Author POV: We are unreliable narrators of our own lives

Self-deception gets in our way, trips us up, makes us do bone-stupid things. We all suffer from it from time to time. Luckily, most of us recognize this and, at least sometimes, try to compensate the best we can.

But sometimes we don’t confront our self-deceptions until it’s too late. For me, that happened when I was coming out of graduate school with an eye on a tenure-track teaching gig. Turns out, the entire professional landscape for college professors—and especially the job market—had shifted in a major way while I was locked away inside the ivory tower, and I’d failed to notice it.

Wait, scratch that. I had noticed it. I just used my own powers of self-deception to convince myself it wouldn’t affect me. Spoiler alert: it did, and as a result, I lost a few years of my professional life to swimming upstream through a job market that didn’t have any room for me.

And while I’ll never get those years back, I did eventually recover and learn something from my mistake. Alton Carver, the protagonist of my new novel How I’m Spending My Afterlife, isn’t quite so lucky:

Alton Carver has a problem.

A cocky lawyer in his mid-30s, he’s under federal investigation for embezzling and securities fraud. Instead of spending the next three to five years behind bars, he’s got a plan: stage his own death, take the money he stole and light out for Central America, leaving behind wife Nicole and daughter Clara. But when he sticks around town long enough to watch his own funeral, he makes the unpleasant discovery that the life he’s leaving behind isn’t the life he thought he had.

When he overhears the way his former colleagues talk about him now that he’s “gone,” Alton is forced to reconsider his self-image as a respected and admired pillar of the legal community. Then the shock of seeing Nicole in the arms of another man leads Alton to postpone his plan to run for the border. What comes next is a slow-burn train wreck, a tale of self-deception, revenge, and bad decisions.

Alton is cursed with a knack for self-delusion and an oversized ego that’s almost incapable of admitting to mistakes. We’ve all known people like Alton; some of us have watched them crash and burn in disasters of their own making. And some of us—though certainly not me, of course—have even secretly enjoyed it.

I gave up on an academic career around 2011, fully four years after earning that sheepskin. I started writing this book in earnest three years later, but I’d had the first eight or nine pages sitting around for several years by then. Once I decided to get serious about writing fiction, I dug those pages out of deep storage, reread them, and thought there might be some potential there. So I kept writing, and in the fall of 2016 I’d made it all the way to a final, publishable draft.

I’ve always said that all fiction is autobiographical in some way, but I’d really struggled to see how this applies to my own novel until this very moment. Like Alton, I was an unreliable narrator of my own life. It honestly never occurred to me that maybe I was writing about my own self-deceptions—albeit in a completely different context—and all the time, money and heartbreak they cost me when I was writing about Alton.

How I’m Spending My Afterlife takes place mostly in Florida, but it’s not the same style of noir that you’ll find in my story, “Back to Tall Pines,” which takes place in a fictional north Florida backwoods town and was published back in April right here on Shotgun Honey. The book is available in Kindle, epub, and good old paperback formats from your favorite online retailers. I hope you’ll give it a chance, and if you do, I really hope you dig it.

Back to the Tall Pines by Spencer Fleury

When she heard the job offer on her answering machine, her heart sank. Virgil reminded her – again – how much they needed the money. “But it’s the most depressing thing I can think of,” she said. He just snorted. “Naw. There’s worse.” Easy for you to say, asshole. You don’t have to do it.

Her first shift started at two the next day. She couldn’t eat lunch before; her stomach was a tight little fist. Instead she practiced her schpiel in the bathroom mirror: Hello sir or ma’am my name is Marcie and I’m with Tall Pines Memorial Gardens have you ever considered the benefits of pre– oh god, has it really come to this? She already wanted to cry.

Her interview had been at the so-called “call center,” actually the living room of a gloomy 1960s ranch house on a treeless, sun-baked lot, directly across the highway from the cemetery. Five corpulent women sat at folding tables, a phone in front of each. They chain-smoked while dialing numbers from note cards. Everything about them creaked and sagged. None of their calls lasted long. “At least it ain’t stripping,” he said when she told him about it later. She was pretty sure she would rather strip than go back there.

The four-mile drive felt like hours. When she got there, fourteen minutes early, there was already a sixth woman at the table, a woman who did not yet sag or creak. We tried to call, maybe catch you before you drove all the way out here, someone said. We kinda over-hired, and this time she did cry, once she was in her car. There is dignity in all work, Virgil had said before, but she couldn’t see it. Where was the dignity in that room? Where was the dignity in completely losing your shit in the driveway while six muumuus gawked from the living room window? She’d been back in town for months now, and the one thing she knew for sure was that dignity was a stranger here.

But he would never understand any of this. So she leaned back against the porch railing, arms folded, and gave him the most straightforward recitation of events she could muster. He was silent for a long time, appraising her from that ratty couch – he had this way of looking at her that had always made her want to pull off her own skin, ever since she was a little girl – and when he finally did open his mouth it was only to suck the last rinse of beer from the bottle. This isn’t even bottom yet, she suddenly knew. “I ain’t worried,” he eventually said, uncoiling himself from his roost. “You’ll find something,” and then he drifted inside, closing the front door behind him, leaving his congregation of empties on the porch with her.

* * *

When the weathered wood-frame bungalow they shared burned one night later that summer, the fire just about swallowed the place whole. Flames leapt from the kitchen into the hall and sprinted on toward the living room, where they found Virgil, passed out drunk on the floor. Not many mourned him; the consensus was that he’d been a wreck of his own making for a long time.

Nobody really expected Marcie to stick around after that; most folks couldn’t figure why she hadn’t lit out already. There wasn’t ever a thing for her in Tall Pines but heavy obligation and hot shame, and now that Virgil was dead, there wasn’t even that. She left two days later, everything she had left crammed into the trunk and back seat of her ten-year-old Cavalier, just like she’d been picturing for who even knows how long now.

On her way out of town, Marcie drove north on Highway 19 toward Atlanta, right past Tall Pines Memorial Gardens. She expected her father would probably end up there, in the section reserved for the county’s indigent dead. Do they even mark those graves? she wondered. Honestly, she kinda hoped they didn’t.