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  • Written by Joshua Furst
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  • The Sabotage Cafe
  • Written by Joshua Furst
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On Sale: April 22, 2009
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54494-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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As a teenager in the 1980s punk scene, Julia suffered an unspeakable trauma.Years later, she has made a new life for herself in the suburbs, desperately working to maintain a sense of normalcy.But when Julia's sixteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl, goes missing, Julia is forced to envision her every move. From the city's back alleys to the abandoned Sabotage Café, Julia watches her daughter retrace her own coming-of-age, a mélange of sex, drugs, and random acts of violence.


Chapter One

These things are hard to say. I'm not sure what's true and what isn't. My experiences don't even make sense to me, so I can't imagine they'll make sense to anyone else. What I can promise is that I'll be sincere.

Here's what I know:

On May 24, 2004, my daughter, Cheryl, locked her bedroom door and blasted the angriest, most frantic hardcore she owned. She changed out of her little pink and green bikini into a pair of black cutoff cargoes and a t-shirt she'd worn so hard that the fabric had begun to disintegrate and the Tori Amos tour dates on the back had hardened and flaked into a ruin of crusty nubs. Then she stuffed a pair of jeans, two more ratty t-shirts, a red hooded sweatshirt, a bra and a handful of panties into her backpack. She zipped her Discman—that embarrassing outdated device which we'd refused to upgrade to an iPod—into the pack's front pocket, grabbed a case of CDs off the dresser and scanned the room, wondering what else she'd regret leaving behind.

If she'd glanced out the window, she would have seen me, still in my bathing suit, sitting in the Adirondack chair on the deck Robert had built around the pool. The glass of Crystal Light was still cradled in my lap, but I hadn't sipped from it since she'd run inside. My eyes were closed to help me concentrate. If she'd bothered to look, she would have seen that I'd managed to remain calm despite her tantrum.

She didn't look, though. She fished a half-empty bottle of spring water out from under her bed, dropped her cell phone in the pocket of her shorts and balled the cord into her backpack, then laced up the Doc Martens she'd spent so many hours defacing with Wite-Out and silver paint. She pounded the off button on the clock radio, grabbed the Camel Lights she thought I didn't know about and left.

On her way down the hall, she ducked into the bathroom to grab a handful of tampons. Then, pausing in the kitchen, she stood like a ghost at the sliding door, one hand lightly pressed against the fluttering screen, her fingers curling slowly in on themselves.

What she was doing was cursing my existence.

When I opened my eyes and peeked toward the house, I saw her in the living room walking away from me. Her shoulders were hunched, her pack covered in graffiti and safety-pin starbursts. The fuzzy scruff of her hair glowed white as the glass door hissed shut behind her.

"Where you off to?" I called. "Cheryl?"

By the time I'd made it to the front yard behind her, she was clomping down the middle of the street, nearing the corner where Jonquil Court opens onto Jonquil Way, angling south, headed toward East Fish Lake Road. She wasn't running. She wasn't even walking all that quickly.

"Wait a sec, Cheryl. When will you be home?"

As she hit the far curb, she picked up her pace.


My weight is a problem. I walk slow. I get tired. But I tried to follow as best I could.

Our neighborhood only has so many streets and all of them loop around to Hemlock Lane, the road no one lives on, the one that links our cell to the rest of Plymouth and connects us to the highways and superstores. Pausing there to catch my breath, I leaned on a tree, barely more than a sapling, held upright by wooden rods and wires. It gave slightly under me but didn't fall.

"As your mother, I'm saying stop. Now, stop. I can't go any further."

And she did. She stopped. She turned and glared at me. "Then quit following me, Mom. Jesus!"

A gray sedan, its headlights on despite the sun, slowed and turned the corner. The driver was a woman I knew from the neighborhood. Mrs. Konrad. She dressed her dachshund in stupid little sweaters and when she was out walking with it in the morning, she'd peer around haughtily, making sure everyone saw her from their windows and understood what an exemplary citizen she was. We avoided each other. She wasn't my people.

"You know?" Cheryl said, once the car was gone. She held an emptiness between her open palms, and when I didn't answer, she shoved it toward me like I was supposed to know how to catch it. Then she turned her back on me.

All I could do was watch her recede, running now, her backpack bouncing against her shoulder, her shorts slipping in increments down her hips. She was pulling away, willing herself toward a place—any place—where I'd no longer be able to infect her. She dipped into the ditch along the edge of the road and all I could see was her shoulders, her head. Then she was up again, crunching through gravel, running with traffic, pacing herself to veer and lunge through it. Across six lanes and she was still running, slower now, jogging. She landed wrong on her heel, almost collapsed. Her knee buckled, and then snapped back into place, but she shook it off, kept going, ran toward the highway, raced across intersection after intersection, not looking, not caring if she got hit. At the cloverleaf she turned down under the entrance ramp and disappeared into the shadows below I-169.

From there she forged through the waist-high crabgrass and leapt into the dry culvert where her skater friends hung out, followed it, not really sure where she was going, away from me, further away from me. Names had been sprayed across the culvert's rough surface, crude hearts and curses and dripping phalluses. She took a swig of water and slowed her pace.

First standing, then leaning against the green power box jammed into the edge of the block, I waited on the corner and gazed off at the place she no longer was, past this place, trying, still, struggling to keep up.

She walked through the trash, through bleached chip bags and ziplocks and faded beer cans, hunks of pink deteriorating Styrofoam, shards of glass and scraps of colorful plastic, twisted rags, broken mops, petrified children's briefs. She walked through tunnels that took her under access roads, then up, eventually, miles from home. She followed a chain-link fence past loading docks, past the whitewashed backsides of unfriendly box stores, Family Dollar, Kmart, Menards, Staples, an AMC 16 Multiplex. And when Plymouth finally bled into New Hope and the fence veered north, she pulled herself over it and dropped the twelve feet to the other side. She needed to hew east. Away from the sun.

Padding through the New Hope Village Green Golf Course, she nabbed a ball she found submerged in the rough. A lawn mower had sliced a smile in its casing. Taking a running start, she whipped it sidearm at the clubhouse up the hill in hopes of breaking a window. The ball didn't even make it to the next hole. She found another one and tried again. Then, laughing, she gave up. There'd be things to break later.

Back on the corner, I continued my vigil. I lowered myself to the ground and sat, my legs out straight in front of me on the grass. I waited.

Rush hour had finally trickled out to us. I could just imagine what my neighbors streaming past must have been thinking: That freaky fat woman's on the loose again and this time she's wearing a swimsuit. It probably pleased them to see me like this, confirmed their beliefs, gave them more evidence against me. One of the cars would eventually be Robert, and when it was, he'd stop and he'd take me home. I'd have to come up with something to tell him then. Right now, though, he was still at the office, working late—or more likely, staying late, trolling Westlaw for reasons to stay later. I couldn't rely on him for a thing.

As the sun set and the shadows compounded, I kept thinking I saw her coming back to me. But no. Each time, it was a squirrel, a crow, a shift in the darkness brought on by a turning car. It was always something else, never her.

Around ten thirty, the temperature dropped and I started to shiver and my bones began to bounce. There was nothing else I could do. I hobbled home.

And Cheryl kept moving. Every step she took was one more away from me, but however far she walked, she couldn't escape. I lived inside her, just as she lives inside me. In the distance, she could make out downtown Minneapolis: skyscrapers, looming pink; the silence of city lights. As good a place as any to try to become lost.

Plus, she already sort of knew her way around.

From the Hardcover edition.
Joshua Furst|Author Q&A

About Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst - The Sabotage Cafe

Photo © Olin Thomas

Joshua Furst is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been the recipient of a Michener Fellowship, the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and Ledig House. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at the Pratt Institute.

Author Q&A

Q: Your first book, Short People, was a collection of short stories. What's it like to make the jump from short stories to a novel?
The process of writing a novel is utterly different from that of writing a short story. I’d heard other authors describe the process, mostly in terms of form and structure—how the rigor of the story form demands an authorial control that novel writing does not; how in a novel the author can meander freely through his or her imagination. But none of this prepared me for writing my own novel.

I did not feel liberated.

What I felt instead was a pressure to both expand my thematic concerns and control a narrative that seemed always on the verge of spiraling away from itself. As the months, then years, of writing slid by, I grew less and less sure of the story I was trying to tell. Unlike the short stories I’d written whose formal aspects revealed themselves as the writing progressed, my novel seemed to grow baggier with each successive day of work. After two years I reread what I had and threw out all but twenty-five of the two hundred fifty pages I’d amassed.

I began to write fragments of scene—whatever I could conceive of my characters doing, regardless of how these moments might relate to each other. And somehow, by letting go of my concern with the form the book would take, the writing became both easier and better. Eventually, the story began to emerge and the novel took on the shape it needed.

I’ve written short stories, plays and screenplays, but writing a novel was by far the hardest thing I’ve done as a writer. The other forms I’ve worked in require craft and execution, along with a certain amount of inspiration. Anovel requires something more than this. Corny as it sounds, a novel requires faith and humility.

Q: The Los Angeles Times wrote of Short People, "Furst makes it all explicit-the cruelty, the astonishment, the treachery, the rapture-and in doing so creates a thoughtful if disturbing portrait of what it means to be a child." While that book focused on the lives of children, this focuses on the lives of an adolescent girl and her mother. It's worth pointing out you're not a child, nor a woman. How are you so comfortable writing from these points of view so different from your own?
Writing fiction is an act of transformation. You begin with a fragment of idea, an emotion, some nebulous concern you don’t really understand but can’t stop obsessing over. You have a need to tell, but what to tell, exactly, isn’t quite clear. And as you toss this slippery notion around in your head, details begin to adhere to it. Some of them rise from your own experience, some of them are pinched from the lives of people you know or things you’ve observed. Some you make up completely. As the idea grows and becomes clearer, as you get closer to articulating this thing that for a thousand reasons is essential to your understanding of the world, you begin to find that the vehicle through which you’re expressing yourself looks nothing like your own experience.There’s something deeply autobiographical in everything I write, but the relationship between the narratives I create and the facts of my life is not one to one.

So, when I write from the point of view of a woman, or that of a child—or any other point of view, for that matter—I do so because the story demands it. I try not to focus on questions of legitimacy and authority. The reality of a suburban mother in Minneapolis is no less alien to me than, say, the reality of a hedge-fund manager or an itinerant worker or the law-school student living in the apartment below mine. The process by which I go about creating my characters remains consistent, regardless of the differences between them and me. I try to draw them as individuals, and as such their personalities thoughts and feelings are defined not by assumptions on my part about this or that type of person generalizations that may or may not be true—but by who they are as singular beings.

Q: The central relationship in THE SABOTAGE CAFÉ is between a mother and her daughter.What did you find compelling about the mother/daughter dynamic?
Since I’ll never be either, I’m leery of making proclamations about mother/daughter relationships, but I can speak to the specific mother/daughter relationship within the book. One of the guiding principles in THE SABOTAGE CAFÉ is the notion of empathy, its limits and its uses.

Having raised Cheryl, Julia has been both a witness to and an active agent in her daughter’s developing consciousness. After sixteen years, her wishes for her daughter are inseparable from her wishes for herself; she no longer knows where her own experience ends and her daughter’s begins. She depends on her daughter’s belief in her virtue—in her ability to provide more forgiving options than her own parents did—for her emotional and psychological well-being.

Cheryl, of course, sees things completely differently. She’s acutely aware of the bond between her mother and herself, but instead of cherishing and cultivating it, she feels imprisoned by the responsibility it places on her shoulders. To become an individual in her own right, she must sever this bond without regard for the pain her abandonment might cause.

Q. How did you choose to focus on this relationship?
Why this particular conflict of wills needed to be played out between a mother and a daughter rather than one of the other parent/child configurations is hard for me to explain. Of the relationships I could have focused on, this seemed the most complex.

Q. Did you use a real relationship as your guide?
I wasn’t attempting to fictionally recreate the lives of any of my relatives or friends, if that’s what you mean. I do know many women, though, and within my limited abilities I try to understand them and how they see the world.

Q: There is a fictitious band in the novel called Nobody's Fool. You write: "Of all the bands to rise out of the '80s bubble, they were the one that best melded the chaos of second-wave American punk with the catchy melodic sense of the Stones, the Beatles and the Clash." Did you have a real band in mind while describing Nobody's Fool?
Nobody’s Fool was loosely inspired by The Replacements, my favorite band of that era, which is to say that they, too, are a scruffy bunch who hailed from the Twin Cities. The two bands actually have little in common. I can only imagine that The Replacements were much nicer guys than the ones in my band.

Q: How does music play an important role in THE SABOTAGE CAFÉ?
For the teenagers in my book, music serves as a coded form of communication. It not only provides the soundtrack against which they mold their self-images, but also informs them—or they imagine it does—of a hidden, long-lived struggle for what they, in their grander moments, might call liberation. In certain strains of punk music—what might loosely and not altogether accurately be grouped under the rubric hardcore—they detect the promise of an anarchic alternative to the consumer culture that surrounds them.

Of course, there’s an ironic element to all this. The attitudes of the bands and the attitudes of the kids who construct their identities in emulation of these bands don’t necessarily mirror each other, and this is one of the themes I explore in the book.

Q: The scene in the book that I'm still thinking about is where a dog is beaten and killed. What was it like to write that?
Hard. For a long time I tried to avoid writing that scene. It’s a central turning point in the book and I knew I had to pitch it exactly right if it was going to have the intended effect. The brutality of the action wasn’t what concerned me, though. Much of my work is dark and at this point I don’t flinch easily. My major concern in writing this scene was how to convey Julia’s fragile state of mind. She’s less worried at this point about the dog’s safety than she is about her daughter’s safety, but contemplating the possibility that something terrible has happened to Cheryl is beyond her capability. What she is capable of is projecting her fears onto a proxy.

Added to this is the fact that throughout the book Julia is to a large degree attributing her own past to her daughter—telling the story of her own wild youth as though it is Cheryl’s experience—and this scene is one of the major instances of slippage in her narrative. Accomplishing all these goals without stating them outright proved to be rather difficult.

Q: You write about the underground scene in Minneapolis with a great deal of authority and knowledge. Do you have first-hand experience with this or how did you go about researching a counter-culture?
I’ve never lived in Minneapolis, but I did spend many of my formative years across the river in Wisconsin. I’ve visited the city many times and for some reason a disproportionate number of my friends were raised there. My teenage years coincide with the heyday of the 80s DIY music scene, and though I wasn’t involved in the movement, I was an avid fan. I absorbed the lore and, from my isolated small town in the middle of the heartland, imagined myself to be part of this society to which I had no access. My friends and I would drive to Madison whenever we could in hopes of finding a way into this world.

Later, in the early 90’s, while I was living in Alphabet City, I found myself in much closer proximity to the counter-cultural fringe. While I wasn’t a gutter punk myself, the streets I walked down were swarming with them. They in turn fascinated, infuriated, inspired and frightened me.

Since then, I’ve noticed that almost every large city in America contains at least a handful of these kids. The scenes on the coasts—New York, DC, Berkeley, Portland, Seattle—are well documented, but the landlocked cities, where the despair is greater because the options seem so much farther away, aren’t talked about. The Midwest is more diverse than people often assume it to be; alongside the proverbial polite, friendly people live radical, independent thinkers. I felt it was important to give credence to these less visible elements in the center of the country.

Rather than researching the actual scene in Minneapolis, I attempted in THE SABOTAGE CAFÉ to create a plausible counter-culture in which my characters could live.

Q: Who are your literary influences, both contemporary and classic?
When I’m working on a project, I find myself searching out other work containing similar themes and ideas. I like to imagine that to some degree I’m not only engaged in telling a story but also taking part in a conversation with my fellow writers, both my contemporaries and those who’ve come before me. THE SABOTAGE CAFÉ, with its themes of social and political transgression, is to some degree a response to Dostoyevsky’s THE POSSESSED and the drugfueled books of Kerouac and the Beats. Certain questions informed my work: How do I write a rock and roll book that’s not about a band trying to hit the big time? How do I write a book about transgression that doesn’t fall into the formulaic drugs-and-recovery mode. Among the contemporary writers who loomed large in my writing of this book are Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson and Nick Flynn.

That said, I suspect that whatever I write next will draw on an entirely different set of influences.

Q: What can we expect to see next from you?
I’ve been messing around with a number ideas, trying to figure out which project is most necessary for me to focus on now. My writing process is such that I bounce around a lot until, eventually, I find myself deep in the middle of an urgent idea. What I can say with certainty is that my characters are growing older. I think I’m pretty much done with kids for a while.

From the Hardcover edition.



"Furst is an impressively sharp, compassionate and morally scrupulous anatomist of human relationships…. His narrator has a haunting authority." —The New York Times Book Review“Should not be missed by anyone who has an adolescent or who has been one. . . . A kind of brick, hurled at a Starbucks window, but much more dangerous in the end.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune "Joshua Furst [is] in full control of his psychologically complex material, with a tale of 'emotional bondage' as chilling as it is heartbreakingly real." —O, The Oprah Magazine"Remarkable. . . . Manages to capture both the clear heartache of a mother whose child has left home and the fuzzy logic of a mind misled by mental illness. . . . Furst writes with a diction that tugs at the heartstrings." —The Washington Times

  • The Sabotage Cafe by Joshua Furst
  • July 08, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9780375714085

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