News & Politics

This Side of Rockville

A Book About Growing Up in the Suburbs With an Alcoholic Dad Is Fiction--Sort Of.

When david amsden read william faulkner's AS I LAY Dying as a junior at Rockville's Richard Montgomery High School, it put him to sleep. Then a teacher mentioned that Faulkner sometimes drank when he wrote.

"This guy drank whiskey when he wrote and was a total mess," says Amsden. "This guy wrote this and gets taken seriously by an English class in a high school in suburban Maryland? I'm like, 'That's what I've gotta swing.' "

This month, Amsden goes back to his alma mater as an author. He'll talk to 1,500 students about Important Things That Don't Matter, a book about growing up in Rockville.

The anonymous narrator has an alcoholic father who works at Jerry's, a pizza place, and takes him to a bar, where they go Coke-for-martini. The boy fools around with his first girlfriend in the dressing room of the Montgomery Mall Gap. He takes another girl to see F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave "in the shadow of this mammoth chain furniture store called Marlo." His mother is a graphic designer who keeps herself together despite her husband's drinking and drugs.

The book is fiction. Sort of.

"It's based on my life," says Amsden, 23. His mother, Susan, runs Sharp & Company, a design business, and still lives on Rockville's Nelson Street, where the narrator grew up. Susan is also the name of the narrator's mom.

the only child of parents who divorced when he was four, Amsden grew up diving and doing gymnastics. He kept a journal once to impress a girl.

His father worked in fast food and picked him up after school a few days a week. They'd go to pool halls, see R-rated movies, ride bikes through construction sites. His father moved away when Amsden was 13, then remarried, had another son, and started calling less.

"My father is this guy I love," he says. "This faulty dude that's a cool guy."

As a New York University freshman, Amsden started reading the New Yorker. He interned there the next year after calling an editor every Friday for ten months. Soon he began sending out his short stories. He "slipped into" a job as a gossip reporter for New York magazine when editors were short-handed.

"I'd take early-morning classes, go to the office, take an evening class, go to a movie premiere and interview whoever, come home half drunk from the free alcohol, and write all my papers," he says.

Amsden's stories kept getting rejected–including one about his disgust when McDonald's bought Roy Rogers, his favorite fast-food chain–but he kept working at New York. He ruled out law, medicine, and restaurants. After graduating in three years, he pursued his mission to get published.

In early 2001, a friend said, "The best story you ever told me was about going to a bar with your father when you were a kid." Amsden started writing a month later and finished the novel that summer.

"I was obsessed," says Amsden, who's still a contributing writer at New York. "Writing was not something I did under the blanket with a flashlight. It was like 'without this, I have no idea what I'd do.' "

when not visiting his mother's condo in ocean City–"I love how unapologetically not yuppie it is"–Amsden likes coming back to Rockville.

"This place is like a magnet," he says. He's working on another novel set here.

He hadn't been to the neighborhood where his narrator's girlfriend, Claudia, lives since he was 13. So on a trip home, he drove around–"taking it in, remembering, inventing memories, thinking of scenes."

Will Claudia recognize herself? "She would know it's her."

Which might be why Amsden says twice that the book isn't about revenge. For one thing, he and his father are talking again.

"He comes into town, and we eat oysters and flirt awkwardly with waitresses," says Amsden. "Basically, the same thing we did when I was eight."