SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
March 15, 2020

Little Neddy

 

He was a child of privilege and a shameless self-promoter, but still and all, and despite my best efforts, it was hard not to like Little Neddy. He was just so damnably charming in his bright-eyed over-enthusiastic teenager sort of way, and in the end may have offered up some kind of lesson, however unintentional.

            But let me back up a bit.

            Every couple of years, some precocious teenager with dreams of being a writer would get a story published in the New York Press. Most of them were pretty good, though most thought that with that first story they had it made. That story was their ticket to fame and fortune—a juicy three-book deal or, better yet, a big studio contract. Being kids, they didn’t pause to think they’d have to write another story, and another after that, and another after that for a good long time before they could justifiably call themselves “writers.” As a result, most burned out and vanished pretty quickly.

            In 1999, a seventeen-year-old student from Stuyvesant High School—New York’s public school for smarty-pantses—submitted a story to the Press, and the editors chose to run it. There was no undue attitude in the piece, no grandstanding, the kid wasn’t trying to ape Hunter Thompson or Bukowski like most of his young wannabe cohorts—it was just an honest teenagey story about winning honorable mention in a writing contest. Good little story, and surprisingly well-written for a teenager.

            Well, unlike most of the others of his ilk, Little Neddy, as we knew him, kept coming back with more first-person pieces about being a smarty-pants but unassuming teenager in New York. They were just as good as that first one, and after a few pieces got published, Little Neddy was on his way. He parlayed those Press stories into a piece for the Times Magazine, then into a book contract two years later.

            Before his star began to rise, Little Neddy was in the habit of hanging around the Press offices whenever he could. He was a tall, wide-eyed gawky kid with curly dark hair who lived with his parents and younger brother in a fancy Park Slope brownstone. He was energetic, enthusiastic, and, yes, charming even as we all gave him the business. He was one of those geeks who played RPGs, read fantasy novels, and was good at math. A few times when I was working the front desk, he would show up with a small gaggle of friends, apparently to do a little showing off by letting them see how he could talk to the editor and hang out with the adult writers whenever he liked.

            Every time he came through the door with his little entourage, I’d get the editor on the intercom and announce, “Little Neddy’s here—and he’s brought along a group of his schoolyard chums!”

            I was never really sure how he snagged that Times Magazine gig—another piece about being a gifted New York City teenager—but in retrospect I think I have an idea. It was around the time his first book came out that I witnessed Little Neddy at his most mercenary. The miserably but ironically titled Teen Angst?…Naaaaah! Was a memoir mostly comprised of his Press pieces, that Times thing, and some new material chronicling his years at Stuyvesant among all the other little smarty-pantses. In spite of that title, the book made a splash in the Young Adult market, and suddenly Little Neddy was giving readings, talking to school groups, hosting workshops, writing more for the Times, and doing bits on radio.

            I remember running into him in the Park Slope Barnes & Noble once. I was in line to buy something when Little Neddy marched in and insisted one of the clerks tell him why his book wasn’t displayed on the “Local Authors” kiosk. The kiosk was right inside the front door, was the first thing customers saw when they entered, and, being Park Slope, was always packed with new releases written by folks in the neighborhood. I lived a fucking block away from the store, was in there regularly, and not once did they see fit to place one of my books in there amongst the new releases by nobodies. But did I ever bitch about it? Did I harangue a hapless clerk about this gross oversight? No, I didn’t really care that much, and that may have been the problem. Little Neddy, not yet nineteen, was on his way up up up, and sure enough, next time I went in there his book was displayed prominently front and center. He also began showing up at my readings to hand out glossy postcards advertising his own next reading. What balls this kid had. Did you ever see me lurking around the exit at someone else’s reading to promote my own? Of course not, but again that might have been why I ended up where I am.

            I don’t know if he used to haunt other Press writers the same way, or just me. At one point he was doing a video walking tour of Park Slope for the Times website—again, how the hell did he snag that gig?—and asked me to be in it. I said no. Nothing against Little Neddy—I really did like him—but I didn’t think the vitriol and obscenity that would spill out of me walking around the Slope would go over real well at the Times. I also wasn’t interested in being in any damned video about anything. Little Neddy was different.

            So I guess he found a way to make being a shameless self-promoter (or as I called him in that B & N, “an insufferable whore”) work for him. It was a skill he’d apparently been honing for a while, telling me at one point he’d been on a TV spot for the Nickelodeon channel when he was thirteen.

            I may be completely wrong about this, but I always got the sense Little Neddy’s parents, being affluent Park Slope parents, went way beyond being the merely supportive types, to brutally pushing him from the time he was very young to be an overachiever. That would explain a lot, right up to the very end. But I’m getting ahead of myself again, and worse, making wild, unfounded accusations.

            Little Neddy became a bit of a star in the world of Young Adult lit, following his memoir with a novel which, gotta say, was really just a teenage version of The Nutty Professor, though the Times Book Review gave it a rave without once mentioning Jerry Lewis. Little Neddy followed that with an autobiographical novel recounting his struggle with suicidal depression and subsequent five-day stint in a Brooklyn psych ward. Even though I never knew it before, I wasn’t shocked to learn that beneath that unassuming, enthusiastic exterior, he was a suicidal depressive. He was a bright teenager, so of course he had every reason to be suicidally depressed, right?

            Par for the course, Little Neddy was able to parlay that book and his condition into a new role as a public speaker, giving talks to teen groups, parents groups and psychiatric conventions around the world about the realities of teen depression.

             I was even less shocked when Little Neddy later confessed to me that he’d shamelessly lifted a lot of material from my own psych ward book for his own. He of course got a film deal out of it, and decided to follow the money into a new career as a screenwriter. Shortly before he picked up and moved to Hollywood, he asked me to do a cameo in the film version of his book. I said no again. I wasn’t annoyed that he’d lifted from me, no, I just didn’t want to be in any damned movie based on material that had been lifted from me when I wasn’t being paid for it.

            After he moved West, as always seems to happen, I stopped hearing from Little Neddy, though he seemed to do okay for himself out there. He wrote a couple of episodes for TV shows, began writing a series of young adult fantasy novels, got married, had a kid, and, by 2012, was developing a TV series with a well-known director.

            Then in 2013, Little Neddy returned to Park Slope, went to his parent’s house, climbed up to the roof, and jumped.

            So the questions arise, right? Kid had everything he set out to get. He was giving talks about teen depression all over the world, he was making TV money, he had a new YA fantasy book series in the works, and on and on. So why take the plunge headfirst into the pavement? Yes, he had a history of depression, but why off himself when he was on top? All I can offer is more wild and groundless speculation. Maybe, at thirty-two, he found he could no longer communicate with the Young Adult audience of the post-9/11 generation. Maybe he felt shame over spending a life as a tireless self-promoter. Maybe he felt bad about ripping me off. Maybe the horrors of writing for television got to be too much. Who knows?

            But as so often happens, Little Neddy’s suicide turned out to be one more effective bit of self-promotion. That teenage Nutty Professor novel of his was turned into a Broadway musical, is about to be released as a graphic novel, and production on the movie version is about to begin. A few of his fantasy novels were released posthumously, and who knows what else might crop up?

            Just in terms of my wild speculations above, I’ll be waiting for the one unreleased book he told me he was working on a long time back. I don’t know that he ever finished it, but at the time he seemed pretty intense about the project, in which, to quote Percy Dovetonsils, we might find a clue. He told me he was simply calling it “Mom”.

 

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