Although it has been a long time since I've heard from him, Neal and I were friendly once, in that Y2k-uber-email way of a decade ago. I forget exactly how we connected, but it was probably through Atrios. Neal and I were both rabble-rousing back then, and Atrios often hosted our individual rants. As one of very very few pissed-off writers back then who had actually been to war, I was skeptical of everyone. Neal took about two sentences of Neal Prose to win me over.
Neal was a god when those of us in our generation who write needed a god. He was an organic god, real and smelly and not something you would bring home to meet the folks, so to speak. He wasn't presented to us by the Times or the Guardian or the New Yorker, he made no best seller list, there was nothing sanitized about him. Which of course did him no good in the end, but it was good for the rest of us. Even better, he was genuinely a kick-ass person, at least that bit of him I got to witness. He cared. He would tell you to fuck off, but he cared.
I think I only met him in person once (the same night of my singular meeting with the aforementioned Atrios), at the old 215 Literary Festival in Philly. Right around when The Ice Beneath You was published. We were on the bill together, and I walked into the joint, a pretentious early hipster hole, and I thought to myself "Fuck, I can't spend the evening with a bunch of people who think it's retro cool to drink Pabst." At that moment, an angry man yelled across the bar, "Oh for fuck's sake...Pabst? Really?" That was Neal, and I was glad to meet him. He opened a door or two for me, or tried, and I appreciated that. I hope I did the same for him, but I don't know. I was very naive, and he was light-years ahead of me. A few years later he really pissed me off with something, which he is probably completely unaware of, but it hardly matters. He's a killer writer, a better and more honest person than a slew of our better-known peers, and I hope it all works out for him (which means I hope he keeps writing, and makes a living doing it).