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.
Part One: Looking for the Devil at every Crossroads
The day before my novel, Wilderness, hit the shelves I was traveling from Seattle, Washington to Jackson, Mississippi—nervous as hell because the next day would bring the first reading of my first book tour and I had no idea what to expect from any of it. Also, air travel is inherently unnatural and the flight down from my little corner of the Puget Sound had been long and turbulent. But even still, I kept the shade up on the last, short leg from Houston to Jackson because I wanted to see the Big River as we passed over it. And there it was: all loops and doglegs and looking like hammered silver from that height; the land around it green in a way that Washington, the greenest of States, is not—lush and bright and reminiscent of half-imagined jungle terrain.
When we landed, I thought I’d be ready for the heat—I’d been warned after all. But, really, it didn’t seem so bad. The airport at Jackson was cool, small and clean and smelled entirely neutral—unlike Houston which stank of chlorine and feet. With brisk efficiency, I was assigned a rental car, had the air conditioning set and was on my way three hours-and-change north to Oxford and Square Books where Wilderness would be officially unveiled. The Garmin I’d borrowed from my parents was plugged in with the soothing voice of Serena, my British guide for this trip, coolly suggesting the route. The highways were clean and sparsely trafficked; the driving cool, fine and easy. I remember thinking what a piece of cake this was all going to be. I wasn’t even sweating.
Before leaving the Jackson city limits, I stopped at a roadside burger joint because I was hungry and thirsty since, besides being unnatural, air travel isn’t conducive to my appetite. I parked my cool car. Shut down the engine. The air conditioner hissed to silence. I stepped outside and immediately had no idea what was happening to me.
The engine had obviously exploded and I was caught in that moment that you read about in pulp novels where you know you’re dying—that transient-yet-impossibly-long second before the body gives way and lets go the soul and you’re aware of it all and there is no pain. But no, there was no explosion. Instead, someone had obviously thrown a wet cloth bag over my head and I was suffocating. I imagined government vans and black helicopters. Waterboarding. But no, I was not being manhandled. All I had done was to step from an air-conditioned car into something like 90 degree heat and 90% humidity and my glasses had instantly fogged and my lungs felt as though they’d collapsed. I must’ve made a sound, some sort of strangling noise, because folks in the parking lot looked up from their concerns and, seeing me flailing about—instantly drenched in sweat—just shook their heads and smirked and went about their business.
Somehow I found my way into the restaurant then back out again. Serena, patient and cool, guided me back onto the interstate and we set off north once more. I paid attention, now, to the temperature gauge on the dash and, at seven o’clock in the evening, it stayed steady at 92 degrees Fahrenheit. Mississippi woods flowed past to either side. The interstate ran straight and flat, the paving softly brown, shading into pale red. The sun slowly set at my left shoulder and it took its time going down—a thing far different from what I was used to. The west went brilliantly yellow and everything was watery.
By the time I left the interstate for a two-lane State Highway (MS 7 running northwest through Water Valley toward Oxford) it was night and it was dark. It struck me right away that there were no street lamps anywhere along the road save at the occasional crossroads. And there was no traffic. My rearview mirror gave back a rectangle of absolute dark and, every so often, way off in the distance to my left and right and sometimes ahead, came suggestions of porchlights. I passed wayside gas stations who, it seemed, knew better than to stay open after dark. I passed a lovely white church of the sort, I think, you only see in the South—but the parking lot was empty. On the seat next to me (I’d opted not to bring a mount to save luggage space), Serena’s console was dark, with only a thin ribbon of purple weaving down the screen to show me the way. And Serena herself had gone quiet because the way was straight and long and because, I figured at the time, she was as freaked-out as I was.
At one point I joined a little caravan of SUVs travelling in my direction and was happy for the fellowship; relieved that I was not left all alone in the world. But then, as though some signal to which I was not privy had been given, they all pulled to the side of the road and I passed them by. Behind me, I saw them turn-about and head back the way we’d come. I wondered what they knew that I did not. Now, at each crossroads, I half expected to see the devil waiting for me, some bargain at the ready. I looked for Ralph Macchio and Jami Gertz. I wondered what the terrain I was driving through really looked like by light of day. I flicked my brights on every so often just so to see the lay of the road ahead of me and, in that sudden brightness, the pale shapes of insects swirled thickly.
And then, just as I was beginning to try and face up to the fact that I’d come off the interstate onto some road that that ran only through the Twilight Zone and that was never lit and would never end, Serena piped up to take my next left in .6 miles. When I came off the highway, she became positively chatty with helpful suggestions and, before I knew it, there were honest-to-God strip malls appearing to either side. And traffic—lovely, lovely traffic.
It was in this way I came to Oxford.
I haunt bookstores. Always have. Often, whatever errands I have will be arranged in such a way as to allow the maximum amount of loitering-time between the shelves of one store or another—or, if not a bookstore, then at the very least the local library. These are ordered worlds that I understand and am comfortable in. And if I don’t walk out with some sort of hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, graphic novel (Marvel Comics, naturally), newspaper, magazine, Moleskine, textbook or tchotchke I will be, I admit it, insufferably crabby for hours afterword.
So. Imagine me then at one of my usual posts at the closest Big Box Bookstore this past Saturday (because we have no local independent stores close by), browsing the shelves and seeing—quite unexpectedly—copies of my novel, Wilderness, up on the shelves for sale. It takes me a moment to process the sight because I’ve been working for such a long time toward this one particular moment—seeing my book for sale in an honest-to-God store—and, besides, it’s not supposed to be out until next week. So I stand there a little dumbstruck a moment before making a little, explosive sound comprised of some strange arrangement of consonants. Something like “btthhggg” or “bllrrhh.” Some sort of ‘b’ sound, at any rate. After which I swiftly squat (my last name’s Weller so I’m used to finding myself at the bottom of most alphabetical systems of arrangement) and give the book a good, hard poke with one finger to assure myself of its actual existence. It feels solid, tangible, but I poke it again, just for good measure.
At the Information Center, I introduce myself to the employee manning the station. His name is Scott and I thank him profusely for carrying Wilderness, profess my surprise at seeing it for sale early and explain how it’s my first book and that I’d worked hard to get it published and to keep myself fed while doing so and how exciting it was for me to finally see it on the shelf and words are spilling out of me and I’m sure I’m coming off a little crazed and Scott looks at me and says, “Um.”
When I ask to see the manager, to thank them in person for stocking the book (competition over shelf-space being what it is) Scott tells me it’s their day off. “I could, I guess, get the assistant manager?” Somehow he makes a question of it.
Still flush with excited achievement, I tell Scott sure, I’d love to talk to the assistant manager and, that if it would help sales, I’d happily sign a few copies since I was, finally and incontrovertibly, a local author. Scott looks a little crestfallen, a little overwhelmed. “Well, she’s at lunch,” he tells me.
“Well, that’s all right,” I say (it is not all right).
Scott looks relieved but the kicked-puppy look that I’m sure is on my face makes him offer: “You could call next week, I guess. Sometimes they let you set up a little table by the front door and sign stuff. Sometimes. Um. I guess.” By now, Scott’s figured out I won’t be buying an e-reader from him and is looking over my shoulder at the line lining-up behind me.
I thank Scott for his time and go back to stand in front of the new releases. Wilderness is still there; right beside Seal Team Six: Outcasts but no one’s bought a copy yet and I’ve been here nearly ten minutes already. I give it another couple pokes and look around a little desperately but there’s no one else close-by save Scott who’s helping another customer find a copy of one in series of books with the words “Fifty” and “Shades” in each of their titles.
After he’s finished, Scott comes over to stand a good six-and-a-half feet outside my personal comfort zone. He looks over the New Releases shelf with me a moment before finally asking, “So, which one is yours?”
I tell him it’s right down there beside Seal Team Six: Outcasts and Scott bends over, picks it up and turns it over where he can’t help but see my crowning glory: there, in white text on a lustrous bronze background, is praise from Annie Dillard. Annie Dillard. I wait for him to fall to his knees and weep, to usher me in some Roman-like triumphal procession into the break room to interrupt the assistant manager between bites of her sandwich and show her that here, right here, is local talent, but all Scott does is flip open the back flap, compare my author pic to my actual, scruffy self and put the book back in its place. “That’s pretty cool, I guess?” Somehow he makes a question of it. “I knew a guy who wrote a book once.”
“Well,” I tell him. “It’s quite a thing.”
“Um,” says Scott, spotting a customer looking over an e-reader. “Okay then,” he says and, with that, he is gone.
In the end, my darling wife scoops up three or four copies of Wilderness and places them farther up the shelving food chain—nestling them in the rarefied air between lucky authors whose last names begin with Cs and Ds. And at the counter she talks me up, as she always does, and when she mentions Scott’s apparent ambivalence toward my apparent genius, Dep, the woman manning the register, rolls her eyes and says, “Oh, Scott…he’s always like that. I don’t understand him.” And then, bless her heart, she takes up Wilderness, looks at it and looks at me with a gentle smile before placing my book carefully into a plastic stand at the front of the store to better advertise it to all who might be curious.
For my part, as we leave I look over the little tables and chairs that await my presence at some later date, assumedly after the manager’s day off or the assistant manager’s lunch. They look a little lonely, a little sad, but that’s all right.
For those of us who study and think about the American Civil War, there are any number of turning points—those moments when the course of the war, and, thereby, the fate of the country, hung upon a single instant or decision. And, like a
discussion about the designated hitter rule in baseball, arguments and opinions revolving around the Turning Point can become heated. And, as you can imagine, having written a book about the Battle of the Wilderness, I have an argument and opinion of my own.
A lot of people look at Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg as the turning point of the Civil War. That moment, when a wave of men in grey and butternut crested against the snake rail fencing near “that copse of trees” and were driven back again by other men opposing them. The South would never again be so ascendant. It was a turning point.
Another moment: Abraham Lincoln setting pen to paper to enact the mighty Emancipation Proclamation, turning the war from a struggle not just to preserve the Union but to make men free. Thus making of the war not just a political thing but a moral one as well. This, another turning point.
A third moment: The capture of Vicksburg in 1863 coming, as it did, within a day of Pickett’s Charge and cutting the vast territory of the South in two such that one could no longer support the other. Victory here denied the eastern theater the vital chain of supplies it needed to wage any sort of offensive war. This was also a turning point.
There are any number of other turning points that arguments can be made for. They can be collected like baseball cards but, for me, the real Turning Point of the American Civil War occurred on the evening of May 7, 1864 when General Ulysses S. Grant sat his horse at a certain crossroads in the Wilderness.
To set the scene: by May 7 the Battle of the Wilderness was over. The first clash between the preeminent generals of both sides, R. E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, had acted with his typical audacity and nerve and had held Grant’s entire, lumbering force in the close woods and thickets and second-growth of the Wilderness and had bloodied it badly. For his part, Grant smoked more cigars—27 by one estimation—during the second day of the battle than he ever had before. His calfskin gloves were shredded because it was his custom to whittle when nervous and he had unmindfully destroyed any number of sticks.
By the morning of May 7, a lesser general—a lesser man—would have retreated and been grateful to do so. McClellan would have, as would Burnside or McDowell or Pope and, back in 1863, Hooker did. All these men had led the army prior to Grant and all had been whipped by Bobby Lee and had slunk back across the river toward home. But Grant gave the order to go on.
So, that night, with the Wilderness still in flames from the desperate fighting that had gone on there, with whole trees enveloped in fire to stand like the torches of giants and cover the ground in smoke to the height of a horse’s belly, the men of the Army of the Potomac, the common, soldiering men, watched Grant to see what he would do. The general rode to a crossroads. Should he turn to the east the men watching knew they were in retreat, that the war would go on and on and the Lincoln administration would likely be defeated in the looming elections. A turn to the south would mean something new, would mean they were going on, that they weren’t whipped and that, maybe, the war would still go on but the end, no matter how distant, would be in sight. The Turning Point, here, was an actual turning point upon which everything hinged.
Grant sat his horse. He probably lit a cigar. Maybe he’d gotten some fresh gloves. Then he turned south.
I recently had a short essay published on Tamara Linse’s new blog The Native Home of Hope which is a lovely site dedicated to writers west of the Mississippi. Check it out (link below).
While you’re waiting for Wilderness to hit the bookstores (less than 2 weeks!), check out Christian Kiefer’s The Infinite Tides (now on sale) and Jonathan Evison’s “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving” (out on 8/28).
And, for your entertainment, some of the reviews of Wilderness.
I’ve never felt suited to do much of anything other than writing. I’ll save the essay about why it’s taken me so long to find any sort of success for another time and another forum but, suffice to say, my whole life has been lived in anticipation of being where I am now. However well Wilderness does in the marketplace when it’s released next month, the last year of getting it finally, truly ready for publication—from offer to contract to line edits and galleys and every other thing that goes along with getting a book out. The only problem has been, other than some very nice advanced reading copies, there’s been no book to show off. Luckily, as of last night, that all changed.
Last night about 8:30—late for a delivery—my book was delivered to me and the last year and all the years that came before it were suddenly boiled-down into a tangible thing that I had made and could now hold in my hands.
It felt pretty good.