Lev Butts Remembers Richard Monaco

As many of you know, my great friend and mentor, Richard Monaco, passed away on June 13, 2017. It has been almost two years now, and I still miss him. I miss our weekly phone calls where we would discuss the finer points of writing, critique each others work (he'd do more of that because I rarely saw anything worth changing in his), talk about good shows to watch on Netflix, or just bitch about the Braves and the Yankees.

Me and Richard the night I first met him in person in NYC
I loved that man like he was a second father, and in many ways, he was. Nobody took as much interest in developing my writing as he did, and he was just as happy for both my writing and personal achievements as any parent. He was always interested in everything about my life and family. He was always genuinely interested in my wife's job and her graduate school experiences, my son's schooling, and my dog. He never shied away from offering parenting advice: "Stay out of their way unless they're gonna kill themselves. Teenagers eventually figure it out, and they will ask for help when they need it."

Anyway, today would have been his 79th birthday, and I thought I would interrupt my list of fantastic self-published books and take a moment to remember him. What follows is the afterword I wrote to his last published book, a collection of memoirs titled No Time Like the Past:

For the ancient Greeks, the gods were all too tangible. While no one had ever truly seen them, everyone knew where to go to find them: right over there to Mt. Olympus. If you were particularly daring, you could even climb to the top and meet Zeus and Hera, Athena and Ares, all of them. That no one had ever come back from the mountain with tales of sipping ambrosia with Demeter and Apollo, did nothing to diminish the tangibility of the gods. Of course, no one had ever returned. They either angered the gods with their presumption and were immediately put to death, or they were honored for their bravery and allowed to stay.

Richard's favorite picture of himself,
from the dust jacket of The Grail War
And once you were allowed to remain on Olympus with Dionysus, who in their right mind would ever choose to come back?

Besides while you yourself may not have seen a god personally, your village likely had some who claimed personal knowledge of the gods. Perhaps the local cocksman insisted he spent a lovely night alone with Aphrodite. Or everyone knew the child of Hypatia was fathered by Zeus disguised as a beggar when he found her alone in the woods. Maybe that beggar you helped out was Poseidon in disguise; who knows?

As mankind grew, however, and became more enlightened, our gods grew farther and farther from us. They grew fewer in number, and their travels in the world grew more and more distant from our time. Sure God took the form of a man and walked the world preaching peace and healing the sick. Sure He died for man’s sins and rose again. But that was long ago and far away.

Today, celebrities are the closest things most of us have to tangible gods. We know where they live. We see and covet the miraculous talent they have. Since most of us will never come any closer to a real, living, breathing celebrity than perhaps a desk’s length at a signing, or maybe front-row tickets at a concert, their very existence becomes mythic. We allow them their foibles, for when a celebrity falls, a celebrity falls grandly, and in a manner no mere mortal could ever survive.

Of course, as with the ancients, this view of our deities is complete and utter claptrap. Celebrities are no more divine than gods are mortal. And this realization is equally as refreshing for us mere mortals as our initial hero-worship. For if we can understand that our heroes are just people no better or worse than ourselves, then the possibility exists that we, too, may one day reach the same level of celebrity/godhead.
My favorite picture of Richard,
on the roof of his apartment building
demonstrating the proper use of a katana

Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs serve this purpose for us. Most of us will never meet our heroes. Without them, they may as well remain as distant from us and our lives as Mount Olympus.

I have always loved reading nonfiction accounts of people I admire. As a teenager, my shelves were filled with fantasy, science fiction, and horror novels, yes, but there was also a significant section of biography and autobiography, too. I particularly enjoyed accounts of John Lennon, the Beatles, Bob Geldof[1], and Nick Cave. But I also had biographies and memoirs of writers: Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller.

The best part of these books for me wasn’t the parts about how my favorite albums or novels came to be. That was interesting of course, but the best parts, the parts I kept coming back to again and again, were the bits from before they were famous. The parts that could just as easily been about me or my friends.

That is the magic of biography. They make the fantastic seem achievable.

If, like me, you grew up reading Richard Monaco’s Parsival series and fell in love with it, hopefully the book you have just read did the same thing. Richard’s account of growing up in New York and its environs, I’m sure, is applicable to anyone growing up in NYC, Atlanta, Chicago, or any other city large enough to have its own boroughs. Sure you may not have hitchhiked across America to not meet Faulkner, but you probably pulled similarly foolhardy stunts, the stories of which you still relive with your high school buddies or use to bore your children.

from Richard's very short stint
as the fifth Beatle.
For me, Richard’s memoirs are all this and more. Yes, there is the same fascination with the oddly normal childhood that bears so many similarities with my own. For a Yankee, Richard had an oddly Southern upbringing (or for a Southerner, I had an oddly Yankee one). His close-knit Italian-American family and community reminds me very much of my own Southern upbringing where aunts and uncles carried as much authority over me as my parents, and cousins were secondary siblings. We were also both the sons of policemen, and grew up as much in the stationhouse as we did in the neighborhood. Richard’s accounts of his father remind me in equal parts of my own dad.

However, unlike the other celebrities whose biographies rest on my shelf, I actually know Richard. I’ve written elsewhere on how I first came across Richard’s Parsival in a used bookstore as a teenager and carried it in my satchel everywhere I went in case I decided on the spur of the moment to read it again. I’ve also told the story of how I came to meet Richard through Facebook six years ago and how I had the chance of a lifetime to edit his fifth Parsival novel, The Quest for Avalon, and to help him self-publish it. Since then he has published one more new novel, Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha; re-released his fourth Parsival novel as a new paperback; and, more recently, had his entire back catalog optioned by Venture Press for reissue as new ebooks.

Since then, he and I have become close. He has helped foster my own writing in ways that I can never completely catalog. I published my first collection of short fiction, Emily’sStitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway about the same time Richard published The Quest for Avalon, and the first two volumes of Guns of theWaste Land, my own reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends, has recently been published as an ebook by Venture Press as well, after Richard suggested they look at it when he was discussing his own work with them. In many ways, whatever small success I enjoy as a writer, I owe to Richard Monaco.

But that is not why I love these memoirs.

One of the last pictures taken of Richard
Richard has become family. We’ve been friends for over half a decade now. We speak about once a week on the phone and email or Facebook message almost daily. He knows my family, and I know his. I try to visit him regularly, once even pitching a tent and camping on the roof of his apartment building. Along with my high school friend and fellow novelist, Scott Thompson, we have begun an online literary journal, The Grand Central Review (conceived of and created during the aforementioned urban camping trip). Richard Monaco, over the last six years, has become more than an idol; he has become a mentor, a colleague, and, more importantly, a friend.

But that is not why I love these memoirs, either. It’s part of it, but not the whole of it.

I love these memoirs for the same reason that I love my father’s stories about his own life and I see how they helped shape the man he became. It’s the same feeling I get when I read letters from my grandfather to my grandmother written throughout their lives, not just when they were courting, but when he was dying, too. They give me a fuller picture of a man I adore, admire, and respect, not in the way you adore, admire, and respect, say Kurt Vonnegut or Nick Cave, but in the way you do family.

Thank you, Richard, for asking me to write the afterword.

And thank you for everything else, too.

July 8, 2016

1 Geldof’s autobiography Is That It? is still one of my favorites, and highly recommended.


Umberto Tosi said…
My condolences to you, Lev, on the loss of such a dear friend, colleague and mentor, and thank you for posting this tribute to a fine writer and inspiration to his fellow scribes. Wish I could have known him myself.
Leverett Butts said…
Thanks. In many ways you kind of remind me of him.

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