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A Writer in His Own Worst Way: Two Days Across Pittsburgh with Gary Lutz

By David Nutt.

The locations in Gary Lutz’s fiction, like the people who inhabit them, and perhaps like Lutz himself, are vague, ahistorical landscapes simultaneously vivified and confounded by language. Since his first short-story collection was published in 1996, Lutz’s books have been slumping around the margins of contemporary literature, lapsing in and out of print, radiating an enigmatic glow. Lutz is an audacious writer who has been much praised — and shamelessly emulated — by the indie-lit crowd for the precision and lunacy of his prose, yet he’s so far evaded mainstream recognition.

This December, Tyrant Books is publishing The Complete Gary Lutz, a 500-page tome that compiles all the story collections he has published over the last 23 years, along with new and rediscovered work. It’s the type of career-encompassing retrospective that would normally fix a writer in some kind of canonical or cultural context. But Lutz eludes tidy categories.

“I just don’t think of writing as a career,” Lutz says. “If I had chosen that as a career, I would have failed at it, obviously. It’s just: get the degree, get an agent, get the book, get the job, get the tenure. And coast. But me, I’ve always been a dab hand at introducing hardship and difficulty into my life.”

He is, however, easy enough to find on a map. For almost 40 years, Lutz has lived in low orbit around Pittsburgh, specifically in the bland burb of Greensburg, where he currently teaches remedial English at a branch of the University of Pittsburgh. He doesn’t like to travel. He fears flying. The city is his one great solace, the place where he goes to wander among gluts of people without chafing too much against any of it.

I was Lutz’s student nearly a decade ago and we share the same publisher, so in mid-October I paid him a visit. We spent a couple of days roaming his favorite parts of the city while discussing his life, his work, and the blotchy relationship between the two.

I.

The title of The Complete Gary Lutz is something of a misnomer. Perhaps no other fiction writer since Donald Barthelme has made such a fetish of the fragmentary, the isolated, the ambiguous and the adrift. Lutz’s characters are skewed assemblages of arms and legs, soggy cottons and hair trinkets, all disastrously mismatched. They communicate in cryptic non-sequiturs. Identity slushes off them. Gender is muddled. Solitude prevails. Even their bleakness is incomplete. For all the general mopery of his characters, there is a wry chuckle behind every squint and shrug. There are pratfalls and ruptures of hilarity. Deadpan humor leavens their lonely, unfinished affairs.

Pittsburgh itself is a fragmented city, riven through the middle by a trinity of rivers: the Allegheny, the Monongahela, and the Ohio. Lutz and I meet up in Lawrenceville, a refurbished riverfront neighborhood of placid hipsterism: a pinball cafe, a revival movie house that serves craft beer, a funeral home reborn as a ritzy eatery. When Lutz arrived in the early ‘80s, the local pharmacy was still selling medical leeches.

Central Lawrenceville is where Lutz usually slots his car, because there is a rare stretch along 47th Street of unmetered spots. Parking by the hour is not cheap, and when Lutz visits the city — and he visits often, most Saturdays and multiple times a week in the summer — he likes to spend most of the day travelling on foot. I’m guessing, and this is pure speculation, that Lutz was not much of an athlete in high school. But the man is a marathon rambler.

We meet at the corner of 47th and Butler Street, in front of the sprawling Allegheny Cemetery and its quaint signage (“Cremation? Do we have a place for you!”). Lutz immediately points out La Gourmandine Bakery, a French patisserie teeming with sugary decadents. He likes to stock up on croissants here. This surprises me. Part of Lutz’s lore is that for a quarter of a century he ate almost every day at Burger King, which he prefers over McDonald’s, Arby’s, Five Guys, et al., because the patties are allegedly flame-broiled, although he allows that Wendy’s chicken sandwich is pretty good. Lutz has often mentioned his BK habit in interviews (“I live on Whoppers and fried rice,” he once said), so it seems significant. It also seems dangerously unhealthy. Lutz will later tell me he has tried to reform his diet, but he acknowledges he’s recently been backsliding.

Gary Lutz in the Strip District

About two miles south on Penn Avenue, we pass through the Strip District, a bustling outdoor market of craft tables, vendors peddling Steelers and Penguins sports regalia, and other bazaar-y stuff. The strip is a vivid mix of locals, tourists, and sidewalk panhandlers, and it’s one of Lutz’s favorite locales. For someone who has written so voluminously about solitude and estrangement, it’s a bit jarring to see how much Lutz enjoys the throng.

“I’ve been coming here for practically three decades,” he says. “This part of town was always lively, but it’s getting more and more so. It’s kind of a joyful place.”

We stop at the red-and-white striated façade of Wholey’s Market, which sells almost every variety of meat available in the animal kingdom. If it wiggles or swims or gets slaughtered in bulk, they have it slabbed on ice or congested in an aquarium tank. Lutz graciously inquires if I’m a vegetarian before we enter. We don’t buy anything, though. Since Lutz has an hour-long drive back to Greensburg, he rarely purchases perishables here. Mostly, we stare at random piles of meat and listen to the becalming rumble of refrigerated storage.

Next, Lutz takes me into what looks like an open garage, where a local dog rescue has set up shop. (It’s called FurKid Rescue. Their motto is “From Death Row to Happy Homes.”) In the back corner is a low, penned area that is usually filled with disabled dogs that are recovering from surgery or missing a limb or two. All of today’s mutts — small, frizzy lap models — are, at least visibly, intact.

Lutz doesn’t own a dog, because he spends too much time away at work. But he’s mulling the idea of adopting one when he retires this spring. Lutz turned 64 in October. In his battered field coat and black-frame glasses, his long hair and chunky Doc Martens, he does not seem a probable candidate for the discount-buffet scene or AARP brochures. But he looks forward to retirement. His job exhausts him. Teaching remedial English — he’s also helmed classes in copy editing and business writing — is apparently not for the fainthearted. Only rarely does he teach creative writing, and then, mostly as a visiting professor at other schools. He had a semester-long stint at the University of Kansas in 2007 and has twice taught a course at Syracuse University, most recently in 2010, when I was his student. (The class was titled The Sentential Event, and we spent months prying apart the sentences of Lutz’s literary heroes and admiring their glossy guts. If you are unfamiliar with the word “sentential,” that should give you an idea of the vast and delightfully archaic vocabulary Lutz employs in his fiction. It’s a startling blend, the antiquarian and the everyday and the avant-garde, and nobody does it better.)

Lutz has often described growing up as a nonverbal child, and he can be a quiet presence at social mixers, perhaps, but in the classroom he is an effusive speaker, confident and kind. When he gets on the subject of The New Yorker’s golden age of copy editing, he’s downright rapturous.

As we move further south, Lutz suggests I keep on his left side, where his hearing is stronger. He played drums as a youth, but the real damage came when he began listening to music on headphones at home, evidently at brain-bleeding volumes, to block out the din from adjoining apartments. He is very noise-sensitive, he tells me, and is unnerved by the sound of his neighbors’ movements. He’s also a big proponent of white-noise machines and earplugs.

“If you’re walking into a room, and then the person who lives above or below is doing the exact same thing at the exact same moment,” he says, “I find that very, very creepy.”

I mention that such a thing happens in one of his stories.

“It’s actually in several of my stories,” he says.

Autobiography is a tricky thing in Lutz’s work. Because his stories are all fractured first-person monologues pitched in the same inimitable voice, cycling through so many similar domestic upsets and mortifications and sexual moltings, it’s tempting to see the narrators as proxies for their author. Indeed, when you’re reading The Complete Gary Lutz in chronological order, the recurring details map very neatly to the trajectory of Lutz’s life. The mounting ages of his narrators, their marriages, divorces, the death of parents. It’s all there, splayed upon the page. But with so many nameless places and ambiguous erasures, too, the language resists these sorts of easy correlations. As a narrator notes in the title story from his 2011 collection, Divorcer: “You can’t generalize about divorce, and you can’t get too specific about it, either. The subject either clouds itself up or loves the attention too much.” Here is as good a place as any to mention that, yes, Lutz is divorced — it happened about 12 years ago — and the subject has permeated much of his later stories.

This is all a parenthetical way of stating that, for an era that adores its autofiction and when seemingly every novelist and poet is hawking a memoir or essay collection, Lutz’s desire to scrub himself from his work is refreshingly out of vogue.

“The one thing that’s outright autobiographical in my fiction is the moods,” he says. “But there really isn’t any kind of parallel between my fiction and my life. When some people meet me, they expect me to be that person in the stories, and they soon discover that I’m not. And I think it’s a big disappointment to them.”

II.

Lutz was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and raised in a working-class household that didn’t have any books, and he wasn’t a reader as a child. His father dropped out of school in the eighth grade and for much of his life worked in refrigeration and air conditioning. His mother held various factory and retail jobs. Young Lutz suffered from Legg-Perthes disease, a rare hip condition that landed him in traction, then in a wheelchair, then on crutches, and finally in a leg brace, and he missed most of first grade. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Kutztown State College, in 1977, he enrolled in a master’s program in creative writing at Ohio University — selected more or less at random — with the intent of writing poetry. When he couldn’t get into a poetry workshop, he settled for a fiction class. The first story he brought was savaged by his classmates and the professor, and things never really improved, although he now insists his writing back then was “crap.”

The conventional furniture of fiction writing that was praised by his professors and imitated by his peers — plot, characterization, rising action, etc. — held little appeal for him.

“I just got really bored with that,” he says. “So after I graduated, I stopped writing fiction for at least ten years. Probably more. Because I didn’t feel as if I could really express myself. My journal entries from that time were just full of despair and humiliation about virtually every class I took.”

The title of his M.A. thesis, a collection of stories, sums it up: Ordinary Sorrows.

Grad school wasn’t completely for naught. The repeat bus ride from Allentown to Ohio and back brought him through Pittsburgh, although it still took him a few more years to debark. In 1983, he was hired as a composition specialist by the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.

“I always had this strange sense, looking out the window of a Greyhound bus and passing through Pittsburgh, that someday I was going to end up there, even though I knew nothing about this formerly smoky, desolate, rundown sort of place,” he says. “It was a different city when I first moved out here. There were bookstores downtown, lots of record stores, department stores, trolleys.”

“If it wasn’t for Pittsburgh,” he adds, “I would never be able to survive my job.”

In the early ‘80s, he stumbled upon a series of skinny, hypercompressed books published by Knopf, among them Barry Hannah’s Ray, that stoked his dormant interest in fiction and led him to those books’ maverick — some would say maniac — editor, Gordon Lish. Between 1992 and 1997, Lutz traveled to Bloomington, Indiana, and Chicago for a cumulative twenty-six days to attend Lish’s workshops. Here, Lutz learned to shuck off all the tedious trappings of traditional fiction and get weirder, wilder, writing with a kind of surgical fastidiousness that prized the sonic and sculptural qualities of the sentence while also allowing the murky emotional stuff to seep in. Lish, in ways large and larger, changed everything for Lutz. The acknowledgments page in The Complete Gary Lutz puts it succinctly: “To Gordon Lish I owe everything.”

“When I started writing the kind of stuff that I write now, I felt like ‘I don’t care if anybody reads it at all,’” he says. “To a large degree, I was trying to please Lish. And that’s true of so many of his students. If I got approval from him, it mattered. If I didn’t get approval from other people, it didn’t.”

Lish put Lutz under contract with Knopf, and Lutz’s first collection, Stories in the Worst Way, was published in 1996, although by that time Lish had been ousted from the company. The Lish link had helped place Lutz at a major publishing house, but it did not save him from the critics.

Quoth Publishers Weekly: “Postmodern in tone and structure, the 36 short stories collected in this debut by Lutz are unremittingly grim, pretentious and oblique.”

“The reviews were so bad. I mean, for a while I knew those reviews by heart,” Lutz says. “I had recently gotten a National Endowment for the Arts grant, so I arranged to take the next semester off. And during that semester I thought, ‘What’s the point of even writing?’ So I wrote almost nothing. I ended up getting a part-time freelance job with a public-relations firm. I spent a lot of that semester, when I should have been writing, proofreading this stuff from chemical companies. I was incapable of putting two words together. It was a really dark time.”

Lutz was so embarrassed that when his school library purchased a copy of Stories in the Worst Way, he hid it inside a large volume of bound journals and stashed it on a shelf. Only when he was solicited by literary-magazine editors was he motivated enough to grind out some stories. In 2002, the indie journal/press 3rd Bed reprinted Stories in the Worst Way, and Black Square Editions published Lutz’s next collection, I Looked Alive, the following year. Lutz estimates 75% of his second book was written at the urging of others. The stories were longer, denser, dourer. And the reviews were even more brutal.

Gary Lutz (left) at the William Penn Hotel

III.

By the mid-2000s, Lutz had started to amass a small but feverish following. He became that occasionally rumored, but rarely relished, species: the writer’s writer’s writer, with his books now blurbed by the likes of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and Ben Marcus. A lecture Lutz delivered at Columbia University called “The Sentence Is a Lonely Place” — which was later published in The Believer and in the 2013 reprint of his odds-and-ends collection, Partial List of People to Bleach — burnished this reputation. By autopsying the acoustically riotous prose of Lish acolytes like Lipsyte and Christine Schutt, Lutz laid out all he had learned from his mentor, the whole schemata, for a new generation of young, jittery, experimental writers who were congregating online. Lutz became a kind of grammarizing folk hero for the HTMLGIANT crowd.

The reviews have since been kinder, but Lutz’s work still manages to bewilder those in his immediate radius. Longtime readers may be disappointed to learn he isn’t as cringingly unhinged as his fiction, but the nonliterary sorts in Lutz’s life often view him a little askance.

“Somebody starts reading your stuff,” he says, “and then they never say another thing about it, because they’re shocked or repulsed by it. The kinds of things I write about are what usually gets called transgressive, I guess.”

This is not exactly a mystery. Things can get a bit messy in a Lutz story. A girl, drugged in a dumpy shopping center and inverted in a chaise longue, has her teeth and tongue removed before she gives birth through her mouth. A man is sodomized with a shower-curtain rod, and all manner of knickknacks and baubles plunk out of his rectum. Another ingests his own seed. There’s loads of incest, human soils, polygamy galore.

“One of my rules that I came up with a long time ago,” he says, “was to always make the narrator worse than anybody else in the story.”

I tell Lutz I have a hunch that the big talking point for book reviewers will be the way he handles sex and gender, how his depleted characters treat them as, at best, a trivial bit of bureaucracy, if they even bother regarding such distinctions at all. Lutz has heard this point before, I’m sure.

He notes that his fiction doesn’t really present gender confusion in a necessarily uplifting way.

“My own gender dysphoria goes back as far as I can remember,” Lutz says. “Few weeks go by that I don’t end up looking at a 1985 newspaper clipping of what a father said after his twenty-two-year-old son’s body was pulled from the Ohio River northwest of Pittsburgh: ‘He wanted to be a girl so bad, he just couldn’t help it.’”

A couple of weeks later, Lutz will mention that during our walk, he was wearing — in addition to the Doc Martens I’d noticed — a Crazy Horse backpack purse and subdued makeup, women’s skinny jeans, and a women’s sweater.

More than anything, the loudest emotional calamity in Lutz’s stories, I think, is the persistent crush of loneliness (“Onesome” is one particularly apt title). People are merely the residue their solitude leaves behind. The bare, hairless existential fact. It’s not for nothing that the most significant social interactions in his stories sometimes occur in public restrooms, where strangers clasp hands, commingle their fluids, and find something that almost looks like love — as if only in our private purgings and wastes can we reveal our true selves. And in his scrutiny of language, his parsing of its ambiguities and disappointments, and also, too, the shaky sustenance it provides us, Lutz’s closest compatriot might be Samuel Beckett. In fact, while Lutz’s style and thematic concerns are thoroughly American — our lonely expulsions, claptrap declarations, ragged longings, our glittery trash — his literary forbearers have always struck me as European. Brooding modernists like Beckett, Kafka, Robert Walser, and Thomas Bernhard, who also have a comic cackle.

Yet, this is one more way Lutz dodges the obvious.

“The truth is, the way I write, and it’s the only way I can write, I used to think I was imitating John Updike,” he says. “Obviously, my writing is nothing like John Updike’s stuff. I always had a vague sense of my own limitations. I didn’t grow up with books. I was essentially a nonverbal kid. Late in life, I found out I’m on the autism spectrum. As a kid, I didn’t understand how to use language properly, because nobody ever really spoke to me at any length except on television. And I didn’t watch a lot of television. So I think with my writing, the weirdness comes in part from not really feeling as if even American English is my language.”

Gary Lutz outside the William Penn Hotel

Downtown, we reach the William Penn Hotel, a striking 23-story art-deco monolith colored terracotta and cream, that overlooks Mellon Square. The hotel has hosted a parade of presidents and famed entertainers and is even home to Lawrence Welk’s original bubble machine, but, for Lutz, its most esteemed lodger was onetime New Yorker staple John O’Hara.

“I was really obsessed with John O’Hara, partly because he was from Pennsylvania. He is so far out of fashion that some people are embarrassed to even admit that they read him,” Lutz says. “His work in the ‘30s and ‘40s, I think of as pre-Raymond Carver but way better, way darker. It’s so minimalistic. No figurative language ever. Nothing writerly. He is a master of dialogue. The stories on the surface seem very, very straightforward, but at the same time they’re often so oblique they’re kind of cryptic. You’re not even sure that you know what is going on in the story. And almost none of it seems to be autobiographical. It’s just the perfect ear.”

O’Hara, a native of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, came to the city to work for the Bulletin-Index, a magazine that envisioned itself as the Pittsburgh equivalent of The New Yorker. Lutz often tries to retrace O’Hara’s footsteps from the hotel to the Investment Building, where the Bulletin-Index was located. But the William Penn has its own special claim.

“He lived on the 12th floor, and he was writing some of the material that later went into his first novel, Appointment in Samarra. He was very, very depressed. It was the Fourth of July. He was going to throw himself out the window,” Lutz says. “So I often think of that when I’m walking past this hotel.”

Pittsburgh’s downtown is eerily abandoned for a Saturday afternoon. We’ve been walking for a few hours and it’s time for a brief pit stop, so we visit an indoor food court at Fifth Avenue Place to use the restroom. (Lutz! A restroom! I am braced for revelation.) Lutz describes the building as a prefabricated skyscraper. I can’t tell if any of the eateries are open for business. The lights are on, the equipment is humming. A few uniformed employees slouch in the seating area, staring off, alone and bored, like some kind of museum exhibit of low-wage catatonics. It’s all very Lutzian.

We walk to the South Side and grab some beverages at the Milkshake Factory on East Carson Street and discuss the agony of preparing a book for publication. Lutz is a stickler for revision, always scratching around for the right word, which for Lutz is usually a word that has something deliriously wrong about it. Savvy readers can track his scrupulousness every time a new edition of one of his books is published.

“I always felt that I was rushing it, with everything. And if I had just taken more time, things would have worked out differently,” he says. “That’s why every time a new edition of Stories in the Worst Way would come out, I would make changes in it. And even with this recent thing, I wish I had changed a lot more and cut entire stories.”

Then there is the peril of stitching all your books together into a single volume. The stories gossip amongst themselves. Echoes abound. A Gary Lutz story is never, as Lutz might phrase it, any less than of itself.

“Because I write so infrequently, when I sit down to write, I forget that I’ve essentially written that story before,” he says. “It’s just different words for the same story.”

For a middling writer, the repetition would be tiresome. But with Lutz — as with the novels of Jean Rhys or the films of South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, both of whom Lutz is currently engrossed in — the repetition deepens the work. Arms and hair begin to seem like religious totems. The banal minutiae of daily life congeal into a kind of stabilizing armature, a sanctuary. Blankness is freedom. A hundred pages of this stuff may feel like a slog. Five hundred pages? It’s utterly transcendent.

That’s another thing about his new collection: The Complete Gary Lutz is not exactly complete. A month after the book was laid out for printing, Lutz found approximately 30,000 words of unpublished fiction in old boxes.

“I was always afraid of throwing anything out,” he says. “So I always saved drafts and cuttings. And sometimes I use those cuttings for later stories. I guess I’m kind of a hoarder. If I put a lot of time into writing a sentence, I don’t want to destroy it.”

We loop back, retracing our path. By the time we return to Lawrenceville, we have been ambulating for seven hours. Lutz will later estimate we travelled roughly 180 to 200 blocks, and it certainly feels like it. For the next several days, my wife will have to listen to me whimper about how much my calves ache. But now I know: This is how one eats at Burger King every day for twenty-five years without crumpling from a coronary or type 2 diabetes.

My wife joins us for dinner at Industry Public House, an artisanal gastropub that seems a little too enamored of its clangy Rust Belt chic. Since it’s Saturday night, the place is packed, and there’s a long wait. The three of us stand outside for an hour, talking mostly about music. Lately, Lutz has been on a Smiths kick. Again. It makes sense that his musical taste tilts toward swoony melancholia. The topic of David Berman, the late poet and singer who committed suicide this summer, comes up. This reminds me that as sad and bleak — and, okay, swoonily melancholic — as Lutz’s stories can be, they have very little suicide in them. Couples break up, people break apart, everything disintegrates. But everything regenerates, too.

The hostess tells us our table is ready. We are seated in a side room that is essentially a giant cinder-block noise funnel, crammed with screaming drunkards and shrill, tinny music cranked to a decimating volume. In addition to being noise-sensitive, Lutz also has a phobia about high ceilings, and I try not to keep glancing upwards while we wait for our food. The three of us survive the meal by scarfing it down quickly and communicating through an ingenious system of winces and twitches. Afterwards, we tumble out of the restaurant, mildly traumatized, and part ways. Lutz returns to Greensburg for the night. He has lived in the same apartment for 20 years. He doesn’t have a TV. He doesn’t have any furniture. He abandoned his dial-up AOL and now doesn’t have Internet service. I imagine him walking in the front door and putting in his earplugs, moving from room to room, his every step shadowed by an unseen person whose life looks almost identical to his.

 

Gary Lutz at Goodwill Outlet Stores

IV.

The next day, Lutz tells me how much he enjoyed dinner.

“It was actually kind of funny, because I’d never been in a restaurant that was that loud,” he says. “It was fun.”

And this is why Gary Lutz is possibly the sweetest man alive.

We decide to explore the more far-strewn areas of the city, so we are travelling by car today. We tour Bloomfield (Pittsburgh’s Little Italy), Oakland (the university and hospital district), Garfield (a semi-gentrifying stretch of art galleries and collapsing buildings that Lutz describes as Pittsburgh’s Alphabet City). In the day’s most unsettling juxtaposition, we pass WQED, the public-television station where Fred Rogers taped his beloved children’s program for more than three decades, and then we enter Squirrel Hill, the traditionally Jewish neighborhood that was the site of last year’s Tree of Life synagogue massacre. Squirrel Hill has always been one of Lutz’s favorite places to walk. That’s the thing about Lutz’s Pittsburgh travels. He usually doesn’t stop in stores or shop. He just walks.

So we park, and we walk.

Other assorted things we discuss during the weekend: the greatness of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, and James Robison’s The Illustrator; how Barthelme’s best book is the much-neglected Paradise; the wonderful and Barry Hannah-esque prose of Eve Babitz in Eve’s Hollywood; the films of Kelly Reichardt and Steve Buscemi; the difficulty of parallel parking and making left-hand turns in urban environs. He patiently listens to me gripe about what a drag it is that writers are now one more lackey of the gig economy, all of us reduced to mercenary Uber drivers, hustling, self-publicizing, shedding all mystique.

Well, most of us.

Lutz is perfectly candid about his tendency to scuttle career opportunities over the years. Numerous times, he has been in the running for faculty positions in high-wattage MFA programs, only to withdraw halfway through the interview process. He doesn’t crow his accomplishments or cheerlead his peers on social media. He doesn’t have a website. He doesn’t do book tours. The only time he has left the Pittsburgh region in the last six years was to bury the ashes of his mother, who died in 2016. His father had passed away in 2005.

The sense of loss hasn’t unmoored him so much as nailed him to the kitchen floor.

“When both of your parents are gone, your world contracts to a degree that I had never really expected,” he says. “The world just shrinks.”

As much as Lutz loves Pittsburgh, he feels no fealty toward its literary scene. He’s given only a few readings here, and the events always end in bafflement and blank stares. Pittsburgh writers, he says, often clot their stories with street names, bar names, all the hacky, provincial markers that signal, for Lutz, middle-class people writing about lower-class people. (Lutz regards himself as lower class through and through.) He feels similarly alienated from the city’s sports fanatics and belligerent, bar-crawling drunks. And then there’s “yinzer,” a local colloquialism in which the informal plural version of “you” is deliberately mangled. There are “yinzer” T-shirts. Coffee mugs. Trading cards.

Actually, there’s a lot about Pittsburgh that Lutz doesn’t like.

“I think the Pittsburgh that I love is primarily a Pittsburgh in my head,” he says. “It isn’t a sports town. It’s more sophisticated.”

At another moment, he tells me that even though he’s lived near here since he was twenty-seven, he’s never really felt as if this was his home.

“I still think of myself as kind of from Allentown,” he says. Then adds, “There’s nothing in my stories about Allentown, either.”

Our journey concludes at a Goodwill Outlet Store in North Versailles. For years, Lutz passed the place on his drive back to Greensburg. Since a year and half ago, he’s been coming here almost every week.

“It’s a big part of my life,” he tells me.

For the uninitiated, Goodwill Outlet Stores are industrial warehouses where all the unsold goods from regular Goodwills are dumped before they hit the landfill. It’s a chaotic scene. Employees wheel in enormous boat-size bins heaped with random stuff while shouting at shoppers to give them a wide berth, lest anyone get crushed. People stalk the aisles and pounce on newly arriving merchandise. It’s also weirdly clinical. Many shoppers are wearing rubber gloves they have apparently brought from home. The bargain hunting can get unruly, and Lutz says he routinely gets jostled by overzealous customers.

I ask if he’s a fixture on the yard-sale circuit as well. But he’s not. Too many people talk to you at yard sales, he says.

Gary inside Goodwill

We sift through old clothes, VHS tapes, broken toys, a few scattered books. Clothing is purchased by the pound, and Lutz’s wardrobe has increased tremendously since he started shopping here. Atop one of the heaps is a semi-trashed Webster’s dictionary, an unabridged edition, but Lutz says it isn’t one of the good ones. (He would know. He has a sideline writing grammar guides.) I tell him that this place seems to encapsulate so much from his fiction. The lonely scavengers. The grimy minutiae. The lost and the found. It’s kind of horrifying, and it’s kind of perfect.

Lutz smiles and nods.

We dig some more. I find a softcover book with a cheerfully yellow cover called Resisting Happiness. The subtitle insists it is “a true story about why we sabotage ourselves, feel overwhelmed, set aside our dreams, and lack the courage to simply be ourselves…and how to start choosing happiness again!”

I pull it out of the pile.

“Gary,” I say. “You want this?”

“Oh, that,” he replies before we resume rummaging. “I saw one of those here last week.”

 

All photographs by David Nutt.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Nutt is the author of The Great American Suction (Tyrant Books). He lives in Ithaca, NY, with his wife and dog and two cats.

More Gary Lutz in 3:AM Magazine here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, December 1st, 2019.