I have been waiting months upon months for Stay Up with Hugo Best to officially hit shelves because it’s one of my favorite reads of the last year (dare I say, ever?), and I can’t wait for all of you to read it too!
TL;DR: Skip down below for an excerpt!
About the book: June Bloom is the classic trying-to-make-it-in-NYC-twentysomething. She loves comedy, and grew up harboring a crush on beloved TV/humor icon Hugo Best (now in his sixties, and a well-known womanizer). So when she gets a job as writer’s assistant on his late-night television show Stay Up with Hugo Best, June feels like her dreams are coming true. But her tenure is short-lived when Hugo unexpectedly retires (or is forced to retire?)—sending his whole staff into unemployment. After Hugo’s farewell party, June returns to an old dive bar haunt for an open-mic night, prepared to accept the anonymous comedian life which she now has to return to. What she isn’t ready for is Hugo showing up at the same bar, and very quickly inviting her to stay with him at his mansion in Greenwich for the weekend. “No funny business,” he insists.
And what could go wrong? June is a Strong Woman, twenty-nine years old, and can handle her shit (even the remnants of her crush on this charming older man). She accepts, not knowing exactly what’s going to happen, but with some very educated guesses. So begins a bizarre weekend of swimming, stand-up, and the classic older man-younger woman dynamic as you’ve never seen it before.
I read this book in one night because I just couldn’t stop. This is verbal sparring at its finest (so wry I want to cry!), with some very real coming-of-age vibes that filled me with glee, and left me a bit unsettled and introspective about my own life choices… Stay Up with Hugo Best is for any human who is trying to navigate their 20s, is familiar with New York show biz, or honestly just loves to spit sarcasm. A goddamn must-read.
I’ve hand-selected this excerpt from early on in the book—the first real interaction between June and Hugo at aforementioned dive bar. Not only does this scene set up the plot of the rest of the story, it gives us (the readers!) a taste of the dynamic (and chemistry) between our two main characters. I know you’re going to want to read the whole book after you read this little snippet, so get at me on Twitter (@ShefaliLohia) and Instagram (@shefallsgracefully) to let me know how you’re enjoying the story, and what your favorite parts are!
When I came out of the bathroom, Hugo Best was standing in the dim green hallway. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, tried not to show my surprise.
“Nerves?” he asked.
“Ennui,” I said.
“I used to be a puker, too.”
The hallway was narrow and hung with framed portraits of legendary comedians. Lined faces, flat eyes. What came next was the part where I asked Hugo what he was doing here, but I didn’t know how to initiate this. Over his shoulder I could see a picture of Rodney Dangerfield. I had always liked Rodney’s face, his pop eyes and look of forthright insanity. Sometimes there was solace in things that were very ugly.
“Can we go stand outside or something?” I said at last. I motioned to the pictures on the walls. “These guys are making this weirdly heavy.”
Hugo nodded. “We must avoid gravitas at all costs.”
I followed him out through the bar, past the college girls and drunks, back up the six stairs to street level.
In front of the club, a breeze ruffled my dress and raised goose bumps on my bare legs. It was late May, the eve of Memorial Day weekend, that precarious presummer period in New York when the weather hasn’t fully made up its mind about what it’s going to be.
“You work on my show, right?” asked Hugo.
“Worked on the show, yeah. The writers’ assistant. My name is June.”
“June,” he said. “Right. June. You were good in there, June.”
A year ago this casual praise from Hugo would have felled me, sent me careening back to the bathroom to puke again in a paroxysm of nervous joy. All that time, my whole life, of waiting for this man’s approval and here it was, too easily, too cheaply won.
“Thank you,” I said, though. “It means a lot for you to say that.” I paused. “So what brings you here?”
“This is where I got my start. I guess I was feeling . . .”
He trailed off and turned to study the entrance of Birds & the Bees, its yellowing marquee. His gray-blond hair lifted boyishly in the wind. It had gotten almost completely dark.
“What happened to the girl you were with at the oyster bar?”
“On your lap.”
“Oh. She didn’t want to come. Can’t imagine why.”
He gestured toward the bar. The smell of stale beer and public toilet was wafting out.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” I asked. “A party or something?”
It was last night, he told me. There’d been champagne and passed appetizers, those tiny puffed pastries with one bite of crab in them. A band had played. All on the network’s tab.
“Weren’t you there? I thought we invited the staff.”
I shook my head. No one had told me about a party. “I guess I missed the e-vite.”
“It wasn’t that fun. Mostly just executives patting themselves on the back. For what, I don’t know. Anyway, tonight I thought I’d let everyone celebrate without the boss. They deserve to trash me if they want to.”
He put his hands into his pockets. I braced for an awkward good-bye. But he made no move to end the conversation, no head fake up the street. Was he waiting for me to make my excuses—dinner plans, a dog to walk, a complicated train ride and someone expecting me at home? If I didn’t initiate, it might never end. But did I want it to end? Not exactly. Not unless he did.
“How did you come to be here?” he asked.
“N to Eighth, walked the rest of the way.”
He rolled his eyes.
“I’m friendly with Susie, sort of. I took her stand-up class like a decade ago.”
“Ah, Stand-Up Basics. And how would you rate your experience?”
The class had been a waste of money. The other students were nonserious: retirees trying out a hobby, office workers building their confidence. Susie herself had been bored. She’d taught it for thirty years as a way of supplementing the club’s income and her enthusiasm had expired long before I got there. The only real upside had been her offer, extended on a whim, to let me perform occasionally. I think she kept letting me do it because she’d forgotten how the arrangement had come about. Or because she just didn’t care.
“Two stars. Once she sent me out to get her an aloe beverage. Another time I helped fix her printer.”
“Bravo,” he said. “Multitalented.”
“Hey, I’m no hero. It was a paper jam. I just reached in and yanked it out. Took thirty seconds. People tend to give me an easily accomplished task.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Maybe I seem competent, but just a little.”
He laughed approvingly. “What did you think of the show today?”
I thought about what to tell him. The show had had the trappings of a celebration without feeling like one. There were tributes, special guests, a gag reel. Running jokes were reprised. Barbra Streisand sang a song. It was exactly the conclusion you’d expect, only the energy was off. Hugo’s enthusiasm seemed faked. Even so, I was sure the audience felt lucky, as if they’d witnessed a historic moment. This was what I finally landed on.
“It was historic,” I said. I sounded unconvinced.
He repeated, “Historic.”
I tried again, “It was . . . it made me sad.”
He nodded. “Me, too.”
A burly guy in all black dragged a stool out of the club. It was late enough now for a bouncer. We watched him take a Sudoku from his back pocket and start filling it out. People began to weave around us and down the stairs into the club, the first arrivals for the early show.
“Listen, let’s get a drink,” said Hugo. “Somewhere other than this.”
“I can’t. I’ve got a thing. I’ve got to go stand around on a roof with some young people.”
“Of course, a roof.”
“I’m serious. I’m not blowing you off. Another time maybe.”
He thought for a minute, swaying forward on the balls of his feet. He seemed a little drunk already. “This is going to sound crazy, but you should come spend the holiday weekend with me.”
He had a house in Connecticut, he said, growing more excited. With a pool, tennis court, everything. I should come hang out, discuss comedy. We could leave right then. He thought I had potential. He wanted to hear me talk.
I said, “That roof thing I mentioned? I’m meeting a boy there. A man. We’re at the beginning and I’m trying to figure out whether he loves me or hates me.”
“Love and hate aren’t mutually exclusive,” said Hugo. “Especially at the beginning.”
He smiled, a dashing enterprise that usurped his entire face. “Come to Connecticut. No funny business.”
The breeze gusted again, blowing blossoms off a tree just up the street. They came at us in a small white cyclone. One landed on Hugo’s lapel, an accidental boutonniere. It was warm and cool both, and what light was left in the sky looked purple.
“How can anyone make good decisions in this city?” I asked.
“They don’t,” said Hugo. “Nor anywhere in the world.”