Because of the ongoing impact of the coronavirus, the graphic novel adaptation of WILDERNESS, which was scheduled for release in May, has been pushed back to August of this year.
I felt a small tinge of selfish disappointment when I got the news but, really, this is a positive development and will give me—and, hopefully, you, too—something to look forward to once we’ve gotten past our current troubles.
In the meantime, I encourage everyone to try and stay healthy, definitely stay smart, and to certainly stay indoors as much as you can. If your circumstances don’t permit you quarantining yourself, then please practice as much care in your day-to-day as humanly possible. Hug your dogs if you got ‘em, order books from independent bookstores if you’re able, and never, ever, ever give hope for better, healthier days to come.
Here’s a sample to hold you over until August.
Times are fraught and worries are hip-deep and, really, there’s no end in sight yet. But we’re resilient, as a species, and we’re noble, and we’re good, and we can overcome fear no matter how poorly we’re led. No matter how our leaders fail us. We’ve done it before, with fewer resources and more superstition and, while hearts everywhere will break, we’ll go on. Hopefully wiser.
If your situation is like my situation (and it likely is) then your local library is shuttered and there’s really not a lot of cash for you throw towards books these days. To that end—to give you something to look at, if nothing else—I thought I’d post my first crack at story-writing from back in the day, The Breathable Air. I wrote it in a rush with very little revision (SO unlike my current modus operandi!) and, considering it was 1996 or ’97, I was probably listening to Bowie’s Outside album.
When I got to the point where I thought it was finished I took it with me to a workshop at my first (and only) writer’s retreat at Fort Worden, Washington where it was more or less excoriated by all and sundry (“I hated it, hated it, hated it. I just wanted that damn dog out of my damn face!” I remember one woman yelling—yes she actually yelled). And so, because I am who am, I imposed a self-moratorium on all future workshops and submitted it unaltered to Glimmer Train Stories magazine where it gave me my first professional byline, won the magazine’s Short Story Award for New Writers, and actually put a little money in my pocket.
So here it is, with a little art from the magazine (which, sadly, has recently stopped publication after many, many years of doing good work). My inclination was to go through and “fix” the prose because there are any number of things I’d do differently, today, but decided to just let it stand on its own, warts, buboes, and all. At first blush, a story about plague maybe isn’t the most uplifting thing to put out there right now but, on the other hand, considering the breadth and depth of love I tried to illustrate, maybe it is.
And, as you will see, my love of dogs started young and has never waned.
Stay healthy everyone!
The Breathable Air
She can see vast distances.
Plains. And on the edges of the plains, hills purple beneath a blue sky. A city in white upon the foreground. Cypress trees. Torch flames. The sun bright and the shape of the wind described by the bend and clash of green grasses. These and other colors that have no correlation to the hues of the living world around her—she sees with something other than her eyes.
She can hear the smallest sounds.
His voice is at her ear, constant and familiar and comforting in its steadfast devotion, but it is not the voice to which she listens. There is another voice, closer and in contest with his. Stories read from old books of times so far removed she has trouble comprehending them at first. Once, and long ago, she wrote books like this. She decides the other voice is her own, finishing for her some last and half-imagined tale.
* * *
In the mild, blue-black shade of a tiny grape arbor just inside the entrance to Vincente Coruscuito’s courtyard garden in the city of Padua, Year of Our Lord 1348, Leonardo Montclavo stood awaiting the arrival of his love, Katarina Novali.
It was a late spring day and hot, though he could still feel the soft breezes that blew across the long grassy plains from the coast and taste upon them the rich spices of sea salt and unplowed soil. Like landward trades, he thought, stepping into the sun to make the time by the angle of his raised arm’s shadow upon a flat stone nearby. He lowered his arm and frowned, then looked up at the sun where it burned low-slung and white upon the tiled rooftops. Frowning still, Leonardo went to the heavy oak door that barred his friend Vincente’s garden from the street, and with one finger raised a square leather flap and peered out through the spy-hole.
No one moved on the street this time of day and the dust raised by the little winds fell slowly in clouds flecked with gold. From somewhere came hoarse cries of lamentation—shrieking, sexless sounds neutered by the deep cut of grief. And then, as if in answer, the bells in the basilica began a heavy, echoing toll.
It seemed the bells sounded constantly now with plague afoot in Padua, and that very morning Leonardo had himself seen a group of becchini carrying the dead to church. Ragged men, they carried, balanced on their shoulders, an old door upon which they had stacked several bodies like sheaves of grain. The faces of the dead, seized by their sickness and bearing its sign upon their flesh, beheld the sun aghast as though in their dying they had been shown some certain thing that none should ever see. Leonardo had seen the corpse-carriers coming, watched how they scanned doorways with their small, malignant eyes, looking for marks of soap upon the panels to signify the dead or dying within. He had stepped into an alley until they passed, then hurried on to his friend’s garden, noting with some relief the lack of soap upon the garden door, though Vincente Coruscuito lay abed and had not risen these past three days.
As Leonardo looked out through the spy-hole for Katarina Novali, or for some sign of her, a dog padded noiselessly across his field of vision—a huge, black mastiff with one rent ear leaking slow blood down its withers to its chest. The animal paused in its course and looked up at the door where Leonardo stood watching. From its wet jaws hung pale and limp a small left hand. A signet ring upon the forefinger winked in the sun, and loose skin, like the emptied sleeve of a blouse, depended from the gnawed wrist in intricate filigree. The dog did not growl nor raise its hackles, but moved its head from side to side as though to display more fully the prize it had scavenged. Leonardo saw the fingers twitching like the legs of an obscenely fat white spider, as the dog’s teeth plucked and pressed at tendons. After a time, it raised its head to scent the air, looked at him once more, then took small sidelong steps down the street and away. As the bells’ echo drifted in the silence of the afternoon, Leonardo shuddered and stepped back from the door to reenter the shade of the vines.
He wiped his eyes and breathed hard to catch breath and looked about the garden. He saw it as an Eden bulwarked by dusty clay walls against the Gehenna of the city. He saw there, in the garden, meandering footpaths of cobblestone aproned by green grass and small shrubberies from which plump, dark currants drooped. Sprays of fern, splashed bright by hollyhock, traced emerald frescoes ‘round the walls, while stands of small blue teacup flowers shivered in the shade of the olive tree. Arabesques of vine and tendril spilled down the walls, and all of it—leaf and petal and stamen and pistil, grassblade, the mist of pollen swirling in the air, the lazy passages of bees from flower to flower—lent the place a sense of depth, of health. As though there was no scourge laying the dead out in their own dooryards, nor could there ever be. Leonardo stood there, idly scratching a fleabite on his neck, and breathed deeply of the rich, vegetative perfumes and smelled also, faintly, the reek of bodies putrefying in the streets outside the garden walls.
He glanced up at Vincente’s window. It overlooked the garden and stood open, the curtains limp, still wet from the maid’s soaking, to cool the air within and keep the pestilence without. Now, a small rat sat cleaning itself upon the sill and Leonardo glanced about for a stone to throw, but when he looked back, the rat had vanished.
In one corner of the garden stood a fountain in the shape of an open clamshell and painted the color of lapis. Vincente had brought it home with him from a visit to Tuscany. Stalks of spearmint swayed in the breeze at either side and cast fluted shadows through the trembling water. Little sunset-colored fishes, unfed for days now by their master, plashed about within the shell in sounds sudden and musical to Leonardo’s ears.
Upon a small wooden table set out in the shade of the olive was a half-loaf of bread gone green with mold and gnawed and pecked by rats and birds. Leonardo realized he heard no birds singing now and wondered over that. He had been told by a trader from Almeria how in Messina the birds themselves had fallen, stricken, from the sky. How cats and dogs, monkeys, asses, even the deer in the forest were said to exhibit the same buboes as men, but Leonardo did not know the truth of that. The image of the black hound with its awful trophy came to him and Leonardo shuddered deeply, then stooped to scratch along the inside of his thigh where his skin had grown hot and wet with stale sweat.
He crossed to the table and took up the loaf in his hands and broke it open to scatter crumbs into the fountain. The fish rose, slow at first, gaping with ceaseless stares at the solid world above them as their mouths groped the underside of the water. They ate and he watched them for a time, wishing he had brought wine with him to quench the dryness of his throat.
Looking at the falling sun again, he frowned and stretched, feeling deep aches across his chest and down his legs. Judging time once more by his arm’s cast shadow, he wagered Katarina Novali’s handmaiden had not read his last letter to her. Or he hoped it. The image of his love in her immaculateness stretched out upon the stood of a doorway, fly-besotted, waiting for the becchini to carry her off to a common grave, gave him more pain than his muscles did as he shook them loose. But soon he calmed himself from that thought. He remembered the first time he had seen her, when the plague was still an ugly rumor used to frighten disobedient children. Katarina Novali had been walking down the street near the university, her hand balanced lightly on the forearm of her maid, her face an open smile and her eyes completely sightless. Leonardo had paused with his books to watch her approach and was still standing there, watching the dust her feet had made settle, long after she had disappeared in the crowd.
And now, to ease his mind over her tardiness, Leonardo reasoned that the pestilence could not touch her due to the very fact of her blindness. At the university he studied science, medicine, and had heard it said that the plague was a corruption of the atmosphere. But, though it traveled by the medium of air like a vapor, it was through the eyes that it entered the human body, for it is through vision that men first sin against God. The first victims in Padua were walled up within their own homes so they should not gaze upon their healthy neighbors and thereby infect them. But no sin was too small for the pestilence to overlook and soon it made a kingdom of the city. The professors advised their students never to look the dying man in the eyes lest the sickness enter the one who treats him. It was good advice and from it Leonardo was consoled that his love could not fall victim.
He cleared his throat and leaned and spat an evil-tasting humor upon the flagstones near the fountain, then stepped behind the olive tree to relieve himself. His water fell weakly from him, without force, and splashed the tops of his boots. As he leaned back against the trunk to fasten his breeches, his fingertips brushed something he had not felt when he scratched earlier. He swallowed dryly and lifted his shirt to look.
He closed his eyes and with effort calmed the breath that rattled up hot and sudden within him. Looking back down, he winced to see the bubo swelling dark and venomous beside his sex. Leonardo’s fingers trembled as he touched it, then prodded it. The lump was unyielding—round and hard and hot as a bird’s egg boiled. Touching it forced a hot stab of pain down his legs and across his buttocks.
He quickly fastened back up and, limping somewhat from the sudden pain, returned to the place near the fountain where he had spat. It seemed to sizzle there on the sun-hot stone, dark with blood. Leonardo stared down at what had come up from inside him, and it stared back cruel and black and impassive as the eye of the dog. He sat heavily beside the fountain and one hand slipped into the water. He felt a fish swim away from his palm like quick silk through his fingers. After a time he began to weep and was weeping still when he heard a knock upon the garden door.
* * *
Lawrence Kelman’s reading voice slowly trailed away to silence and he gently closed the book of poems he had been reading to his wife. He looked at Elsabeth where she lay sleeping—perhaps dreaming, but of what he had no way to know. Setting the thick book down on her night table, he folded his hands across his stomach and watched her. The blankets rose and fell and, with her eyes closed in sleep, he could see the faint traces of the girl’s face, the woman’s that he had once known. He felt his own eyes grow heavy and liquid as they tracked the passage of her years in care-lines carved about her mouth, about her eyes. Since the stroke, her lips had become so thin and bloodless they seemed an afterthought to her face, and he realized it had been more than five months since he had heard her speak. Lawrence knew, suddenly and with absolute surety, that if heard her voice now in some other setting, standing in line at the supermarket for instance, he would not recognize it, and he was ashamed of himself.
And, as he always did after reading to her every night, he wondered could she hear him at all. Or did she know his own voice, or the careful touch of the back of his hand against her cheek, the brush of his lips against her forehead? Her eyes, when they were open, gave him no sign, explained nothing of the inner workings of her mind or body. Hard and dark as split shells, they stared passively at whatever he might turn her face toward, and only rarely did he see her blink. It was as though the stroke had dried to straw some essential fiber deep within her. When he bathed her with a soft, moist towel while she lay limp, pale upon the bed—the covers turned back neatly, smoothed with careful precision under the flat of his palm, the water in the basin warmed and tested at the back of his wrist like with a baby’s bottle—her skin seemed to drink the water, quenching some deep impossible thirst through every pore.
And now she slept and Lawrence watched her, as he always did, before going to his own bed. In her sleep, Elsabeth’s neck became once more a supple, elegant curve of white flesh that rose from a collarbone standing from her breast like a pair of stiff wings. Sleep worked small wonders about her person and for it he was grateful.
He listened to the sound of her breath, contrapuntal to the sound of the rain drumming the roof, running in the gutters, and falling through the downspouts of their small home. He reached out and switched off the lamp at bedside and watched rain-glazed patterns of light and shadow form and disperse and collect again in little archipelagic shapes that drifted slowly down the walls, as cars on the street outside swept headlights through the room. In those patterns he imagined other worlds entire—seas of warm yellow light, reefs of soft shadow, islands of darkness—and he imagined the two of them, he and Elsabeth, living in those worlds. Merely the two of them—whole and healthy and far from the rest of this world. After a time, when he knew that she was deep in her sleep, Lawrence leaned over his wife to kiss her forehead before making his way across the hall to his own room.
In the morning, Lawrence rose with the sun’s first light, as was his custom. He began to cough. He coughed for a very long time, and when it was over he went to the bathroom to rinse his mouth out. He looked into the sink and made a face, then heaved a great sigh and swirled the waste down the drain. He went into the kitchen to sip at a cup of coffee while he watched through the window. Monday morning, and motorists on their way to work passed on the street with their coffee mugs balanced on their dashboards and grim expressions fixed on their faces. A few joggers went by, their shoulders glazed with sweat under the late spring’s sun. The light of that sun angled down through the kitchen window and lay upon the table like honey spread thick on bread. Lawrence put his hands on the table and let the sun warm them until he noticed a subtle change in the atmosphere of the house. As though the air that had sat heavy and dull and warm throughout the night had suddenly quickened and begun to more again, and Lawrence knew that Elsabeth was awake.
He went into the front room where shelves of books adorned every available wall space. Elsabeth’s books on Renaissance Italy had a shelf to themselves, and Lawrence reached out and let his fingertips trail across their spines, her name in gilt beside each title. He had taken off the dustjackets after she had been confined to her bed, because he found himself staring at her pictures on each paper cover and trying to remember what it had been like when she was still able to write. He touched as well the dog-eared manuscript pages of the novel she had never finished, and sighed heavily.
Through the window he could see the hanging fuchsia baskets on the front porch still wet with rainwater from the night just passed. The sun sparkled on the slick, glistening leaves and the funneled corollas trembled in the small breezes tossed up against the side of the house by passing cars. A dog came down the sidewalk and Lawrence paused to watch it. It was a mixed breed and white in its coloring. He saw that it limped, holding its right foreleg cocked against its chest, and it was painfully thin. It stopped just opposite where he stood within the house watching, and raised its head, as though it did not know which way to go next and so must ponder in its own way which course to take. Lawrence watched it scent the air, its wet mouth open. For a moment the dog looked in his direction, and its eyes were brown and large and soft there in the sun. Then it looked back down and went slowly on with its abbreviated three-footed gait.
He went to Elsabeth and told her good morning and set her coffee on the night table. She had not drunk coffee for months now, but he brought her a cup anyway, as though some morning she might reach for it. She stared at the ceiling where her face was pointed, and breathed. He talked to her of little things as he drew back the covers carefully and prepared to change her soiled diaper. He recomposed for her his dreams from his last night’s sleeping and asked after her own, and she was silent, and he fell silent too while cleaning her, and together they were quiet in the morning’s coolness.
When the phone rang he scowled and waited for the machine to pick it up. He sat his wife up in her bed and eased her arms through the sleeves of a clean blouse and heard from the kitchen the sound of his own voice on the message-tape, curt and rough and weary, and then the doctor’s nurse. Lawrence lay Elsabeth back down and held her hand as he listened to the woman remind him of tomorrow morning. What time the car would come for her, what things he should have ready, how he could visit her the next day. “After we get her settled in her new environment,” said the nurse. “After that, you can visit here there every day . . . during posted hours of course.” Her voice was soft, apologetic.
When she had finished speaking and hung up, Lawrence walked into the kitchen and lifted the smoked plastic lid of the answering machine. He took the cassette out, stood over the garbage can in the laundry room, and very methodically unspooled the tape into the garbage. When he was done, he looked at the nest of destroyed tape atop the morning’s coffee grounds and shook his head. “Goddamn it anyway,” he said.
It took Lawrence ten minutes of rooting around in the back of a drawer to find the replacement tape for the answering machine. He snapped it into place and closed the lid, then, before he could record a new message, remembered Elsabeth and how he had left her sitting up. He went back to the bedroom and saw she had fallen asleep that way. He watched her for a very long time, willing himself to remember the sound of her sleeping breath, then turned to go into the kitchen to hunt up some scraps for the dog he’d seen.
* * *
They were the same four that Leonardo had seen earlier that morning, only now instead of carrying on their shoulders a door, they had appropriated a little wooden trundle cart which they wheeled before them, stacked with grisly cargo. When he opened the door to their knocking, the becchini pushed past him without speaking and crossed the garden to enter the house proper. From where he stood, Leonardo could see Vincente’s maid within the darkness of the house motioning the men toward the stairs.
Leonardo blinked and swallowed. It caused him a little pain, and he became aware of his shoulders shaking slightly. He was very hot and the bubo at his groin seemed to sizzle in his flesh, burning him with every movement, every insuck of breath. He glanced out into the street at the corpse-carriers’ wheelbarrow. There were three bodies in it: a man of middle age, a woman most likely his wife, and a boy-child of about five years. Tumors swelled blackly on their faces, necks and arms. Their skin was stretched and crazed and split. Flies explored the air about them and Leonardo looked closer to see the child’s left hand missing and ragged, bloody marks of tooth and claw about his person.
The four becchini came out of the house. Two walked unencumbered, but behind them Leonardo saw the second pair dragging his friend’s body by the arms. Vincente had once been a large man, big-boned and fleshy. Now he was all sharp angles and bone jutting out against his soiled nightclothes. His flesh bore the same ruptures and buboes as the family in the cart, and Leonardo stared at him and began to tremble. He covered his mouth with his hand and looked away as the two becchini heaved Vincente Coruscuito up and into the deadcart where he laying staring heavenward with a fixed expression of something like mirth. As though Death had paused to relate some colorful tale which Vincente found amusing.
The leader of the four noticed him then and realized that Leonardo was not another servant. The man was small and thin and dirty and the whites of his eyes had a yellow cast to them. The becchini was unshaven and when he smiled Leonardo saw dark blossoming of rot working at his teeth.
“Young gentleman,” said the becchini. “Young gentleman, do you know this work we do?”
The air seemed very bright and Leonardo had to squint to make the other out, and saw him as a swath of dark, like a shadow untouched by sunlight. He swallowed and grimaced over the pain at the back of his throat, and told him that he did.
“Then you would know how thirsty a work it is, then. Wouldn’t you?” He fixed him with a questioning stare until Leonardo mumbled that he did.
“Have you then, young sir, coin to give poor working folk?” The becchini tilted his head to the side and put his palm up between them. Behind the man, his fellows muttered amongst themselves and shuffled their boots in the hot dust. Leonardo saw they all wore daggers at their belts and one took his out to whittle idly at the cart handle.
He drew four coins from a pouch at his breast and dropped them in the becchini’s hand. The little man’s eyes widened, and then he grinned and took a step back to look Leonardo up and down. Pocketing the coins, he placed a finger to the side of one eye and said, “You’re a student.”
“And you are waiting in a dead man’s garden when nearly all students have fled Padua. It must be that you are in love.”
Leonardo blinked to get the other in focus. “How can you know that?”
The becchini touched his own caved chest with the tips of his splayed fingers. “I once attended a university. I was once in love. Did you think that once such as myself could not? Did you think me perhaps born to this filthy trade? He waved a hand at Leonardo. “No matter. It is no matter at all for now I am indeed only that which you see before you.”
“What happened? Why do you do this?” Leonardo nodded to the deadcart, the bodies ripening in the sun with Vincente now among them. He could see the signs of bloat in the child’s face and neck—a dark swelling there as though he held his breath.
The man sucked a tooth and shook his head. “Because it is a necessary thing to do, young sir. You ask me what and you ask me why and in so doing you ask me for a story, my story, and I am not inclined to tell it. The moments of my life leading to this moment are mine alone and I’ll not tell them, save that the one I loved was not strong. She did not survive the pestilence and I did. And I was still strong enough to carry her to her grave afterward, and bear the look upon her face as I shoveled the dirt over it. I was strong enough to do that and I am strong enough to do this.” He gestured to the bodies behind him. “And in that I am happy.”
Leonardo shook his head. “I do not understand you, sir.”
The becchini grinned wide to reveal his awful teeth and said, “A man might search his life away for something meaningful—success perhaps. But joy is in doing the thing that’s needed at the moment, and doing it well and without fear and with something like love.”
They stood silent together for some moments. The bells began to sound again. Overhead, Leonardo saw a hawk stitching the sky in long loops. When he looked back down, the becchini and his men were moving off down the street. They had lit torches to keep the pestilence at bay with smoke, and the man with whom Leonardo had spoken turned and called, “Your lady love . . . where does she live?”
Leonardo shouted out the quarter of the city where Katarina Novali lived with her father, and the becchini shook his head slowly from side to side. “No one remains. They’ve all left the city days ago and every house is empty.”
Leonardo stared. The becchini shrugged and turned to rejoin his fellows. Leonardo stood in the failing sun watching after them and listening to the sound of the cart groaning down the street, and the sudden, high call of the hawk, and the softening echo of the bells, until finally there was only the slow, low moan of the wind pushing through the alleys. He turned and shut the garden door, locked it with a brass key, then threw the key over the wall and walked away.
Leonardo wandered through the streets for hours in despair over his life, but at the same time joyous that his only love had most likely reached the safety of the countryside. The afternoon sun blended smoothly into twilight and torches were lit all about the city, though Leonardo encountered no other soul walking in the streets. There were several times he had to lean against a wall to catch his breath. His lungs burned and his joints ached. Once, in an alley strewn with garbage and the bodies of dead livestock, he fell to his hands and knees to vomit dark blood. At the university, he had seen the sick sometimes die in the space of a day, and there was not a thing that could be done once the black blood came spewing from their stomachs.
In the purple of eventide a cool wind bore down upon Padua, freshening the air and making the torch flames gambol. Leonardo hobbled from shadow to shadow and arrived, finally, at an empty stable. There were old soap marks on the door and the stalls had all been turned open. The gutted carcass of a swine lay in a thatch of blood-soaked straw and the smell of dung was sour. From the doorway, Leonardo could see a line of cypress trees that marked the edge of the campus, and he watched as they bent and clashed as the wind twisted through them. He watched out the door for a time, then turned and went inside. He kicked straw into a corner of a stall and lay down upon it.
His eyes were burning in their fleshy orbits, and his heart knocked loud and trembled spastic in its cage of bone. He was very weak and when he vomited again it was all he could do to simply turn his head. He closed his eyes and soiled himself with a deep shudder. He could hear the small sounds: someone coughing wetly from the house next door, flies returning to their carrion nests for the night, his pores tightening, dry with thirst.
When he slivered his eyes open, Leonardo had no way to know how long the mastiff had been watching him. It was a black shape just without the stall door, and it was utterly silent but for breath. It raised its hackles but Leonardo could not see its eyes for darkness. With effort, he lifted his head and rolled onto his back. He tasted warm blood, metallic in his mouth, and old blood dried to a crust about his lips. The bubo at his groin split suddenly as he shifted and bathed his thighs with warmth. He was aware he felt little pain. The black hound watched him as he slid his little knife from his belt. Leonardo held it with the butt of the pommel resting on his stomach. He could see the blade in the dark. The dog began to growl; a low sound, ancient in its intent. Leonardo sniffed and swallowed hard. With his free hand, he beckoned the dog and it came forward quickly, silent again, its teeth moon-colored in the dark, its wet mouth open.
* * *
When he woke, Lawrence looked at his watch and swore. The day was nearly gone and he stood from the couch. He began to cough, but it was not so bad, and he quieted after a minute or two. He swallowed the thick phlegm grimly and went down the hall to check on Elsabeth. She was still asleep and he thanked God for small favors and went out onto the porch. The little dish of table scraps was empty and he scanned the wooded lot next door for signs of the dog, but there were none.
He was inside, filling a water dish to put outside for the dog, when the phone rang. Lawrence set the dish down and ran his damp hands down the thighs of his trousers as he crossed to the phone, but the machine picked it up before he could reach it. He stopped in the middle of the kitchen and stared at the floor.
“You’ve reached the Kelman residence.” Elsabeth’s voice from maybe five years ago. “We’re unable to come to the phone at the moment—” A squeal of feedback, then Lawrence heard himself laughing and remembered the day. Elsabeth said, “Oh, damn machine!” and then a hiss of static as the tape spun itself apart inside the machine.
The caller had already hung up, and Lawrence opened the lid and lifted free the destroyed cassette. He stood there, as the day darkened into evening, holding the tape in his palm, staring at it. He took it into the living room and sat down on the couch. When it was full dark, he left the tape on the coffee table and went into her room.
At first he tried to read to her from the book of poems he’d left on her table the night before. But he couldn’t concentrate on their words or their cadence, and so held her frail hand a while instead. He looked at the way her hand was just beginning to curl in on itself, the way a bird hides its head beneath a wind, and he looked at her face.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he told her. “You tell me what to do.”
Elsabeth stared at the ceiling and Lawrence switched off the light. He could see her eyes in the dark, her parted lips, her teeth. Her hair a shadowy net upon the pillow that caught his words and held them near her head. Understood or not. After a while he stood.
With shaking hands he removed his clothes and lay them neatly across the chairback until he stood naked beside her bed. There was a moon out and its light played upon his pale body so he felt he glowed, that he had become the ghost of himself already. He fixed his mind around not coughing. Elsabeth’s breath was even and untroubled.
He got slowly into bed with her but did not know how to feel. He lay for a long time beside her, feeling her fierce warmth against his upper arm; then he moved his hand to touch her stomach, his palm flat to feel the breath entering and leaving and entering again. He fumbled with the buttons of her blouse and pressed his face against her hair. He found her mouth with his hand his hands moved gently on her body. Pressing against her thigh he curled her fingers around himself and held them there with one hand as his hips rocked. He imagined her awake with her nimble, strong fingers cupped, then clenched, and imagined also those little islands and reefs of light, of shadow, of darkness. The two of them together there and happy.
In the end he wept. Because it was no good and he could not finish, because it was the last time he would share a bed with his wife; because he had heard her voice that evening and not recognized it. He wept because he was not privy to her dreams or the life of her imagination nor she to his, and he wept for the final passing of their life together and because they were each so utterly alone now.
Sometime after midnight, Lawrence Kelman woke and rose from the bed. The night was quiet—no rain or traffic on the street. Moonlight spilt through the window and touched here and there about the room. He braced himself to cough, but it didn’t come, and he stood in the center of the room feeling a lightness of spirit he’d not felt in many months. Though Elsabeth lay sleeping in her bed, the house seemed empty, and he moved from room to room touching things like a haunt come back to a memory. He went into his own room and stood at the open window looking at the wooded lot next door.
The dog moved slowly through the trees like the ghost of a dog. Lawrence stood very still and held his breath. The animal crossed the yard and stood at the bottom step, staring at him before finally limping up the steps and bending its head over the water dish. It drank and turned three tight circles before settling down on the porch-boards to sleep under Lawrence’s watching eye. He stood there a long time, watching it rest. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d seen in a very long time.
* * *
She cannot see clearly for the dark. Nor is there much sound. Perhaps the ticking of the clock she and Lawrence had brought home from Italy, or the soft creak of the floorboards where they sagged in the hall. Perhaps her own breath across her teeth. There is a swath of moonlight slanting through the window to her left and another yellow rind of light to her right. In that yellow light something moves, and she dreams she turns her head to see him standing at his bedroom window naked, watching something and taking delight in it. He is silhouetted there and his skin is marbled in light, smooth. His shoulders are wide and strong.
Then come dreams rife with the possibilities of endings. Perhaps she dies that moment, happy, or merely falls asleep once more. Perhaps they are bricked-up together, man and wife, within a house in Padua and perhaps no pestilence comes upon them. Or, perhaps, she rises from the bed and goes to him where he stands and together they watch the day break.
There is a voice that tells her there are no endings nor were there ever. That endings by their definition imply a void, and so things must go on much the same as they ever were Padua or elsewhere, for students and for lovers and for maidens, for husbands and for wives. She decides it is her own voice. She can hear the smallest sounds. She can see very far.
Apologies to anyone out there still paying attention to this corner of the Web; it’s been quiet here for a long damn time. Without sinking into the current cultural nastiness, let’s just say it’s been a rough couple years—professionally and personally—and leave it at that.
BUT I am so happy and proud to finally announce Soleil Productions upcoming graphic novel adaptation of WILDERNESS.
Publishing in France on May 6, 2020, the book is a wonder to behold and represents a ton of hard work by a crowd of talented people not the least of which being Ozanam and Bandini who handled the scriptwork and artwork respectively (I had nothing to do with the production beyond drooling over the pages that came my way during the book’s long production) and who, through strange magics I do not understand, have managed to bring to light in a new way the story I held in my heart and in my chest for so long. I do not know if my work is worthy of their artistry, but I am bottomlessly thankful for it.
And if I’m thanking people then the book’s editor Jean Wacquet needs to be at the top of the list. Although I have yet to meet him in the flesh, when he approached me with the idea for a Wilderness comic I’m pretty sure we immediately became best friends. Jean, somehow, managed to shepherd the project through what seemed like set-back after set-back and, somehow, managed to keep me from freaking out completely. We also talked comics A LOT and I’m pretty sure he became my spirit animal somewhere along the way.
So this place will, hopefully, liven up a bit on the run-up to publication. For now though, here’s a look at the gorgeous cover along with my introduction and some interior art.
And, lastly, I’ve always wanted to say this:
Wilderness forward/Soleil Productions
So . . . about comic books:
First memories are by necessity strange and incongruous. You start making retainable memories around the age of three or four but the mind isn’t yet ready to make any real sense of the world, so it latches onto images, sounds, vignettes then puts them away for later like unsolved mysteries in a detective’s case file. And close to half of those mysteries have been determined to be outright fabrications; lies (innocent enough, but lies just the same) the mind tells us to try and help make sense of our lives. So, first memories are strange, incongruous, and problematic.
My first memories of are two boxes and of Batman.
The boxes are soft-grey in color, the size of shirt-boxes. One is sprinkled with a design of Deco snowflakes like you’d see on Christmas advertising in the mid-sixties and the other is drawn with some sort of winter scene, Currier & Ives perhaps, of children skating on a frozen pond, more snowflakes, pine trees sugared with snow, frozen mountains in the background. For the longest time, my crib was in a cubby in the hall of a the single-wide mobile home we lived in (and there was no room or money for a bed, so I was stuck sleeping in a crib my first few years—do with that information what you will, psychological-profile-wise) with shelves of linens all around so, if it’s at all real, I can date the memory, make some sense of it.
My first memory of Batman is a far more clear and specific. The Caped Crusader is leaping out of the Gotham night with the cityscape like a toothed-mouth behind him and a full moon on the rise. Cape flaring and rolling like a living thing and the blades of his gauntlets close enough to touch (no purple gloves here!). His mouth a firm line, grim and resolute, and his eyebrows are arched deadly-serious upon his cowl in the way artists of the 1960s and 70s preferred to draw them. So, this specifically, is Neal Adams’s Batman.
And making sense of Batman, in this context, is problematic.
Neither of my parents ever cracked a comic book that I know of, but I was a bookish child, indrawn and quiet. For whatever reason—the relative poverty I only now, as an adult, realize we lived in, or some lingering parental concern over the “Seduction of the Innocent” panic of the 50s and 60s—I was not allowed to read comics. Of any sort, but certainly not superhero comics. Our trailer/apartment/house was a superhero-free zone. So, of course, superhero comics were all I wanted. I was crazy with wanting them, but they were always just out of reach.
Eventually, the household rule of law was relaxed, and all my pocket change was thereafter spent on the spinner rack at the local Rexall. My very first comic? Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #24. Written by Roy Thomas, art by Barry Smith (before he added the “Windsor”). Not a superhero, you might think, but what is Conan but the original, ur-superhero? (Well, except for the dynamic duo of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, I suppose). And, besides, the issue featured Red Sonja in a chainmail bikini and a giant snake so . . . seduction of the innocent, indeed.
A neater story would have me buying a Batman comic as my first but, in truth, I was a Marvel fanatic. For years. And, as comics grew steadily more expensive (20-cents to 25-cents to 35-cents all the way to an “outrageous” 45-cents per issue!) I had to pick and choose very carefully how to spend that pocket change. I favored Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One because you got more superheroes for that 25- or 35-cents when Spider-Man and the Thing were teaming up with the Human Torch or Ghost Rider. Stories dovetailed, one into the next and sometimes crossing over into other titles, and it wasn’t long before I was a lot less lonely, having a living world in four-color-print spread between panels before me. A world encompassed by the cardinal points of character, imagination, plot, and art.
Effortlessly, without fuss or fanfare, comics were teaching me about story-telling. I kept a dictionary nearby to untangle Stan Lee’s varied, vociferous, and vibrant vocabulary and I paid attention to Len Wein’s subtle social criticism. I was disoriented by Jim Starlin’s philosophic ramblings (and his art!) and marveled over Roy Thomas’s ability to adapt RE Howard’s Conan stories to the medium I was learning to love so well. I learned about pacing and about character: I could tell a fill-in issue from a story-arc and knew that if Nova’s Richard Rider wanted to be his own man, they needed to stop writing him like he was Peter Parker. And I remember the excitement I felt on reading The Defenders #50 (30-cents. Written by David Kraft, drawn by Keith Giffen—doing his very best Jack Kirby) when the rollicking, rampaging Hulk didn’t just punch a member of the Zodiac Gang, but punched him through the panel, breaking up the gutters along the way, and sending the villain out the bottom of the page. It didn’t, exactly, break the fourth-wall (but Grant Morrison was out there, waiting to do just that) but it did show me how much life and creativity could be put into the classic, safe nine-panel layout.
But then, as teenagers will, I discovered girls (though they did not discover me for a worrisomely longer time) and the comics were stacked in the closet. Fantasy fiction came next, followed by science fiction, followed by proper, capitalized Literary Fiction. I discovered Faulkner and Hemingway (or, rediscovered in the case of Hemingway because, pre-Conan, I’d taken a run at my grandmother’s copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I was far too young to understand or appreciate it, but just the right age to realize how Serious and Important Literary Fiction could be, how noble-seeming the writer). So, the (comic)bookish child became the bookish young man and, for years, I read and tried to write a little, then read some more.
And then Batman came back. Or, more properly, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns exploded my consciousness.
I wish I could be cool enough to say I bought the single issues of the series as they came out but, honestly, it was the cover of the trade paperback that got me. Batman leaping into action in silhouette, backlit by an arc of lightning was, and is, an image engineered to stir that first memory. A flash of light revealing a figure I felt I’d come to know even though I’d rarely read a Batman book. I devoured the The Dark Knight Returns—story, art, layout, color, inking, all of it beautiful and so startlingly original a take on an old character that the comics world is still feeling its effect. And I devoured Alan Moore’s introduction to it. Which led me to Watchmen which led me to Moore’s Swamp Thing run (recalling my boyhood love of Marvel’s Man-Thing) which led me to DC’s side of superhero-ing and back to Batman. Again.
All this while, I was still reading Literary Fiction, paying close attention—as I had with comics all along—to how the stories were made. The guts of them. How writers of the day took the classic forms of the novel and punched the narrative straight through the gutters and off the page into a reader’s heart and mind. John Irving and Louise Erdrich and Lawrence Norfolk. Rushdie and Atwood and DeLillo. Richard Russo. Annie Dillard. Cormac McCarthy. There was little else a bookish young man, reading and reading and reading all this stuff, could do but try it for himself. Again.
First attempts, being first attempts, are imitative and grotesque and humbling and we’ll say no more of mine here.
Eventually, like a hazily-recalled first memory, I dragged an image out of myself. To this day, I don’t know where it came from, but it was of an old man, in a shack by the sea, with a dog by his side. It was a while before I knew his name and a longer while before I knew much more about him. I wrote a sketch and then a longer sketch and, for a long time, I thought I was writing a short story. But then I discovered not only the wild, northwest coast of Washington State but also my own country’s history in the American Civil War.
And it was like a flash of light revealed this character—Abel Truman—and I suddenly knew everything about him. And I knew that everything I’d written so far was wrong and that I’d have to start again. It was not the first epiphany of this sort to illuminate Wilderness as I worked on it, nor the first time I’d throw everything out to begin again.
Luckily, I was stubborn enough and foolish enough to stick with it. Luckily, I fell in love with the right woman who believed in me when she really had no reason to. Luckily, I fell ill—nothing too bad, but inconveniently life-altering—and I was afforded the time to work on something I hoped would punch at a reader’s heart from off the page like writing it punched at mine. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
Having read all that, you can imagine what it means to me to have this version of Wilderness out in the world. Call it a graphic novel, call it an artbook with words, call it a shared-fiction between the wonderful team that has put so much care and love into it and the text itself.
But, please, also let me call it a comic book. Because, first memory to latest, it wouldn’t be here without them (and Batman).
Traditionally, November-December is headache season for me. Whether it’s a result of the changing seasons or the constant damp in the woods or things being out of bloom is anyone’s guess. I call it Migraine Weather and, in honor of Hemingway, I call the clusters that come on me over these weeks Three Day Blows since that’s about how long it takes for me to normalize between bouts. They all follow the same pattern: tightness in one temple—left or right, it doesn’t matter—followed by hard, hot jabs made worse when I move my head. And then the ripsaw. They used to worry me; they don’t any more. Sometimes they’re very bad and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes I can break them early with chemical cocktails of beta blockers and pain-killers that make me pant and keep me off-kilter and sometimes there’s nothing at all that can touch them.
So, regardless of how I feel about things, and regardless of that fact that my current Three Day Blow blew in on Election Night, I can’t in good conscience blame this latest migraine on the American Political System. Much as I’d like to. Because that would be easy. It would be easy to pop some more painkillers and pant and stay in a dark room and wait until it’s over. It would be easy to convince myself there’s nothing that can touch what’s going on in the country right now.
Very early on in Democracy in America, the great French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered: “Would it be wise to think that a social change which lies so far back in history could be halted by the efforts of a single generation? Can it be believed that democracy, which has destroyed feudalism and overcome kings, will retreat before the wealthy or the middle classes? Will it stop now that it had become so powerful and its adversaries so weak?”
No, it would not be wise. No, it cannot be believed. No, it will not be stopped.
Regardless of whatever political leanings I might have, I was proud this week to observe the machine-parts of government come clicking together, to see the innumerable toggles flipped and dials turned. Regardless of the outcome, I was proud to see the peaceful transition of government proceeding apace and prouder still to see the throngs in cities across American come spilling into the streets in peaceful protest—the faces were anguished, the signs were angry but the right of the people to peaceful assembly remained untrammeled. On television, a political commentator called the protests “pointless” because the fact-of-the-matter had already been decided and the new status quo was a fait accompli.
It would be wise not to believe this. Because, it seems to me, the idea of a status quo is or should be an anathema to a healthy democracy. And, if a democracy is unhealthy—as ours certainly is—then the Founding Fathers have given us the tools to fix the machine and send it on its way again. Because the machine of government is ours and no one else’s.
On Election Day, after having done my part, I spent the better part of the morning raking leaves. We’ve got a couple big maples, a corkscrew willow, a lot of different ornamentals. For a lot of reasons, I’d barely raked at all this autumn so it was a big job. With the recycling bin full and the work not half done, I began raking leaves into a central mass, circling the trunk of a cherry tree just outside my office window. I noticed the cherry was sick, some rot had set in that was splitting the trunk and withering the branches. But the sun was trying to come out and there were patches of blue sky through the rainclouds. And it felt good to be out doing physical, tangible work as opposed to sitting behind a desk worrying about abstractions like sentences and paragraphs. The pile grew, larger and larger, and I began to feel better and better. I had voted, I was working, I had achieved my life-long dream of having a book published and, wonder of wonders, a follow-up due out in France next year. I took a picture of my magnificent pile of leaves and sent it along to a friend who I knew was worrying down the day; I put a tomato in for scale because I wanted her to have a jokey moment in a fraught day. Then I went inside, showered, and sat down to my abstractions.
And then I watched the election results as they came in and I thought of Tocqueville and the tyranny of the majority and how it’s not often you can look up out of your life and see the abstraction of thought take concrete form.
I am by no means a political animal. My motivations lie elsewhere.
This is a luxury I don’t think any one of us, as Americans, can afford any longer.
My inclination was to take to the page and rage, it was to give vent to my frustrations with a machine that has become too ponderous and complex for the body politic to operate, let alone understand. These days, the machine that we the people have inherited and necessarily tinkered with, has become so labyrinthian that it’s hard to even approach it, let alone influence it. But rage and frustration are the spoiled little children of fear and I am nowhere near a nimble enough writer to manage much eloquence in the face of all that.
What I can say is, the America of my heart is not the America that is. Maybe we are close to a real Golden Age and, maybe, being close means being beset by demagogues as they struggle to preserve ways of life that no longer fit the beautiful society we have become and are becoming. Maybe it means becoming political animals and keeping closer watch on the hands that flip the switches and turn the dials.
No, not maybe. The machine of government is ours and no one else’s. We cannot shut ourselves in dark rooms and wait out the next four years. There’s work that needs to be done—simple, commonsense work like not fostering or tolerating the rhetoric of hate and allowing everyone to feel safe on every street, in every state. The dead leaves need to be raked. We must treat the wither in the branch and in the trunk that poisons the whole.
In 1861, the widow of de Tocqueville wrote to a leading abolitionist of the day: “You are a most volcanic people, and when one fancies you are in a dead calm, out bursts a tremendous storm.”
I call it headache weather.
*apologies and respect to Carl Sandburg
I know nothing of Paris.
In the middle of my French tour for Wilderness I had half-a-day and night to spend in the City of Lights but we were bone-tired so the evening was spent at a noodle-stand somewhere near our hotel and the night was spent in our hotel room trying to get out from under our jet lag. I don’t think we even opened the curtains and we slept twelve hours.
So then we only had a morning left.
We wandered away from the Odeon Hotel in the 6th arrondissement and into the Luxembourg Gardens then down the Boulevard Saint-Michel to the Seine. The street trees were leafed-out and you could smell things cooking and you could smell tobacco smoke and it was raining that morning and the rain made sharp, pocking sounds on the umbrellas all around us. We went to Notre-Dame and then inside; I paid for a machine to flatten a disk of copper with the cathedral logo then promptly lost it. I remember being struck by the statue of Charlemagne and, especially, the magnificent mustache of the warrior holding his horse’s reins.
Then, with the morning running out, we wandered back. We vaguely looked for the Eiffel Tower but the skyline was socked-in. Kat took pictures of the many wonderful doors we happened across and I tried on a variety of Interesting Hats because all my writer-friends seemed to wear Interesting Hats and I’ve always been, alas, hatless. I bought two scarves and we had tiny coffees at tiny tables out on the sidewalk in the rain under the dripping, leafed-out trees. We laughed over the French title for The Hangover 3: Very Bad Trip 3, got lost twice, helped another American tourist get unlost, pined over the noodle-stand (which was closed now), got lost once more, then finally found our hotel again in time to throw our bags in a taxi and head for the train station.
Our return trip from my reading tour of Southern France only took us briefly back into Paris and it was in the middle of the night. It was still rainy, still cloudy, so the City of Lights was far more sedate than its reputation and, the next morning, we were on a plane home.
So I know nothing of Paris.
But I know this: for half-a-day and night, regardless of what I saw or did not see, regardless of rain and jet lag or lost souvenir tchotchkes, everything we saw that was old was new and everything was welcoming and bright and lovely. Being in Paris, even for so short a time, made me feel like a citizen of the world and left me forever improved as a man and human being and, for that, I will always be profoundly grateful.
And I still dream about that noodle-stand.
Just a quick post to let you know my author website has been revamped.
Check it out if you get a chance:
http://www.lanceweller.net (you will have to cut and paste this due to WordPress issues)
I don’t often share work-in-progress with anyone other than my wife; and her only rarely (she’s a fierce, blunt critic with an excellent ear for terrible sentences so I need to be careful of my teacup ego in showing her pages) but, much like what happened with American Marchlands, I’ve gotten pretty excited about the shape my new book, The Age of Iron, is taking and wanted to share a page or so. I’m still feeling my way through the story but the characters are starting to pop. With that in mind, the following takes places in the first dozen or so pages of the book where we have a group of old men gathered in the morning at their favorite diner reminiscing about a famous, local killer of men.
“I remember Orson Storey,” said Otho. His one eye was pale and the scar where the other had been was pale as well. “I saw him once but I never talked to him. I saw that bear skin Ole Andersen had hung up in his store. I saw that. But Orson Storey wasn’t born wrong like some folks think. He was born sick and small and kept getting sicker. Then he got a fever while he was still just a little chap. Boiled his brains, they say. And, of course, his mama was already a crazy woman, so that didn’t help him none. Folks still like to talk about how crazy that woman was.” He shrugged and cut his eye toward Bill Loveless. “But he was a wild man. Orson Storey. The Wild Man. People like to tell about him swinging through the trees like an ape. Loggers would tell about him peeping in bunkhouse windows at night and scaring them half to death. He did kill some people, sure.” Otho took a sip of coffee and made a satisfied sound. “Killed moren we probably know about and, whenever they tried to catch him, he just went deeper into the woods. Sent them that went in after him back out again with their asses full of buckshot. Shit. But you can’t go back like that. Back into them woods. Not to stay. You can’t go back to wildness like Orson Storey tried to. He tried and they finally killed him for it.” The one eye was far away and the shucked-out one was a folded, cinched-up looking thing rimmed with fine black hair. “Shit,” he said, “you can’t go back anywhere to anything ever. It’s all got to go forward. One foot after another until you’re done. Until you get to wherever it is you’re supposed to be. And that’s how it’s been ever since man first put his plow into the dirt.”
They looked at him. “Jesus,” said Ed Ray. “You all right, Otho?”
“What?” said Otho.
“I don’t believe I have ever heard you string so many words together at once,” said Runacres.
Otho scowled and rubbed his old, empty socket with the side of his thumb. He looked across the table at Trevor. “You knew him, didn’t you?”
“No, I never did meet the man,” said Trevor Wilson. He sighed and his facemask moved with his breath. Coffee stains had blossomed on the rough cloth and he hung his head a moment as though he’d collect his thoughts and then he hunched his shoulders. The could hear the air moving out of him and thick, wet throat sounds and they looked away. Trevor gripped the table. His eyes watered. Something spattered against the inside of the mask. He took the paper napkin out from under his knife and fork and wet it in his water glass then leaned so they could not see him as he dabbed clean the mask and the remains of his mouth. After a few moments, he leaned back in his chair and sighed as though exhausted. The damp mask moved defiantly. “But I did know the man who finally killed him,” he went on. “I knew Steelink.”
With my new novel, American Marchlands, finished (well, as finished as these things ever are; which only means, really, that I’ve surrendered it to the Powers That Be and am now, anxiously, awaiting Word from On High—hopefully I’ll have some official news I can release soon but, for the time being, I will say my love affair with France continues. And deepens!), I’ve begun work on something new.
Right up front, this entails a lot of inactivity. This means wool-gathering, staring out the window, reading and then reading some more and it means breaking in a new notebook. This step is important because everything goes into it. The notebook. THE Notebook. Noodlings and doodlings and interesting factoids that probably won’t ever get used but have to be put on paper so they seep into my brain. Bits of pertinent slang and chunks of scenes and dialogue and full blown characters and plot lines that won’t make the final cut. Scraps of paper get shoved in there with notes or single words whose relevance to the work at hand, when I return to them later, will be deep mysteries. Internet effluvia gets printed out and scotch-taped into the Notebook along with bits of things copied out of library books that actually turn out to be useful. The perfect dream-form of the novel, which is never, ever attainable, goes into the Notebook and fills it and fills it until it becomes something more, until it earns its capital “N.” And, finally, the Notebook is important because, if I follow my own history, I’ll be carrying it around for three years or so as I work on whatever this new book finally becomes.
My American Marchlands notebook was a 200 page Norcom Composition with stiff, marbled covers. Odds are you’ve seen its like poking out of student backpacks or tossed onto tables at Starbucks. And it was fine, it held together well and did its job no matter how much I abused it. My system was: fiction up front, history in the back. Like a mullet in reverse. So, my ideas for various scenes and character backgrounds and plot ideas started at the beginning, then, for all the historical detail I didn’t want to forget and needed to keep straight, I’d flip the Notebook over and record back-to-front. So, contrary to my nature, I had an organized system to keep things straight.
But a new book demands a new Notebook and, this time around, I’ve upgraded a bit. My The Age of Iron (as I’m calling my new novel-in-progress) Notebook is a hardcover Moleskine 5×8 ¼“ with an elastic cord to hold it shut (something that became an issue in the last Notebook). A hipster notebook, yes, but it’s black so you know I’m serious. So far, there’s no organizational scheme whatsoever and, so far, I’ve made a LOT of notes for this new book. So far, I’m okay with that.
The Age of Iron, as I see the dream-form of it, is a look at the logging camps and towns of my beloved Washington State in the early 1900s. It’s a look at timber violence and cold machinery and the First World War in France and northern Russia. It will mix logging with local politics, war weariness, cowardice, serial killers, life-long friendships, tenderness, mercy, and hate. So, it will encompass the world.
Of course, I’ll fail. Abjectly, spectacularly. Of course, there’ll be a period where I’ll think I’m writing the Great American Novel and a much longer, more profound, period where I know I’m writing the worst piece of crap it’s possible to write. But, after trying for so many years to be able to think of myself as a writer, the chance to make the attempt is worth it in more ways than I can tell. By the end—in three years or however long it takes me—the novel probably won’t resemble anything close to the dream of it I have now and that’s okay because I know the ending and whatever it takes to get there, to earn that ending, is what I signed-up for. Which is writing.
And that ending, that last sentence? It’s already written. In the Notebook.
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.