Smith Ralston Excelsior’s first publication, The New Manifesto, the unforgettable debut novel from Sam Ernst, was first published on September 14, 2021.
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Praise for The New Manifesto
“Ernst’s novel queries absolute truth—a world where imagination is the illusory precursor to reality… [the] voice meanders, disappears, and resurfaces, leaving the reader a heap of unscrambled words that have no right to pair together so peacefully… This is a book that reveres visual imagery, while challenging what the eye perceives. Ernst’s complexity muddles the mind so readers grasp for the concrete—the simple—but in those moments of filtering through the disorder, exists a tale that is beautifully human.” 10 out of 10.
Matt Schild, author of The Completely Unverified True Story of a Reality Television Superstar
“…The New Manifesto explores the struggles of authordom. From literal dream-state tales to full-blown apocalypse, Ernst presents snapshots of tales that challenge the concept of traditional narrative to creep into places fiction doesn’t often land. While it’s not for the faint of heart, the book alternatively tears down the fourth wall and wraps itself in layers of false biographies and histories as it looks at what it means to be a reader, a writer or a thinker.”
“You will never read a book quite like Sam Ernst’s experimental novel The New Manifesto, whose wildly creative, careening story defies expectations… Is The New Manifesto a statement about post-modernist fiction, the unifying voice of the narrator, or the power of subverting expectations? The reader is left to puzzle it out, guided by a text that’s both inventive and challenging.” -Kristen Rabe
Dan Beachy-Quick, author of An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky
“Part metafictional postmodern autofiction labyrinth, part modernist heteronymic nesting doll, and part Victorian bildungsroman, Sam Ernst’s The New Manifesto reads as all these and more. But where a lesser writer might give over to the pyrotechnic pleasures of form and puzzle, Ernst has the good, humble heart to gives us characters we can care about. With language whip-crack smart, and the care of a beating heart under every sentence, this debut novel is both a pleasure to read, and promise of much more to come.”
“The New Manifesto struck me as unique, uniquely challenging, and delightfully inventive. A metafictional risk-taking engine, Ernst’s novel asks us to rethink what narrative is and what it can do, revitalizes form, turns the act of writing into a mode of ongoing skepticism, exploration, and discovery—something it always is at heart. Smart, ingenious, crisp, and funny, yet dusted with a patina of melancholy in the face of time’s relentless passing.”
He sat down to write:
The first point being: There is a spot in the parking lot where water drips from no apparent source. Mid-air it materializes, governed by gravity it splatters on the ground. Every day. Without fail.
The second being: This vantage point is remarkable. Yesterday, it afforded a view of five airplanes at once. All without having to move my head.
What a fantastic way to begin a novel. Let’s begin again.
“I am done for,” he thought, and closed his book.
He woke up knowing there was something important about Winesburg, Ohio. Or was it Gainsbourg? Or Ginsberg? What exactly the item of importance was, or its relation to the facts at hand, he couldn’t remember. “No bother,” he thought as he left the house to walk his usual afternoon route. Yes, there was the spot where the water dripped. There was the man with his placard. The famous aphorism came to mind: “There’s something endearing about a panhandler who writes his sign in cursive.” To be sure, few took the time any longer. Fewer still made the aesthetic nod to the color red.
He was writing a book. A book he never finished. This is a story of failure.
It was mid-February. The snow was melting, having long overstayed its welcome. Its waterlogged retreat revealed matted grass; sheaves of gray and brown interwoven like straw strewn through hail-battered cornfields. There are two weeks every year where it is impossible to determine whether it is the end of autumn or beginning of spring. He proposed the addition of a fifth season. An interloper, it would remain unfixed, open to personal assertion. This season would have no name.
“Writing is easy.” He smiled and drew a large exclamation point at the end of his sentence.
He had heard it said that mountainous regions were incapable of producing great literature. All of the celebrated works of the past several centuries came from the plains or the coast. Something about vast, flat expanses inspired the imagination.
Living in a subalpine valley, he knew he was doomed. He considered giving up, but then realized he could simply lie about his home’s location.
With each step across the wet pavement, he could feel the clod of snow on the bottom of his shoe slowly dissolve. Until at last, his sole was back in contact with the earth.
A plow truck scraped across the nearly bare concrete sending up a shower of sparks. New stars extinguished as they hit the roadside snowbanks.
He hadn’t meant to begin writing. But then again, how many people sit down and say: “I’m going to write a novel”? The beginning had been effortless. From it had stemmed a variety of subjects, themes, plot avenues, and character formations.
(He had planned to come back to this paragraph at some later point to add more detail and description, but never did.)
Here is where his ideas ran dry.
He began writing two days before his twenty-sixth birthday, deciding that he would dedicate his book to true love. The love we all harbor somewhere down deep in the burial mounds of our memory. The paradox of celebration and mourning. Love unrealized.
If he wrote quickly, he could finish it tonight. That would leave time enough to read a few pages of Doctor Zhivago before he went to sleep. But he did not finish tonight.
He hadn’t intended on his novel becoming a failure either. But in keeping with the rhetorical outburst from #9, who sits down and says: “I’m going to write a failure”? He could trace the failure to nothing in particular. Perhaps it was his dedication line. He’d read so many that were far better. They usually contained words like “darling” or “my dearest friend and supporter.” Some writers referenced multiple people. Some writers even thanked people. He was not one of those writers.
Once, he’d read about a man named Al Herpin who’d rejected the notion of sleep entirely. Years went by and Mr. Herpin was as alert and thoughtful as ever. Finally, he died, just like everybody else.
He wished to be the new Al Herpin, but found it impossible since his mind was awash with sleepy phrases like:
“We are living in momentous times—it’s not every day that you get to witness the unmaking of an empire.”
“This is my hope: to live out my days in peace among the receding glaciers.”
“Billionaires buying out the floodplain.”
All good phrases to be sure, perfect for letters to his nieces or his true love, but certainly not fit for the sleepless. When his letters yielded no reply, the phrases found homes in his “serious writing.”
One night, he dreamt he was Al Herpin. Since he was sleeping, the dream proved fruitless.
Maybe he would just write a book of short stories. He wasn’t having much luck with anything beyond a paragraph. But the thought of ending a story in a matter of pages filled him full of hollowness. Surely, he had more to say than that.
“What’s your timeline?”
He pretended not to hear her. Sometimes people just go away if you pretend not to hear them.
“What’s your timeline?”
However, this tactic did not work on the persistent.
“This book you’re writing.”
“I’m not writing a book.” (Oh my God. I’ve told people about my book?)
The conversation came to its inevitable end. Once again, he proved that persistence never pays.
He distrusted books that drew conclusions for their readers. His conclusions were his own, not to be dictated by the whims of an author.
He felt like a peanut butter sandwich, having concluded they were good.
Given the book’s title, he was finding it surprising how little manifesting was being done. He kept having good ideas but kept forgetting them by the time he got home. It was time for a new hobby. Or at least a new title.
“What about The Book of Aphorisms? I can just write pithy phrases and attribute them to invented people.”
He went back and added one at the beginning of his novel, and while it fooled you, the reader, he found it difficult to come up with realistic names.
Here was where the globe stole his gaze. Lost in dreams of remote islands, his sentence trailed… off.
Saints Helena and Kilda rocked him to sleep.
Once, when asked his profession, Satie claimed the title of gymnopedist.
A long sigh rose slowly, escaping like a tidal bore—churning against the incoming breath. He could make no such claim.
“I am only an aphorist,” he thought.
He went to the spot where the water dripped. There he stood, gazing into the sky, trying to muster his best “inquisitive look.” There was nothing for it. Stare as he might, the heavens would not divulge their secret. The perfect blue was tight-lipped; the horizon’s fade to white was its laughter.
“I will write to frustrate.” At first, he forgot to define the intended target of that frustration but found one in throwing his manuscript across the room.
Six months after her death, he received a letter from his grandmother. He imagined it in the cargo hold of a plane, shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic in search of him. “I hope all is well in Scotland. Try wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes! Miss you sweetie.”
Grandmothers are magical creatures. His once predicted the future: “One day, they’ll play your songs on the
radio.” And she was right. Once, in the middle of Wyoming, the songs he loved came gushing through the radio in rapid succession, an oasis interrupting the unending, barren expanse of highway.
For once, life was not accentuated with a dull throbbing. He was thirsty and drank deeply.
Yet, headache gone, he found he was now haunted by an unslakable thirst.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this way,” he thought. “My words flow more freely with a pen in hand and a gentle breeze filling my lungs. The sun does me a world of good. I don’t want a gaudy expanse of cloudless sky, only an errant ray escaping its vaporous bonds now and again.”
Part 2: An Assemblage
DAMASCUS, Pennsylvania – A small township on the Pennsylvania/New York border. Its primary industries in the 20th century were timber, agriculture, and bluestone mining. It is notable for the fact that in the early 21st century, it became a center for natural gas production. It is also notable as the birthplace of James Gordon Brecht…
I promise every word of this is true. I open with that admonishment simply because I know the nature of the Brecht clan. We are liable to be skeptics and hyperbolists, always taking to the extremes when it comes to storytelling. With Brechts as the intended readers, I want to be clear that this is all fact. Hopefully, you will add my “memoir” to the great book of family history without feeling the need for “accuracy” edits. What follows may at times seem fanciful, impossible, or even tarnished by faulty memory, but you must believe what I say…