Read the first chapter of The Tenderloin

24 June 2011

John Butler's The Tenderloin has been receiving some fantastic reviews from critics and readers alike. Find out what all the fuss is about by reading the first chapter here.

 

DECEMBER 1995

When I woke up in the trunk of Sam Couples’ latest Land Rover the damn thing was already moving, presumably being driven by the man himself. Using the corner of a picnic blanket I wiped encrusted spit from my chin and cheek.

At least the cops on a stakeout have the electro­prod of coffee and donuts, and guns to tool around with, and a good many of them are sober too. I am no cop, nor have I ever been. Earlier, at a celebratory barbecue in a technology start-up based at the foot of Telegraph Hill, the CEO, CFO and COO flipped meat for the minions and announced the news of our imminent IPO on the NASDAQ – you could not move in this town for acronyms. The cute inversion of hierarchy represented by bosses flipping burgers for their employees was more than a gesture for our benefit. In San Francisco, the meek were about to inherit the earth.
 How long had I been sleeping? Just then an electric gate opened and a car window buzzed back up. Ahh. Not long at all. We were just leaving the underground parking structure and now, finally, were on our way. At the beginning of the year, thanks to the man whose languid brown eyes could now be glimpsed in the rear-view and whose tanned right hand allowed the wheel to pass through it in a smooth and frictionless action, I had joined a team of desk-builders for minimum wage and had been induced to do so with a hypothetical bundle of stock – were we ever to go public. And even though I was just the runner, assembler of flat-pack furniture, fetcher of latte, sceptic, Luddite and rube, I too had been swept along in the gold rush. ForwardSlash was now ‘bleeding edge’, staff num­bers quickly swelling from twenty when I joined to four hundred and still counting; HTML coders, designers and ad sales men boarding our ship at a rate of fifty a week, and now that we had gone public, our ship had come in. Everyone’s ship had come in, it seemed. The harbour was jammed.
 The party had all the signifiers of vigour and success that you could have imagined: spirited foosball tourna­ments between ad sales men in chinos and twenty-one-year-old HTML waifs from France, blonde sales reps in corporate-slutty miniskirts, woollen tights and brogue­ish shoes, Pakistani Unix guys wearing ForwardSlash baseball caps, drinking Odwalla and plunging chips into salsa. I had chosen Sam to serve me because it had been quite some time since I had seen him on account of one thing and another, and we needed to talk. Standing out­side in line for my burger I clocked a ForwardSlash apron cinched around his waist. If a company’s success could be measured by the sheer breadth of their merchandising reach, with our aprons, Nerf balls and java jackets we were crushing them on this one. As I focused on the flames licking around the grate, Sam flipped a patty then saw it was for me.
 — There he is! Where have you been hiding?
 He held a burger out towards me with a warm, languorous smile that said, ‘Chill, brother. There’s no hierarchy in the end, because there’s no need – we have enough for everyone.’
 Right. I let him keep holding onto the sandwich while with one eye closed for accuracy I streaked mustard across the patty. Then, with the burger in both hands, I bowed deeply and backed away from him like a Japanese dignitary with a trophy, a priest with a host.
 Back indoors, leaning against an I-beam on the edge of the studio floor and watching as all around me cheeks flushed with alcohol, happiness and wealth, I was an auditor, able to see it for what it was and no more than that. They say money makes money, and apparently in a while our stock could split and without doing anything to earn it we would be rendered richer once again, and everyone appeared to believe this meant we were governed by free will. But that was nonsense. In the space of a year I had contrived to lose everything I held dear, and money couldn’t help me now. As euphoria spread across these faces, this city and the country itself, the wheat in my stomach fermented, and I felt ill. Money couldn’t get near the heart of the matter. Sam joined me, digging his arm into the cold icy depths of a bucket, his sleeve rolled up beyond the elbow like a farmhand’s.
 — Hey, why the long face?
 Right at that moment Hardy Townsend jumped onto a desk, holding the largest bottle of champagne I had ever seen, it too emblazoned with our company logo. Man, those branders didn’t miss a trick. I welcomed the interruption because even if I could have spoken it was clearly far too late for talking. Sam didn’t have a clue.
 — Can I have your attention? Ladies and Gentlemen!! Before we get into this whole deal, some housekeeping.
 Sam stopped digging, produced four beers, and whis­pered as he carried them away, his eyes on Hardy:
 — Remember we have options, Evan. We all have options.
 Easy for him to say.
 Our pressed, silky-fringed CEO held his arms out, begging for calm. He really liked to speak in public and every time he did so, it reminded me of Lord of the Flies and of tyrannical, youth-led regimes from history.
 — Okay, listen up everybody!! Dina, do we not have a mic? We don’t? That’s ridiculous. We need mics. I mean this is like a proper thing, so yeah, totally. Mics. Can you get on that? Okay. EVERYBODY!!!! Before I get started, if you see some guys in black suits around the building later, do not be alarmed. The President of the United States might be joining us for a drink. Yes, you heard me. Bill Clinton’s coming on over to congratulate us. Or Al Gore at least. So, ignore the Secret Service. And simmer down!  Attempt to be cool! I do not want a feeding frenzy around the President. Now, what else am I saying? Yes. As 1995 draws to a close, tonight is a celebration of us ooh . . . how shall I put it . . . nailing the hell out of our targets. So take a bow!
 Over the course of a year, we had worked ourselves into the ground, weeknights, weekend mornings and national holidays, and many now actually bowing before him had experienced first hand the volcanic temper of the thirty-three-year-old wunderkind standing above. Now though, emboldened by alcohol, the crowd was raucous, and its interaction with Hardy telling. Someone tried to interpret his perch high above us as a position of weak­ness and heckled from behind a hand, but either he didn’t hear, or managed to ignore it.
 — Lemme bust out some facts here, peeps. ForwardSlash has only been in existence for eighteen months and today we have four hundred employees and a publicly listed company. So yeah. Do the math! What a trip. And I wanna thank you all, from the lowest of the low, the people working in . . . I dunno, like, the mail room . . . to the journalists, reviewers, coders, sales and marketing people, research, TV and so on. Whatever. I promise I’ll stop talking soon and we can get back to the business of partying!
 A twerp whooped. Hardy dipped his head, steepled his hands and pretended to think.
 — We are in the future business. We look forward – it’s what we do, what we’re paid for. But sometimes, in this race into the future, people forget the importance of the past, and what the past can tell us. Now, as we approach 1996, I want you all to guard against complacency. An army general once said, ‘There are no extraordinary men, just great challenges, which ordinary men out of necessity are forced to meet.’ Okay, I’ll ’fess up, that was my great granddaddy! But he was right goddamnit. And I can think of some competitors that might have benefited from cracking a history book. You know what I’m sayin’?
 Hardy’s feet were planted either side of an Apple, and lightly, he tapped it with a foot. The monitor rattled, to guffaws from the assembled. But the joke wasn’t that funny. This was the pleased laughter of those who were delighted to get it, whatever ‘it’ was. Everyone here knew that Apple was being crushed mercilessly by Intel and Microsoft, consigned to the history books, an also-ran with so many similar versions of itself competing with other versions of itself that no one knew what it was any more, apart from slightly rubbish. PCs were the future and even I got the joke, but couldn’t find it in myself to laugh because I felt sorry for that machine trembling on the wooden block beneath Hardy’s stance, its disk drive a mouth agape and hopeless, its powered-down monitor a blank, defeated face. He might as well have been standing over me.
 Hardy flashed a vulpine smile.
 — Take this computer. Remember it. Remember where we are now. Because in what? Five years? In five years, using a machine like this will seem as ridiculous as Elliott wiring up a ‘Speak and Spell’ to get E.T. home. In ten years, this technology will be handheld. In twenty years . . . well, who knows? Forget about looking forward for a minute, forget Microsoft and Netscape and all the big kahunas, and think about what happened in the past. Even as it sinks, Apple’s story is the most compelling, because we learn much more from failure than we do from success.
 I slipped away towards the basement, and as I went down woozily, Hardy’s voice echoed around the stairwell, at every step validating my decision to leave all this non­sense behind me. Enough already. How could technology set you free? You could see how it held the power to make you rich, certainly, but that was just money. How exactly would it set you free? How was that going to happen?
 Back in the Land Rover, the initial panic subsided and I concentrated on being perfectly still and quiet. The way we were now roaring up then braking and plunging back down hills, we were clearly nearing the peak of Pacific Heights. Soon we’d be out on Lake Street and from there it was a straight shot to Seal Rock Drive, where rudimentary online research had told me Sam lived. The buzz of an epic hangover was beginning to sound in the back of my head. Breaking into someone else’s car and waiting for them to drive home wasn’t close to my kind of style. To be honest, I was only doing it because it was something Milo would’ve done. In January he and I came all the way over to this new city together and before that we went all the way back, but now that was over too and it was time for me to step up to the plate and behave like those I admired, instead of living my life through them. And I had to congratulate myself on the plan so far, because it seemed to be working pretty well. Hiding in someone’s trunk was exactly the kind of wild and self-determining thing other people did.
 We made a hard right and in my mind’s map I put us on Divisadero and Broadway. A real intersection, that, the road dropping down from it into a distant speck, then rising again on the far side of the Fillmore valley, like its own true reflection. The faraway hills always shimmer here, unless they are dusted with fog, which only makes you sicker with desire for them. This is a city of beautiful reflections, one that infinitely mirrors itself from one peak all the way across to another, bouncing the same image across valleys and calling it another place entirely. Look over there. See? Maybe it’s different over there, one single hill away! Maybe if you went over there everything would work out fine.
 In the end though, all the hope could do was drive you mad. I put my head back on the picnic blanket and allowed myself to drift off. Life is a stakeout. Be on guard all you like, but at some point, you’re going to fall asleep on the job. Close your eyes for what feels like a matter of seconds and within that brief moment you’ll miss the vital event entirely, or come to and realize that you’ve been ambling across some dreamscape for the last couple of hours while the shit went down in the real world. And when you wake up you’ll find yourself cast in a mould that is quite unbreakable.

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