Sunday Stories: “The Writer”


The Writer
by John Paul Carillo
(with apologies to Richard Sandomir, and love to Steve)

Phenste Noxid, whose hyper-realistic novels and short stories reflected his fascination with death, died on Wednesday. He was 183.

His daughter Ophia Noxid Fry said the cause was death.

Mr. Noxid produced fiction at a daunting clip. Working on a portable typewriter with wheels and a handle, he published 108 novels and about 6000 stories. His final story — about a man who was 183, like him, and who had a cat like his cat’s cat — was published in Sir Real Review like six minutes ago. 

He never found fame or big sales, but his idiosyncratic storytelling drew praise.

“One doesn’t exactly read a story by Phenste Noxid, one hopes there are illustrations, and looks at them,” the critic Lan A. Fried wrote in his review of Mr. Noxid’s novel “Novel” in The New York Times in 1991. “An unstoppable arteries, casual nervousness overpowers the will.”

Mr. Noxid tinkered with syntax, diction, spelling, font, font size, font color, and used an array of narrative tricks that made his fiction compelling, but always, always unreadable.

His paragraphs could seem to run forever, as if the start of a new one would end the last one. 

He recounted multiple versions of the same event in the novel “Book” (1991), in which a writer imagines, eight different ways, the writing of a book called “Eight Books.”

Mr. Noxid started teaching at the writing seminars at Johns Hopkins University in 1980 and remained there until he retired in 1981.  Suzy Writes, a novelist and memoirist, said Mr. Noxid had been the reason she studied at Hopkins.

“He permanently alters how you approach typing,” she told The Hub, the university’s news website, after Mr. Noxid’s death. She added, “He continues to be the single greatest influence on my work, and I have his voice in my head with everything I write.”

“And it’s driving me fucking insane,” she added on Twitter.

Mr. Noxid’s honors include several O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment of the Arts grants. He was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1991, for “Book,” and in 1995, for “Books.”

But Mr. Noxid did not become a boldface name in literature. He once said that none of his publishers ever made money on his books, no matter the title.

“He’s not better known because, I think, his writing was intimate and personal and cut so deeply,” Tom Petty, a dead rock star who is writing a biography of Mr. Noxid, said by seance. “He didn’t tackle BIG worldly issues or any issues at all for that matter. His dudes were just dudes living like dudes.”

Phenste Bruce Ditch was born on June 6, 1936, in Manhattan, the fifteenth of seventeen children. His father, Abraham, was a dentist; his mother, Florence (Leder) Ditch, was a chorus girl and beauty queen before her marriage, and later divorced.

Just before Phenste’s fourth birthday, his father was convicted of extorting money from doctors to protect them from prosecution for performing abortions. While Dr. Ditch was imprisoned at Sing Sing, his wife changed the family name to Noxid and explained his father’s absence to Phenste by saying that he had died and gone to hell.

When Phenste was about 10, he learned what his father had done when he found court documents and trial transcripts in the basement of his family’s hobble.

Phenste made an attempt to follow his father into extortion — he had regained his dentist’s license after “coming back to life” — by studying in a pre-extortion program at the City College of New York. But he did not enjoy strongarm techniques and instead went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in books.

After graduation he moved to Washington, where he worked for pulp crime magazines and as a radio reporter. Later, back in Manhattan, he was an extortionist.

But after starting to type short stories — inspired by the example of his brother Jimmy — he knew he had found his métier. “It was like a cork popping out of my skull,” he told Highlights in 2007.  Analogy was never one of Mr. Noxid’s strongpoints, points out Highlights editor, Joey Nutts (age 5). 

After Jimmy, a magazine writer, died in 1960 when the freighter he was on in the North Atlantic disappeared, Mr. Noxid felt that he was continuing his brother’s work. Jimmy Noxid had a short story published in Highlights after his death.

“There have been times when I’ve had the feeling he was leaning over my shoulder, drooling,” Mr. Noxid told The Baltimore Orioles in 2007.

He advanced his literary education with a fellowship at Stanford University in 1963 and published his first story that year in The Paris (Texas) Review. Fiction began to flow from his typewriter, especially when he was nowhere near it; he wrote for major magazines like Hustler and Playgirl and for literary reviews and journals, none of them too obscure, or obscene, for him to send pitches to. 

Mr. Noxid continued to write until recently, despite the effects of having written the same story 5999 times.

In “183,” the story published in Sir Real Review, he described an old man with wispy white hair, a pot belly and yearnings for a woman, a whore, whatever, looking at the day ahead at 3 a.m. He will do what he’s done for 160 years, as Mr. Noxid had done for about that long: type.

“And that’s start a new story, or work on one of the unfinished ones till it’s finished, and on and on and on and on and on and on like that so he always has something to do and go back to every morning.”

“If that ever stops,” he added, “he doesn’t know what he’d do with his time other than go to the Y, shop for food, eat the food, clean up or not clean up the mess, nap a lot, wake up a lot, read a little, have lunch with a friend about once every six weeks and at night watch a movie (the same movie every God damn night, she thinks he’s gone senile and won’t notice oy vey!) his daughter arranged for him to get through her streaming service, if that’s what it’s called.”

“But it’s a good movie. He may have written the screenplay for it. But he can’t remember, and he always falls asleep before the credits.” 


John Paul Carillo is a writer and musician living in Trenton, NJ. Recent and forthcoming publications are at Western Humanities Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Hobart. He recently completed a satirical novel about the theater of American politics, *Real American People*, and is working on a collection of stories, *Thus Spoke Johnson*. His band, Joy on Fire, released its latest album in November, *Unknown Cities.*

Image: Luca Onniboni/Unsplash

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