"Two Minutes With The Devil" by Matt Micheli: A Rumination
Look, reading Two Minutes With The Devil by Matt Micheli is probably going to be upsetting for most of us, however, it’s also fun, nostalgic, and for lovers of urban myths and legends—and is there anyone who isn’t, don’t answer that because I don’t want to know—it has your name written all over it.
Still, it’s about children, of course, playing a game called Two Minutes With The Devil, which conjures up, well you know where this is going…though if you don’t, it’s not a spoiler to say those children are going to go missing.
Period…as my children like to say.
Now, what kind of nostalgia are we talking about? Well, the story will produce a knowing nod from anyone from any small town, though especially anyone who grew up in the 1980s, rode their bikes everywhere, had childhood friends, found young love, and lived on Mountain Dew. This was also a time where we were led to believe predators and creeps were everywhere, looking at you, following you and pulling up alongside you in trucks and vans—whether that was actually happening anywhere or not.
As I am guilty as charged on all the above counts, I’m happy to say Two Minutes With The Devil is a must read for those reasons alone. That said, I was never willing to play games like Two Minutes With The Devil, much less chase shadows down foggy lanes.
Fuck that, I’m not into tempting the fates, the dark side, or anything resembling a devil.
Further, if one is a parent, and I don’t encourage or discourage parenting, this parent will suggest that Two Minutes With The Devil, while delicious in its creepiness may be a difficult experience if you’ve ever worried about your children—and if you’re a parent, you’re always worried about your children—which might sound like this may be a read well-worth skipping, but no, the embrace of misplaced fear makes it a must read as well.
There is also Micheli’s gift for storytelling and evocative scene setting. For example:
The two boys gasped, both staring in utter confusion and dread at their friend’s white high-top sneaker, looking like it had been dumped in a vat of red paint, lying there on its side like a discarded piece of trash. Their bodies trembled as they slowly and unsteadily backed away from the darkness… (page 38).
Micheli has the chops as a client of mine once said.
And yet, while this is my experience as a reader and erstwhile reviewer reading Two Minutes With The Devil by Matt Micheli, I want to take a moment to talk about dread, its importance to this review, Micheli’s writing—the dude knows dread, and just how much I’ve been musing on this very topic lately. Because this is also about that—dread and the incessant rent-free place it’s taken up in my brain. What’s important, however, to me anyway, is what this sense of dread is about.
It is not about COVID regardless of how much dread most of us have felt about it in recent years. Well, I certainly have. Not that I’ve felt any dread recently, which may seem ironic, having just caught it and recovered from it. Maybe possessing not enough dread was the issue there. This dread is also not about the state of the world, though come on, the state of the world is quite ass, and it’s a privilege to not be worried enough about it, if not for myself, then for practically everyone else. Nor is that dread about writing this piece, I know what I want to say even as I’m figuring how to say it as I write it.
What this is then, is an exploration of how we capture dread as authors, how we nurture it, and its importance to our work. Not all work. Some work. This work. The thing I need to work on and a thing my client is working on.
Here’s the thing, my agent wants more dread.
I gave her my current manuscript and she said as a character study, great, as a piece of work I can sell, not so much. Did she say the word dread when she emailed me or when we subsequently met to discuss potential edits, maybe not. Did she say there is a need for more propulsive writing, yes, and if it wasn’t said in so many words, it was implied, and my distinct impression none-the-less.
So, I re-read The Road.
I forgot how terrible I felt reading that book the first time I read it. How intense every page is, the feeling of momentum and calamity even when nothing is happening, how uncomfortable it was, and the dread, dripping off every page. Which is what my agent was getting at—invoke those kinds of feelings in the reader, because I clearly hadn’t done so.
But I have to now.
After that conversation a client asked me to read two different openings from the same novel and wanted to know which I preferred. At the same time I started reading Two Minutes With The Devil and fuck if I didn’t think about my agent. Every page of Two Minutes With The Devil is nearly unbearable. In the best ways. I was constantly worried something was going to happen. And shit did happen, though maybe not right when I thought it was coming, but that’s a lesson here—the bad things don’t always happen right when you expect them to, but they might, and you know they will, and yo, that’s dread.
Which was also the difference with this client’s work. The writing was terrific. But what I didn’t know was the context of the book itself or why these chapters felt so different. Both openings speak to a new relationship between two young girls, but the newer opening was filled with dread and I almost couldn’t bear to read it. If that's what she's going for, then the decision with which pages to go with was obvious.
That’s clearly what Micheli is going for and I want to celebrate it. I also want to steal from it. Let’s say that differently, I want to be inspired by it. The dude has a gift for the disturbing, which is the point of Micheli’s work, and this whole exercise. If you want that, this is your guy, and if you don’t know if you want it, read Two Minutes With The Devil anyway, it’ll rock you, and sometimes we need to be rocked.
Micheli knows this and I’m glad I got to experience it. Now I need to channel it, which as my agent has already pointed out, is easier said than done. But that’s a lesson as well: dread has to happen sentence by sentence and page by page, always building and never letting up. Micheli knows that too, and for a second not spoiler alert, when you’re done with the book, you know there is more to come…and now I’m dreading that too.
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