalled for communal repetition of the invocation, but the people of St. Asella's managed only an inarticulate murmur. I made no response at all.
“Christ have mercy,” said Fr. Dunne.
Without waiting for a reply he must have known would not come, Fr. Dunne finished the petitionâ“Lord have mercy,” he saidâand movedÂ on.
“Glory to God in the Highest.”
In response to the priest's prompt, a few voices rose above the congregation's murmuring, but each recited the
at its own pace, creating the effect of a tuneless song performed in an arrhythmic round.
I, too, said the words of the
, but I wasn't praying. I was preparingâtightly controlling the rate of my exhalation, using just enough breath to power my voice at what I guessed was the ideal volume for amplified public speaking, making it halfway through the prayer before inhaling again and waggling as I did so. Left unchecked by my waggles, the tension creeping around my vocal folds would paralyze them. But the paralysis would not become a full-blown fit unless I acted on the powerful but self-defeating instinct to force the folds open. If I did, my eyelids would flutter, and my chin would nod as if I were emphatically agreeing with something. These histrionics would pull my vocal folds apart for just a momentâlong enough to let out one gagging syllableâbefore the offending tension, fed by the stress and vigor of my effort, slammed them shut again.
Once a fit had started, no combination of mental and corporeal strength could budge the folds. They would remain fused together, despite my nodding and straining, until the tension receded of its own accord or the muscles of my esophagus were exhausted. Managing my stutter was a struggle not only with its symptoms, but against the fit-inducing quack cure I reflexively wanted to provide. The waggles, for their part, were merely an as-needed preventative regimenâgenerally efficacious, but unpredictably impotent. I lived with the awareness that every word I uttered had the potential to bring me to a sudden, humiliatingÂ halt.
At the conclusion of the
, Fr. Dunne read a prayer with his palms turned up to a painted ceiling discolored by a century of incense and candle smoke, an image of Jesus being raised bodily to heaven while his disciples, emboldened by their awe, dared to look on. When the prayer was over, the focus of the mass would shift from the priest to me. I swallowed hard, a habit born of my childhood assumption that my stutter was triggered by mucus stuck in my windpipe.
“We ask this through Christ our Lord,” Fr. Dunne said.
As everyone else sat down on the hard, lacquered pews, I stepped into the center aisle and approached the altar. I stopped in front of it and bowed my head, as the liturgical coordinator had instructed, then entered the sanctuary and climbed three steps to the ambo. I found the lectionary as I'd left it twenty minutes before: open to the first passage, a red ribbon draped across the page as a bulwark against the movement of machine-chilled air. Lifting the ribbon and laying it on the facing page, I tried once more to repel the encroaching tension with a waggle. Then, taking in a breath, I began.
DURING THE EIGHTEEN
years I was unable to speak, I was certain that I'd need a voice to make myself understood. My mother had tried to get me to learn sign language along with her, but I wasn't having it. No one I knew spoke sign language. What good is it to speak a language that no one you know understands? I had gestures, of courseâfurrowed brows and puppy-dog eyes, headshakes and nodsâbut these were blunt instruments. I would need a voice, and the colors and tones my voiceover heroes gave to their words, to show the world who I really was and find my place in it.