When we last met former mailman Shawn McBride, son and grandson of Holmesburg mailmen, a court officer at the Criminal Justice Center, he had just published his first novel,
Green Grass Grace
"Shawn McBride is a hoot and a half," enthused Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo.
"The best book about Philly - Philly, mind you, not Philadelphia - that I've ever read; it's also one of the best about adolescence," sang The Inquirer's then book editor, Frank Wilson. Green Grass Grace was anointed by Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program.
A genuine talent, McBride seemed poised for the big time.
Six years later, it seemed a good time to catch up with the Great New Writer.
Which we did, more or less where we left him, in Courtroom 1005 at the Criminal Justice Center, serving as tipstaff, filing evidence.
To be fair, McBride has moved up in the world. He's now tipstaff to President Judge Pamela Pryor Dembe.
"He's a real gem," Her Honor says. "I dread the day when he wakes up and says, 'I don't have to do this anymore.' His book is this generation's Catcher in the Rye."
What's happened in the intervening years?
"Hey, not much new. Won a Pew Fellowship, got married, had a kid, bought a house, published a book in Russia but got stiffed by the Russian publisher, sold a movie option, got divorced, declared bankruptcy. You know, that old chestnut."
Actually, he sold the movie option twice. He's 37, divorced a second time, now has a daughter from each union, Chloe and Zoe, the rhyming not his idea. "I'm one baby mama away from being a defendant."
Published twice? Umm, no.
Green Grass Grace, which scaled the best-seller list, albeit briefly, was written in a fury, on cocktail napkins and borrowed computers. It follows the novice-novelist dictum: Write what you know.
It is McBride's life, his neighborhood, his infectious humor, blown up big. Among McBride's greatest challenges was making narrator Henry Toohey, age 13, a breast man. It was a leap of faith because "I've always been a leg man."
So, you might think that this next novel, the one he's worked on for six years, eight drafts, and 9,000 pages between divorces and child-rearing and bankruptcy, might be about divorces and child-rearing and bankruptcy.
McBride's novel is about Santa.
Also, a snowman named Burl - yes, Burl Ives - "who is a bitter alcoholic with anger issues who hates Frosty," McBride says over a power lunch of grilled cheese and fries. "Santa's in a huge existential crisis. He hangs out with B-listers like David Hasselhoff, David Faustino, who played Bud Bundy, and Jaleel White, who was Urkel." Locales include the North Pole, Northern Liberties and the Badlands.
His working title: A Very Merry F Peter Cottontail Philly Christmas.
McBride hasn't shown a page to anyone, preferring to maintain a shroud of mystery, though "I sent my agent a crayon picture map of the North Pole layout drawn by Burl." Unsurprisingly, his agent is "totally frustrated."
The author remains unconcerned. "Understand, I didn't write the book for art. I wrote it because I wanted women and money."
How's that going, Shawn?
"Turns out women like you because you're funny. It's not the money or writing books."
Really, though - Santa? Urkel?
Why not a book about the Criminal Justice Center, bursting with characters and sagas to rival Dickens? McBride tells stories about the man he found passed out without a nose, the guy on his knees with his head in a baby carriage. "Too many people would have to die in order for me to write about this place."
Undeterred, McBride promises to deliver the manuscript to his agent this summer. "It's beautiful, sad, sprawling," he says. "It's going to be huge."