The Tragic Age (an excerpt)

I’m so happy to be kicking off the excerpt tour of The Tragic Age by Stephen Metcalfe! I have the first chapter, but you can read the rest here:

Excerpt 2: Saturday, February 7th: Amaterasu Reads

Excerpt 3: Tuesday, February 10th: The Young Folks

Excerpt 4: Friday, February 13th: Unbound Books

Excerpt 5: Sunday, February 15th: Books and Whimsy

Excerpt 6: Thursday, February 19th: Stories & Sweeties

Excerpt 7: Monday, February 23rd: As I Turn the Pages

Excerpt 8: Saturday, February 28th: Novel Novice

I’m linking it toward the top, because you will want to keep going.  Now, without further ado, the first chapter!

“Pick a subject. Grab a word or headline or rumor. Read about it. Google it. Wiki it. Search and surf it. Stuff it. One site leads to another and then another. A new subject or word or phrase grabs your attention. It takes the place of the first one and you follow that trail, moving on and on, subject to subject, site to site, skimming the surface, never really digging deep, adhesive picking up lint, on and on until you’ve forgotten what it is that got you started in the first place.

In real time. In real life.

In Antarctica, an iceberg larger than the entire city of Chicago breaks off a glacier and begins floating happily across the southern ocean toward Argentina. Unimpressed, suicide bombers in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and Mozambique blow themselves up, killing both neighbors and complete strangers.


The market crashes. Reforms. Crashes. And so on.

An Indian billionaire builds a twenty-seven-story house  overlooking the slums of Mumbai and then abandons it because it has bad karma. A neuroscientist shoots seventy people in a Memphis auditorium. Another neuroscientist tells us you can’t blame him, it’s just the way his brain is wired.

There are Asian carp in the Great Lakes and walking snakes in Florida. In Australia they’re losing the Great Barrier Reef to horned starfish while in France bus drivers abandon their vehicles and go on strike, shutting down public roadways, because their uniform pants are too tight.

In Switzerland, they’re crashing subatomic particles into each other at the speed of light, searching for the glue of life. Why not? It’s better than predicting global disaster, designing new varieties of pink slime, and replicating human proteins in cloned goats.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Enough of real life. Take a break. Turn on the television. Television is pretend life. And with basic cable you can watch it all day long. Desperate Housewives. American Idol. An idol is a cult image, venerating the spirit it rep- resents. The cult that is American venerates desperate singing morons. Shooting cops. Forensic cops. Female cops. Wisecracking cops. Singing cops. Cops wearing sun- glasses. Emergency room doctors. Student doctors. Drug- addicted doctors. Plastic surgeons on Viagra and steroids. Meth dealers. Zombies. Vampires.

Reality shows. What is reality? Is it tanned Italians in a Jersey beach house? Barbie dolls married to has-been rock stars? Housewives of Miami, New Jersey, Beverly  Hills, Greater Pomona, and Baton Rouge? Or is it Las Vegas pool parties, celebrities in rehab, and politicians on Meet the Press?

We are all avid spectators at a car crash.

I should know. My name is Billy Kinsey. I’m seven- teen years old. I watch a lot of TV. Often all night long.

I live in a nice house. It has five bedrooms, eight bath- rooms, and a four-car garage. More than enough room for three people. We have a nice view. When I come out to stand in our backyard in the morning, I can see the Pacific Ocean in the distance. The Coronado Islands are somewhere to the south. Hawaii is two thousand miles to the west. Hollywood is . . . we won’t mention that again.

Ours is the kind of neighborhood where men and women in expensive workout clothes walk expensive designer dogs that don’t shed. People know the dogs’ names but they don’t know each other’s. The dogs take dumps on random lawns and sniff each other’s assholes. This is a dog’s way of introducing himself to his friends. It’s how they tell each other how they’re feeling, what they’ve eaten lately, and whether they’re dangerous, pregnant, or just plain crazy. The nose does not lie, and when you get right down to it, maybe we should all be sniffing each other’s butts as well.

This is also the kind of neighborhood where on week- ends a lot of people who should know better put on uncomfortable helmets, skintight Lycra emblazoned with European logos, and go riding around on titanium bicycles that cost as much as small cars. Sometimes they come to a stop and can’t release their shoes from the pedals and fall over. They lie there groaning, still attached to their bikes.

For those who don’t bike, there’s a pleasant little Ferrari dealership in the village. There’s also a Maserati dealership, a Rolls-Bentley dealership, a Ferrari dealership, and a Lamborghini dealership. There’s a Tesla dealership. A Tesla is an energy-saving, ecofriendly, fully electric sports automobile. In this case, one that has a carbon-fiber body, goes from zero to sixty in 3.7 seconds, and costs over a hundred and ten thousand dollars. Talk about friendly.

We used to have a Segway dealership selling two- wheeled, self-balancing, personal transports but then the British billionaire owner of the company inadvertently drove his off a cliff and died. Sales inexplicably declined.

It wasn’t always palm trees, luxury cars, and the blue Pacific. Till the age of four, I lived in Tulare, California, in the San Joaquin Valley. The crop of choice is hay. People enjoy beer, methamphetamine, and looking for bodies in irrigation canals. Tourists come for the retail outlets.

I’ve seen photos in old family photo albums. Our house was small. Dad—Gordonworked construction. Mom— Linda—was a housewife. There’s one photo that shows me as a toddler playing in a pile of bagged mulch. In the foreground, Mom is planting nonindigenous flowers that will inevitably die. She looks happy doing it. Her hair is brown and messy. She’s on her knees and you can tell she’s having fun getting her hands dirty.

On March 18, 1999, Dad won 37 million dollars in the California lottery and everything changed.


Seven months later, a stranger in a bowling alley told Dad that if he was smart, he’d invest in a company called Qualcomm. This was the equivalent of a guy in a bowling shirt giving Jack the magic beans to the golden goose for free. Qualcomm is now the biggest producer of semiconductors and cell phone technology in the world.

Inevitable events.

A year after that, worn out by friends with business ideas, acquaintances asking for loans, and complete strangers showing up on the doorstep begging for handouts, Mom and Dad moved south to the fourteenth-wealthiest community in the United States, a place where begging is discouraged, loans are kept private, and where, even though they shared similar physical characteristics with the residents, they were as different as Tagalog-speaking hermaphrodites from Mars.

Providence. Zahmahkibo from the Book of Vonnegut and Bokonon.

We’ve acclimated.

Mom’s name is still Linda but Linda is now a lean, tawny blonde with a tan and perfect nails. Mom is now part of this group of women who call each other all day long, making and breaking appointments and talking behind each other’s backs.

“Well, I think it’s silly,” Mom will say. “She’s spending more on the invitations than she is on the— It’s supposed to be for charity, right?”

Stuff like that. They also play tennis, meet for lunch, do yoga, and shop.

“Hold on, Jen.”

Mom always interrupts her phone call when she sees me, like she wants me to know that I’m every bit as important as whoever it is she’s talking to.

“Hey, honey,” she’ll say. “Sleep well?” “Great,” I’ll say. “Like a baby.”

“I thought I heard you up.” “Not me.”

“Where are you going?” “Siberia by bus.”

“Take your cell phone!”

And then she’s back into her conversation, not even realizing that I wouldn’t own a cell phone if you paid me.


Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy, a form of non ionizing electromagnetic radiation. Why take the risk?


When you answer the phone there’s usually someone on the other end who wants to talk. Why take the risk?

She tries, Mom. She really does. It’s her nature to. But for Dad—Gordon—it’s officially too late. It’ll be a Sunday afternoon and we’ll be in the garage next to the Range Rover, the Jaguar XJ Supersport, and the customized Ford F-150 pickup that Dad likes to drive because it re- minds him of his “roots.” Dad will have recently gotten back from riding his titanium bike, and after complaining about all the cars that don’t stop for downed riders, he’ll have been going on about his impoverished youth for at least ten minutes now, all because, on some nostalgic whim, he’s bought a push lawn mower.

“Give me one good reason,” he’ll say, “why I should pay some Mexican twelve bucks an hour to mow the lawn when I have a kid who does nothing but sit around on his ass all day doing nothing!”

Actually I don’t just sit around on my ass all day doing nothing. I sit around on my ass and read. I like knowing things. Just don’t make me talk about them.

Dad doesn’t read or know anything and all he does is talk.

“When I was your age, I worked, kiddo. I didn’t have the advantages you have!”

On and on he’ll go. At some point along the line, Dad—Gordon—decided he’d earned everything we have, and after a successful career in the construction biz followed by a brilliant investment career, he decided it was time to smell the roses, watch the kids grow, and coach a little baseball.

Point of reference.

Baseball must be the most beef-witted game ever in- vented.

I’m, like, eight, and Dad has made me join Little League. And they have me in this stupid uniform which comes complete with what Aldous Huxley in his dystopian novel Brave New World referred to as a “prole hat.” Prole, short for “proletariat.” Meaning moron. Anyway, because I’m such a reluctant ball player, they’ve stuck me in right field and I’m standing there with this big, stiff, brand-new, expensive glove that Dad has bought me and all I can think about is when I’ll finally get to go home. And then, wouldn’t you know it, some dumb, fat kid actually hits the ball and it bounces through the infield and comes right toward me. And I’m not remotely paying any kind of attention, and even if I were I wouldn’t be interested, and so it goes right past me. And all my so-called team- mates are screaming and their parents are screaming and Dad, who, yes, is “coaching a little baseball” and who looks even more ridiculous in his baseball uniform than I do, is screaming too.

“Billy, what’s the matter with you! Goddammit, Billy! Get the goddamn ball!”

The only sane thing to do is ignore them all and so that’s what I do. I just stand there, watching the dumb, fat kid run around the bases.

And now I’m seventeen and in the garage and nothing’s really changed. Dad’s still yelling.

“Good Christ Almighty, Billy, are you listening to me? Are you paying attention? Have you heard one goddamn word I’ve said?”

“Thirty,” I’ll say. “What?”

“To mow the lawn. I want thirty dollars an hour. With a three-hour minimum.”

This is called capitalism.

Dad will snort and make a face that says “You’re so such an idiot, you’re almost funny.” He makes this face with Mom—Linda, his wife, my mother—a lot.

This is called derision. “Anything else, your majesty?”

I stare at the lawn mower. The hand lawn mower that he—Gordon—wouldn’t cut his toenails with.

A couple of hours later, I’ll be in our backyard, which is lush and green and beautiful, and I’ll be riding around on a brand-new tractor mower, the one we’ve traded the hand mower in for. Dad’s the kind of guy who will up- grade anything mechanical at a moment’s notice and call it a good investment. And maybe it’s because the thought of this annoys me or maybe it’s because it really wouldnt be a bad thing for me to push a mower, but I’ll begin driving in this random, haphazard path across the lawn, leaving crazed swathes of uncut grass behind me.

“Billy, what the hell’s the matter with you! Goddammit! Billy!”

I hate money. People who make nothing but money, make nothing.


It’s money that pays for the drum room.”

Pretty amazing, right?



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