The protagonist of Eskor David Johnson’s debut novel, Pay as You Go (McSweeney’s, Oct.), is a barber seeking a suitable place to live in the sprawling city of Polis, an off-kilter version of New York City whose unruly denizens have other plans for the young man.
Why did you choose to set the novel in a fictionalized version of the Big Apple?
The novel was originally going to be in New York, but when you’re writing about a real place, there are so many constraints, and I felt the obligation to keep within the realm of normalcy or realism—which isn’t to say that insane things don’t happen in New York. But I realized that I could really flex my muscles if there was no one around to tell me what the rules were, and people could be as crazy and insane and freewheeling as my instincts would allow. Making the city Polis took the reins off, and I made my own playground in order to play as I saw fit.
The novel is a rollicking picaresque with a teeming cast of characters. What appealed to you about this style?
One of my favorite writing teachers would always say “more is more”—as opposed to less is more—and that really struck a chord. Each year of living in a city can feel like a different era of your life, and there are so many happenings that get compressed into such a small space. So that picaresque mode of storytelling felt like the perfect match.
What appealed to you about Slide as the novel’s ingenuous, resilient, and slightly hapless young protagonist?
In an early version of the novel, Slide was a little bit wiser and more world weary, and I found it wasn’t enjoyable to spend time with such a know-it-all. I’ve encountered versions of that type of jaded character in other big-city literature, and I didn’t want that. I wanted that sense of wonder and that sense of wanting. So, I made him slightly stupider, but braver as well.
The novel presents Polis as a land of dreams and disillusionment. Can you talk about these contrasting views of metropolitan living?
There is this constant wanting in places like New York, and I think when you first arrive, you assume that wanting is solely based on fundamental needs. But then, time passes and you realize there are nicer apartments and restaurants that you’ve never heard of and can’t afford. For the young person navigating the city, there is this sense that you can surrender yourself to all of these wants. Years can pass and then one day, it can spit you out, and all you’ve done is just want a bunch of things without ever feeling as if you’ve gotten there.