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UC Davis graduate publishes first novel

September 4, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

This is a past article from FRIDAY, Nov. 12, 1999, by Elisabeth Sherwin, which appears at this web site for the first time on September 21, 2016.

Yes, he's delighted to have his first book published. OK, so no one knows how to read it. That's the breaks. Maybe someone will figure out his second book. In any case, here's a writer to keep an eye on.

Robert Clark Young was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 5, 1960. That year, Sept. 5 fell on Labor Day.

''The first pun of my life,'' is how he describes the event.

His father, Kenneth, now retired, was a drivers' license examiner for the state Department of Motor Vehicles. His mother, Angela, is a housewife. His parents met in the back seat of a taxi in downtown Los Angeles in 1957 on a blind date.

''I grew up hearing Spanish at home and when I opened my mouth I could speak it,'' he said, shrugging. No big deal.

''I knew at age 13 that I wanted to be a writer. We had just moved from Los Angeles to San Diego and I wanted to write a book and get rich and move back to L.A. So I started writing on Jan. 15, 1974, and I've written most days since then.''

Young attended Catholic schools from first grade through college. He graduated from the University of San Diego in 1982.

He had two interests: ''I liked to drink and write,'' he said. And not much ambition (even though he was writing on the side): After graduating from college he went to work at the boys' department of a Mervyn's department store in Imperial Beach.

''They laid me off on Christmas Eve,'' he said. Then he went to work selling shoes at the Target in Chula Vista. ''I was the shoe department,'' he said. He worked there for nine months at $3.90 an hour.

One day in 1984, Young read an article in a magazine about creative writing programs at different universities.

''I was living at home and drinking,'' Young said. ''But I thought, 'I can do that.' So I applied to UC Davis and Stanford. I didn't apply to UC Irvine and if I had I probably would have been published at age 25.''

Young got a two-year fellowship for Davis. ''All I had to do was show up,'' he said. ''And I got a huge monthly stipend of $580.''

Coming to Davis changed his life. For one thing, he got sober here. It happened after a big night of drinking to drown his sorrows over a broken heart. He dimly remembers meeting a woman that night who advised him to quit drinking.

''I passed out on my couch in my Davis apartment (on Russell Boulevard) and when I woke up in the morning, Feb. 11, 1986, I decided to quit drinking until I got a girlfriend. But then I started a relationship with the girl who told me to sober up the night before.''

The upshot, however, was a commitment to sobriety that has lasted, so far, for 13 years and nine months. That's a lot longer than that particular girlfriend lasted, but who's counting?

''It's just nice to be here so I can do some writing,'' he said.

And in those ensuing years he has done some considerable writing, completing eight novels. His eighth novel, ''One of the Guys,'' was published earlier this year, earning Young a $50,000 advance and the realization of his dreams.

It is not a pretty novel. Reviewers have consistently failed to discuss it in any but the most superficial of terms, according to Young, and have failed to grasp what the book is about.

But more on that later.

First, it's important in terms of appreciating ''One of the Guys'' to know that Young has firsthand experience with the U.S. Navy.

''After Davis, I got a job as a civilian teacher on a Navy ship, the U.S.S. Proteus, at the time the second-oldest ship in the Navy. We went to Guam, the Philippines and Hong Kong.''

> Later he shipped out on a LST (landing ship tank) from Long Beach to Alaska, Okinawa, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. The voyage lasted for exactly 100 days, ending in September of 1988.

That same year Young went to Cairo for six months to teaching English to Egyptian adults.

Both ''extremely interesting experiences'' have become book material for Young. He hopes book No. 2, ''An Egyptian Mystery,'' will be published in 2001 but nothing has yet been signed.

After traveling the world, Young taught at Hocking College in Athens, Ohio for seven long, long years. ''I didn't get along with the administration,'' Young said. ''I wanted to teach writing and they wanted me to make people feel good.''

He kept writing and published various chapters of ''One of the Guys'' in literary magazines. His current agent, Nat Sobel, read what later became the first chapter of ''One of the Guys'' in Another Chicago Magazine. Sobel got in touch with Young and offered to work with him in turning the manuscript into a publishable book.

''I listened carefully to Nat because I wanted to publish the book and I was willing to do what it took. He told me to make the changes I agreed with and I did. Mainly he helped me cut the excess.''

Young spent the summer of 1998 at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County. There he revised the ending of ''One of the Guys'' five times. Finally, the book met his agent's approval and went to auction. On the last day of auction, HarperCollins bought it.

''When the book sold I didn't know what to do. I agonized for a week. Should I return to Ohio? Everyone advised me to quit so I called my boss from the public phone at the Sausalito Library and quit. It was totally anticlimactic. And since then I've been a nomad. I don't have a job, I don't have an apartment. All I do is travel (he drives a red 1996 Buick LeSabre) and write.

''My life has changed but I'm the one who changed it. Nothing's changed on the inside. I've been trying to publish a book for 25 years in the hopes that it would change who I am but it hasn't. Exterior things have changed radically but that's because the book gave me psychological permission to change my life.''

Now back to the book, which will be released in paper in May of 2000. If you want to get the most out of ''One of the Guys,'' Young said, you have to learn to read beneath the surface.

''A function of illiteracy is surface reading and everyone who has reviewed my book is guilty of it,'' he said. ''In first grade I read 32 books and wrote plot summaries of each one for the nuns. That's what reviewing in this country is like: writing first-grade plot summaries.''

So, without giving away the plot, what's the book about?

''It's a critique of institutions. It's about how society forces everyone to wear a mask. It's about how all human institutions are dysfunctional because all human beings are. It's about how all people who come together in an institution are impostors. This is not merely a plot device, it's thematic.''

But just to reveal a little more: The hero of the novel is Miles Derry who adopts the identity of a dead Navy chaplain and ships out to the Philippines. You have to have a strong stomach for some of the scenes, particularly the descriptions of the Filipino brothels and the accidental fire-bombing of a Filipino village.

Young saves special scorn for his hometown paper's review of his book.

''The San Diego Union-Tribune did a real hatchet job,'' Young said. ''The review was written by a former career Navy man who read the book entirely on the surface level and made the erroneous assumption that it was about the U.S. Navy and attacked it on that basis.''

And the reviewer called the U.S. attack on the Filipino village ''stupifyingly far-fetched.''

'' 'Stupifyingly far-fetched?' '' Young shots. ''What about the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy? The gondola accident in Italy? The U.S.S. Vincennes, which shot down an Iranian airliner full of civilians?

''The most shallow way to talk about a piece of writing is subject matter criticism,'' he said.

Jack Hicks of the Creative Writing Program at UC Davis said he was pleasantly surprised with the publication of ''One of the Guys'' because the surface plot, scenes and characters are a throwback to a less enlightened time.

''That is, it appears to celebrate the worst aspects of male group cultures (especially in the military) of the first part of the 20th century: their puerility, sexism, racism, and eager acceptance of force and violence as a solution to all differences of living and opinion. If you read it thoughtfully, it is finally an indictment of that sort of consciousness and behavior,'' Hicks said.

''At the most basic level, it shows the enormous pain brought to Miles Derry by following such a path, and the personal and social destruction he leaves in his wake,'' Hicks said.

Hicks has invited Young to give a reading at UC Davis in January. Young also was a guest at the Squaw Valley Writers' Conference over the summer and will be on staff at the Southern California Writers' Conference this winter, which will be held in San Diego over President's Day weekend.

''One of the things that pleasantly surprises me is how many women like the book,'' Young said.

''Diane Reverand of HarperCollins says women like it because it gives them a chance to spy on the locker room,'' he added.

Still, with all the misunderstandings and future uncertainties, he wouldn't change a thing.

''I'd like to teach again at some place that would allow me to do it. I've applied for 39 creative writing jobs,'' he said.

But a large piece is missing from his life.

''I've been in relationship recovery for six months,'' Young said. ''I'm still looking for a woman with courage, intelligence and loyalty. I've never found one person with all three qualities.''

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at ensherwin@gmail.com

For More Information, Visit These Links:

  • Young, Robert Clark
  • Young, Robert Clark 10/15/00b
  • Young, Robert Clark 08/01/05c

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