With the publication of his debut novel, The Soft Exile, writer/musician Eric Kiefer ended a five-year, 12,000 mile exodus.
“Word for word, it’s not exactly what happened to me out there,” Kiefer said of Soft Exile. “But it’s about as close as you can get without becoming a confession. It’s a novel for the expatriates within us all.”
The fictional memoir draws heavily from his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Gobi Desert region of Mongolia. During this time, Kiefer gathered the raw material and life experiences that would later become The Soft Exile.
The book chronicles an idealistic, young American’s decision to join the Peace Corps after an aborted suicide attempt. He spends two years as a TEFL volunteer in the fabled lands of the Mongolian desert-steppe, searching for redemption and an alternative to modern American life. Along the way, he constructs a low-powered radio station and tries his best to go native, all the while lusting for an answer to a question that will either doom or save everything… “What is the value of a good deed?”
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“After you survive with him, you’ll either come away even more inspired, or scared straight into staying in the States. Part adventure, part survival tale, and absolutely impossible to put down till you reach the end…”
– Named as one of “The Books We Loved in 2012” by The East Bay Express
“SEEKING REDEMPTION AND A JOURNEY IN CONSCIOUSNESS WITH THE PEACE CORPS”
– The South Bergenite
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“Fans of a young Richard Brautigan (Confederate General in Big Sur) and J.D. Salinger (Catcher In the Rye) will appreciate this debut novel…”
An Excerpt from THE SOFT EXILE
The Dunghill Raconteur and the Suicide Pact
When I first agreed to volunteer for the United States Peace Corps, four stagnant years out of college and desperate as dying to prove that I was one of the Good People, I thought that I was going to save the universe.
I was going to walk through an airport archway and become a saint-in-residence… ease the hunger of the bowl-bellied, fly-eyed children… dig irrigation canals with my bare hands… heal lepers with my mind… compensate for the foul and demented cruelties of modern times… justify my existence… earn heaven… Eric the Redeemer… Eric the Guardian… all of that glorious savior stuff.
But in later times, whenever I would talk about the real reason that I volunteered to spend two years of my life living in a tent on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert, the conversation would always start with the same question:
“So what made you decide to join the Peace Corps, anyway?”
And my answer would always be the same… “It was either join the Corps or blow my fucking brains out.”
All in all, there was really no reason why I should’ve wanted to kill myself.
Yes… I’m THAT guy… the one with the normal childhood in suburban New Jersey… the one with two loving parents and a sensitive shitload of siblings and relatives… the one who grew up with all his limbs and motor functions and mental conditioning in place… the one who was told to “Eat Your Vegetables!” because there were starving people in China… the one with a five-year university degree… the one with enough pocket money to have a weekly tab at the bar… the one who was taught to appreciate Hemingway and Kafka and Orwell and Kerouac… the one with a healthy appetite and a sincere smile… the one with a blind lust for Justice and a normal-sized penis.
So all in all, there was really no reason why I should’ve held that .38 revolver to my head.
And that’s exactly what I told the suicide hotline worker.
She wasn’t impressed, as it turned out.
“So you put a gun to your head… Biiiiiiiigggg Deeeeeallllllll,” the hotline worker told me that terrible Sunday afternoon, a forced kindness tempering her vowels. “Tell me something that I haven’t heard before.”
“You’re really good at your job, you know that?” I said, trying to keep the bitterness from seeping into my voice. “Your compassion knows no bounds.”
“Everyone on staff completes a mandatory three hours of compassion training,” my telephone savior retorted. “But look, let’s get back to the subject at hand. The HOW is irrelevant with a suicide attempt… what we’re after is the WHY. So exactly what’s the problem, here? You’ve got a roof over your head, food on your table, all your limbs and digits and organs, a college degree, a loving family, and two steaks a week for dinner. I mean, holy hell, you’re living the American Dream! What terrible injustice could make you want to do something as crazy as killing yourself?”
“If I tell you, you’ll just laugh,” I mumbled.
“We’re given strict instructions not to laugh,” she assured me. “You’ve got my full attention.”
After a wary pause, I told her, “I think it’s because of Sausuage McMuffins.”
“I don’t know. It’s… it’s hard to explain,” I finally answered, more ashamed than embarrassed to admit the truth. “It’s not just Sausage McMuffins, I guess. It’s the million daily atrocities of modern America. It’s hotdog eating contests and strip malls and prime-time television. It’s one-minute Ramen noodles, and one-hour photo shops and the Home Shopping Network all day long. It’s the way we publicly finance billion-dollar sports stadiums, while homeless people die from malnutrition a block away. It’s… It’s all too big. The whole thing is just too goddamn big. And nobody can do anything about it.”
Suddenly, the phone was as heavy as lead in my hand.
“Do you want to know the last thing that I saw this morning, right before I decided to put that gun to my head?” I asked. “It was a Sausage McMuffin. That’s right… a goddamn Sausage McMuffin. That’s what set this whole thing off. See, I had gone out to the goddamn fast food place, come back with breakfast, and was about to sit down and take a bite from my sandwich, when for whatever reason, I took a closer look at my food. Now, I’ve been eating McDonalds since I was five – about ten years longer than I’ve been smoking – and there’s nothing about a Sausage McMuffin that I haven’t seen before. But this morning I must have had a new pair of eyes, because I suddenly wasn’t seeing a breakfast sandwich in front of me. It was something much different… and I’m not sure that I can truly explain what I saw, even now.”
“Try me,” she challenged.
“The big picture,” I said. “I saw the big picture.”
The hotline worker was silent then, and I thought for a moment that she might have hung up. But after a minute she cleared her throat and told me to go on.
“A Sausage McMuffin is not a simple thing,” I continued. “It is the Zeitgeist of the twentieth century, and most likely, of the twenty-first century as well. Just think about it. For every Sausage McMuffin that is lifted to some bastard’s mouth, there is a cycle of death and misery and exploitation that sums up modern America better than any poet, author, musician, artist or mystic has ever managed.
“The meat for a McDonalds breakfast sandwich, for example, comes from an industrialized factory farm, where the cattle are dotted with bleeding ulcers and pumped full of antibiotics to keep them from dropping dead where they stand. Once this meat is harvested, processed and flash frozen, it is loaded onto a refrigerated trailer and hauled hundreds of miles to its eventual destination… the local McDonalds. It is here that the employee-slaves of the ruthless McDonalds corporation assemble the ingredients for a Sausage McMuffin, working fifty hours a week for minimum wage. Here, they serve those sandwiches to a bleary-eyed horde of equally exhausted worker bees that have arrived for the daily feed. And all the while, the Sausage McMuffin grows stronger, more powerful. All the while, the beast is fed.”
I paused to catch my breath before continuing. “As I gazed down at that lousy sandwich this morning, I suddenly realized that everyone, even myself, shares responsibility for every last bit of all that weird terror and madness… and not just at McDonalds, but in the totality of our lives, as well. As I sat there looking at my sad, little breakfast, I realized that the whole world was right in front of me… the whole universe… right in one, greasy breakfast sandwich. And do you know what? I’m part of it all… that’s the sick joke. That’s what made me finally crack. I’m just as guilty as everyone else. Because, God help me, the goddamn things are delicious! Delicious!”
“And that’s when you first got the idea to put a gun to your head?” my hotline worker asked.
I slowed down for a moment, running my hand through my hair, listening to the faint static of the phone line fiber optics. “Yeah, well, I mean… what chance do we have to be Good People, when everything we do, everything we consume, everything we are, is part of the problem? It’s all too big… and not even Ghandi or MLK managed to stop it. You can’t stop the million Sausage McMuffins of modern existence… you just can’t. Ask old Joe Hill if he saved the world. Ask Cesar Chavez, or Einstein, or any of those other countless saints. You can fight your entire life, maybe change an entire generation, but the Bastards will always be camped right there on the sidelines, waiting for you to let your guard down, waiting for the Red Sea to part again so they can swarm on through and stomp your ass to Kingdom Come. And the thing is, we know that there isn’t a goddamn thing that we can do about any of it. Sure, we can cut a check for the latest, hippest pledge drive. We can populate the protests, or trade in our SUVs, or write letters to some asshole in Congress. But deep down, even the most gullible of us has got to know that these puny efforts don’t really change a single thing. History whips around like a boomerang snake, repeating itself endlessly, just with better technology. There will always be hatred, and there will always be obedience. We devour ourselves. There’s no hope. What’s the value of one Good Person in a world like this? Hell, what’s the value of one good deed?”
For a while, the hotline worker remained quiet. When she spoke again, her voice was transformed, purged of its earlier vitriol and sarcasm.
“What is the value of a good deed?” she asked. “Do you honestly want to know what I think? No bullshit… no fake compassion… raw?”
“Yes,” I said, after thinking it over for a moment. “I do.”
She paused with a professional sadness, like a hangman about to reveal a secret to the condemned. “I think that your life depends on finding out.”
We left it like that for a moment, each weighing our next words carefully.
It was she who spoke first. “You want to know the value of a good deed, huh? Well… OK. I hereby issue you a challenge. I’m giving you two years – that’s twenty-four months – to find the answer to that question. If you haven’t found one by then, I personally give you permission… on all of my vested authority as an official suicide hotline worker… to kill yourself in any gruesome way you deem fit.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Really,” she said.
I thought her offer over. Two years to take a last shot at redemption… two years of water coolers and traffic jams and subway stabbings and the Republican National Convention… two years alone in America, on the edge of a razor… two more years doomed to wander through The Cauldron… alive… without an exit.
“I don’t know if I can make it that long,” I admitted at last.
My suicide hotline worker coughed into the phone. “Well, there is something that I rarely recommend to any of my callers… kind of a last ditch, ‘grand-gesture’ type of thing… but in your case, I think that it might be worth looking into. However, it’s a secret that I’m not willing to give away for free. In exchange for this information, I want a promise. If you swear to give me two years, I mean really promise, then we’ve got a deal. But I want your word. Two years of life. And an answer to The Question. Do we have a deal?”
And just like that, I found myself saying, “OK. Two years. An answer to The Question. It’s a deal. Now please… please… I need to know… what’s this big idea of yours?”
My hotline worker laughed strangely, like a pimp whose customer has unknowingly chosen a hermaphrodite hooker.
“What do you know about the United States Peace Corps?” she asked.
And that’s how it all began.
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