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Processed Cheese

Processed Cheese

A Novel

From a writer hailed as “astonishing,” the savagely funny story of a couple who unexpectedly come into some money in an America deranged by Mammon (Toni Morrison)


A bag of money drops out of the sky, literally, into the path of a cash-starved citizen named Graveyard. He carries it home to his wife, Ambience, and they embark on the adventure of their lives, finally able to have everything they’ve always deserved: cars, guns, games, jewels, clothes-and of course sex, travel, and time with friends and family. There is no limit except their imagination and the hours in the day, and even those seem to be subject to their control.

Of course, the owner of the bag is searching for it, and will do whatever is necessary to get it back. And of course, these new riches change everything-and nothing at all.

Stephen Wright has woven out of the language, images, and stories of our wealth-obsessed culture a novel of once-in-a-generation vitality and inventiveness. Darkly hilarious, Processed Cheese is both satire and serious as death. It’s a road novel, a family story, and a last-girl-standing thriller. With the clarity of a Swift or a Melville, Wright has created a funhouse-mirror drama that puts all the chips on the table, every bullet in the clip, down to the last breathtaking moment.
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Genre: Fiction / Fiction / Satire

On Sale: January 21st 2020

Price: $14.99 / $18.99 (CAD)

Page Count: 400

ISBN-13: 9780316126274

What's Inside

Chapter 1: A Windfall

The day was hot. The sky was blue. Graveyard was tired. He’d been pounding the pavement for hours. He was looking for work. He had no job. He had no money. He was flat broke. You know how that is. Sweetbreads and applesauce, he said to himself, I need some cash real bad.

Just then a big canvas bag came sailing down out of nowhere and crashed into the sidewalk inches from his feet. Graveyard looked up. The tall buildings looked silently down. The bag sat upright in the middle of the bright, astonishing day. People walked around as if nothing had happened. Clams and sourdough, he said to himself, I coulda been killed. Graveyard knelt down. He tried to open the bag. It was fastened at the top by a lot of tricked-out leather and metal doohickeys. He had trouble making his fingers work. Everything around him looked like a mirage. Hard melons and soda water, he said to himself, I coulda been killed. And this time he really believed it. He focused his mind. He focused his fingers. He tried to open the bag again. He unbuckled the buckles. He unstrapped the straps. He looked inside. His mind went around like a pinwheel. The bag was packed to the brim with plastic-wrapped bricks of fresh one-hundred-dollar bills. He buckled the buckles. He strapped up the straps. People walked around as if nothing had happened. Graveyard felt drunk. Then he felt hellasmacked. Then he felt like he was going to have a heart attack or something. Slowly, he got to his feet. Slowly, he picked up the bag. It was big. It was heavy. It was like trying to pick up a child who didn’t want to be picked up. He pretended to look calm. Then, without a glance in any direction, he just rushed off up the street. Just rushed off. Hugging the bag to his chest. As if it were his. As if it had always been his.

Ambience was in bed. In the current era she was almost always in bed. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t tired. She just wasn’t feeling good about herself. She’d been feeling this way for a long time now. She didn’t know why.

This was a good day. So far. She’d only cried once. Even if it had lasted on and off for more than three hours. She wiped her face with her blue sob rag. It was actually a prayer cloth she’d ordered once from a televangelist who was a dead ringer for BubbleWrap, the famous stand-up comic. To Ambience, tears were sacred. They were the juice life squeezed out of you.

She was propped up on giant pillows a rancid shade of orange she couldn’t quite believe was decorating her life at the moment. She was watching television. Whenever she was down she watched television. Lots of television. E. coli contaminations. School shootings. Child predators. Any television.

Right now the set was tuned to The Go-Boom Hour on TheHappyChannel. Sixty crankin’ minutes of all kinds of crap being blown up in super x-mo. Her favorite segment was the ratings blockbuster “Exploding Cart O’ Meat.” The detonated beef seemed to actually blossom. Like flowers.

Her good buddy on these daily voyages on a mattress was her aloof cat, NippersPumpkinClaws. Nippers lay sprawled at the foot of the bed in a careless bundle of regal grandeur. His whiskey-colored face fixed in a permanent expression of sour disapproval. Was there any pleasing this cat? Not likely. And the slightest movement Ambience made was instantly absorbed into those spooky green owl-like eyes. Not that Ambience even moved around all that much. A trip to the john was a regular safari. Her favorite animal, in fact, was the turtle. For all the obvious reasons. She wanted to be a turtle in her next life. Or even in this one.

She was nibbling on something sweet and sticky she had found in an uncovered bowl in the refrigerator. One of Graveyard’s dubious leftovers. She didn’t know what it was, but it tasted good. Was it good for her? She didn’t know. How many things could a person worry about in a day?

She was also—the ever-dutiful multitasker—leafing through a week-old edition of one of the last hard-copy newspapers, The Mammoth City Muffler (“If It Ain’t in the Muffler, It Ain’t the Truth”). Every now and then she liked actually holding the news between her hands. She liked rattling its pages. It seemed more real, more true. She never knew much about what was going on in the world outside her head. Mostly, she didn’t care. Why should she? Sometimes, though, she did feel a bit squidgy about being so dumb. But then, any time she made the rare effort to actually find out what was going on in the world outside her head, she only found the same stuff that had been going on the last time she had dared to look. People screwing each other, people screwing each other over, people screwing each other up.

These were not good things to be saying to oneself. They gave her a bad case of the hurries. Like there was a secret sender planted somewhere deep inside her, hacking into her system an endless stream of malware to make her sick. She’d been searching for the Off switch for years. No luck. Other not-so-good things to say to oneself: Am I fat? How are we going to pay next month’s rent? Why do I have to die?

Suddenly Nippers’s head jerked up and froze. All fine feline attention converging on the open doorway and beyond. Then, in a furry blur, the cat was gone over the edge and under the bed. That was easy to read. Graveyard was home. Nippers didn’t trust Graveyard. Graveyard didn’t trust Nippers. They had a dysfunctional relationship.

Then there he was, filling the doorway and grinning. Seriously grinning. This surprised Ambience. She hadn’t seen Graveyard so much as smile in . . . well, she didn’t know how long. These were not smiley times.

“What’s with you?” she said. He looked exactly like the “damn fool” her father had always claimed he was.

Graveyard held up a dirty old canvas sack. Grinning and grinning.

“You got a job,” she said. “As a mailman.” She could believe just about anything about him at this point.

The bag thudded to the floor. “You know I can’t work for the government,” he said.

“Why not?” She hated it when people made grand pronouncements about themselves. They were almost always lying.

“Principles,” Graveyard said.

“Don’t make me laugh,” she said. Then she laughed.

“You’ll see,” he said. “Oh, boy, will you see.”

He bent over. He opened the bag. A lot easier the second time around. He pulled out a brick. He tossed the brick onto the bed. “Choke on this,” he said.

Ambience studied the curious object for a moment. Then she picked it up. She looked at it in her hand. She looked at it from top to bottom. She looked at it from side to side. She lifted it to her nose and smelled it. “Is this real?” she said.

Graveyard was busy opening several packs of money with his teeth. He appeared to be swept up in the sort of common frenzy usually induced by a visit from the landlord or a call from a collection agency. “As real as a six a.m. knock on the door,” he said. He kissed the stack of bills in his right hand. He kissed the stack of bills in his left hand. “Sweeter than the pope’s ring,” he said. He thrust a stack up to her mouth. “You kiss,” he said.

So she did.

“Lick,” he said.

So she did. And it was icky and gross, but she couldn’t help herself—she began to experience the first flickerings of heat from down in her boiler room. And that was good.

Then Ambience picked up the knife lying on the nightstand among her various prescription vials, her various combs and brushes, and her collection of various small stones and rock chips no one but her knew what the hell to make of. The knife was long and thin and impressively glittery. It had a handle made of narwhal horn. She kept it nearby because she was afraid of things in the dark. And a lot of things in the light, too.

This was an important distinction. The knife had once belonged to ThreeWood, an old boyfriend of hers who had used it to threaten her and to open new DVDs. He also once used it to open both wrists and bleed to death on her birthday, an occasion she had not really celebrated since. It was still quite sharp. The blade slipped easily into the plastic-wrapped brick. Then, in a blink, hundreds of hundreds were spilling across her lap. Like she had just given birth to a green mess of fresh cash.

For the moment, Graveyard was totally gooned. Wrapped hopelessly into the bouquets of pretty currency clutched tightly in each fist. Had he leaned over, opened his mouth, and actually begun chewing on the crispy stuff, it would not have surprised Ambience. He didn’t look like himself anymore. He looked like someone who had forgotten who he was.

Ambience picked up some bills, let them slide through her fingers. She picked them up, let them slide. She tossed the bills into the air. They fluttered down like leaves. Like petals. Like promises.

Now Graveyard was stuffing hundreds down into the crotch of his pants. He was making a bulge out of bucks. He posed sideways in front of her. “How do I look?” he said.

Ambience gave him a courtesy glance. “Savage,” she said. She began gathering up the bills scattered among the sheets. “All right,” she said, “we’ve had our fun. Whose money is it?”

Graveyard was studying himself in the full-length mirror behind the door. “Whose do you think it is, sweet taffy?”

“Tell me.”

Graveyard rolled up some bills and stuck them in his nostrils and both ears. “Look at me,” he said. “I’m Mister Moolah.” He held up his hands, palms outward, hundreds between his fingers. Then he began hopping mechanically from one foot to the other, doing that silly dance of his he sometimes used to try to tease her into sex when she would almost rather be sticking hot pins into her eyeballs. Sometimes, though, his ploy worked. Sometimes, strangely enough, silliness was sexy. Not today.

“Don’t make me scream,” she said.

“Good,” he said. He sat down on the edge of the bed. “Now that I’ve got your attention, pick a card, any card.” He extended a fan of pristine bills in her direction. “C’mon, luscious lady, whaddya want, whaddya need?”

Ambience was starting to feel the first flickering stages of her famous jalapeno belly. Last time she’d had jalapeno belly she was convinced she was pregnant and Graveyard had kept her up all night plotting how they could sell the baby (jokingly, of course, he said later) to a couple of sterile millionaires for a bag of beans that might, just might, redeem their paltry lives.

“Tell me one thing,” she said. “Are we in more trouble now than we’ve ever been before?”

“No,” he said. Then he paused. “At least I don’t think so.”

“You didn’t jack it?”

“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t know where to go to even look at an amount of money this large, let alone boost it.”

“You didn’t scheme it?”

“Do you believe I’m that smart?”

“No.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“You and Herringbone didn’t run these off on that fancy SecondGenerationBest-Generation copier of his? And thinking what? How punk it would be to make your own money? I can hear him now.”

“It may be punk, but that’s not what happened.”

“Then tell me.”

So he did.

“I’m going to sit here,” said Ambience, when he was done, “and I’m going to wait and no one’s going to leave this room until you explain to me just where this fucking money really came from and I don’t care how long it takes.”

Graveyard told her again.

“I said I would wait.”

“It’s the truth.”

“From the sky?”

“Yes.”

“From the Chicken Little sky?”

“Yes.”

“Chicken Little was a chicken,” said Ambience. “A fairy-tale chicken. And nothing fell anyway.”

“Or did it?” He waved the paper proof in her face.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s got to be somebody’s.”

“It is,” he said. “Ours.”

“Somebody who’s not gonna be too happy they don’t have it anymore.”

“Maybe it fell out of a plane.”

“What? The money plane?”

“We don’t know what’s going on up there. Probably tons of cash every day flying right over our ignorant heads. Or maybe it just fell out an open window.”

“Sure. Or was pushed. Maybe it even jumped. It couldn’t take it anymore. It was heartbroken. Unloved, unwanted, nothing to buy in this cruel, cruel world.”

She gave Graveyard her pointy look. “Are you sure you weren’t followed?”

“I took three different cabs. In three different directions.”

“You took cabs?”

“Today was one day I figured I could afford it.”

“How much you think is in there?” She eyed the bag as if it were radioactive.

“Oh, well, considering the magnitude of the denominations, the volume of the bag, I’d say what we have here is, roughly, about an even gazillion dollars, give or take a bazillion or two.”

“And how many pissed-off nut jobs running around looking for it?”

“I’ll buy more guns.” Graveyard had a special locked closet in their apartment where he stored his precious weapons collection. No one was allowed in there. Especially not Nippers.

“Seriously,” she said.

“Lots of guns.”

Money is a magnet for guns, Ambience said to herself. She hoped that wasn’t true.

Graveyard took a single banknote and held it up over his head. He pretended to stare through it. “Know what this is?” he said. “This is a window. A magic window. Know what I can see through it? The future. Guess the color of our future, beefcheeks.”

“Uh, green?”

“Four-leaf clover, Statue of Liberty, traffic-go-light green.” He stood, unzipped his pants, let them drop to the floor.

“What are you doing?” said Ambience.

“Getting clean.” He stepped out of his underwear. He peeled off his shirt. He picked up handfuls of bills. He began rubbing them vigorously all over his body. As though he were showering and money were soap.

In spite of herself, Ambience was amused. Graveyard hadn’t looked this fine to her in years. She could see the molecules dancing across the surface of his skin. The sight felt good. It made something in the dark inside of her break, come apart in a soft rain of little sparkly pieces. That felt good, too.

Graveyard was laughing and rubbing and, frankly, growing visibly erect. “Washing out the past,” he said. “The grime of history. My history. Your history. This is Day One. Understand?”

She understood.

He wrapped a roll of bills around his penis and pretended to fuck it.

Ambience enjoyed the show. She hadn’t felt this nice since Grandma FlightSuit died and left her exactly $7,346.12 no one knew she even had. That was the money Ambience used to get herself a boob job. That had made her happy, too.

“Come over here,” she said, “and stick that big nasty thing inside me.”

So he did.

It was the best orgasm either of them had ever had.

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Praise

PRAISE FOR PROCESSED CHEESE:
"Processed Cheese does for consumerism what Catch-22 did for war."—Stephen King, bestselling author of IT and The Shining
"In novel after unsparing novel-each one gorgeous, too, and full of awe- Stephen Wright has emerged as a kind of modern-day Socrates hectoring a complacent citizenry to have a good hard look at its collective delusions. With Processed Cheese, he's written a novel so outrageous and diagnostic of our current ills, it will prove much stronger than hemlock. If you hope to keep up your venality, America, your cruelties, and your death wish, better string this court jester up by his toes."—Joshua Ferris, author of The Dinner Party
"Stephen Wright is one of the most original and exciting novelists alive. Processed Cheese was worth the wait."—Kevin Powers, author of the The Yellow Birds
PRAISE FOR STEPHEN WRIGHT

Meditations in Green (1983)

"Precisely that brutal hallucination we desperately wanted to end." --Don DeLillo

"The best that any fiction about this war has offered." --Newsweek

M31: A Family Romance (1988)

"Beautiful and terrifying. . . . M31 offers a big, bold look at the American family. It takes us far away and very close to home. . . . Stephen Wright is a . . . bright star in the literary sky." --San Francisco Chronicle

"M31 is a devastatingly forceful accomplishment and reestablishes its author as a star of the first magnitude." --The Washington Post Book World

"Mr. Wright's sentences buzz like high-tension wires. I enjoyed reading every word of M31, literally." --Russell Banks

Going Native (1994)

"An astonishing novel." --Toni Morrison

The Amalgamation Polka (2007)

"An extravagantly talented novelist. . . . For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads. " --Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

"This dark and lyrical tale of madness and prophecy speaks uncannily from within its period, in the tradition of heartbroken humor, which America's lapses of faith in its own promise have always evoked in the finest of our storytellers, among whom Stephen Wright here honorably takes his place." --Thomas Pynchon

"Quite simply an astonishing novel, brilliantly executed and beautifully written. Stephen Wright deserves to be famous and feted for it."
--The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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