Books We Can’t Quit: S.F.W. by Andrew Wellman

Random House

January, 1991

Chosen by David Atkinson

I have to admit, I’m a little nervous to talk about this book.  For a lot of people, certain books take on an almost sacred character.  They speak to a part of the soul that other books simply have no clue how to reach.  We read them over and over, always being able to regain that holiness whenever we open the cover again.  Think of books like The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Infinite Jest, and The Ginger Man.  S.F.W. is that kind of book for me and right now I feel like I’m trying to run a guided tour of the inner sanctum of a temple.

And what is S.F.W.?  After all, that isn’t really the title.  Wellman never wrote a title.  He won a Playboy fiction contest for his short story “The Madison Heights Syndrome.”  Random House asked him to turn it into a novel and he sent something in.  Before he knew it, and before it was finished, they threw on a title and a cover (which is atrocious) and tossed it out into the world back in 1990.  They even made a movie with Reese Witherspoon and Stephen Dorff.  To date, Wellman hasn’t even seen the movie.  Nor after the way S.F.W. was mismanaged has he been able to find a publisher for the subsequent three novels he has written (which are actually pretty good despite a few rough spots).

But, I’m off track here.  S.F.W. Imagine Cliff Spab, a young white loser from a low class Detroit suburb.  He walks into a convenient store with his best friend for some beer.  A terrorist group seizes the store, holds everyone inside hostage, and films what ensues.  Inside the store, Cliff and the other hostages pretty much go nuts, drinking all the beer in the store and doing whatever else they can to try to get by while they wait to see what the terrorists will do.  Eventually, a showdown occurs:

Joe sat up picked up the last beer, opened it and took a gulp, passed it to Wendy, who did the same before passing it to me.  My swallow was medium-sized; I put the can on the floor, not yet empty.

We heard the familiar sound of a helicopter overhead.

“Fuck it,” Joe said quietly.  “Next chance I get I’m going to start killing these motherfuckers.”

He said it like he was joking, but I knew he wasn’t.

Only Cliff and one other hostage escape.  Cliff’s best friend dies.

Oh, Cliff also finds out that the terrorists forced television networks to nationally air the footage of Cliff and the others.  For reasons that baffle him and oddly foreshadow the reality television culture we live in today, Cliff finds himself a celebrity.  Before he can even get his head together, Cliff is besieged by the media circus that has become all so disturbingly familiar in the modern world.

However, that isn’t all there is to the book.  As Cliff retreats from the overwhelming absurdity of his position, Wellman moves us backward into Cliff’s life leading up to the fatal moment Cliff and his best friend enter the convenient store.  As it turns out, Cliff and everyone around him were pretty much already nuts.  Their lives fell apart when his best friend’s older brother, the coolest guy Cliff ever knew and strange universe center for the people Cliff is close to, dies in an auto accident.

Monica and I broke up after that.  Morrow went off the deep end a few months later.  Things never were the same.  Scott got divorced in 1985, and I started hanging out with Stacy.

I don’t know why I have to tell this part of the story.  I’m not trying to brag, and I’m not trying to set the record straight.  I guess I’m just saying, this is the way it was.  The way things had happened to me by May 2, 1986.

Previous to the hostage crisis, Cliff and everyone else were pretty much just moving forward as best they could, taking good times where they could find them but acknowledging that they were generally doomed in the face of time and the world at large.

So, really, horrifying as the hostage experience is for Cliff, it is only shades different from what had already been going on.  He knows what is important to him, guards it carefully, and ignores anyone who tries to tell him different.  This is Cliff both before the terrorists kill his best friend and after.

Technically, some of this is in the movie.  However, the movie twists the tale.  It tries to make this a love story and somehow loses what is the most captivating part of the book.  Frankly, the movie does a lot that seems shockingly ironic in light of the take on modern life the book seems to put forth, almost like the makers of the movie couldn’t get away from the very same posturing the book criticizes.  In any case, the movie doesn’t have what the book does.  The movie doesn’t have the soul.

Frankly, even in the book’s unfinished state, there is an incredible melancholy beauty inside.  The movie never captures this.  Cliff really may not be anybody special when you come right down to it, but the book has the power to take you to what is most real about him.  He is a good guy who sees the world as largely pointless crap, but understands that he must still plant his garden.  S.F.W. powerfully shows you what really matters to Cliff in a way that makes readers think of what is really important to them.  Any summary is going to fall short of the actual experience of reading the book, but I think that is the closest I’ll ever come to getting it right.

If you are lucky, you’ll get a chance to read this book.  It can still be found out there, but be careful with any copies you find.  There are only so many and there is no way of knowing what will happen if they disappear.  S.F.W. is a powerfully emotional story that speaks the truth as best it knows it.  Feel privileged if you get a chance to share in what that is.


David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.  He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.  His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”  His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at  He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.

  • Cali Limon

    Hi my name is Cali, and Im from Argentine. Ive never read this book, because it wasnt sold in my country. But Ive seen the movie. Do you know a place in the web where can I download the book? I cant find it!!!
    Sorry about my english, I know just a little.

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think this was ever published in electronic form.

  • Greg

    I didn’t like the end of the book and I thought the end of the movie was worse. The flow of the story should have Cliff walking away from the world. But that’s the end of a Jack Nicholson movie, Five Easy Pieces.

    • I can definitely agree that another ending would have been more satisfying, and that the movie was certainly worse (it was something different than the book entirely). I think the ending reflected the unfinished state of the book.