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Book Review: “High in the Streets” with Matthew Binder

By Meghann Cionni

What does it take to make a successful novelist? It’s a question countless aspiring writers would give their limbs for. (At least their legs.) And it seems likely, from the instant success of his debut novel, “High in the Streets,” that author Matthew Binder has the answer.

“High in the Streets” follows the story of protagonist Lou Brown—an obsessive and self-destructive truth seeker hell-bent on discovering the meaning of life and what he’s supposed to contribute to the world. It begins years after reaping the rewards of his debut, prized novel (which was originally intended as a suicide note), when Brown discovers that he’s left with nothing but, as one Amazon reviewer notes, “a serious drinking problem, a wife he hardly recognizes, and a house he never wanted in the first place.”

Upon this realization, Brown throws himself into a series of precarious situations and makes every seemingly bad decision imaginable. But instead of crumbling in the aftermath of his poor choices, Brown relishes in them. He dives head first into the rubble, rolls around in the dirt and dust, and even meets a few rodents he would have never had the pleasure of being affected by if he hadn’t. Though it may seem that Brown is destroying himself and everything around him, his plight makes one realize that sometimes, the only way to figure things out is to blow everything up.

“Looking back, the main idea I was struggling with was the conflict between a man’s desire for freedom versus his allegiance to others,” Binder said, in regards to the novel’s central theme.

Judging by the positive response “High in the Streets” has been receiving, Binder’s struggle proves well worth it. Critics have been raving about the novel. They are calling Binder “a born storyteller” and likening his writing to greats such as Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway, Bret Easton Ellis, Norman Mailer, and James Salter.

Despite the rave reviews, Binder, a self-proclaimed “former wastrel of the highest order,” skirts all attempts that would permit him to bask in the glory of his own omniscience, and instead claims that forces outside his control played a major role in his breakthrough success.

“I had no outline or plan with “High in the Streets.” Every day I sat down and hoped something magical would occur. This time, it seems I got lucky.”

The fact that Binder pays homage to Lady Luck, however, doesn’t mean he’s without a system. There is a definite method to his madness—and it’s a heady cocktail of obsession, experimentation, and pushing one’s self to the limits.

Binder insists he never suffered any aspirations to be a novelist until the day before he started penning his first manuscript, which, he says, “wholly missed the mark with the publishing industry” and still sleeps in a drawer in his desk.

“Ever since, trying to write something half-decent has been my dogged obsession. Hopefully, this inclination will pass soon. It’s exhausting,” Binder said.

But even though it exhausts him, Binder finds his obsessive nature paramount to his success. “Writing a novel requires one to be completely obsessive. There’s no other way to go about it. Otherwise, you’d never get it done. When I’m writing a book, I’m completely in my own head at all times. I’m basically useless company for upwards of two years at a time,” Binder said.

Binder admits that obsession isn’t the only attribute he shares with Lou Brown. In “High in the Streets,” when Brown wants something, he goes after it, head-on, and refuses to take no for an answer, no matter the consequence. “Most of Lou Brown’s instincts mirror my own,” Binder said, eluding to the fact that he also will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

This doesn’t mean that Binder’s chutzpah always works in his favor. “I have a bad habit of always doing exactly what I want when I want. It would behoove me to embrace the concept of delayed gratification. Due to my myopia, I’m afraid I’ve abolished any chance I might have had for a successful future,” Binder said.

But has he, though? Binder’s novel is making critics swoon. From a literary standpoint, he’s already a success. And it’s probable that, if he keeps doing what he’s doing, he will continue on to have a successful future. Without his grit and determination, “High in the Streets” would never have seen the light of day.

Every day is war for a writer. If one doesn’t pledge an oath to fight for each and every word in his or her story to bitter end, all of the drawbacks that come with the occupation of writing could kill a great idea in an instant.

One of those drawbacks worth mentioning is writer’s block—and Binder confesses that he is not immune to the syndrome. “I dread sitting down to the computer to write. Every time, I’m convinced there will be nothing left of me,” Binder said.

Every writer has his or her own way of dealing with writer’s block. Some beat the spell by exercising—others, by surrounding themselves in nature. And there are those, of course, who look to more recreational outlets in hopes of an epiphany… But Binder’s cure is more on the squeaky clean side of the spectrum.

“I get all my ideas in the shower,” Binder said. “When I’m working on a book, it’s not uncommon for me to spend up to twenty minutes soaping a knee or an elbow as I work something out in my head.”

But that doesn’t mean that suds-ing it up works on its own every time. Sometimes Binder needs a little something extra to kick writer’s block to the curb. “On several occasions, I’ve purchased one-way flights, leaving the next day, to places foreign and remote,” Binder said.

Another challenge for the modern writer is dealing with negative press. Though reviews for “High in the Streets” have been full of praise so far, Binder is fully aware that that his work might not be for everyone who reads it down the road.

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