Editor’s note: Today is James Joyce’s birthday. Seemed as good a time as any to resurface Brendan Jay Sullivan’s opus about “learning the art of dirty texting and moustache-growing from the iconic novelist and poet.” Enjoy.

Between arriving on campus for senior year and the first day of classes, my college girlfriend and I broke up.  We’d dated since sophomore year and had spent the summer at her parents’ beach house. I remember thinking that it was a welcome change and might even give me some extra time, which I needed to focus on my semester-long James Joyce seminar. My roommate was in the class, and we were going to dive headlong into it.

On the morning of our first class, however, my roommate wasn’t there because he was sleeping with my ex. At home we were best buddies, sharing our last semester in college and splitting a four-way cable bill and stromboli now and then. In the cafeteria, I watched nervously as he and my ex made glances across the table at one another. Sometimes she laughed at his jokes. I spent the rest of that semester poring over not only my 644-page Ellman edition of Ulysses but Gifford’s 643-page Ulysses Annotated for hidden meanings, double entendres in Esperanto and any other fun facts I could use to argue with my blowhard roommate in class.

James Joyce’s liveliest writing of all is the epic sexts he sent to his beloved Nora Barnacle.

It ate me up inside. This guy was a shitty friend. The girl? Garbage. But what could I do about it? My brother reminded me over and over that in Ireland I would be honor-bound to pop this guy in the face. But it was my last year of school. If I got kicked out for fighting I would graduate late. And worse: I’d miss the Joyce seminar.

Instead I just sat there, letting my feelings grow into a nice hard tumor inside.

That was ten years ago. And I still like Joyce. I was born in 1982, he in 1882. He published his first book in 1914; mine (ahem) came out 99 years later in 2013.

But like Joyce, I struggled with the follow-up. So I decided to return to the old boy.


Joyce Quest: How to Rock the ‘Stache
Came back from a woodsy trip upstate and discovered I had accidentally gotten a jump on No-Shave November. When my first book came out, so did my first beard. It was fun to look older than my author photo, which had been hastily taken only a few weeks before. The beard got mixed reviews. When I trimmed down to just the mustache, though, it caused quite the stir on Instagram.

“I’m not letting you near my kids!” joked a childless friend, saying I looked like a child molester. How did James Joyce handle this?

One thing is that James Joyce wasn’t wearing an ironic mustache. He simply wore a mustache. So I went for it. This time, I took a little extra care. I trimmed it in line with the corners of my mouth.

But more importantly: I walked around with a look on my face that said, “There’s nothing ironic about this!”


Joyce Quest: Dirty Text

Once I met a girl at an NPR fundraiser, right after I broke my leg earlier this year. She texted, “Come over here so I can tie you up and beat you with that cane.” It was followed by quite a number of saucy pictures. I never responded. I keep thinking that it’s my inner Irish conservatism that keeps me from sending girls dirty texts.

But, then, how do you account for this? James Joyce’s liveliest writing of all is the epic sexts he sent to his beloved Nora Barnacle:

My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or fling you down under me on that softy belly of yours and fuck you up behind, like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the very stink and sweat that rises from your arse, glorying in the open shape of your upturned dress and white girlish drawers and in the confusion of your flushed cheeks and tangled hair.

Maybe Joyce can help me become a smooth texter? Surely there must be something I can use. But then I discovered that there is not one sentence that isn’t dirty. Not one! None of the surviving letters deal with their mortgage or children’s tuition. There’s this:

At every fuck I gave you your shameless tongue came bursting out through your lips and if I gave you a bigger stronger fuck than usual, fat dirty farts came spluttering out of your backside. You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole.

Mercy me! Maybe I could learn something here. But no. These words will never come out of my mouth:

The smallest things give me a great cockstand—a whorish movement of your mouth, a little brown stain on the seat of your white drawers, a sudden dirty word spluttered out by your wet lips, a sudden immodest noise made by you behind and then a bad smell slowly curling up out of your backside.

Usually, when I am in a good relationship with a woman, I like us to be able to discuss things. But this?

You say you will shit your drawers, dear, and let me fuck you then. I would like to hear you shit them, dear, first and then fuck you.

Communication is key. I knew I would regret it if I ever used to such language. But then this happened:

No letter! Now I am sure my girlie is offended at my filthy words. Are you offended, dear, as what I said about your drawers? That is all nonsense, darling. I know they are spotless as your hearth.

I found only two sentences in all of the letters that I could use. “I am dying all day to ask you one or two questions.” Okay. Solid. Intriguing. And, “But I wish you spoke of yourself and not of me.” Everything else is about sex positions and Nora’s butt noises.

First, I tried Tinder. I struck out every time.








Then I saw a text from the NPR girl. Wow. Okay.






But then I got this:


There aren’t any copies of Nora’s letter’s to Joyce.  So I don’t really know what brought him to say what he did.  But she was game:

James Joyce sexting

Joyce text



But then….she caught on.

Joyce text

I stayed the course…

Joyce text

Joyce text

Hard to imagine Nora Barnacle ending a letter like that. But I’ll take it!

Joyce Quest: Make extra money as a musician

When James Joyce was working on his first book, he wrote book reviews and got work as a singer. I had no idea. When I wrote my first book, I found work as a DJ. When that book never sold, I had to find more work as a DJ. And more. And more. Eventually I wrote a book about being a DJ.

Joyce was actually an accomplished singer, winning the Bronze at Feis Ceoil (“Festival of Music” in Ireland). I sang in a band in high school and was a member of Boston’s first Baile Funk group (our single “Hey Shorty!” was cassette-only in 2000, during the height of Napster). Later I began producing music and carved out a niche for myself as a road dog. No offense to James Joyce, I’m the headliner. I wouldn’t take the bronze if they gave it to me in precious-metals bonds.

But then, last night, I got a call from Amex. They’re putting together an event to support small businesses. Jack Antonoff from the band fun. is playing a gig with his new band Bleachers. They want me to open. Okay, easiest day yet: I got the bronze before I even started playing.


Joyce Quest: Drink myself blind.

For years, people thought James Joyce went blind from absinthe. Turns out it was syphilis.

Right around lunchtime I was looking through my schedule and realized I had the rest of the day off. Maybe I should get fucked up! When you’re a working artist, drinking during the day is like our version of white-collar crime. You see a bottle, you see your to-do list (boring shit like, “submit expenses,” “invoice to French mag”) and hellfire flickers in your eyes as you say, “Who’s going to stop me?”

Later that night, I was going to a party anyway. But then my doorbell rang. A friend of mine had asked me to bring her to a birthday party for her sister. Who was in the hospital. With a stroke. We needed to go. Drunk.

This day would be my Mulligan. MY BUCK MULLIGAN, THAT IS. HEYOOOO.

Man, I’m wasted.


Joyce Quest: Avenge College Roommate

On Thursday, my Facebook feed filled up with the one person I had ever unfriended in real life: My college roommate. He was featured on the popular “Humans of New York” feed.

Social media is the equivalent of those insects you see suspended in amber. We see them as perfect, but really they’re just frozen in the middle of an intense struggle before death. I resisted the temptation to see the amber tones of his golden-hour slice-of-life as perfection. Fuck this guy. And his made-for-TV moment with some bullshit photographer.

It got me thinking. WWJD?

I feel really dumb, still being upset about that short period of my life. But whenever I go to my college reunions, I see old friends. They are happy for me. They tell their friends about my book. My professors are happy for me. And all I think is, You assholes just stood there and let it happen.

At my reunion in May, I realized I remembered nothing about college. I had classes. I read books. My vocabulary improved. I formed lifelong relationships with professors. But when I look back now, I get what Frank McCourt calls “Irish Alzheimer’s.” That’s what happens when you can’t remember anything except a grudge.

I decided just to ignore him and go back to Joyce research. Then I realized something: James Joyce also fought with his roommates in college. While renting in Martello Tower for six nights, Joyce got in a fight with his roommate, who then pulled a pistol and shot at the pans hanging over his head.

Joyce got revenge on his roommates.  Not just on the one who shot him, but the other two who stood by in his 1922 novel Ulysses. He did this by making them all look like boobs. The novel begins, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…”  He called his roommate fat! The dude was 40!  If I’m still pissed at this guy in 2022, I don’t have Irish Alzheimer’s, I have bigger problems. But good to know: I have eight more years left of this grudge!


Joyce Quest: Outline Next Book

Friday, I went to Bryant Park with Anastasia. We met at a language meetup. At the end of the meet up, those in attendance divided into groups based on the language we were learning. I met a cute blonde girl who grew up in Mexico City. Her father had an entire other family in the States that she only met when she was 18.  This family welcomed her with open arms, but they did not speak Spanish.

I used to be one of those people who “doesn’t have another language.” It’s embarrassing to travel somewhere and need someone else to order drinks for you.  Then I found out that James Joyce spoke 17 languages. 17! I know 17 words for “drunk,” but most of them are in English. James Joyce knew how to say “shitcanned” in Arabic, Sanskrit and Greek. (For the record: سكران: سكران, (Hindi) मदहोश, and στουπί στο μεθύσι {“half seas over}.”

Anastasia tells me that she is dating another guy. They met at the language meetup. Moments after, I got her number. I feel jealous for a moment, then just a little silly. She helps me with my French pronunciation and then she asks me to help her sound more American.

Joyce was originally lured to Trieste to teach English. There was no job when he got there. Beritz set him up in Pola, now part of Croatia. Instead of that, I trade lessons for lessons. We make up tongue twisters for each other. Anastasia has very proper British pronunciation, so I make up Americanisms for her with all the t’s hammered down into d’s. (“I had a daughter, I taught her to bother her father for water.”)

Strange that Joyce only taught English, out of his 17 languages. Maybe he, like me, had some handy references and liked writing in obscure alphabets. Speaking of things James Joyce did that I hate doing: He was an amazing outliner.

Here is the plot of Ulysses, a Dublin take on the story of the Odyssey:


He broke it down by plot, hour of the day, scene, which body part it concerns, literary technique (monologue, narrative, etc), chief symbolism, art (music, medicine, navigation, etc). Then again, I thought, James Joyce did this once in his life. There is no schema for Finnegan’s Wake.

I would consider today a success if I just wrote down “My next book will be about a guy named ___.  Every day he did ____, until one day ___happened and so he had to ___.”

Instead I found out my friend had a baby, and I went out drinking.


Joyce Quest: Teach self Norwegian.

As a student, James Joyce loved the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. After Shakespeare, Ibsen is the most-performed dramatist in the world. In the world. Think of that. The little speck of cold, terrible earth between London and whatever fjord Ibsen crawled out of is responsible for that much of the world’s theater.  Sorry, Aristophanes.

Joyce liked him so much that he taught himself Norwegian to write Ibsen a fan letter. My ex-girlfriend was born in Oslo and had given me a copy of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck last Christmas. (It’s inscribed “To Brendan with love, Henrik Ibsen.”) I never read it.

But for Joyce, I decided to give it a crack. I read all about Håkon Werle, Mrs. Sørby, Gråberg, Hjalmar and the lot.  I think I understood most of it.  The translation is in English, but I have been seeing this Norwegian girl recently so I decide to give it a go.

She has been teaching me Norwegian. The trouble is that she is from a small town in the south that has deep, gloital “R’s” that sound something between a French “R” and the noise a bobcat makes in the woods. If I showed up in Oslo talking like this I would be considered a shitheel.

However, since Joyce only wrote Ibsen, I decided I could cheat a little bit on text. I added the “Norwegian” keyboard on my iPhone (this autocorrects my spelling thank god).

What follows is a retranslation based on the pidgeon language she has written out for me to say things like “I like candy” and “You are pretty, thanks.”

Me: Jeg savner deg. Du er pen. [I miss you. You are pretty.]
Søta: Haha, bra bruk av hva jeg har lært deg
[Haha, good use of what I have learned you.]

Me: jeg har lært deg det jeg er glad I deg. (is the “r” in “du er pen” like the r in “Roger”?) [I have learned that I am happy in you (is the “r” in “du er pen” like the r in “Roger”?)]
For me: Yes/ja. [For me: Yes/ja.]

Me: Ja? [Yes?]
Søta: Ja. Men det er min dialekt.
[Yes. In my dialect.]

Me: Du er velvillig. jeg lengter etter deg. Du er søt. Du er smakforsterker av dagen min. [You are benevolent. (Strong word, but one Ibsen used in a response to Joyce.) I long for you. You are sweet [cute]. You are the MSG of my day. (MSG translates as “FLAVORAMPLIFIER.”)]
Søta: Ingen har sagt det siste til meg før. Liker det! 🙂
[No one has said that to me before! I like it! :)]

Me: Deg liker det? vær så god! [Like you that? Be so good! (“You’re welcome!) ]
Like this: liker du det? Ja, jeg liker det! [Like this: You like that? Yes, I like that!]

Me: Liker du det? [You like that?]
Søta: Ja!!! Veldig godt!
[Yes!!! Very good!]

Me: Gratulerer så mye, due er en fantastisk smågodt. Det er godt. Og nå vil jeg lakris [Congratulations, you are a fantastic little candy. It is good. And now I want licorice.]
Søta: Nå vil jeg ha lakris.
[I have licorice.]

Me: Salt lakris? [Salty licorice?]
Søta: Ja.

I am invited to come over and have some candy.


Joyce Quest: Repent

You know that feeling you get when you start a new job or try a new language or learn to code/write/knit? You feel like your brain might shut off and never switch back on again. That’s how I feel after a week of comparing myself to James Joyce’s entire life.

As a lifetime, it might be well spent. But as an endeavor, I don’t recommend it.

I could spend the rest of my life trying to be James Joyce. But comparing myself to other people is what made me so miserable in college. A man who thinks the same way at 30 as he did at 20 has wasted ten years. If there’s one writer I want to outdo, it is me. I want my next book to be even better. I want to travel. I want to learn new words. I want to flirt in Norwegian in the past tense someday.