NEW YORK — At age 53, author Donald Antrim may just be getting started.
Over the past two decades, he has published three highly praised novels, a memoir and numerous short stories in The New Yorker. He has earned the respect, even reverence of such peers as Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, but so far has had what he calls "literary-level" sales, the kind that leave many writers without a publisher or even a book in print.
But those who do read him are determined to tell others. He is under contract from a top literary house, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for a novel, a second memoir and a book of stories. His previous novels — "Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World," ''The One Hundred Brothers" and "The Verificationist" — have been reissued by Picador, a paperback imprint of Farrar. Introductions are provided by Franzen, Eugenides and George Saunders, who regards Antrim as an overlooked genius.
"There's a discrepancy between what a great writer he is and how many people know this," Saunders told The Associated Press. "He is one of the funniest, sharpest, edgiest writers in America."
Antrim is almost a genre in his own right, Franzen writes in the introduction to "One Hundred Brothers," utterly "unlike any other living writer." His books are narrated by young, unstable men who wish to love and do good, but are compelled to make chaos. The plots are free and fantastic, yet constructed with mathematical logic: the romantic and philosophical thoughts of a psychiatrist suspended in mid-air at a pancake house; a home school teacher gone mad; a dining room bursting with 100 quarrelsome brothers.
The novels are short and unbroken, without chapters or even breaks between paragraphs. They take years to write in part because Antrim has no idea how they will turn out when he starts them. He will get an idea — a gathering of psychiatrists or a family meal. He will write, pause, write, step away, come back. Each new sentence works off the sentence just completed, for some 150-200 pages.
"It's a very frustrating, but in some ways a really pleasurable way of working," Antrim, a tall, stocky man with a thoughtful speaking style, said during a recent interview at his Brooklyn apartment.
His literature is no stranger, or more complicated, than his childhood. A native of Sarasota, Fla., Antrim was mostly raised by an alcoholic mother who aged into "an increasingly damaged Lady Macbeth," he wrote in the memoir "The Afterlife." His parents married, divorced, then married and divorced again. He had an uncle who was apparently enough of a threat that federal and state agents once handcuffed him and took him away.
Antrim didn't know he wanted to do for college beyond get out of Florida. He chose a top school in the North, Brown University, where his fellow students included such future authors as Eugenides and Rick Moody. Antrim was interested in theater at the time and Moody remembers working with him on a production of Franz Kafka's "The Trial."
"I was a little intimidated by him at first because he was a couple years ahead of me," Moody told the AP in an email. "But I remember vividly the day, in rehearsal, when, in operating the whip that was one of his character's props, he threw his shoulder out of the socket, and then set about, in character, trying to get the thing to pop back in.
"I can remember an early reading when he spent nearly as much time fiddling with the mic stand as he did reading. It was sort of this Buster Keaton thing he would do — maximize the sight gag for as long as possible. Donald doesn't always want to entertain. He's sometimes too conflicted to allow himself to do so. But when he does, he is the funniest and most brilliant person around."
After college, he worked as an apprentice actor at the Alvin Ailey Theater in Houston. But a career on stage seemed unlikely, so he moved back to New York and was hired as an editorial assistant at Little, Brown and Company. Antrim worked under Ray Roberts, an "old guard" publisher who reprimanded the young employee for chronic lateness and schooled him on the meaning of being a writer.
"He said some things to me that were almost like puzzles. I remember being there after about 7-8 months and he had published a novel that I read. It was a first novel and I referred to the writer in a conversation with Ray as a 'novelist,'" Antrim says. "And he said, 'Look, he's not a novelist. He's written a novel. He'll be a novelist someday if he keeps writing novels. A novelist is someone who has dedicated his whole life to this.'"
By the late 1980s, Antrim was writing short stories, but found them uninspired. He had been trying conventional narratives, when he was better off with the kinds of stories you'll find on his bookshelves — by Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon among others. Roberts was editing Pynchon at the time, and the author's wife, literary agent Melanie Jackson, took on Antrim. In the introduction to "Elect Mr. Robinson," Eugenides remembers meeting with Antrim around 1990 at an Upper East Side diner and Antrim giving him 20 typed pages with keystrokes that "left impressions on those onion-skin sheets as delicate, airy and stylish as the opening lines."
"I was suddenly pulled into never-before-experienced realm: the sunken world of a strange and marvelous book," Eugenides writes.
"Elect Mr. Robinson" was published in 1993 by Viking and edited by Nan Graham. Now editor in chief at Scribner, Graham says she found Antrim's book "fiercely developed, irrefutable, and so funny." But over the next decade, he endured a common fate for literary authors, moving to different publishers. A decade ago, he switched agents from Jackson to Andrew Wylie, whose clients include Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie. Farrar, Straus president Jonathan Galassi signed him up.
"I have kind of come to the realization, or set of realizations, that it never really was for the money and never really was for some sort of fame," Antrim says. "I haven't had the big writer's life, but given that there have been difficult spells and periods of depression, I think I've had a really fortunate life."