Bud Smith is more than the sum of his individual traits, and yet any one of those would be enough to buoy a lesser person’s ego. He’s a hell of a writer: honest and vulnerable and sincere. More importantly, he’s a nice guy, approachable and willing to lend a helping hand. His writing, in many ways, is emblematic of what makes him a decent person. Complex yet relatable, his words balance universal emotional truths with a touch of both humor and sadness.
Smith has been on the online indie writing scene for almost a decade now, maybe longer. He’s been published in various publications, such as Wigleaf, PANK, and Hobart. I remember coming across a story of his in a small online magazine of some renown. I was intrigued by the sparsely named title. Surrounded by clickbait titles, the name “Everybody’s Darlin’” was simple and direct, something the rest of the piece continued, and conjured up a country song title. He had me at the first line, “I became a minor celebrity around town after the police threw me through the plate glass window of the porno shop.” For the next ten minutes, I wasn’t disappointed. His words had weight behind them. In an age of constant scrolling, his story made me slow down and think and wonder. The text was unadorned. The dialogue was tight and crisp.
We drove behind the porno shop. A narrow path. Branches slapping the windshield making me flinch, but she didn’t flinch. Some lucky people fear nothing.
But in the trees, all sap covered and weather-faded, I saw a blow up doll someone had resurrected from the dumpster, and hung there in the dead branches, lying horizontal flying like Superman or Superwoman. Transexual. I pointed up, but the girl didn’t lose a beat.
“I see that every day,” she said, and just kept cruising. “Hey why’d they do that? Why’d they throw you through the window?”
“I walked in the backroom and caught those cops masterbating on a guy they’d handcuffed. Having some kind of a race.”
“That’s what our tax dollars are for?”
“Some of them, anyway.” I wiped my bloody brow, quivering. Adrenaline gone and me suddenly overtaken by weakness. “I was just looking for a quiet place to get high.”
Bud’s writing style is distinct—He writes autofiction, or autobiographical fiction, in a way that is devoid of the usual pretentiousness otherwise found in that genre. But he doesn’t simply write about things he’s lived. He balances the high-wire act of fiction and non-fiction.
His latest book, Teenager (Vintage 2022) has been tabbed as a teenage Bonnie & Clyde road novel but, like most of Smith’s other works, it’s not that simple. From that trope, he extrapolates a heartbreaking narrative that explores many topics, such as romance, religion, and violence. The prose style is similar to that of his shorter online works in that it’s direct but is accompanied by passages of unbridled exuberance and flowery, descriptive language that sprinkles the work with a touch of humanity. It’s a love story and an ode to Americana, past and present. Sentimental at moments, but also biting in its critiques of our modern culture, the book finds a sweet spot somewhere in-between and vacillates between the two.
The book begins with an escape from prison and just escalates from there. From the very first chapter the reader is plunged into a narrative of halted, seemingly simple sentences. Direct declarations that portend deeper meanings.
Again the first key fit. But it wouldn’t turn. He tried another, and another, worrying about the guard, but keeping his cool, thinking of Tella, of the bomb threat that got him locked up in the first place, of his foster mom’s trailer—he wouldn’t be going back there. Thinking of Tella’s father, mother, brother, the water tower, the Scrabble game two of the other kids were playing in the rec room that morning and all the three-letter words they’d made. Their low scores.
The lock disengaged. He stepped through the second gate. He slipped out the front door of the Mayweather, no alarms sounding. He couldn’t hold back his laughter. His sneakers crunched on the frosty grass. He sprinted across the fullmoon-lit field. Carefully scaled the far chain-link. Didn’t even damage himself on the razor wire. All of it, beginner’s luck.
When talk of writing comes up, Smith is just as straightforward as his own fiction. “I always have a few projects going at once. They all take years. But each year I seem to finish something. Teenager was written while I wrote two collections of short stories, a book of poems, and a memoir. I’m always making a messy first draft of something new while also furthering a draft of something else, bouncing back and forth. All I can say about the journey of the novel was that I’d write it and know I could do better and then think of what had to be done. A couple times that meant retyping the whole thing. Once I read it all out loud to Rae then I retyped it again.” Although Smith’s work can evoke Hemingway, Bukowski, and Kerouac minus all the faux machismo crap, he lists Martha Grover, Scott McClanahan, Kurt Vonnegut, Tim O’Brien, and John Steinbeck as his biggest literary influences. “Everything I see and experience finds its way in my work somehow. I’m influenced by what happens to me every day. Teenager holds my critiques for my country and my adoration for this country too.”
This is Smith’s coming-out party, as it’s his big-press debut, but longtime fans of his fear not¾he hasn’t lost the voice that he’s honed over the past decade as he’s climbed the literary ladder. Nor has his approach changed: “I usually write on my phone at work on coffee break and lunch breaks, working in power plants and refineries at my heavy construction job. When I come home for the night I usually retype something on my typewriter to get it to a further draft, or I edit something on my laptop. I do write almost every day but I don’t care if I miss a day, or two, if I don’t feel like doing it I don’t do it that day.”
There is a poetry to even the most mundane descriptions within the book. A feeling that you’re in on a secret that no one else is privy to.
Almost dark. They scrambled across ditches, through difficult woods, brambles, vines, spiderwebs. Explosions in the distance got more frequent. Stumbling, bumbling. Bombs let loose. Bottle rockets screeching. Cricklecrack cricklecrack. Amateur cannons shot. Kody and Teal kept falling forward, misstep after misstep.
Through the branches they saw a strip mall with a neon sign. Some ridiculous jack-of-all-trades. A psychic who issued bail bonds and was also a small-claims lawyer who gave payday loans. The business’ sign said FUTURE SO BRIGHT.
There are many takeaways from his novel, Teenager, but Smith tries not to get too philosophical. “There’s no message in there I can point to, it’s up to the reader. But I do hope when people get finished with the book they get an itch to travel and see their country, hit the road, meet their neighbors.”
Patrick Trotti is a writer, editor, and Oxford comma enthusiast. He’s perpetually at work on another novel. He lurks on Twitter @patricktrotti and can be found at patricktrotti.com