JM Holmes’ first book, How Are You Going to Save Yourself, is a blistering collection of linked stories about four friends struggling with the burdens placed on them by society, their families, and their history. But growing up in Rhode Island, Holmes wasn’t thinking about publishing books.
“I grew up rapping freestyle,” Holmes says. “All my friends were kind of doing the same thing and that was one of our access points to literature.”
And then, at a show in Providence, a close (and very honest) friend changed his life. “One day we were quoting tracks and my friend said, ‘You don’t have the charisma to do this. You should do something else,’ ” Holmes says with a laugh. “The words were harsh but they made me think about what part of this process I like the most and that was putting the words together.”
Along the way Holmes experimented with fantasy literature and poetry before starting to write short stories at Amherst College while studying with Amity Gaige. The bulk of the stories in How Are You Going to Save Yourself were written at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The stories cover a decade in the lives of four friends: Gio, Dub, Rolls, and Rye. We follow them from their brash, confrontational teenage years in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to a search for identity and stability in their late twenties. Gio, a more bookish type whose pro-football playing father named him after James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, narrates most of these stories.
Holmes isn’t afraid to poke and prod at the tortured heart of class and race in America. In “Toll for the Passengers” a group of drunk, white, and lost college kids crash an RV into a car in front of Dub’s house. The tense confrontation takes place completely inside the cramped quarters of the RV as Gio watches his old friends and distant cousins try to draw a “toll” from the intruders.
The brilliance of the stories comes from watching the characters spiral towards a self-destruction and violence both tragic and inevitable. Society has conditioned these men to not back down or show weakness, so when a situation becomes charged there’s only one way out.
In “The Legend of Lonnie Lion,” Gio wants to get a Baldwin quote tattooed on his chest: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” In many ways, this could be the collection’s subtitle. But Gio never gets his tattoo. The people he’s there with don’t get it and they make fun of him. Like so many of these characters, he settles for something he doesn’t really want.
Holmes admits it’s a dark book but he also knows it’s a real book with true characters. “A lot of the stories flow to the horrific end point, but they all felt real to me, so I didn’t want to sugar coat or water down anything.”
When reading these stories, it’s clear that Holmes never shocks or uses violence gratuitously. “I wouldn’t want to put [a story] out there if nothing was gained. Whether it’s real or not, authentic or inauthentic, there’s no point. It’s just triggering or traumatic for no reason.” Holmes says. “With these difficult stories I hope something is gained. I hope people are learning to be patient, to take the time, and not put it down.”
Holmes has moved on to a novel that’s shaping into something quite different from his debut.
“My novel’s weird. Dystopian, alternate reality,” Holmes says. “I love any situation that has the capacity to test humans. [Science fiction] is steroids for literature. It puts human beings in high pressure situations. It’s a lot different from the stories, a lot more fun, but the world building is difficult.”
Holmes knows he needed to get these stories out of him, but he sounds relieved to be moving on. “[Now] when I sit down to write, it’s none of the cathartic, emotional heartbreak of the stories.”
Richard Z Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His fiction, essays, and reviews are widely published. He is working on his second novel.