Not even 10 pages into Josh Wagner's book, on what would be one of my last late nights working in the Indy office before leaving Missoula forever-ish, I sent the author a somewhat panicked message (our first correspondence ever) that amounted to something like, "I think I've made a terrible mistake," and he calmly answered, "No. You have to leave so that you can come home again."
This is the message, more or less, of Smashing Laptops: A Nomad's Romance with Missoula by Wagner, the local author who brought us the graphic novel Fiction Clemens and the novel Deadwind Sea. Most of the pages are a memoir that can't be literally real, because it centers on a teen virgin's pregnancy. But by the end, the story has taken you through so many of The Zoo's strange-but-true corners and stretched so thin your limits on whimsy that you might find yourself making room for just one more immaculate conception in nature's canon—but that's it! (On this, with yourself you will be firm.)
The Missoula parts are the realest, which is why everyone with any connection to here should read this book, and probably no one else. "Missoula's layout is pretty simple," Wagner writes. "Higgins is the spine that holds downtown in place, and all those saloon side streets are her ribs. Her bridge leaps like a pelvis over the river." All true.
You will have fun seeing yourself and your friends in the details. There's the busted up door to Flippers that only magicians or trained locals can open on their first try, and the simple illuminated fact that Butterfly Herbs is filled with freaks in front of and behind the counter, and the way the Oxford attracts lunatics at all hours. About this I considered accusing Wagner of exaggeration, until I remembered my last 3 a.m. visit there, when a slim, freckled boy slurred over and over how much he loved me and a photo was taken of my hand snaking up his torn t-shirt, not even bothering to pretend I didn't like it. Stuff like this happens in Missoula all the time.
Smashing Laptops is peppered with stories of Wagner's own fleeting romances. He writes about a three-week tryst during which the only word spoken was on the last day when she said, "Goodbye." I know! Further, he writes: "And there are exes with whom it is too dangerous to allow even a moment's eye contact. These are not exes at all, and never will be, and that's the problem."
Cody, is that why you wouldn't see me before I left?
All these romances reminded me of the first time I learned Wilt Chamberlain slept with 10,000 women and started mentally doing the math—how do Chamberlain and Wagner even have time to put pants back on?—but in Wagner's case it's actually not that many women; it's just the emotional weight of them together that makes it feel like so much.
Before leaving town, I threw a Free Stuff Giveaway Party at my apartment that Wagner attended, to my surprise. He stood in my kitchen briefly without taking anything. At this point I'd still only read the first 10 pages of Smashing Laptops, but I knew my review would be a drooling love-fest anyway and became embarrassed in advance. Later he wrote and apologized for being shy. Brave people who arrive alone to parties where they know no one and who sleep with the emotional equivalent of 10,000 women, yet still think they are shy—that kills me.
I read this book in the car on my way out of Missoula and then in the cold, dead suburbs of Detroit. It looked like someone had turned a knob and drained the Midwest scenery of its color. People were cranky and impatient with each other and I felt like a country bumpkin, afraid of all the traffic. I forgot how to read and I watched television for hours.
If you never leave, you might grow bored with the lilted walk of deer out the car window after a night spent with people expert at giving and receiving love. In the morning you'll wake up and yawn on your porch thinking, "Oh look, another snow-capped mountain." Not to get bossy or overly sentimental, but don't do that! Don't ever be bored.
Wagner's book is beautifully written, and true, and filled with serious tenderness like the kind I've just tried to imitate. You can see the words of certain passages scrawled in a notebook before they've been transcribed. It's the sort of writing that can only come from experience, given to us raw and unfiltered with a charm that requires only a little prodding to fall for.