In the sweet, slow-paced first scene of Darren Callahan's The Numbing of Audrey Green, it's 1957 and a bright eight-year-old girl eavesdrops on her father as he repeats a strange, irresistible chord on the piano. Seemingly tailor-made to snare grown-ups raised on A Wrinkle in Time and "The Chronicles of Narnia," this quasimystical hook quickly drags the reader into a violent, sexy saga of embezzlement, murder, and abandonment--not to mention watery supernatural subway stations through which people who may or may not be dead wander and swap identities.
Numbing is the first volume in a self-published trilogy, "The Chronicles of Audrey Green," that Callahan, a local writer and musician, has been selling on the Web for the last few years. On his site (www.darrencallahan.com) you can buy the individual books for $10 a pop or get the entire 761-page soft-bound set for $20. You can also buy CDs and cassettes by the slew of bands he's played in, plus unproduced screenplays and several other self-published novels, including his first, Hours Until We Sleep, of which Callahan says, "Like most first novels, I like it but I hate it."
The 34-year-old workaholic, who still has an "uncool" day job he doesn't want to disclose, had some early success as a musician. When he was 18 his first band, the Life and Times, landed a recording contract based on the success of a single that got heavy airplay on Cincinnati's WOXY and wound up opening for the likes of the Smithereens and 10,000 Maniacs. A later project, Oo Oo Wa, signed to Chicago's Limited Potential Records, put out two LPs and two EPs in the mid-90s, and earlier this year released a four-CD box set commemorating their first album, Screen Kiss.
Callahan added writing to his bag of tricks in 1995, but so far he hasn't been quite as lucky getting publishers to give his fiction a shot. He finished the trilogy in 2002, but waited until last January to send the manuscript to agents. No one bit. According to Callahan, one told him the books were "too smart," while another said that "the opening blew me away but the fantasy elements seemed too unique for literary fiction."
His prose admittedly moves to odd rhythms. The stories are built around the unsettling repetition of various patterns: people share eerie variants of the same name; musical scores turn out to be guides to stealing from company coffers. The haunting chord that grabs Audrey in Numbing is only the first strand in a web of bizarre non-coincidences. But the narrative's twists always serve the tale, and Callahan conjures interlocking spirals of plot and meaning from masterfully orchestrated crowds of dance-hall girls, beboppers, society ladies, murderous highwaymen, plague-ridden children, and a young woman on a quest to find her missing stepsister. Callahan says some readers find the first book confusing, but by the third installment "it's like crack. People have just become addicted to it--its complexities and its characters. That makes me happy."
Though he's still looking for an agent and a publisher--he's currently waiting to hear back from Random House, Henry Holt, and Penguin Putnam, among others--Callahan says he's thrilled by how well the "Chronicles" have done thus far: he's sold over 1,200 books and grossed around $13,000. For the reader's sake, though, it'd be nice to see them published in a pulp edition. Currently printed on thick paper stock, the bound trilogy is a devil to hump on the bus.
On Friday, September 26, at 8 PM, Callahan will read at Quimby's, 1854 W. North, as part of Chicago Authors' Night; other local scribes on the bill include Paul McComas, Bryan Brickner, and Newtopia editor Charles Shaw. It's free; call 773-342-0910 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.