I’ve said it before and it’s probably obvious yet still bears repeating: I love books. I love their weight and their heft, I love their smell and the sound their spines make when you open them and I love the promise inherent in their very being. So it was a special sort of torture for me to spend ten days in France, surrounding by books, and not be able to read a single one. Not even my own.
I only visited a handful of French bookstores but I was struck, at every one, by how bright they are. The spine of a French book—that is, a book produced by the French publishing industry–is, for the most part, a white thing, unadorned by the sort of graphic flourishes we in America are accustomed to. This makes the effect of walking into a French bookstore akin to walking into a cool room. Something Kubrickian, maybe, like the strange rooms Keir Dullea walks through before meeting the Star Child only without all the menace, or the Korova Milk Bar without any of that off-putting sexual weirdness. At any rate, I found the interiors of French bookstores welcoming enough though serious and, yes, a little intimidating.
But the French booksellers . . . Ah! The French booksellers were warm and vibrant, excited by books and pleased to see me and (rightfully) proud of their shelves. They were generous to a fault—each and every one—and the breadth of their knowledge and passion were apparent with every word. In France, booksellers take classes on how to sell books—special training and education—and the way they speak about literature was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I couldn’t really keep up—though I enjoyed trying to—and, more than once, I wondered who the hell I thought I was, making appearances in these cool, beautiful rooms and having so little to say that could add anything to anything at all.
But, even for all that, even for being functionally illiterate in their country, the French treated me like a visiting dignitary. In beautiful Aubenas, at Le Grand Café Français, the owner, Maxime, gave me a copy of the French edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (or, as the French have it, Méridien de sang)because I mentioned I collect them (now have three) while his partner, Alice, invited us into their home to show off her newborn kittens. In Aix-en-Provence, the owners of Librairie Goulard took me on a walking tour of the old city and pointed out the old advertising on the sides of the buildings, brass pigs, and the secret sexual symbology hidden in the wrought iron-grill work of long-closed brothels.
Christian, owner of La Librairie Nouvelle in Voiron, gifted me a cd of funky, French blues and one of some even better jazz and his co-presenter, Sophie, read a section from Wilderness that, even though I couldn’t understand a bit of it, sounded as lovely as music. And in Vienne, Alain, co-owner of Libraire Lucioles showed off the city’s ancient Roman ruins—temples, walls, and a little stretch of one of the Roman roads that once stitched together an empire—while his partner, Renaud, grinned appreciatively when I chose KISS’s “God of Thunder” during my radio interview then turned me on to Stanislaw Lem which I’m pretty sure I’ll be forever grateful for. Finally, in Lyon, Ivan, the owner of L’esprit Livre, treated me to not only a lovely tour of the city but some excellent conversation (and more good leads for future reading) on Napoleon, the Battle of Austerlitz, and the tactics of the times as well as an excellent meal which included a bowl of seasoned fat.
At every stop along the way, while I was fretting and nervous about what I was supposed to be doing and how not to come off like an ass, I was treated to kindnesses unlooked-for, excellent food, marvelous shelves of beautiful books, and kindred spirits who seemed to love books in the same ways I do . . . though, of course, they could actually read them.
So I just returned from touring France in support of Wilderness. A short, small tour that opened with a literary festival at St. Malo, which is in Brittany, and which, I’m told, is lovely. I saw very little of the physical landscape—the Atlantic, the old city walls, the last resting place of Chateaubriand on its little tidal island—because my time was spent engaged with readers. With speaking to and meeting people. With talking about Wilderness and why I wrote it and how it happened. I think, in the end, I got the better of the deal. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a bit about how I found things Over There but, for now, suffice to say I went and came back and some of these things may have happened:
First and foremost I overpacked—badly—and my bags became anchors round my neck that I schlepped through train stations and crammed into the backs of taxis. I ruined one pair of shoes, looked extremely fat on French television, met a famous French film director (who went on to buy a copy of my book!), and I ate warm noodles out of a cold carton on the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris. I did not see the Alps but I did see the clouds obscuring them and I saw vast fields of brilliantly yellow Colza from the windows of fast-moving trains.
I drank one skunky beer and almost got into a fistfight with a hooligan. I took to wearing scarves and may have eaten a prune yet still lived to tell the tale. I definitely ate foie gras and considered trying snails but settled for duck. I ate chocolate like a fiend and I drank small coffees at tiny tables with my legs crossed and the wind upon my face and I felt writerly. I felt fine.
In Voiron, in the shadow of the Alps I could not see, I got to read a page of Wilderness aloud to a French author. This was good. What was better was listening to a pretty girl read another section aloud in French. What was best was the meal afterwards.
I went to Notre Dame and stood in awe and touched old, worked stone and breathed the stillest, holiest air I’ve ever tasted. I saw my little book in the windows of shops all over the south of France and was humbled and privileged at every stop. I talked Napoleonics with a self-avowed communist who, even still, believed in the Great Man theory of history and I was overawed by the high-seriousness and the real, breathing humanity of French bookstores. I appeared on French radio and got them to play a KISS song and, in Lyons, I stepped from a cab and threw my back out so badly it may still be there, flopping around on the cobbles.
All these things and more—things I’ll write about and things I won’t—will stay with me, I think. They’ll stick. Because, on that trip, I had some of my very best days, sitting at tiny tables, sipping coffee, feeling fine.
With the paperback version of Wilderness coming to bookstores next month, and, hopefully, new readers coming to the book, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a concern with the story that I’ve heard more than once now. And that is, the fate of the dog.
This is prompted by some very nice comments by a Goodreads reader who set the book aside after the prologue because they already knew what happens with the dog. I can certainly understand and empathize with these sorts of worries because all too often, in any form of entertainment, pets are handled in ways cheap and sensationalistic.
At readings for Wilderness, I often tell folks I wanted, among other things, to write the very best dog story I could and, to that end, I tried to treat Buster not just as a dog but as another character all his own—perhaps the most important character besides Abel Truman—because it is the character of the dog that makes Abel’s redemptive path possible.
I have always had dogs. Have always fiercely loved them and felt honored to be able to share my life with them. As my father is fond of saying: they give so much and ask so little in return. And while their day-to-day existence teaches us how to be better people, the relative brevity of their lives reminds us to treasure them. It is with this spirit that I wrote Wilderness and with that in mind that I would hope the reader approaches it.
There are things in the world that can be considered absolutely good. Dogs come to mind immediately. Books and libraries are two others. So, here on the cusp of March, I’m mightily pleased have been asked to attend a pair of events in support of books and the houses that hold them.
Firstly, Seattle’s getting back a bookstore that it was a tragedy to have lost in the first place. Luckily, it wasn’t gone for long. The Queen Anne Book Company is having its Grand Opening Weekend from March 1 to March 3 and there’ll be lots of writers showing up over the weekend to help them celebrate. I’ll be there March 1 from 3 pm to 5 pm to stand around and talking about books and reading and try and not look like too much of a dope. Come see me, I’ll sign some Wilderness for you…
And, secondly, the King County Library System is holding its annual Literary Lions Gala on March 23, 2013. I’ve been invited to rub elbows there as well, and will be joined by a bright constellation of NW lit talent. As an added bonus, I’ve bought (and plan on wearing) a suit. So, if nothing else, come out to see how uncomfortable I’ll be! Dennis Lehane is the Keynote Author and the Gala proceeds go toward King County Library System programs.
I’ve been nervous for a year. Ever since my editor at BloomsburyUSA told me they were giving Wilderness the gift of making it their lead adult fiction offering for fall 2012 and that they hoped I’d help support the book with public appearances and readings. I managed to put aside my anxiety over public speaking while I worked on the manuscript, shaping it up into its final form but then, after a decade of fretting over the thing, it finally left my hands forever and I was left alone with the new book I’m working on. And my nerves over what the fall might bring.
Summer went by. I worked on American Marchlands. I worried about Wilderness. I tried not to think about standing up in front of people speaking and reading words I’d plucked out of the air to try and make something with. But it’s all I could think about all down the long summer because the idea of standing up at a podium before anyone at all, with the facial control I have left, was deeply, badly frightening.
Years ago, a decade ago, just as I was finishing up the first draft of what would become Wilderness, I got Bell’s Palsy and the left side of my face went away. Off somewhere beyond my control as though it had never been. The long, branching nerve that fed that side of my face died. My speech was affected and my ability to hold water in my mouth. I could not smile nor frown. For weeks I could not blink. Normally, this is, at worst, about a six-week inconvenience but, for whatever reason, my condition persisted. Antivirals and steroids were no help. I was laid up with every little cold and flu to come down the street, every cruddy little sickness knocked me off my feet and I hurt everywhere, all the time. But then, one Wednesday afternoon six months in, a little twitch visited the left corner of my mouth and then slowly, slowly, scattered patches of my face returned to me. But not all of it. To this day, not all of it. So a sort of body-fear crept in around my heart. I became hypochondriacal when I never had been before.
And all summer all I could think about was making a drooling idiot of myself while trying to read Wilderness. I was afraid of not being able to do the book justice.
But then September came and I was in Mississippi on the first stops of my reading tour and everything that happened happened quickly. I was nervous, yes; I was trembling with fear (sweating badly, if you want the truth) but I noticed something after my first reading and then my second and then all the others that followed. I noticed that, once I was up behind a podium or seated in front of a crowd, that I was not nervous in the slightest. I found myself enjoying reading. I enjoyed reading to people because I quickly learned to trust the work. This is old advice that I’d never understood until I could apply it to myself. But, as is the case with ‘old advice,’ it is solid and good and true.
In the end, I’ve had a fantastic time these past few months of my book tour. I’ve had the privilege of reading at a lot of great bookstores to a lot of even better people. A lot of pages filled with words that I hoped might mean something to other people. And, now that this first, small portion is over, I realize with chagrin just how badly I will miss it.
The time has come to confess to an enduring love of comic books. Superhero comic books. Capes and cowls, tights and Kirby-crackle. Four color, nine panel cave paintings of wonder. I’ve always loved these things and used to have quite a collection of individual issues in bags with boards and boxed carefully away. Still have a lot. All right: a LOT.
Why comics? Adolescent power fantasies of a short kid? Probably. Worlds of escape for a sometimes ill kid? That too. And, also, simply put: comic books and the stories they told were serious business that demanded not only my attention but my study. I learned vocabulary directly by keeping a dictionary close to hand as I read and, indirectly, learned more than a thing or two about narrative, plot and characterization. If somebody got Richard Ryder’s character wrong then, Blue Blazes!, I noticed it.
All that being confessed, what follows are seven of my personal most important single issues and one piece of art. Why eight? Why not, true-believer?
1) Conan the Barbarian #24 (Marvel)—“The Song of Red Sonja” This was the first comic I ever got in my grubby hands and it had just about everything a boy could want. Swords, sorcery, blood and gore. Giant snakes and Conan fighting them. Red Sonja in something other than a chainmail bikini (gasp!). I’m pretty sure it was written by Roy Thomas (based on RE Howard, of course) and drawn in all of Barry Windsor-Smith’s drippy-line glory. In my memory it’s fantastic and that’s probably where I should leave it.
2) The Defenders #50 (Marvel) –“Scorpio Must Die!” The finale to the three or four part “War Against Scorpio” storyline, this is the first time I noticed the use of space in a comic. Written by David Kraft and drawn by Keith Giffin (channeling Jack Kirby), the comic features a page with the archetypal nine-panel layout ruptured by the action breaking out of one panel and spilling over into another. Couple that with arch-villains, secret bases, conflicted androids and a last page suicide (!) and my twelve year-old mind was blown.
3) Warlock #11 (Marvel)—“The Strange Death of Adam Warlock” Written and drawn by Jim Starlin, this issues sees our titular gold-skinned hero confronting not just his future self but his future self’s past, the physical manifestation of his kismet and many other things WAY beyond my (this time) eleven year old self. Pretty sure Starlin dropped a LOT of acid coming up with this storyline. As an added bonus, it’s got Thanos the Mad Titan in it whose profile we saw in the last few second of the Avengers movie this past summer.
4) Nova the Human Rocket #1 (Marvel)—What’s this? The fabulous first issue of a new hero in the tradition of Spider-Man? Blue blazes! Sign me up. Not a good comic or (until recently) even a decent hero. Loved the hell out of this cheesy comic nonetheless…
5) Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 (Marvel)—“How Will We Keep Warm When the Last Flame Dies?” I maintain you cannot have a list of Bronze Age super hero comics (which, apparently, this has become) without at least one big ol’ Man-Thing in there. And this is a good one. Writer Steve Gerber (of Howard the Duck fame) gets his usual sideways political commentary into a story featuring the Glob (Striking! Again!) and a crazy cultist who looks an awful lot like Richard Nixon. And Mike Ploog’s art fits the subject matter perfectly.
6) Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts #18 (Marvel) “The Dream is Dead!” Holy Cats! Did the good Doctor’s slinky, sorcerous assistant, Clea just have a time-travelling hook-up with Benjamin Franklin in the middle of my comic book? By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, I believe she did. Mind=blown (I went around with my mind blown a LOT from ages ten to twelve…)
7) Captain America #200 (Marvel) “By Dawn’s Early Light!” Cap’s 200th issue came out in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration. Conceived, drawn, and written by Jack “King” Kirby this comic is bananas. In fact, Kirby’s whole Cap run is crazy, dealing as it does with a 5th Column hoping to overthrow the United States by firing off insanity-inducing “mad-bombs” of escalating sizes—from the tiny “Peanut” to the “Dumpling” to the gigantic “Big Daddy.” Was Kirby dropping acid with Jim Starlin when he came up with all this? Hard to say…
8) Lastly, because everything on this list has been from Marvel Comics (hey, I know what I like) I offer this gorgeous piece of art by Jack Kirby. Titled “The Glory Boat,” it’s from issue #6 of a comic called New Gods. I’ve never read the issue, have no idea what’s going on but, for some reason, the image has stuck with me down the years…I mean, look at it:
‘Nuff said, true believers!
It didn’t feel right just posting first bit of the prologue for American Marchlands—like an incomplete thought—so here’s the balance of it along with a picture my wife thought was too creepy to go with it but that I really like. Because it’s creepy.
Wrapping the reins around the brake bar, the driver stepped down and put his arms over his head for an expansive stretch. Then, bobbing his head and grinning a grin that was somehow strange but not at all offputting, he held out a hand for your father and then Mr. Brown to take and gave his name as Spence.
Something in his manner, you remember, set your party at ease as though they’d stumbled from exile back into community and your father grinned back at him. “We were afraid you might be Cherokee,” he said.
Spence stuck out his lower lip thoughtfully and looked at the sky and then the horizon as though to better get his bearings in the wide, empty space of the barren plains. Then he shook his head. “Nah,” he said again. “I don’t reckon you got to worry about them.” He paused to follow with his eyes the way you’d come—the wheel-flattened grass and that pressed by boots and hooves—then turned squinting to extrapolate the way you’d take hence. “You’ll be going through Comanche country directly though,” he went on. “Them you’ll want to be careful of for they’re worst.”
To hear this, Mrs. Brown gave a little, sighing cry and here, you clearly remember, you stepped from behind your father’s legs to say: “Worse.”
Spence squinted at you as though he’d not noticed you before or was surprised to suddenly find a child out in that wasteland. “What’s that you say, little miss?”
“You mean to say ‘worse,’ not ‘worst.’” This, the second thing your ever remember saying aloud to another soul.
Another grin, lopsided and strange but still friendly. “Well now, I supposed you must be right,” he said. “I’m just an ignorant old cuss who never did learn proper diction.” He doffed his sweatblown hat—you remember it was a dusty brown color and that the brim looked gnawed upon—and gave a little bow from his waist before turning to introduce his companions.
The woman’s name he gave as Flora and she wore a dress even more faded than your mother’s traveling frock and no bonnet whatsoever. Her hair was cropped very short now you could see it clear—which forced another little sigh of shock from Mrs. Brown—and dark cowlicks swept up like tiny horns here and there as though she’d only recently cut it back herself and you could see the dust in it. Her dark eyes were hurt-looking and you could see plainly the shape of her skull behind the oval, fine-boned prettiness of her. She came down from the wagon to shake hands all around in the manner of an American man and, to this day, you remember her strong, brown fingers with their raggedy, chewed nails and the firm, warm juicelessness of her grip.
“And my old partner up there, that’s Tom,” said Spence, raising his chin to indicate the smaller man who still sat the wagon. Tom thumbed the brim of his hat by way of greeting then, seeming to think better of the sun upon his face, lowered it again so that his features stayed shadowed. “I will beg your forgiveness of him,” Spence went on. “He gets them headaches. Them powerful bad sick ones sometimes and this climate plays the very Devil with him. So don’t give his rough manners much mind, if you please, as he is in the mist of one right now.”
“If you please,” said Tom softly from the bench.
“Midst, you mean,” you told Spence.
“Well, aren’t you just the scholar?” he answered.
Tom spoke up again then to tell you you were right but, when his head got the way it was, it sure did feel like he was in a mist and a thick, red one at that. His voice when he spoke was soft and fine. And then he grinned and something seemed to light in places within you that had never seen light before that moment, as though, with that small smile, he’d woken something that had been long asleep. Nearby, Mrs. Brown sighed a little sigh and from the shadow of the wagon Dizzy shuffled her feet in the dust then spat and rubbed the spittle into the dirt with her heel and, seeing, her, Tom nodded and called her Auntie.
Tom got down from the wagon then, looking both pale and dark at the same time and, at some point after, you all lunched with the trio but you can’t now remember what was eaten or what was discussed. They said they were bound for Monterrey in old Mexico for Flora had family business there and had hired Spence and Tom to take her and your father said but don’t you know there’s a war on and Spence shrugged and put empty palms into the air as if to say what else could they do them having been paid then said he hoped that all would not trouble them much. Tom sat and ate silently and Spence told jokes while Flora watched the sky as though she feared rain.
Later, Spence called your father and Mr. Brown over to the back of his wagon to ask their opinion of some freight he hauled there. You remember him raising his chin at you and saying, “Now, little miss, this here ain’t a thing you ought to see,” so you crouched to one side to listen to the men talk. Spence drew back a tarp without any sort of flourish. There was a seething sound. You remember your father said Good Lord and Mr. Brown took a single, bodily step backward and then another forward to get a better look. You remember their hushed conversation at the wagonsback.
“Good God, don’t let Genevieve see this,” said Mr. Brown.
“Well, goodness, there’s no smell,” said your father.
“That’s the salt,” said Spence. “Some days, we pull the tarp back and let the sun in on him. I reckon he’s cured a bit on account of that. What I wanted to ask though: you reckon I got enough salt in on him to keep him and, if’n you don’t think so, do y’all have any you might spare or sell? This is a long trip we’re on.”
“Shoot. I can’t smell nothing but salt.”
“Lean in closer. That’d change your mind in a hurry, I reckon.”
“What happened to him?”
“It don’t matter none.”
“Well, sure it does.”
“Leave it be, Joe. Monterrey, you say?”
“That’s right? You reckon he’ll keep?”
“Hell no. Hell no, I don’t. You got to get this fellow in the ground. Goodness, but let me tell you, mister: this? This ain’t Christian. Not one bit.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. She’s got her heart set on Monterrey though.”
“Is that his home? Where his people are?”
“No sir. But that’s where his daddy is and where he took her from after his daddy bought her for him. And that’s where she’s paid us to take him back to. Says she wants the old man to see what’s become of his boy. Then I don’t know what. I don’t pretend to understand her.”
“Oh, then she’s a . . . oh. Well, goodness.”
“She don’t look like any nigger I ever seen. She ain’t really yella and she ain’t much dark. I’d be interested seeing her papers if she got any.”
“They ain’t all like your girl Dizzy there. I don’t know who it might’ve been. Her mother’s mother, maybe. Cuban she thinks but I don’t think even she knows for sure.”
“Shit. It only takes a drop.”
“Goodness. What does that make her, then?”
“Well, I reckon a woman is what that makes her. Wouldn’t you say?”
“All right, all right. Now, don’t get sensitive. I’m just trying to untangle this tale and figure out what you’re doing with this poor fellow. And, setting aside all this talk about curing, why I don’t see no lid for that box anywhere abouts.”
“‘Poor fellow.’ Shit. This ain’t, as you say, exactly Christian here but there’s right-by-law and by-religion and then there’s right by something else altogether. Other laws that ain’t ours, I suppose. So there’s no lid on account of she’s got it in her head to look in on him from time to time to be sure he’s still where he ought to be. Like I say, I don’t pretend to understand it but there it is and if it helps her through the night—and it does—then that’s the way it needs to be. We been paid.”
“Well, goodness, I’m not one to stand here and tell you your business, mister.”
“Spence . . .you’re Pigsmeat Spence, aren’t you?”
“Figured that out, did you?”
“Goodness. Would that make him Tom Hawkins, then?”
“Don’t you tell them women who this is. We don’t want no trouble from you two, mister.”
“You don’t start any you won’t get none.”
“Well, all right, all right. Just . . . just don’t go getting riled up or nothing, but I got to say . . .
“It’s just . . . I don’t reckon I’m at all comfortable with the idea of us camping-out together. Even for one night. On account of this here and on account of, well, that’s Tom Hawkins just settin over there. No sir. I don’t believe I care one pinch of owl dung for that idea. Considering all that and the fact there’s a child about. And Dizzy, too. What with your girl there. They can get riled-up over the smallest things and then where are we at? No good place, I can tell you.”
“It’s all right,” said Pigsmeat Spence. “We’ll move on, then. We’re used to it.”
Dizzy called to them. “Come on,” she called from the back of the wagon where one of the water barrels was. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tom Hawkins who you later learned was known as a killer of men. The two of them in the shade as though they’d reached some accord, as though he’d somehow lit some dark place inside her as well. Where no light had ever been or was ever looked for. “Come,” she called again, lifting the shining dipper from the dark barrel, careful not to spill. “Come, come,” she said, now staring hard at Tom beside her with an expression you, yourself, would only recognize much, much later in your life as like a mother’s weary, sad resignation over a child gone far astray in their life. And you would recognize its shape, its hollow, hauntedness, by the look and feel of your own face when they came to tell you your Tristan was killed on a street in Tacoma over two quarts of whiskey and woman whose name no one seemed to know. “You got to drink,” said Dizzy, looking at Tom with that sad, motherhearted face as though she knew his path, saw it laid out behind him and before him and thought that maybe one unlooked-for kindness, one fine word from someone somewhere along that path might turn him from it, might set him right again if he’d ever been right before. “You have to drink,” she said softly, speaking that simple, small truth like a prophetess.
And then you remember them gone, disappearing back into the liquid distance where the world’s heat was drawn like pus from a wound. As though the restless energy of their southward movement coupled with your own ceaseless westering gave off another sort of heat that joined with the world’s, the sky’s and the stars’, to hasten the eventual extinction of everything that was. You never saw or heard of them again. You never saw any savages, Cherokee, Comanche or otherwise. And now, as that last shimmering image of them and their wagon gives way to darker places in your memory , you realize you will never remember being younger than you were on that day, at that moment, beneath that hot, white, endless sky.
The third and final part of the Wilderness Roadshow is coming but, since I’ve had a little time between readings, I’ve been working hard on my next Thing. And, seeing as how I’m getting asked about it pretty regularly at my events, I thought I’d put up the very first little bit of the new novel I’m calling (for now) American Marchlands. It started as a story of a marriage but has become something more akin to a road novel set in frontier America circa 1846. It’s about two men who go west and the dark things they find there; it’s about a quiet boy who becomes a killer of men and a killer of men who longs for nothing more than a return to his boyhood.
Or something like that. It keeps changing and shifting and, while I’m in no way having a terrible time with it, it is putting up quite a fight. So I’m being gifted with great bursts of creativity (one of which I’m in the midst of now) followed by lots of “staring out the window at the trees” worrying about the state of things.
Anyway, here’s a little chunk of the prologue (as it stands for now, anyway…):
And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth…
“…sometimes the marches take their name of the inward country, and sometimes of the out country…”
You remember them constantly fretted. They feared themselves lost then feared themselves found in a place they’d not intended. They feared the land ahead—the horizon bloodred and the clouds when there were clouds monstrous—but feared the land behind more. They went on and on and you, being just young, went with them.
You remember the tyrannical sky: white and endless and cruel as the plains you travelled across. The vast desert of grass that was no longer even America but now some other place entirely and you remember the sky and the clouds and little else. The stars at night, maybe. Your earliest memories are of huddling in the shattering dark around meager little fires kindled on dung. Of the wind making rags of the pale flames and the flapping sounds they made in the night, as if, had they wings, the fires themselves would flee. Off into the dark where anything could be. Of the men clambering up on stones when there were stones to clamber up on, the benches of wagons if not or, even, the shoulders of the oxen—any high point that could be found in that flat country—to shoot the horizon and the sun or, if at night, the spaces between stars; measuring and note-taking in their precise, careful, adult hands in which pens looked so awkward, being fit for rougher trades and cruder tools. Of your father with his railroad compass held to his eye so that, looking up at him, the transit sights rose like horns from his head and so made of him a devil. Of Mr. Brown with his sextant; himself a dark manshape in silhouette against the bottomless vault of stars like some un-albatross’d mariner of old upon a heaving sea of golden wine. Day after day after day. Unstuck. Roving. No one said you were lost. No one said that. You remember them how they fretted and worried and sweated and struggled on and on, day after endless, creaking day.
You remember an encounter. It is not your first clear memory of that time but it is one that can come to you in a moment. Any moment you desire it but you have not desired it for years. You all of you saw them coming from miles away across the plains beneath the hot, white sky that drew its heat from the earth and threw it back in a watery veil between them and the little, three-wagon caravan of which you were a part. The Oregon country still so far beyond that evening bloodred sun. They came out of the north perpendicular to your line, shimmering like liquid; coalescing and coming wetly apart then fusing once more like mercury, like they were all of a single piece and never to be separate. At first, you didn’t know if they were people at all. You didn’t know what they were. Your father called for his rifle but then Dizzy said, “Nah. I reckon that’s a wagon.”
“So?” your father said.
Dizzy shrugged; you remember she always had a recalcitrant way about her that earned her whippings more often than not. But not that day. “So. When was the last time you seen them heathen savages driving a wagon what they couldn’t burn?” she asked.
You remember the world going slowly silent then—a thing rare during those long, scraping daylight hours. The plaintive screaking of Mrs. Brown’s empty birdcage where it hung from the rear stay of their wagon, swaying down the days like a metronome measuring rhythm, dwindled and dwindled and finally fell quiet. You recall her budgie—which had accompanied her, as she’d told it, well before you all jumped off from Independence—had died sometime before but you can’t recall when or how or even if she carried on about it but, from what you do remember of the woman, you reckon she probably did. But you do clearly recollect the sudden, bottomless, breathless hush as the wagons, like little ships coming to port, eased to their halts upon that endless gold-and-brown-beneath-a-white-sky landscape. A pale, uneasy stillness that somehow mirrored the sky and the land beneath it and that was broken now by gusts of wind that rattled the canvas and set the birdcage squealing again. But there had always been wind on that westward journey and you will always remember it now, alone in your age, in your too-quiet room with your aching legs and spotted hands and your cough and without, even, a budgie to sing you to sleep.
But they were people coming over the plains. Three of them arranged in a descending row of height upon the driver’s bench. The teamster himself was tall and thin, a little haggard, with a face that was not quite ugly but certainly not handsome and somehow strangely proportioned as though the hemispheres of his features had suffered some tectonic misalignment in his past. Beside him sat a woman of such perfect, terrible loveliness that, even now so many years removed from the moment, you can feel your heart swell dangerously and tremble in its cage of bone because you knew just by looking at her her history was hard and that her future might well be monstrous. And, next to her, a shorter man with a face that was, in its way, the male equivalent of hers but who, at the same time, had something dark about him, something indrawn and closed-off and grievous. This man’s fists pulsed at the ends of his wrists as though he contained within himself some spirit of violence he knew not what to do with.
You remember how, when she saw him—this smallish, angry-seeming man—Dizzy crossed herself the way she would and stepped into the shade of the Brown’s whitetop as it shuddered and creaked mournfully in the wind, the empty cage describing a lazy, abbreviate circle.
With a week off between reading dates (the next one is Oct 4, 7:30 pm at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island with Jonathan Evison), I’ve been hard at work on my new novel American Marchlands. I’ve been at it a little less than a year and I’m finally beginning to see the parts of it I couldn’t see before come into view. Had a few minor breakthroughs just this week, so that’s a real load off my mind and I’m feeling like, pretty soon, I can make a big push toward the end and finally have a full, working draft.
I’ve also been pretty lucky to have had the opportunity to do author interviews for Wilderness with LibraryThing and Bookmagnet’s Blog and the links to those are right here:
Part Two: A Deficiency of Klondike Bars
So I arrived at Oxford in the hot, eerie damp of the dark Mississippi night. The brightness of strip malls on the edge of town gave way to older houses in shadowy yards, older buildings of the sort of clean, pretty architecture that said, to me, “This is the south.” Trees of the sort to which I was not used to leaned over pale sidewalks and things felt suddenly slow and easy and safe. I made a wrong turn or two—with Serena patiently “recalculating” (and somehow fitting in an extra syllable whenever she pronounced the word)—and found myself in the Square where the white courthouse stood majestically and where, when I looked left, I saw Square Books where I’d be giving my first reading the next night. The store was dark and the Square was dark and Serena murmured directions quietly and I went on.
Richard Howorth, the owner of Square Books, had graciously offered to let me stay at his grand Victorian home and, as I parked out front, I was never so glad to see a stranger’s home in my life. When I stepped from the car, my glasses fogged and I was awash in sweat. Just. Like. That. The low, electric drone of cicadas, something else strange to me, seemed to signal the approaching heat death of the universe. I cleaned the lenses on my shirt-tail but the heat from my cheeks fogged them over again and Richard, when he met me at the door, looked me up and down, tentatively shook my hand and offered me a Klondike Bar.
In retrospect, I should’ve taken it. I should have taken it because maybe then the whole next day might have gone a little differently. Not better—because it went fine, the reading was good, if sparsely attended, and my nerves vanished as soon as I started—not better, but, maybe, drier. Maybe cooler. But I didn’t. In new situations, I’m often the meekest sort and would no more have dared eating a Klondike Bar in front of a stranger (especially in the jittery, overwarm state I was in that night) than Prufrock would’ve dared a peach.
Just the same, Richard looked at me—dripping in his foyer and squinting through two thumbpad-sized holes in my befogged glasses—and asked again, “Are you sure you don’t want a Klondike Bar? I was just about to have a Klondike Bar.”
I settled on a cool glass of water and passed a pleasant, if warm and damp, evening.
Most of what remains of the next day are scattered images. Scenes from Oxford. It was 80 degrees in the shade by eight in the morning and we walked the half-mile to Square Books where I had A Moment.
Square Books is a corner shop with a window display and there, that morning in Mississippi—which seemed, then, a world-and-a-half away from my home—was my book Wilderness. On display in a store window. I looked for Seal Team Six but they were nowhere about but there was a book on Eudora Welty and others as well but I only had eyes for mine and it looked good, there in the window, and I felt good, standing there sweating on the sidewalk looking at it.
The distance from the front door of Square Books to the front door of Rowan Oak—William Faulkner’s home, and now a Faulkner museum and a destination for literary pilgrims like myself—is about a mile. An easy walk I was told. Richard drew me a map. I set out, squishing, down the sidewalk.
Right away, I saw no one else was walking. Unless it was from an air-conditioned car into an air-conditioned store. I crossed University Avenue, following South Lamar Boulevard as my map instructed and had gone, maybe, a hundred yards before my shirt was soaked through. I went on, down those pale sidewalks through shade that was in no way cool. Mine was not a pretty sweat. Not a sweat to in any way inspire confidence in the manner of, say, a movie action hero. Folks in cars slowed down to look at me then sped away when I looked up. One kind soul paused, rolled down their window, and asked was I all right. The cicadas sang and stilled and sang again after I’d passed. My map became sodden and fell apart. I would’ve paid cash money for a Klondike Bar.
Rowan Oak was about what I’d expected. I felt humbled looking into Faulkner’s office, his parlor and then like an intruder looking into his bedroom and his wife’s, his daughter’s. Another Moment came as I left, when the curator looked up from his concerns (which seemed, that morning, to be manifold) and asked, “Aren’t you Lance Weller? Wilderness, right?” I said yes and yes and, because he was busy and I had had no time to prepare a dry face to face him with, he wished me luck and I wiped my brow and went on.
When I dressed for the reading, it was in a good shirt and decent shoes. A sports jacket. I walked to Square Books—those few, hot blocks hotter still in the fullness of the afternoon. My glasses fogged and unfogged repeatedly. I wondered if I should wear my trousers rolled to cool my ankles down. Thankfully, I wasn’t recognized and this allowed me to slip upstairs and find a place to sit beneath the air conditioner. More than once I was asked if I was all right. A lot of people seemed to be asking me that question as I went, sweatingly, from place to place.
As mentioned, the reading itself went fine and, somewhere along the way, I actually began to enjoy myself. This partly came from just trying to trust in the work and read it as best as I knew how and partly from the sense that I was finally getting it started so I could quit dreading it. That Moment of stepping up in front of people to read from a thing which you have created and worrying about it not being what your heart wanted it to be. And, afterwards, I felt such a sense of relief and of triumph, that if I did sweat (and I’m sure I did) I didn’t notice it.
The next day, I set out south again for Jackson and Lemuria Books where I was to have my second reading. Down through Water Valley following the same route I’d come in on only, now, in the brightened fullness of a September morning. There was no Devil waiting at any crossroads and, much to Serena’s consternation at the amount of “recalculating” she had to do, I took a lot of little side trips off the highway to see the lay of the land.
The roads off the highway were white and ran through exaltations of lush greenery. There was an aching feel of fecundity in the air and some rapacious-looking plant grew everywhere up power poles and out across otherwise neatened yards and over fallen trees and stones and, maybe, old cars parked too long. I’d find out later this was kudzu and that it grew fast and could not be controlled and, somehow, this delighted me.
North of Jackson I stopped at a rest area where a big, heavy Samoan trucker from Winnipeg was trying to read the map posted at the kiosk. He told me he didn’t believe in satellites or Garmins and I wondered how Serena would calculate such a philosophy. He was having trouble with the map because he was sweating so badly he couldn’t see. He told me he’d come down on a run from North Dakota and was late and they’d probably turn him around when he got there and send him on to some other goddamn hot place but fuck them they shouldn’t have even sent him down here anyway where it was so goddamn hot you couldn’t even think straight let alone figure the roads.
“I mean, look at me,” he said, holding out his big, brown arms. They dripped onto the concrete. He ran a palm down his face and flicked his hand of moisture then did it again and ran his thumbtips under his eyes and peered at the map but still couldn’t see it for the way he was sweating. I helped him plan his route because, comparatively, I was crisp and fresh as a fall morning, and then we talked awhile out on the sidewalk in the sun. I told him I was a writer on my first book tour. It felt good to say that. He kept swaying back and forth and wiping his face and shaking the sweat from his hands and arms. He was three hundred pounds if he was an ounce. I asked him if he was all right and the irony of the question was not lost on me.
“It’s so goddamn hot,” he said. “It’s so goddamn hot I can’t get used to it.” He looked at me, squinting to see through the sweat streaming out of his eyebrows. “Writer, huh?” I nodded. “Well, good luck with that,” he said. “But you know what I think?”
I asked him what he thought.
“Fuck the south, that’s what I think.”
I couldn’t really agree with him so I didn’t but I did look at him a moment then lifted my chin. “You know what you ought to do?” I said.
“Next gas station, you ought to get yourself a Klondike Bar.”
He looked at me like I was crazy then we shook hands and wished each other luck and I pulled back onto the interstate. It was still early in the day but was already over 90 degrees with no breeze.
It was in this way I came back to Jackson.