July 7, 2015

An excerpt from Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level


The Next Next LevelLeon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level has received a remarkable amount of acclaim, which is impressive, given that it has been out for only a few hours. As the book’s editor, I’ve savored every piece of praise that has already come Neyfakh’s way, but I must say that I’m partial to what the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and brilliant human Wesley Morris had to say about it. “Neyfakh,” Morris wrote, “wanted to write a profile. He found, instead, a moving, invaluable, acutely sensitive case study of what drives some of us to remain who we inexorably are.” The Next Next Level is a short book that wrestles with a number of big topics, but it’s this—the question of what drives creative people to do what they do, against all odds—that provokes some of Neyfakh’s most insightful and memorable reflections. As a resolutely uncreative person, I read The Next Next Level as something of a guidebook to a state of mind I’ll never understand. But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of creativity, you will find much in The Next Next Level that will move and surprise you. Below is an excerpt from the book, which you can order here.

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When I saw him this past January, I asked Juiceboxxx directly if I was right to suspect that I had inadvertently ruined everything. I laughed as the words came out of my mouth, because the possibility that he would say, “Yeah, actually,” or even, “Yeah, kind of,” was too horrible for me to fathom with a straight face. Juice had been a free man before he decided to let me be his friend; he may have been living an uncertain, not very comfortable life, but at least he was in his own lane, his hands gripping the wheel even as he swerved, skidded, and stalled. Then I came along and made the myopic assumption that what was best for me, a journalist with a wife, a dog, and a savings account, was also best for him, a turbulent and ambitious artist with dreams I never had a chance at understanding. True, he had asked me to tell him if I heard about any job opportunities. Nevertheless, it was because of me that he ended up pursuing one, and in the process, became a participant in something almost unthinkably ordinary.

On paper it didn’t sound so bad: I had given his name to two former colleagues of mine, who had e-mailed everyone in their professional network saying they had just taken over a fancy magazine about contemporary art, and were looking to bring in new people who could work a few days a week for not very much money. Juiceboxxx, at this time, was making ends meet by writing TV jingles and DJing parties, and living in the basement of a house in Far Rockaway where he paid two hundred dollars a month to sleep on the floor behind a bar. A weekly paycheck, it seemed, would be useful to him. Among other things, it would allow him to finally pay the guy he had hired to put the finishing touches on his new album.

I thought I was helping. What I didn’t think about was the possibility that having an office job for the first time in his life, and spending his days writing articles and blog posts about other people’s art, could throw Juice into a seriously dislocating existential crisis. I began to worry, after he was hired and started going in to work, that the simmering sense of panic that had always infused his entire being, not to mention his music, would thin out, evaporate, and float away.

Among other things, having this job meant doing work under his legal name instead of under “Juiceboxxx”—something he had never done before. It also meant that he soon had a room of his own in a decent Brooklyn apartment, and could predict with almost 100 percent reliability where he would be at any given time of day.

“Did I destroy you?” I asked as we sat down to dinner in Soho, both of us coming from our respective offices.

Juice smiled and looked down at his food. It took him a minute to answer.

This little book, as you’ll see if you keep reading, is about the difference between being an artist and not being one, and the confusion many people feel as they try to figure out which one they are, or should be, or wish they were. It’s also about two guys colliding with each other at a crucial moment, and despite having roughly nothing in common, using one another as mirrors both for better and for worse.

During our early meetings in New York about two years ago, I spent half the time contorting myself in order to impress Juiceboxxx, and the other half resolving to present myself to him without fear or self-loathing, as the person I really was. The story here is about the ungainly and confusing grind that inevitably comes with shifting between those two gears.

More than anything else, this is a book about people trying to figure out what it is inside of them that makes them special, and then devoting themselves to the hard work of making it legible to the outside world. It’s both a portrait of my idol—a talented outsider who has spent his life, figuratively and somewhat literally, running away from home—and a memoir about defining yourself through your taste, only to discover that the things you love don’t easily fit with who you think you are, or who you were supposed to be. Juiceboxxx leveled with me, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by accident, during the months I spent following him around and interviewing him. In the subsequent pages I will level with you, and with him.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.