The initial concept of this book took root in 1973 or 1974, when I was a law student at Columbia.
I was a Queens guy, and a classmate who had led a pretty sheltered life in Westchester was very entertained by my stories of the old playground days. He suggested I write a funny book which he, a former English major, would both edit and agent. The idea was commercial success or bust; no vanity presses for us!
We graduated in 1975, and went our separate ways as we began our legal careers. By the time I finally got around to starting the book in 1980, it was no longer going to be quite so funny. Life had intervened, my world view had shifted, and what I set out to write was Dust to Dust, the Great American Novel. (Overambition has been a steady issue for me. I once ran a marathon in October after running my first 10K race in April!)
1980 was an important year for two reasons besides finally starting the book: 1) my son Matthew was born, joining his older sister Elizabeth; and 2) unbeknownst to me, PTSD was recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and added to the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
I had not known it, but this disease had cast its shadow over my entire life, since it was my late father’s undiagnosed condition. What I never could have imagined back in 1980, had I even heard the term then, was that PTSD wasn’t done with me yet, and would eventually afflict my son, Matthew, my wife Patti, and possibly my daughter, Ann.
Anyhow, with two young kids and only working on it whenever I could (nights, weekends, vacations), it took until the fall of 1984 to complete the Dust to Dust manuscript. As promised, Phil edited chapters along the way, then approached various publishers as my agent. Despite some expressions of interest (the late Faith Sale of G.P. Putnam said in substance: “there’s a novel here, but I don’t have the time to commit to it”), the project was going nowhere.
In the meantime, my friend Kevin, today a federal judge, read the novel and gave it to Carol Rinzler, an editor turned lawyer who was an associate at the law firm where I had worked with Kevin. She loved Dust to Dust, called it a “beautiful” book, and said: “Now we have to get you an agent.” I told her that I had an agent, Phil. She explained that she meant a “real” agent. I politely responded that I couldn’t dump Phil, and would have to take my chances with him.
Phil got busy, becoming dean of a law school, and soon abandoned the project. I can’t say I was happy about his bailing, but understood because I was pretty busy too building a law practice. Dust to Dust went into a desk drawer.
My son Paul was born in 1985, and Ann followed in 1989. The Byrnes led a very active and happy life together. Except for a few attempts to give it away for charitable purposes – as in the wake of 9/11 – Dust to Dust stayed in one drawer or another for a very long time.
In 2012, I was turning sixty, and events that will be recounted in my second book, In Whom I Am Well Pleased, were rapidly unfolding. I decided that it was time to scratch that itch that never quite went away, caused by the unpublished manuscript residing in the desk drawer. Before wasting more time, however, I thought it wise to get an objective assessment of the manuscript’s merits, so I sent it for a Kirkus review.
The Kirkus reviewer was actually quite positive, in part: “Byrne’s work has many strengths including a lively, confident narrative voice and a charming vision of mid-20th century America.” While the reviewer gave me credit for painting detailed pictures, she or he also noted that “the book has an unfinished quality. The pacing is inconsistent with several sections that could be cut without limiting the narrative.”
I took the reviewer’s critique seriously, and have gone through two full rewrites, a couple of titles, and two different editors. My second editor and friend, Carol Hoenig, performed “literary liposuction,” reducing the manuscript by more than 150 pages without hitting any vital organs.
When we went through the query process again, the results were the same. Agents, the gatekeepers to the literary marketplace, didn’t smell blockbuster from the plot summary and weren’t interested. The book wasn’t dirty enough for the commercial market, and was apparently too raunchy for the Christian and other religious publishers.
So now, after a dose of rejection that should have been fatal to the project, my choice was clear: either put the manuscript back in the desk drawer for good or, as Carol suggested, bypass the gatekeepers and go directly to readers, who would decide for themselves whether the book were worthwhile. Whether stubborn or perseverant (a kinder word for the same trait?), I chose the latter course, hoping that Carol is right when she says self-publishing is not what it used to be, and no longer is the self-indulgent exercise I avoided for thirty plus years. (I always felt the book deserved to be published; I just never wanted to do it myself.)
So with that lengthy wind up, here’s my pitch for you to check out my book:
Love’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over (LNOTIO for short) is a family drama about the complex bond between a World War II combat survivor and the son whose life he has saved. Women will want to buy this book for all the men in their lives, not just to prompt a discussion about what it means to be a man, but because it details the mentality that causes males to behave in such a guarded manner. (It may not be a great book, but it’s a much better Father’s Day present than an ugly tie!)
Set primarily in Queens, New York in the late 1950s and 1960s, and Manhattan in the 1970s and early 1980s, the novel traces the experiences of James Devlin, the major relationships in his life (with mother, sister, uncle, first friend Lance, best friend Michael, enemy Sean, girlfriends and, ultimately, wife), but especially his emotional connection with his father, Dave, whom he loves but cannot understand. As James struggles to become his own man, he distances himself from his father, an advertising executive who is frustrated generally by the changes in the country he fought for, and particularly by his own son’s reluctance to perform his duty and follow his friends to Vietnam. The novel describes the disintegration of the Devlin family, and James’s attempt to recover from that loss while prosecuting an insider trading conspiracy that has reunited several characters from his past and posed both personal and professional dilemmas.
One of the major themes is how men awkwardly attempt to deal with love: with women (extremely difficult), and with other men (nearly impossible, in the case of James, without the catalyst of sports, discussion of which — “sports foreplay” — is a ritual which must be performed before more serious topics are addressed). The book also grapples with the question of how one survives a shameful act—a single instance of cowardice in the case of both James and his father that haunts each of them thereafter.
Unlike Forrest Gump, James is not playing a leading role in everything happening in a world gone crazy, but he is certainly there in the crowd—a keen observer along for the wild ride, one whose inadvertent choices in youth reverberate into adulthood as he struggles with a genetic predisposition for alcohol and drugs, and an equally ingrained Irish Catholic identity that screams at him that something is very wrong. Unlike many others, this novel tells the Vietnam story from the more common but less explored perspective: those who did not go (but had friends who did), and the lingering consequences of skipping that experience.
After many years without one, I finally came up with a dedication: to my father and son, kindred spirits, both of whom mistakenly thought they were tough enough to handle anything. I invite you to give LNOTIO a try if you are interested in finding out why James ultimately concludes, quoting Yogi Berra: “Maybe love’s like baseball …. It’s not over ’til it’s over.”
Since you’ve shown great patience if you’ve read this far, you might be interested in the opening of LNOTIO. Click here to download your free excerpt.
Reading Group Guide
- In the prologue’s conclusion, James questions whether he should have returned to the park, believing some things are better left alone. Do you agree?
- Dave Devlin’s relationship with his father had been tenuous. How do you think this affected his relationship with his son James?
- Sports is a running theme throughout Love’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over. Do you think this worked as a metaphor for the novel? Why or why not?
- World War II and the Vietnam War both play an important part in Byrne’s novel. Do you think Dave was right to be upset with his son for not volunteering to go to Vietnam?
- Lance Pritchard shows up unexpectedly later in the story. Why do you suppose James let him off the hook?
- Why do you suppose Nora gave her father such a difficult time?
- The Catholic Church has a major role in this work of fiction. How do you think the author represented it?
- This is a generational novel, filled with lots of characters and storylines. Which ones stayed with you? Do you know any families like the Devlins?
- Do you subscribe to the novel’s major premise that once love truly takes root it can never be eradicated?
- What do you think happened to James beyond these pages?