2003 should have been the year of Robert Girardi. Instead it was when things began to fall apart faster than he could fix them.

Roland Joffé, the director of the Palme D’Or-winning film The Mission, had signed on to bring Girardi’s novella Sunday Evenings at Contessa Pasquali’s to the big screen. The crew and cast—Isabella Rossellini, Rachel Weisz, Matt Dillon—were on the ground in Naples, Italy, and ready to start filming. For Girardi, who published his first novel to critical fanfare in 1995, the promise of a hefty Hollywood paycheck wasn’t just tantalizing: It offered validation for the two decades he’d spent as a dishwasher, a handyman, a quote-unquote struggling artist. “The movie was within a week of principle photography,” Girardi says. “When they start rolling the cameras, you get a check; I was within a week of $500,000.” The D.C.-based author takes a sip of his gin and tonic. “A writer can live on that much money for a long time,” he says, extending the “o” like so many zeros in a fat Hollywood paycheck.

Then the movie fell through, following a dispute between Joffé and a producer.

Two years earlier, Girardi’s publisher Delacorte Press was bought by German media giant Bertelsmann; his editor quit, and his contract was cancelled. “All of a sudden,” Girardi says, “my career dried up.” His British publisher paid $2,000 for his next book, The Wrong Doyle—about pirates and a putt-putt course on the Eastern Shore—which received limited runs in the UK in 2002 and the U.S. in 2004 and little publicity, and subsequently forgot he existed. After a half-decade of silence, Girardi published Gorgeous East in 2009 through St. Martin’s Press. The Washington Post, which had reviewed every one of Girardi’s books since Madeleine’s Ghost* came out in 1995, didn’t touch his latest.

“This was my first new book in 10 years. [Washington Post Book World Deputy Editor] Ron Charles said he assigned it, the person didn’t review it, he assigned it again, the person fell through again, and Charles just considered it an act of God, so they didn’t review it. You’d think my first book in 10 years, they’d at least give me a two-incher. Fucker.”

And to think, just 15 years before, the Washington Post had written that Girardi, who briefly seemed to be his generation’s most prominent Catholic author, was “this publishing season’s poster child; that is, his publisher is using him to perpetuate the legend of the unknown writer who goes on to fame and fortune after his manuscript is discovered in a ‘slush’ pile by a young assistant editor.”

Charles doesn’t remember what happened with the Gorgeous East review; he says a few freelancers flake every year. He writes in an e-mail: “Unfortunately, I haven’t read Mr. Girardi’s work, but another editor (not in Book World) told me he enjoyed his latest. (Alas, he wasn’t willing to review it for me!)”

The poor reception, or complete lack thereof, for Gorgeous East, was not the worst of it. Just a few months before the novel was published for a paltry $25,000 advance, Girardi’s “respect level started plummeting,” and relations with his wife collapsed. Actually, scratch that: She kicked him out of the house after he came home bombed on scotch and tried to wrestle her to the floor. That lapse in judgment cost Girardi more than he could’ve anticipated: Two nights in jail, two years of probation, his marriage, custody of his three kids, his home.

It also saved him.

“I’m in D.C. Central alone for hours and hours and hours. I’m thinking to myself, ‘I’m in this fucking place’—and this will sound hokey—but I’m thinking, ‘What good can I do here? What good can I do?’ As a Catholic, ultimately I want to improve the lot of mankind. I know, hokey, but really I have good intentions,” Girardi says, laughing.

“So I’m down there, and they take everything from you when they sign you in—tie, wallet, all that. But I’m in my cell, and I reach into my pocket and I find a penny. I took the penny and I scraped it on the concrete ground until it was sharp; I sawed the buckle off my shoe; and I used the buckle to carve into the wall of the cell a verse from ‘The Shield of Achilles’ by W.H. Auden.” Girardi pauses. But he does not laugh this time. Instead, he begins to recite the poem from memory.

“That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third/Were axioms to him, who’d never heard/Of any world where promises are kept/Where one could weep because another wept.”

Girardi is quiet, staring at a blank television screen. “It took me six hours to carve that. I was supposed to be taking my kids to Dave & Busters.”

We’re sitting in a small apartment on MacArthur Boulevard up by the reservoir, where Girardi now lives alone. He has a lot of his books with him, but not all of them. He makes minor repairs on the building and fights away the rats. He now holds down four jobs, none of which involves writing fiction. Four days a week, “I get up early, go to the Bethesda Row Cinema and do my maintenance gig for two to four hours. Then, I drive down to the Catholic church on MacArthur Boulevard and do the janitor stuff. Then I drive back to the movie theater, take off my overalls, put on my movie theater outfit, and sell tickets. On Fridays, I do secretarial work for the church.” He has his kids—two boys and a girl—on Friday nights and on Saturdays for the whole day.

Does he have a game plan for getting back into fiction? Yes and no. It’s hard to write while working four jobs. It’s hard to write while missing your kids. It’s hard to write while feeling emotional vertigo almost 24/7. But he’s taken a small step toward normalcy: Two weeks ago, for the first time in over a year, Girardi packed up his materials, hopped in his green Triumph convertible and drove to the Georgetown University Library, which houses his father’s CIA papers, and where Girardi’s novels sit next to the works of his hero, Graham Greene. And he wrote.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

*Due to an error by contributing writer Mike Riggs, Robert Girardi’s 1995 novel Madeleine’s Ghost was misidentified as Amelia’s Ghost.