on Give and Take, a novel by Stona Fitch (Concord Free Press – which is half the story)

Stona Fitch’ s second novel, Senseless, was published by Soho Press on September 11, 2001. Eliott Gast, an American trade representative, is taken hostage by terrorists and then methodically deprived of his five senses. His agony, monitored by cameras, is broadcast globally. The harrowing scenario may be the book’s subject, but the affecting content lies among the turnings of Gast’s mind. Jason Behr plays Gast in the Plum Films Ltd. version of Senseless -- an indie feature by Scottish director Simon Hynd just nominated for best UK Feature Film at the Raindance Film Festival in London. stona3.jpgSenseless has also been published in British, German and French editions (by Two Ravens Press, Matthes & Seitz, and Livre de Poche, respectively).

stona2.jpgWith this success underway, Fitch completed his third novel in mid-2007, Give + Take, the story of a jazz pianist/diamond and luxe-car thief/rogue philanthropist named Ross Clifton. Fitch is both a musician (songwriter, banjo and mandolin player for the fondly remembered 1980s Boston-based punk/alternative band Scruffy the Cat) and a former crime reporter – and he gets his novel’s main character (the narrator) and the world he plays and scams in just right. Fitch also has the writerly juice to propel a fast-paced road novel. The dialogue is pitched perfectly as Clifton and a front-seat companion, his nephew Cray, hustle along their way with a cache of counterfeit bills to boot. A love interest, crime scenes, a car crash, violent confrontations – the nimble plotting offers plenty to hold one’s interest. Give + Take is ultimately about the amount and force of energy it takes to wrench oneself out of a grooved and perhaps unmindful way of life.

The novel begins: “I press my fingers on the warm keys of the grand piano and hear the thrum of huddled couples and clusters of bankers anxious to be entertained. My ten-foot Bösendorfer languishes in a Noho loft, but I put that memory aside. It’s just me and the slightly battered Baldwin tonight, two scarred nightclub veterans on a low stage, our world defined by a radiant ellipse from a flickering spotlight.” Ross Clifton isn't an analytical thinker and Give + Take isn't a multilayered psycho-drama. It's a fast-paced story told by someone who has experienced just enough of a jolt to his routine to tip him into a speedy reflection on recent events.

stona.jpgSo of course, Fitch pitched his novel to publishers, and a “young editor at a major US house loved it” and helped him pare and shape the manuscript. But the book languished after the editor left the publisher. “So I ended up with an orphaned manuscript, as many writers do at some point in their career,” Fitch told me in an interview. “Just when I was about to send the book out again, the idea for the Concord Free Press showed up.” The novel, a road adventure that ends with a reconsideration of what is and isn’t valuable in a life, inspired a literary project based on just that reevaluation. (Fitch’s altruistic streak also gets a workout at Gaining Ground, a non-profit farm in Concord, MA that gives away organic produce to people in need. He is a former director as well.)

This month, the the Concord Free Press published Give + Take in an attractively designed edition of 1000 numbered copies. The book is free and distributed through the press’ website and two dozen independent bookstores, each of which received 25 copies to offer (though most of the inventory been grabbed up and is circulating). People who receive a copy are asked to donate a sum of their choosing to “a charity, someone who needs money, or an unhappy-looking stranger” – and to go to the press’ website to chart the book’s impact and note their own donation. In just the first two weeks of distribution, Give + Take has generated more than $8,000 in donations. Fitch and co-conspirators bankrolled the production, and intend to raise $50,000 in donations via Give + Take to good causes—far beyond what most literary novels make for their authors.

The Press asks readers to pass the book along, thus creating a potentially long-lasting chain of readers and givers. Readers are encouraged to return to the Concord Free Press website to chart the growth of donations and to indicate to whom they have made their donations. Donors’ names are kept confidential.

“We’ll publish two books a year for the next ten years,” Fitch said. “We’re soliciting titles, looking for that audacious manuscript by a writer with a few novels published but who can’t seem to find a press for that manuscript. Perhaps something outside of that writer’s usual genre. We’ve already got our next book, to come out in May 2009.”

A former student of Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, and Gloria Emerson, Fitch has completed his fourth novel, The Printer’s Devil, to be published by Two Ravens Press (Scotland) next March – obtainable for several pounds sterling. According to Fitch, “A couple publishers seem to think our project undercuts their efforts to keep their margins. As I keep saying, publishing books is fun – but trying to make money at it is really hard. Luckily, the Concord Free Press is freed from the burden of profitability. One bookseller asked why he should give away something he’s trying to sell. I pointed out that we’re not suggesting that all books should be free, just ours. But by and large the independent booksellers love the idea.”

If you’re unable to obtain a copy of the novel through the press’ site (that is, at some point very soon they’ll run out), send me an email with your name and address and I’ll mail a copy to the first three people who request one – and make two donations (I’ve made one already).

For my local readers: Fitch reports that the Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square called the Press today “saying they absolutely must have some copies.” So a couple dozen copies of Give + Take should show up there shortly—and disappear quickly.

[Published October 2008, 193 pp., paperback, $0.00, www.concordfreepress.com]