An Excerpt From Matthew J. C. Clark’s “Bjarki, Not Bjarki”

"Bjarki, Not Bjarki"

We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Matthew J. C. Clark’s new book Bjarki, Not Bjarki: On Floorboards, Love, and Irreconcilable Differences — out now from the University of Iowa Press. It’s about lumber, the state of the nation, surreal transformations, and a whole lot more. “As a carpenter, I was interested in these American Dream Boards and I wanted to profile the owner, Bjarki Thor Gunnarsson,” Clark recalled in an interview with Writer’s Digest. “However, Bjarki turned out not to be who I wanted him to be—whatever that means.” Read on for an excerpt from Clark’s expansive work of nonfiction.


The first thing Hitler did was disarm the Jews. Mao and Mussolini too. If you had given a starving Chinese man a rifle, oh my goodness, can you imagine? One of my favorite memes is this Vietnamese guy with a hat and an AK-47. It says, “Laughs in Viet Cong,” meaning: you can have all the technology you want, fancy laser beams and drones, but the people in sandals with zero military experience will win. 

“So I don’t trust the government. That’s not a conspiracy theory. All the government does is fuck you.” 

“People throw the word Nazi around. Whenever they disagree with you, they call you a Nazi. Nazis were actually Socialists. They weren’t far right. They were far left.”

“Open your eyes.”

Beside me is a can of Outlast Q8 Log Oil, a wood preservative specifically designed to “control decay-causing organisms.” 

I’m feeling a little discomfited in the office, and I think Bjarki can tell. It’s an olive branch, of a kind, when he shows me the photos of a woman he recently met on Tinder. 

“K,” he says, “she’s the Polish Tinderella. Nate thinks we look alike.” 

I flick through Bjarki’s phone. There’s K in the mountains, in Iceland, on European streets, and then—there’s Bjarki! Or, rather, there’s K looking like Bjarki, which is weird because K doesn’t look like a man and Bjarki doesn’t look like a woman.

“She’s got way better teeth than me.” 

As a point of fact, Bjarki’s teeth are fine. 

He says, “We already talked about how my grandfather invaded her country.”

“The Viking?” I’m confusing grandfathers.

“The German,” Bjarki says.

“The Nazi,” Nate says.

“So, ah, K goes, ‘What do you think of Jewish people?’” 

Nate says, “Crap.”

“I think she wanted to make sure I’m not a Nazi.” 

Nate sighs loudly. He says, “I don’t like dating. It’s horrible.”

Bjarki explains that his mother’s father was drafted into the German army and then shot down over France. He says the leg he broke in the crash eventually had to be rebroken. 

Incidentally, a few days later, in Rhode Island, over German strawberry cake at Bjarki’s mother’s house, Sybille’s father will come up in conversation. Sybille is talking about raising her children. She says, “We have the saying, ‘You grow with your tasks,’ but today, I’m thinking, How did I do that? I got all four kids dressed and I still baked muffins to take to the pond. And you were always dressed nicely with shirts and collars.” She holds her fork to her mouth. “Then there was my mom, who ironed underwear, and my father, who insisted to have his socks ironed.” Her father was born in 1919 and drafted into the “old Prussian army.” He became a dentist after the war. Her grandfather served on a submarine in World War I.

Bjarki says, “Was it your grandfather or your father who’s leg was broken?”

On the kitchen counter is a fake beach sign: 

to shower – $1

to watch – $2

“One of them had a broken leg that didn’t heal right and they had to rebreak it.”

“I do not know about that. My father, he was a navigator on a plane. He was reading a map and got shot down.”

“And he broke his leg! He was in a POW camp with a broken leg.”

Sybille says he was shot in the lung.

Bjarki says he can’t imagine how they rebroke that bone in, like, the forties.

I suggest baseball bat.

Bjarki suggests vise.

Nate suggests wood splitter.

We are talking about a leg that may actually never have been broken, let alone rebroken, but we don’t know that. We are having a good time. We are pals. 

“They bring in this big German guy—”

“Whose name is definitely Hans, like the Russian in Rocky.” 

If he dies, he dies.” 

Nate says Rocky is a great movie. He says, “It’s a bad movie, but it’s also a great movie.”

Bjarki says, “Who was the karate guy who got chubby?”

“Chuck Norris?”

“Maybe he’s Mexican?” Bjarki says.

“Steven Seagal!”

“He was a real badass.”

“Whatever the hand-to-hand combat is, he was one of the best. He just sucked at acting.”

“Was he American? Or was he Mexican?”

Nate says Seagal was definitely not Mexican. On his phone, he’s looking up whatever the hand-to-hand combat is.

In the meantime, Bjarki shows me a Volvo commercial featuring another action movie star, Jean-Claude Van Damme—eyes closed, arms folded—standing on two tractor trailers, one foot on the side mirror of each truck.

Nate says he was born in Michigan. 

“Van Damme?”


He opens his eyes. The golden sun is either rising or setting. There is beautiful singing. The trucks are gold and they are backing up.

“Dude,” Bjarki says. “You know how hard it is to back up a trailer? They’re reversing two! This is literally the best commercial I’ve ever seen! This is one hundred percent real!” 

The trucks begin to separate, the gap between them widening. 

“It’s real! It’s real!”


Hakido or aikido?”

A. He’s a seventh-something-degree black belt in aikido.”

“Isn’t this unreal?”

My mind fails to behave as instructed. The trucks, still backing up, must be five or six feet apart now and Van Damme is straddling the space between them, his legs spread and parallel to the ground. This, he says, is the most epic of splits.

(Bjarki and I are sitting at the bar in his kitchen, eating reheated dinners from a Hannaford grocery. Eighteen hundred dollars lies in a stack beside an odd spice jar–looking thing: an artificial deer call. The label says, speak the language.

I say, “Is this fish or pork?” 

Cat Stevens jumps onto the bar and Bjarki sets him on the floor. Mr. Crowley’s hiding.

“So what’d you do down there,” he asks, meaning Florida.

“I got clipped by a car.”

“Did you get hit head-on?” 

Over the winter, Bjarki and the woman he’d been dating, A, split up, though whether they were ever really together is not beyond dispute. Nothing happened with K. I’ve never met A. She’s the one who adopted these two kittens that are quickly becoming cats.

Phwap, phwap: that’s the cat door. 

Bjarki offers to send a message to a friend who is recently single. 

He says, “hippie” and “babe,” and I say, “Jesus” and “sure.”

Cat Stevens, on the counter, chews a roll of paper towels.

“They’re real snugglers at night. I couldn’t split with them. I love ’em.” The tabby brothers have pink noses, but Bjarki is fascinated by their differences. Mr. Crowley’s fur is grayer and coarser and Cat Stevens has what I think of as thumbs, a trait that Bjarki says there’s a word for and that I believe there’s a word for, though neither of us know the word. Bjarki shakes some Meowijuana onto a scratching post. Mr. Crowley emerges and attacks the post. Cat Stevens flops with a stuffed fish. The word is polydactyl.

On his phone, Bjarki plays the Ozzy Osbourne song, “Mr. Crowley,” and we kind of sing along. Almost anyone can sound okay if they sing softly enough. 

Your lifestyle to me seems so—what is it?”


It’s tragic

“It’s just a kick-ass, badass song. And it made me think of cats, because what the fuck are cats thinking half the time?”

We listen again, this time on the stereo. 

Bjarki says, “Aleister Crowley was a devil worshipper, supposedly.”

I say, “The fact that Ozzy sings the word afterbirth is so awesome.”

“Every line in this song is symbolizing something, but if you’re looking for how it relates to me, it’s not to be found.”

“It’s about me,” I say.

A week or so before I left for Florida—on the eve of the election—Bjarki and I had been talking about getting away from it all, a topic that came up frequently and that I thought had the potential to humanize Bjarki, in The Book, I mean, because of course Bjarki already existed as a human. To that end, I adopted a hands-off policy as our conversations ranged from road trips to the North Pond Hermit to Henry David Thoreau to Burning Man to Chris McCandless, the twenty-four-year-old who died in the Alaskan wilderness. Into the Wild was written about him, a movie made.

“McCandless—he did something. He burned up all his money and he went to Alaska and it killed him. That’s like: Eat shit. He had a journal and didn’t he document that he was, like, dying? ‘I ate some berries. Puked up my food.’ I don’t like the ending of the movie. I wish he’d found a bigger purpose, and uh, Happiness is only real when shared—that’s the message he left. You know, I actually think about that an awful lot, like, What the fuck is our purpose in life? Why am I here? I always think about some little kid being like, ‘What’d you do with your life?’ And me being like, ‘Well, I sold a bunch of floors.’ It’s like, What the fuck? You know? But then I think about everyone else who has an even more meaningless job. Imagine selling stocks and bonds. Or imagine the guy who sells olive oil.” He picks up a plastic bottle of oil. “It’s like, ‘It was a fine life in the mountains. The winter of ’72 was a whammy.’”

Then, to clarify, Bjarki says that what he’s just said about telling a kid you spent your whole life slinging lumber is actually something an old Wood Mill employee once said to him.

Mr. Crowley, below me, is bridging the rungs of my stool.

I say, “But it’s unclear to me what Chris McCandless was running from.” 

McCandless was a white, upper-class, college-educated kid.

“Mr. Crowley’s actually the more snuggly one once you get him to trust you. He’s trying so hard to be your friend, but he’s, like, not sure of himself.”

“My cat has a pink nose too.”

How we are able to talk like this, I have no idea.

I say, “When I watched Into the Wild this time, I was like, ‘This is a sad movie.’”

“Who was the girl?”

Kristen Stewart—another Chris.

“Yeah, and she dated the guy from Twilight and then she became a lesbian.” 

“Just the loneliness is so brutal to watch, dude. And now, with me and B—oh, motherfucker. I don’t want to run away from people. I want to share my happiness.”

“I don’t know. I run away from everybody, so—”

As soon as he says it I know it will go in The Book, but in the moment I don’t know how to proceed, like conversationally, like how to keep the connection going, if that’s what is happening in the kitchen—genuine human connection, I mean—and so I just wait to see if he’ll say something more, but he doesn’t, at least not about running or not running, and the next thing I know he’s showing me a video. It’s less than three minutes long. The lizard stands before a forest, speaking in this outrageous Long Island accent. He’s got square teeth and bumpy green skin, a very red mouth. Maybe the lizard looks smug, his arms folded, his head rolling around.

What is this? Oh, I’m king of the trees, I’m the tree-meister.

A teepee appears. A headdress. The lizard says offensive things. Who’s chair is that? Who brought that goddam chair here—that’s not my chair. There’s a little kid, some balloons, some knots, some made-up words.

Who paid for that floor? Not me. No way! 

I can’t help myself. With each successive viewing, I see more and more meaning and connection, feel my delusion becoming real, go slightly more bonkers.

I say, “Dude, I’m the tree-meister.” The thing is, though, when I hear myself on these recordings later, I always sound so ridiculous. It’s like seeing yourself in a photograph, I guess. The way you look in the photo—it’s never how you think you look, though sometimes you look better than you think—more attractive maybe, or less tired, younger, hipper, happier, though of course it’s true too that sadness also has its appeal. So—what?—maybe one in ten photos, or one in a hundred actually seems to reveal you as you think of yourself, which may or may not be a realer or truer you, like a more empirically accurate representation of who you actually are or whatever. Of course, the photographer has something to do with all of this too.

“Bjarki!” I say. “I’m writing about trees and chairs and floors and balloons and knots and Indians! I’m writing about reality!”

And Bjarki, he doesn’t even say that none of that is connected to anything. He says, “Who knows why it’s a lizard telling the story?”) 


Matthew J. C. Clark lives and works as a carpenter in Bath, Maine. His essays have appeared in True Story, the Antioch Review, the Seneca Review, Ecotone, the Indiana Review, Fourth Genre, Wag’s Revue, and CutBank.

© Matthew J. C. Clark. Used with permission from the University of Iowa Press.

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