Christopher Shinn, second from left
In 1999, I received what was probably the most devastating email or letter of my life. It came from a stranger.
I’m interviewing that person, live, for an hour, today.
The writer of the email was enraged by something I’d written. Ironically, the thing that made him really mad had been edited into the piece by David Eggers without my foreknowledge. Beyond that, however, lay a craggy jigsawed coastline of longstanding contempt. Nothing new there. Animadversion is written into my life contract. But this writer was a playwright with a special gift for seeing into people. In his denunciation of me, he scraped at the rawest nerves of my soul, the infected splinters of self-doubt and self-loathing that I normally reserved for 3 a.m. sessions of miserable introspection.
In the worst possible way, I felt understood.
Getting angry was’t even an option. He was, from my jaundiced perspective, too right about me. And it was clear that he had grown up in the Hartford area, smart, sensitive, aspiring. I stood in his mind for all the stifling complacency and mediocrity he had rejected. It was an odd sensation, to feel so deeply wounded and so admiring in the same moment.
I looked up his New York City number and called it. I got a machine
“Hi. This is Colin McEnroe. I got your email. What did I ever do to you?”
Within 24 hours, I got a second email. “Imagine my loathing when I heard your voice …” it began.
I think I giggled then. I giggle now. I have been deeply hated by simpletons, but this was my first experience of being despised by somebody estimable. It was kind of thrilling. By then I had looked him up. He truly was an emerging, significant young playwright. He was, as he pointed out to me, welcome in the kinds of New York literary salons I probably dreamed of visiting. I was, he implied, the sarcastic nobody leaning against the gymnasium wall, making fun of the classmates dancing. He and Dale Peck, by contrast, were tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.
What really bugged him was a joke about Dale Peck in my piece. The original joke had been about David Foster Wallace. (But it wasn’t really a joke about Wallace. It was a joke about how Michiko Kakutani might feel about Wallace.) I assumed Eggers changed the joke out of friendship with Wallace, although in retrospect he may also have been feeling protective. Wallace allegedly wept for a whole day over one paragraph in a not-all-that-negative Kakutani review of his first book. I didn’t like the choice of Peck who was a little too obscure and way too easy a target. (Hating on Peck had become an industry among certain New York cognoscenti.) As the kid leaning against the gym wall, the only shred of honor I could cling to involved making jokes about the school’s star quarterback (Wallace), not some lesser divinity. Anyway, there was no point in complaining because by that time the piece really had become a cult phenomenon. I read in one magazine that “Colin McEnroe” might be an Eggers nom de plume, because really, how plausible was it that some nobody had written this? (Which kind of drives home one of the points of my emailer.)
I get why that joke, specifically, bothered Christopher Shinn so much. He felt privileged to know and befriend Dale Peck. And now this vacuous and forgettable annoyance from his hometown, a Ron Burgundy with Ivy League pretensions, had rabbit-punched him. I would point out, in a puny caviling way, that one of the virtues of being a small town nobody is that you CAN make jokes about giants like Wallace without worrying that you’ll run into them somewhere. Terry Gross recently asked John Oliver if it would be awkward to be at a party with Sting, whom Oliver had casually and hilariously stung. Oliver said the whole point, in his profession, was never to be at a party with Sting.
I wish I had the emails. I saved them for a long time. They were really great, and I have watched Shinn’s rise with an enjoyment fueled by being a very minor Aguecheekian character in his Dramatis Personae. Once, when I was still on WTIC, where takedowns of me were a huge hit with the audience, I tried through an intermediary to get him to be on the show and speak to me as he had in the emails. It didn’t happen. One day he friended me on Facebook. “I thought you hated my guts,” I wrote back. That was ages ago, he replied.
And it was. Especially for him. He almost died in the intervening years. And he solidified his position as playwright to be reckoned with. He’s back in Hartford, rocking Yard Goats regalia and pretty clearly enjoying his visits to old haunts. I am one of those haunts, and today, he will visit me.