How Are You Going to Save Yourself


By JM Holmes

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Four young men struggle to liberate themselves from the burden of being black and male in America in an assured debut “as up-to the-minute as a Kendrick Lamar track and as ruefully steeped in eternal truths as a Gogol tale” (Kirkus, starred review).

Bound together by shared experience but pulled apart by their changing fortunes, four young friends coming of age in the postindustrial enclave of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, struggle to liberate themselves from the legacies left to them as black men in America. With potent immediacy and bracing candor, this provocative debut follows a decade in the lives of Dub, Rolls, Rye, and Gio as they each grapple with the complexity of their family histories, the newfound power of sex and drugs, and the ferocity of their desires.

Gio proves himself an unforgettable narrator, beautifully flawed and unstintingly honest, as he recounts both the friends’ conflicts and their triumphs. Whether it’s a fraught family cookout, a charged altercation on the block, a raucous night in high-society Manhattan gone wrong, or the troubled efforts of a drug hustler to go clean, JM Holmes brings the thump and the heat of his scenes to life with the kind of ease that makes us not just eavesdroppers but participants.

How Are You Going to Save Yourself illuminates in breathtaking detail an entire world-one that has been underrepresented in American fiction. At times funny, often uncomfortable, occasionally disturbing, these stories fearlessly engage with issues of race, sex, drugs, class, and family. Holmes’s blistering and timely new voice, richly infused with the unmistakable rhythms of hip-hop that form the sound track to his characters’ lives, delivers an indelible fiction that has never been more vital and necessary.








How many white women you been with?"

The room was filled with good smoke and we drifted off behind it.

"What's your number?" Dub looked at Rye real serious like he was asking about his mom's health.

I leaned forward from the couch and took the burning nub of joint from his outstretched hand. We called him Dub because his name was Lazarus Livingston—double L. His parents named him to be a football star. He could play once upon a time, but not like Rye.

Rolls, who was too high, chimed in: "Stop it, bruh, that shit's not important."

"Yeah, it is. I'm finna touch every continent," Dub said.

"White's not a continent," Rolls said.

"You know what I mean."

"I know you never won a geography bee," Rolls said.

The room was streaked with haze like we dropped cream in a coffee, but Rolls never cracked any windows. He smoked like a pro even still, burned blunts and let the smoke box out the room. He had the leather furniture from his dad's old office at the camera shop and we sank into it. His new place was nice, on the north end of Blackstone but before you hit the old-money houses on the east side of Providence. These days, he got lit every morning before work, after his bowl of Smacks. His latest gig was shooting an ad for the ambulance chaser Anthony Izzo. I was about to ask him if he still painted.

"Why won't you answer the question?" Dub continued. "Gio would answer." He looked at me. "Wouldn't you, G?"

"Don't play this game," I said.

"How many?"

"Man, G don't count," Rye said. "He's mixed—that's a performance-enhancing drug." He tagged me light on the chest.

"He speaks!" Dub said.

"Shut the fuck up," Rye said.

"Chill with that," Rolls said. "My place is a sanctuary."

"Stop with the Buddhist bullshit," Dub said.

I put the joint out. Rye started rolling another.

Rolls stood but put his hand on the armrest to steady himself. "It's Brahman," he said.

"Brah—shut-the-fuck-up," Rye said.

Rolls smacked his lips and looked at Rye. "You two belong together," he said. "I'm getting a drink."

"Get me one," I said.

Rolls wiped his eyes and left to the kitchen.

"Really, though, why you being shy?" Dub nudged Rye. Their huge frames looked goofy on the couch together, boulders sinking into the leather, jostling each other like idiots.

"Nigga, stop, I'm rolling. You'll ruin the J."

"My Gawd! You've never fucked a white chick."

"Don't be stupid."

"You haven't."

Rye began licking the edges and shaking the cone down.

"Don't pack it too tight," I said.

"Madie teach you that?" Rye said.

Rye knew I didn't roll well, but my girl rolled Js better than him and Rolls. She kept the J loose enough to pull well but tight enough not to burn sloppy or canoe. I loved watching her manicured fingers at work. The first time I brought her back to the city and showed her the spots, she rolled our weed and talked above us, underneath us, and around us. My boys cracked jokes and looked out for her. They treated her like a long-lost, porcelain-colored cousin. She said our outdoor weed was garbage. We called it middies. She called it schwag. Both equated to "trash." Rye said that Madie was the first woman he ever bought a drink for, but I'd seen his lying ass spend money on chicks in high school.

Madie liked the area so much that she decided to live there when she got a finance job offer in Foxborough a few years later. The commute was about twenty minutes, but she said the money saved on rent was worth it. I didn't buy it. She wanted to prove she could hang.

"That's one hell of a white girl," Rye said.

"Don't change the subject. We're talking about you," I said.

"How is the old lady?" Dub said.

"Nah, this about him," I said.

Dub pulled on his nose the way he did when he was thinking of some heinous shit. "I just wanna know how the treads are," he said.

"Yeah, how's it hittin'?" Rye said.

I leveled my eyes at him. "Don't talk about my girl like that."

"Stop being soft," Dub said.

"He's Team Light-Skinned," Rye said. "Let him be."

"You're a fucking macadamia nut," I said.

They both were silent a second, then started laughing.

"Y'all are stupid," I said.

"Sing me a love song, Urkel," Dub said.

Rye looked away. Rolls returned and handed me my drink. It tasted like straight Coke and I told him.

"Strength is life, weakness is death," he said.

"Man, I don't even know why we come here," Rye said.

"'Cause you're scared of your landlord." Rolls took the joint from him.

"Gandhi's got jokes," Rye said.

Rye's landlord was a fat Irishman with an absurdly thick neck. He didn't mind Rye moving in because he remembered watching him take the team to a state football title back in the day. Now Rye kept his music low and entered the house without switching on the stair light when he came home real late. We could never smoke at his spots, even growing up. At his mother's house, we couldn't smoke because she'd wake up and press us for some. Rye would pretend it didn't bother him, but she'd start wringing her hands and glancing around because she wanted more than trees, and I would stick my head in the fridge and pretend there was something there to look at.

"My boy's not scared of that fat-ass mick," Dub said. "But he's clearly scared of white pussy."

"Let it rest," I said.

"Fear is at the center of all hate," Rolls said.

"You're smoked out," Dub said.

Rolls passed me the joint and got up to throw on a track. In middle school, Rye and I used to bump Dipset, wasting our freshman highs on rap with one dimension—sped-up drums, pitch-altered samples chopped up and arranged to bang like gunshots. We would smoke weed in my aunt Mary's basement because she worked a lot and was hardly home. We sprayed air freshener and enjoyed the cool mist on our skin as we walked through and back in a daze. She never came down even when she was home, but we sprayed it anyway.

One day, Rye left upstairs to go to the bathroom and didn't come back. I waited awhile, letting the minutes bend around me and grow fat as I climbed into the high. I thought I heard a door shut. I sprayed more, thinking it was my aunt, home early for some reason. I tripped up the stairs, boots heavier than usual. No one was in the kitchen–living room. There were some orange peels. Rye always ate my food. He said football players needed the calories. I wondered if he'd gone to 7-Eleven for more snacks, but his coat was still on the counter. I went by the bathroom—door open, fan still on. Computer room—empty, but the computer was loading. I sat down to see what recruiting videos he was watching, but after a minute, he hadn't returned. I went into the hall. My aunt's door was open. I went to bust in and scare the shit out of him but came up quiet inside my high. In the room, he moved around slow, stopping by her dresser and studying the pictures. He picked up one of her standing next to her flavor of the year, Luca, on a beach in Rio. She looked tan in her purple bikini. Rye stared for a while. Then he reached his hand to open the top drawer of the dresser.

"What the fuck!" I said.

Rye was so shook he banged his knee on the shelf. "Shit!" he said. "Why you sneaking up on me?"

"The fuck you doing?"

"I got lost," he said.

"You're not that high."

He sat on the bed, rubbing his knee.

I gestured at the drawer. "That shit is weird," I said.

He stood and set the photograph upright again. Paused. "She's sexy, man."

I slapped him on the back of the head. He made like he was going to tag me in the chest. I flinched. I made like I was going to tag him back. He flinched too.

"She got those green eyes," he said.

"Fuck's wrong with you?"

He paused like the question was philosophical. "I been conditioned," he said.

I cut my eyes at him. "Don't—"

"My conditioning has been conditioned." He smirked.

"Ya funny," I said. I didn't feel like picking up what he was putting down and looked at my aunt's pictures, then out the window instead.


ROLLS CRANKED UP the Impressions—So people get ready, for the train to Jordan. I loved that song, but I was surprised Rye and Dub let it ride. Years ago, Dub would've cut it off and tried to convince us to hit the clubs on Westminster, but we'd have wound up at a house party with jungle juice and dancehall playing instead. Now, we got higher and thought ahead to Thanksgiving, about chopping it up with whatever family we had left.

Rolls had his attempts at abstract art hung on the walls. Maybe it was the smoke, or the way the red, green, and white paint seemed to pop over the black roofing material, but the work was actually beautiful, balanced.

"He won't tell us 'cause he ain't been with any," Dub said.

"How many have you been with?" Rye said.

"Too many to count." Dub smiled.

"Stop lyin'."

"I like to take 'em in the shower." Dub grinned. "Let 'em bathe me," he said.

"You watch too much porn," I said.

"I even had this one, Cici, after she finished washing me, she hit me with the Eddie Murphy line."

"Bullshit," Rye said.

"Real talk. She said, 'The royal penis is clean, Your Highness.'"

"You're lyin'," Rye said.

"Why would I lie?"

"You add to the mischief of the world," Rolls said.

I liked to wash Madie's hair when we were in the shower together. The way it trapped water and became heavy satin in my hands. It went all the way down to her lower back. She thought mine was waterproof. Her shampoo smelled of sweet citrus and vanilla. She let her hair air-dry in the kitchen while she made steel-cut oats with flax for breakfast. I drenched the hippie shit in syrup and told her how good it was.

"Yeah, aight," Rye said.

"I just treat 'em how they wanna be treated. Choke the daddy issues out of 'em. If they want me to play Dominican, I let 'em call me Papi. Anything but gentle. Long as you know that, you're straight."

"Lyin' ass—" Rye started.

"Don't be mad at me," Dub said. "You should really do better for yourself. You played ball."

"I've fucked white women," Rye said.

"Then just tell us how many."

"I'm out if you don't stop," I said.

Rye took a deep pull from his drink. It wasn't his pace.

"You ain't gotta be mad. We ain't talkin' about Madie," Dub said.

When Dub and I used to slap-box in high school, Rye would always break it up before we close-fisted each other. Dub said I was too pretty to throw hands anyway. I told him his bulky ass was too slow to fade me. He'd say, Light-skins bruise like fruit.

"You think she been keeping herself pure for you?" Dub said.

"Easy, Dub," Rolls said.

"You think some big motherfucker ain't coming around to hit it right while you're not here."

I stood up. Dub leaned forward.

"And you think Simone faithful to your lame ass?" I said.

He brushed some ash off his long leg. "Keep my girl's name out your mouth."

"Dub, fall back," Rolls said.

I kept my eyes locked on Dub. "Who's whipped now?" I said.

The music changed tracks and went on. Old Cole.

"Nigga, you sweet—"

I slapped the joint out of his mouth before he could finish. He was halfway up when Rye grabbed him in a bear hug, there on the couch. Dub threw his elbows a few times trying to break free.

"Calm down," Rye said. "Calm down."

"Nah, this nigga thinks his girl isn't community property. It's a revolving door when you ain't around, Captain Save-a-Ho. You the only nigga that kiss that bitch on the mouth."

I tried to get close enough to swing, but Rolls had gotten up and was standing in the way.

"Calm the fuck down," Rye said. "Leave," he said to me.

"Fuck that—"

"I know niggas that piped!" Dub said.

I lunged and swung at his face, but at the last moment Rolls tried to step in front and tripped on the table. My knuckles landed on the side of his jaw. I felt the connection like when the baseball hits the sweet spot of the bat—it caves with a softness. Rolls fell against Rye, then into the couch. Blood already outlined his teeth. Rye and Dub still struggled. I didn't know whether to apologize or keep swinging. I felt like I was in a pool of water and my limbs were weak and slow. Then Rolls kicked me in the shin with his heel.

"Go!" he said. "Get the fuck out."


IT WAS COLD out and leaves scratched down the block. Rye said that Rolls was fine. We were faded. The night was dark. We headed toward East Ave. Back toward Rye's. It wasn't rough like Prospect Heights, where he came up, but he still wanted a nicer place where he and his girl, Marissa, could live together. Rye stumbled a little bit, leaving the glow of the orange streetlight and falling into shadow for a moment.

"I haven't had an empanada in a while," I said.

"Yeah," he said, "you've been gone a minute." His voice sounded far off. A car wheeled by with windows rattling.

"So were you."

Rye stopped, burped, and let it out into the night like dragon fire. He took a quick right into the backstreets. I tripped a little trying to follow him.

"Forget the shortcuts?" he said.

Stefano's yellow awning came up on the right, a high man's beacon to buñuelos and ramen hot enough to peel the weed film off our tongues—that was high school. The inside smelled the same as always—grease and incense. The baked goods in the case had gone cold, but if you told them you were going to eat it then, they fired it up hot for you. I got two chicken empanadas and a potato one for Rye. He thought they filled you up more. The man behind the counter was too tall for his job. He threw the goods in the toaster and turned the knob, then went back to his magazine.

"Drew still work here?" I asked.

He looked up. "Who?"

We stared at each other for a moment. "Forget it," I said, but he was back in the pages.

I thought about getting a strawberry soda. My tongue felt thick. I eyed the Game wraps and thought about when we'd cut class to smoke in Slater Park—hotbox the car, then get the five-dollar special at East Buffet while the Chinese workers eyed us like we were going to dine-and-dash on them.

"Put the potato one in a separate bag," I said.

Outside, Rye looked at the bag a long time before saying he didn't want it.

"C'mon, we're lit. You're starving," I said.

"I'm not hungry."

"I don't even fuck with the potato ones," I said.

"I'm not fuckin' hungry."

"Stop acting shady," I said.

"Shady?" He laughed. "What are we, in middle school?"

"Strange, weird, suspect, indignant. What the fuck you want me to say?"

"Say my name, say my name," he belted into the night.

I was about to clown him for singing but started eating instead. The chicken ones were too good and I was too hungry to wait for his bullshit to cease. They were hot all the way through. I missed cutting class to come grab a bagful with Rye, talking about which coaches were after him. The day he got a letter from Morehead State, his mom broke down and started thanking God, even though she wasn't religious like that. He was going to school for free. I bought bottles and we found a nice spot on the river, mixed Hpnotiq with Henney, threw it all on ice and drank until we couldn't feel summer's absence.

"You know he woulda laid you out, right?" he said.


"Dub. He woulda beat your ass."

I put the crust of my empanada back in the bag and stared at him. "Fuck him, I—"

"Nah." Rye cut me off. "He woulda fucked you up."

"You got something you want to say?"

"Why you mad?" he said.

"Why'd you stop him, then?"

He looked off. "'Cause I didn't know you were gonna swing on Rolls."

I flexed my fist and thought about Rolls, bloody-mouthed on the floor. I wished my car wasn't parked at Rye's. Madie would be waiting. She hated when I came home lit, but she liked getting lit with me. I visited her place so many weekends that we were trying to figure out how to move in together. Our time was like repeated honeymoons, languid and blissful—ordering food, frantic sex before, taking our time with the thing after, falling asleep in ways that only we knew, having worked them out together night after night until we fitted like matryoshkas.

He quit smiling and watched the stoplight at the top of the hill. The city was built on hills, with roads that curved and ended abruptly and led deeper and deeper into a labyrinth split by a snaking river that changed color with the season 'cause of the dye left over from the textiles back in the day.

"I did sleep with one white girl," Rye said.

I crumpled my bag from the market and tossed it, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. "Why didn't you just say?"

He sped up a little and I lengthened my stride to follow.

"None of that shit would've happened," I said.

"Fuck you, you should've fought him forever ago."

"He roasts niggas, that's just what he does," I said.

He eased up on the pace. "I'm just playin'. I didn't sleep with no white bitch."

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" I said. "What happened?"


"Bro, remember when I caught you looking through my aunt's panties?"

He shot me a look, then smiled. "What had happened was—"

"Man, shut up." The wind picked up to bring winter faster. "Whatever it is can't be that bad."

"Aight," he said. He glanced over at me. "Well, in the middle of it…" he started.

We were at the stoplight. There were no cars. He bounced into the street. I followed.

"When I was hittin'."

"Yeah?" I tried to catch up.

"She called me a nigger."

I fell behind a step, then two.

"That's fucked up." It was all I could say.

I thought about if Madie pulled some shit like that. I thought about the type of white women who went out in search of that, the ones who kept the word in the backs of their throats—an ugly appetite. Madie wasn't like that—guilt maybe, that was this country, but nothing dank and malignant. I thought back to when we'd looked at each other in the mirror together, floor-length at her parents' in Manhattan, her smiling with a hand around my dick. I tried for a minute to see what she saw. I told myself I wasn't on an auction block in front of her.

"Rye," I said.

He woke up.


I reached the left onto his street before he did. Still he was silent, trying to lock something inside, back where it belonged. He grew fidgety in the shadow of the streetlight.

"Yo," I said.

He turned. "I liked it," he said.

"Liked what?"

"When she said it." He paused. "I fuckin' liked it."


"It made me harder."

We neared his steps.

"Like—hardened your resolve to find a strong black woman?" I raised my fist.

He left the joke in space.

I stopped as we reached his stairs.

"You're not staying?" he said.

"Nah, man."

He toed a spot where the stair was chipped and splintered.

"Over that shit?"

I handed him the bag with his empanada. "I just want to see Madie," I said.

He put his hand on the rail before he turned to go up and paused. "I loved it," he said. "It made me an animal."


"No, you don't understand, man. I grabbed her hair and turned her face away. I don't know." He took a breath. "I wouldn't even let her look at me. She said it again—Fuck me like a nigger." He stared at the ground for a while. "I wanted her so bad," he said. "She tried to turn her face toward me and I just buried it deeper. I thought I was going to break her. It's like I couldn't stop. I shoved my fingers down her throat with my other hand and she closed her eyes. I wouldn't even let her do that. I raised her eyelid so she had to keep an eye open. I bit her jaw until I saw teeth marks." He brushed his hand over his waves like he'd always done. "I lost my mind."

He went up the first step. The automatic porch light came on. I imagined him walking up the stairs to the second floor in the pitch-black. Going home to no one, eating his food alone.

"Then it worked," I said.


I took a few steps back. "She got what she wanted."

He held the paper bag tighter, glared like he was going to start something, then his eyes softened. "Say hi to Madie for me."

I let the words hang in the night. As I turned the corner toward my car, I heard the apartment door close.







Two pieces of my pops' advice stuck with me—Don't marry a white girl, and Never pick the skin off chicken—it's the best part. I don't pick the skin off of chicken 'cause he was right about that. And even though it was just my pops playing around, I can't see the first piece of advice sitting well with my mom, Nicoletta.


LONNIE CAMPBELL COULD run so fast. Lonnie could hit so hard.


MY POPS WAS big enough to block doorways, and Mom was small enough to almost fit her whole body into one of his pant legs. It's hard for me to imagine them together. They met back at the University of Washington. She was his tutor, but really she wrote essays for players on the Huskies football team to pay her tuition. Pops grew up an army brat and spent some time on Fort McChord when Big Daddy, his father, was stationed there. It made sense for him to stay in Washington. How my mom, an East Coast girlie, ended up in Washington, I still don't know. She doesn't speak much on it but always yells "U Dub!" every time she sees someone rocking the gear, and I shake my head.


  • "Stunning...Devastating...Inescapably staggering...Holmes's literary musicality shines...His lyricism, his depth of prose, pops with quiet authority...His uncanny ear is so delicately rendered that the book not only bursts with life during each back-and-forth, but it evolves...The longing , the regret, the sheer sense of life builds and builds, with Holmes planting plot seeds that sprout, suddenly, as enormous emotional payoffs...How Are You Going to Save Yourself moves to these familiar, lifelike beats, and achieves an electrifying singularity in the process. Though pitched and structured as a story collection, this is a book of novelistic richness."—David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly
  • "Holmes directly tackles issues of race, class and sex...this wholly original book is a gripping examination of what it is to be a man in America."—Angela Ledgerwood, Esquire
  • "Holmes's skilled voice and impressive ear for dialogue make this a refreshing read."—Lovia Gyarkye, New York Times
  • "A shockingly powerful debut collection from a writer whose talent seems almost limitless...It's hard to overstate what an incredible writer Holmes is...How Are You Going to Save Yourself is a stunning accomplishment, a debut book that reads like the work of a writer with decades of experience."—Michael Schaub, NPR
  • "JM Holmes' debut is a biting thing....Expertly crafted and shudderingly raw, How Are You Going to Save Yourself explores the intersections of race, class, gender, and desire through powerful voices and messy, unforgettable characters."—Maya Gittelman, Bookreporter
  • "Explosive...A clever exploration of the fractious nature of a camaraderie and codes of masculinity...By turns funny, surprising, and deeply uncomfortable, the lead story culminates in a moment so brutally honest, so quietly ferocious, it left me dazed...Holmes also deftly addresses family dysfunction and the complexity of mixed-race identities...His eye remains unwaveringly unsentimental...The raucous, heartbreaking, bawdy tales in his debut collection possess an assured lyricism, uncompromising in their interrogation of race, class, drugs, and family...How Are You Going to Save Yourself treads the line between humor and pathos, offering sharp insights into the black American experience. Holmes has been compared to Junot Diaz and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but he is a distinctive writer in his own right. Spare in style, strikingly urgent, his is a voice to get excited about."—Irenosen Okojie, Guardian
  • "Buckle up! JM Holmes's debut grabs you with the first sentence and doesn't let go till it drops you gasping after the last period. This collection offers a tough and heartbreaking vision of masculinity, as powerful as it is uncomfortable. But boy is it worth the ride."—Ayana Mathis, New York Times bestselling author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie
  • "JM Holmes writes like someone told him Denis Johnson and Mat Johnson were brothers. These stories are as ferocious and fearless as those of his heroes."—James Hannaham, PEN/Faulkner Award winner for Delicious Foods
  • "JM Holmes is not just a new voice but a new force: honest, urgent, compelling, often hilarious, and more often gut-wrenching. In How Are You Going to Save Yourself, he writes with remarkable compassion and intelligence about characters whose own compassion and intelligence sometimes betray them. Comparisons to Junot Díaz and Denis Johnson are perhaps inevitable, but I imagine they'll prove short-lived; in a few years we'll be comparing writers to JM Holmes."—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers
  • "It is a rare gift to us all when a writer's talents and subject command equal attention, but that is just what we have here in JM Holmes's superb debut, How Are You Going to Save Yourself. Written in spare, colloquial, and deeply evocative prose, these linked stories capture the contemporary lives of young men trying to find their way in this world, young men who also happen to be black in a post-industrial, ever-changing cultural landscape. These powerful stories herald the rise of an important and timely new voice among us, and I will now look for anything by JM Holmes."—Andre Dubus III, New York Times bestselling author of House of Sand and Fog and The Garden of Last Days
  • "Holmes's searing study of masculinity is offset by irresistible heart and biting humor."—Entertainment Weekly
  • "As up-to-the-minute as a Kendrick Lamar track and as ruefully steeped in eternal truths as a Gogol tale, these stories mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "In these linked stories, both harrowing and funny, Holmes clarifies what it's like to be young, black, and male in America...Holmes, who won a fellowship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is getting a big push."—Library Journal
  • "A crackling debut...Holmes proves his ability to navigate vulnerability, as well as his fearlessness in tackling tense situations head-on, all of which combines for a collection of superb stories."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Holmes's writing is fresh, and his dialogue rings true. He doesn't shy away from difficult subject matter or from showing his characters' flaws, which makes for some incredibly tough scenes to read, but also highlights the everyday travails of black men in America. Readers looking for timely, nuanced fiction about race and masculinity should definitely pick this up."—Booklist

On Sale
Aug 21, 2018
Page Count
256 pages

JM Holmes

About the Author

JM Holmes was born in Denver and raised in Rhode Island. He won the Burnett Howe Prize for fiction at Amherst College, and received fellowships to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. He has worked in educational outreach in Iowa, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. He lives in Milwaukee and is currently at work on a novel.

Learn more about this author