Wednesday, March 03, 2010


If anyone is still checking out this blog, I've migrated the posts to a new blog called The Book in the Drawer,

New posts will go there and focus on my efforts this year to balance my day job with book writing. I have a novel that I'm going to try to have published, so come along and see how it works. Or not.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Good or Bad

I've just finished reading John LeCarre's A Most Wanted Man, which I really enjoyed. At the same time, I've been re-reading Leon Hale's Bonney's Place. Two more different books would be hard to find. Yet...the subject matter is the same. Let me explain.

In the Le Carre thriller, the Muslim target is a public figure whose charitable contributions are said to be 95% "good" and only 5% "bad." The five percent relates to the money and goods siphoned off to fund terrorists. So the question becomes: is that five percent bad enough to cancel out the vast preponderance of good works? The Americans in this story think so. And so (spoiler alert) he's basically toast.

In Bonney's Place the question is whether a man who bilks an old man out of a considerable sum of money can possibly be anything other than "bad." This man also spotlights deer out of season, repeatedly cheats a pompous customer, slaughters the same customer's heifer and serves it to the poor people of his community, and performs other larcenies, here and there. At the same time, he takes in people who need help and performs many small acts of kindness in his community.

It seems to me that our society has entered a time where many of our citizens desperately want clarity between actions that may be called good, or bad. But instead we find ever larger situations where the actions encompass both polarities. I'm thinking of things like how to treat people suspected of terrorism when they are arrested; and how we respond to suspicions of terrorist activities. There is no clear and immediate answer, and we grope toward an understanding of the boundaries we cannot allow ourselves to cross.

Our new administration will be caught in the complexities of this process, but it may be able to handle it in a more satisfactory fashion than did its predecessor. Because of the value the president places on the pre-eminence of the rule of law, we have drawn a boundary for ourselves. That will help guide us, and possibly allow us to avoid the pitfalls of ideology.

Without law, there is no civilization. When we must deal with nations and tribes who reject common understandings of law, including their own religious law, and we respond by doing the same, we abandon all concepts of civilization. I suggest that this constitutes another boundary for us. If we must abandon our civilization in order to prevail against the enemy, what have we achieved in the victory?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Absent, Part I, Chap 1

Part I – 2004


1.------Santa Fe, New Mexixo

A cool morning at the café, with the door open and a long line of customers waiting to give their orders for coffee, chai, muffins. Emilie’s taking the orders, manning the cash register.

“Soy latte, please, 12 ounce,” comes a familiar voice. Emilie looks up from her order pad into the face of her high school best friend. Lorrie is staring at her with a look of amazement. “Emilie? Is that you? I don’t believe it.”

Emilie doesn’t believe it, either, although recognition by someone was inevitable. Garcia Joe is a Santa Fe destination. Tourons—AKA tourists—love it. They feel authentic there, part of the real Santa Fe scene.

But, in a place like that where everybody’s studying the overhead menu and looking at the pastry case or each other, people don’t usually notice the server. Most of the people Emilie knows from Houston wouldn’t have seen past her surface appearance, anyway. She’d intended misdirection of this sort when she buzzed her head the previous spring. She has piercings, too, although she doesn’t remember how those happened. They’re residue from the void, the darkness, the time she was gone from herself.

“That’ll be two-seventy-five, please,” she says, trying for a neutral professional tone.

Lorrie is frowning at her, though, holding up the line instead of paying and moving down the counter to pick up her drink. “Emilie, what are you doing here?” she asks. She sounds almost offended for some reason.

“I can’t talk now,” Emilie says. Go away, she’s thinking. Just go away.

“I’ll wait for you,” Lorrie says. And for the next twenty minutes, Emilie can feel her old friend’s probing gaze as she goes about the motions of her job. Making stupid mistakes, too, as though her brain is so feeble it can’t handle two stresses at once, which is probably true.

What on earth can she say to Lorrie? How can she begin to explain that she doesn’t know how she got to Santa Fe, how she found her job, even how she acquired the name she uses—Elly. She doesn’t remember leaving Houston. It’s as though the person who did those things had simply ceased to exist—but not completely, because in a way that person has been present ever since, standing somewhere just behind Emilie, perceptible the way you sense something wrong in a room before you see it.

On break, at last, she leads Lorrie outside, to chairs at the far end of the garden where they will be separated from the other customers by shrubbery. Seated, Lorrie leans toward her eagerly, trying to engage. “So tell me, what’s going on with you? I thought you got married. Didn’t you have a kid, or something?”

It seems to Emilie that the ground makes a little shudder beneath her feet. “I really don’t know what to say,” she tells Lorrie, and then she smiles. She hopes it is a warm and friendly smile. Over the past few months, Emilie has learned that if she arranges her face pleasantly and says as little as possible, the person across from her will fill in the conversational silences. So she sits there and waits for Lorrie to talk.

In the next few minutes, she learns that Lorrie lives in Seattle, but loves Santa Fe so much she’s thinking of moving here. No husband anymore. No children. “Santa Fe is so beautiful,” Lorrie gushes, “the sunlight is fabulous. You’re so lucky.”

At the moment, though, Emilie doesn’t feel lucky. That’s because she can hear the question grinding away beneath the surface of Lorrie’s chatter, the question she knows Lorrie is dying to ask. How could you have gone off and left your baby? It’s the big question, the one Emilie asks herself all the time, and can’t answer.
Instead, however, Lorrie’s absorbed in relating the details of her own calamities. She’s been married twice since college, imagine that, she says. Both men were lawyers, and she realizes now that all she really wanted out of them was the approval she never got from her dad. She never obtained it from them, either, it appears. At least that’s one mistake she won’t be making again any time soon. As Lorrie says this, her face droops momentarily into the expression it will wear in her forties. Just as quickly, though, she pastes the upbeat look back on.

“Well,” she says, finally, and gets to her feet. “I’ve got an appointment to look at a condo over on Palace. Let’s have lunch one day soon, OK?”

And after Lorrie’s gone, Emilie sits there alone for a few minutes, staring at the dry ground beneath a butterfly bush where a spindly Echinacea is struggling to push its head out into the sun.

She has to go home. She has no choice any longer.

It’s been almost a year since Emilie began to regain a sense of herself in little bursts, the way that flares from a match in the dark reveal shapes of a tantalizing familiarity. And then, one afternoon she was on the Cerrillos Road bus, going to buy underwear at the mall, and suddenly the main things were all there—the fact she lived in Houston and had a husband; her name, too—Emilie—although, at first, his was still too slippery to grasp. She could feel the weight of his shoulders. She could see his eyes, the iris a light striated brown and gold. She remembers waiting for the warmth that should rise to greet the thought of him, but it didn’t come.

Across the aisle and one seat forward, a woman was comforting a crying infant, patting his diapered bottom in a slow steady rhythm as they bounced along. Over the woman’s shoulder, Emilie watched the baby’s face, an especially round one, with perfectly round, dark eyes. A corona of sparse hair floated, lightly tethered to his smooth, perfect skull. He—or she—will be a redhead, Emilie thought. A sick feeling spread upward from her stomach, then, as she realized she, too, had a child.

Her heart had seized painfully at the remembered weight of her baby slumping in trust against her breasts, the milky sweetness of breath, his silken skin…She had to think of something else. Across from her, the baby’s soft mouth made little sucking sounds, his tongue working behind plump roseate lips, slightly parted, glistening with saliva. That’s when Emilie’s stomach flipped and she vomited onto the floor of the bus the Coke she didn’t remember drinking. There had been nothing else inside her to lose.

She should have gone back to Houston, right then. She should have done something active to find out what had happened, instead of just continuing to drift. Why didn’t she? She was afraid, mainly. She knew she couldn’t have left her son easily. There had to be serious reasons why she was there in New Mexico while her baby remained in Texas. Something really bad must have happened. Could she have hurt him?
The horror of this thought trapped her. She needed to know, and she was terrified of knowing. The result was paralysis. Be patient, she told herself. Eventually everything will clear, like one of those low early clouds that dissolve into the Sangres with the climbing of the sun.

Except it hadn’t. Her lost weeks stayed lost, and she was left with the way she is now—when portions of what she thinks of as herself feel mostly normal; and others feel as though they’ve been erased, leaving only the sense of something missing. The absence of her son is a constant ache, a longing there is no way to satisfy.

Just a few days before Lorrie turned up at the café, she hadn’t been able to stand it any longer. She’d borrowed a co-worker’s cell phone and called her own house. She’d drunk a second latte, triple shot, to get up the nerve. She picked late-morning when she was sure Paul would be at work. Standing on the café’s patio as far away from customers as possible, she’d dialed the familiar number.

She could see the phone ringing in what had been her kitchen. She could see Sylverta hurrying toward it. She would just ask if Doak was okay. That’s assuming she was able to speak around the large lump in her throat. Her heart thundered in her ears as the phone rang the fifth time, and then voicemail picked up—Paul’s voice, and in the background the sound of a small boy talking to their dog in a surprisingly audible tone. She dialed the number six times, just to hear him say: Shhh, Max. Daddy wants quiet.

Doak, her son, is alive.

She remembers that her legs gave way, then, dropping her onto one of the low tables recently cleared of coffee cups and empty plates. Her relief had been so profound, she felt disoriented, even less substantial than usual. But still she hadn’t gone home. It was as though Doak had been put on pause, captured there in the repeating voicemail, waiting safely for her, while she…what?

Dithered, that’s what.

She knows it’s no excuse, but she’s made a life here—one without antecedents, without telling people where she went to college, where she came from originally, without looking for shared prior experiences to build communication around. She has a boyfriend, too—Tom—who seems perfectly happy to live in the present tense.
She hasn’t been straight with him, though. She’s never told him she has another name and home. She hasn’t said she was married, that she has a son. Being with him is so easy, she hasn’t wanted anything to disturb it—not at all the way she should feel—a married mother so far removed from her real life, her child.

Lorrie’s arrival, however, changes everything. Now that Lorrie knows where she is, everyone in Houston will find out. Everyone that matters, anyway. Emilie’s mother and Lorrie’s are good friends. She might as well announce it on Oprah.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Try this

Here's the prologue to Absent, the novel I've been working on. Comments are most welcome. The material is, of course, copyrighted.

Prologue – Houston, 2002

Emilie, half-waking, moans beneath the scrabbled bedclothes. Her protruding foot is cold and she retracts it, curling herself more tightly around one pillow. She pulls another pillow over her head.

Even so, she hears a scraping sound, as Paul throws open the heavy drapes. “Get up,” he says. “Seriously, Emilie.”

Brilliant light floods the room, and beneath her pillow, Emilie groans, burrowing in more resolutely.

“Now.” And he yanks every one of the covers off, depositing them in a pile on the floor.

“Pa-aul!” She tugs her nightshirt over her behind, as the air conditioning hits her warm skin.

“You have to deal.” he says. He grasps her arm. “Come on, get moving. It will help. Trust me.”

She sits up. She has to trust someone.

His face, above the crisp white shirt and striped tie, is set, but the eyes are sorrowful. “All I’m asking is that you get out of the house today. Syl can give you her grocery list, if that’ll work. See if it doesn’t make you feel better.”

He crouches down before her and tilts her chin up with one hand. “You can do that, now, can’t you, baby? Please?”

“Okay,” she says, very softly.

After Paul leaves, Emilie drags over to their closet where, clad only in underwear, she stares at the clothing arrayed before her. Blouses, slacks, sweaters in neat little transparent boxes, skirted suits, formals, a wall of shoes. So many things.

Too many.

She closes her eyes, sticks out a hand and grabs in the direction of pants. Then blouses. She steps into the first, pulls the second over her head and slips her feet into flats. The pants are brown. The blouse is green. The shoes are red. She knows it will look odd, but she doesn’t care.

Once, before she had Doak, appearances mattered. She enjoyed putting together outfits suited to a particular impression she wanted to create. Even when she was pregnant, she’d combined maternity clothes with her existing wardrobe in ways that her friends found clever and original. She had intended to be that kind of mother, too, inventive, nurturing, competent. She had actually looked forward to motherhood, and for a time after Doak’s birth, she had acted like a normal, new mother—thunderstruck but functioning. She’s sure of that much, at least.

By Doak’s third month, though, she had felt herself beginning to dissolve around the edges. At first, it was just fatigue. She’d take a nap at noon. Then one in mid-morning, too. Then additional naps in the afternoon.

She started to get up later. She’d rouse herself, diaper Doak, feed him, stick him in the crib and go back to bed. Her mother, Isabelle, began to spend whole afternoons at the house, playing with Doak, reading to him. Most days she’d take him to the park, while Emilie vegetated. Eventually, when Emilie didn’t “snap out of it”—as Paul kept hoping—Isabelle found a woman who would look after Doak and the house, too—Sylverta Guidry, who in less than half a year has become indispensable.

Emilie returns to the bedroom and fishes around in a dresser drawer for a clip. Finding one, she quickly fastens her long loose hair back from her face. Out of the way.

She sighs.

Her feet feel heavy, propelling her down the hallway.

In the kitchen she slumps on a stool at the counter without speaking. Beside her, Doak gleefully mushes a piece of zwieback into a pool of milk on the tray of his high chair. Her stomach turns. She’s always been squeamish at breakfast, though—even as a child watching her father, late for work, eat toast hurriedly, never quite closing his mouth.

Sylverta slides a mug of steaming café au lait before her. Emilie downs it and holds out her mug for a refill. “Please?” she says. She’s hoping the strong coffee will break through her inertia.

Her son’s bright blond head is intent on the mess he’s making. She reaches out with the moistened edge of a paper napkin to wipe soggy crumbs from his perfect chin. He looks up, a little irritated at the interruption. She smiles at him. She knows what she should be feeling. At times a surge of love for him breaks over her with such intensity that she dissolves into the liquid warmth of it. At other times, like now, she feels only fatigue, and the weight of the obstacle they’ve placed before her. Shopping for groceries. Anyone can do it. Isn’t that the point?

For a moment, Doak’s face acquires a studious expression and it becomes swiftly apparent that his diaper needs changing. “I’ll take him,” says Sylverta, sweeping the boy out of his chair. “I put the new car seat by the back door.”

While Sylverta dangles Doak at arm’s length so he won’t leak on her immaculate lavender uniform, Emilie places her empty mug in the sink and begins to gather up baby paraphernalia. She stuffs diapers, juice, a couple of toys into the bag, hooks the bag over her arm and opens the door. Then she grips the new car seat with both hands and hoists it.

The Volvo is parked in the drive, outside the gate. She balances the car seat against one hip so she can open the rear door. The car seat is awkward and bulky, not heavy, but she’s relieved when it’s in place. She’s begun to strap it in when the phone rings, inside the house.

“It’s Mr. McBride,” Sylverta calls from the patio.

“Can you put Doak in the car for me?” Emilie asks, returning to take the handset. They need one with better range. They need so many things—ordinary, practical objects like pillowslips and towels, some new everyday wine glasses. Just thinking about it exhausts her.

“So you’re on the move,” Paul says in her ear. “Good girl. I’m sorry I won’t be home for dinner. We’ve got a partners’ thing I forgot about. Do I have a clean pink shirt?”

Pink shirt? Pink shirt for the partners? “Just a minute,” Emilie tells him. She walks—it feels like slow-motion—to the gate. “Syl, Mr. Mac wants to know if any of his pink shirts are clean.”

Sylverta says something, but her head has disappeared into the Volvo’s rear seat and her voice is muffled.

“I’m sorry?”

Syl straightens. “Yes, ma’am. Hanging in his closet.”

Emilie relays the information to Paul and as she retraces her steps toward the car she can hear Doak zooming his blue truck back and forth in the air. Rmmmm! Rmmmm!

She slips into the car and fires it up, while pink shirt, partners’ dinner continues to buzz in her ears. It’s his favorite color, the one he thinks makes him look especially good because it does, reflecting warmth up into his sallow face. But pink is an odd choice for the quarterly cigar fest that sends Paul home smashed on scotch and port. (Isn’t it too soon? Wasn’t there one a couple of weeks ago?) The firm’s senior members are white shirt men for the most part, or blue shirts with white collars and really gaudy braces. The peculiarity of his choice and her annoyance at the fact he can’t stay sober in that kind of situation, clatter against each other as she whizzes back down the drive. In the street, she accelerates, maybe a little too fast, and the houses stream by in a blur.

Paul’s late getting home most nights now. Not that she can blame him, really, with an inert, sexless wife waiting for him. So, is he having an affair? This is the first time she’s let herself ask the question. And does she care? She should, but the idea feels curiously remote, as though it might be happening to someone she doesn’t know very well. That’s not at all the way she would expect it to feel, but then practically nothing, any more, feels the way it she thought it would.

At the first stop sign, she glances in the mirror to make eye contact with her son, but his shining eyes aren’t there. No one’s there, where he should be.

Doak’s not there.

Her heart erupts in arcs of white-hot panic. But he had been, hadn’t he? He’d been sitting back there in his car seat, playing with his truck. She didn’t imagine that, did she?

Confusion rises cloud-like around her. She jumps out of the car, sees the unlatched rear door. Did he fall out? How? He’s not in the street, thank God. She whips the car into a U-turn and jams on the brakes as a cyclist in the intersection swerves up onto the grassy verge to keep from being struck.

At the curb in front of the house, she stomps the brake. The empty car seat is lying on its side in the grass. Sylverta sits under the little oak tree in the front yard, clasping Doak tightly to her. She raises her head to look at Emilie, and Emilie feels tissue tearing. Her heart is beating violently.

Doak’s head turns, too, and all the color drains out of the scene. One little arm reaches toward his mother, but he and Sylverta are already moving away. They’re receding quickly, flattening into two dimensions as they go, a picture that no longer contains any space where Emilie might fit.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Hello again

I've let this blog languish for more than another year, while I worked on a novel. That novel is with an editor at the moment, so while I wait for some kind of response, I thought I'd check back in.

I'm blogging also at WinedalePorchscape, but that's a general blog with photographs.

A couple of quick notes on books:

Cost, by Roxana Robinson -- I found this novel riveting and heartbreaking. She goes into the hearts and minds of each member of a family as they react to the news that one of their members is hooked on heroin.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (All first-timers should have such success.)-- This is a remarkable first novel, and one of the new crop that gives dogs a prominent role. There seems to be a trend in American letters toward narrators/protagonists who don't or can't speak, human and canine. In this one, the boy is mute for reasons no one can discern.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein -- And this is actually narrated by the dog, Enzo, a character I loved. He can't speak, but he is certainly voluble on the printed page. Frankly, this isn't nearly as well written as the other three, but if you love dogs...

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill -- This book has been receiving excellent reviews, but I didn't really engage on an emotional level.

Only one of this quartet of worthy or diverting books has protagonists born outside the US. Most fiction lately seems to feature foreign locations, or subject, or characters--reflecting our increasing interest in global cultures, and increasing recognition of how much we are connected to them. I think these books are a little like sag paneer (spinach in cream): very good for you, no doubt, and delicious once in a while, but a little goes a long way.

What has happened to the gonzo novelists? (Other than the fact they've mostly died.) What has happened to existential dread as a subject? Do we all keep ourselves so busy now that we've stopped caring?

Friday, September 07, 2007

A fast year

I'm approaching a year without posting. Been writing something for the print world, a novel, archaic, old fashioned, rapidly approaching completion (to the point where I will never be able to stand to look at it again, no matter what happens...).

Blogging is fun if you're read. Getting read is hard. Also, you have to be convinced that you have something to say, if not, you're (I'm) just typing.

Maybe I'll start up again and just use this as a journal, for my own use.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Not no one.

I'm thinking about something in a friend's email to me night before last. A while back I mentioned to him that I realized that, most likely, no one at all will read my novel. He responded as follows:
>which no one at all will read.
but now I know that that is okay.
that that is not important.
well. let me change that. as long as one person reads. and enjoys. then it's worth it.
one is enough.
that's my new rule.

That "one is enough" has been rolling around in my head ever since. I think it pretty well encapsulates the drive behind all efforts at putting words into public circulation. You're looking for the one person who will really *get* it. Contact. It's what we all need, especially bloggers, or we wouldn't be doing it, would we?

If I knew that there would be only one, though, would the impetus I feel to write longer fiction die out? Die is the right word, here, because the effort is against mortality. We write books, I think, to grab a little piece of immortality. Something of our selves will endure beyond us between the covers of a book, or a journal, or a packet of letters to a loved one (the epistolary form can be as little as ordinary letters between mother and son, sisters--the unique authorial voice as clear there as in the finest work of art).

Blogging is so different, though. It's all about connections right now. Twenty years from now is anyone you care about going to be able even to find all these digital words of ours? Aren't we spending time creating something even less enduring than our own fleshly selves?

Now back to that comment: *one is enough.*

Is it?

Great Ashes

This week I reviewed for my book club The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, which won the National Book Award three years ago. Almost unanimously my book club detested the title for the way it misleads the reader. (They were even more scathing about the jacket copy. A lot of them obtain books from the library--remember libraries?--and those have the hardcover jacket on them, swathed in plastic.)

I had probably been similarly affected. The first time I read it, I found my enjoyment much compromised by the expectation I brought to the book that something like a great conflagration would actually happen. I kept worrying about it and withholding involvement with the characters for fear of referred pain. Silly me. (I know about metaphor, right?)

The second time, however, I no longer expected vivid descriptions of Hiroshima or the Blitz and so I allowed myself to fall in love with the book.

Almost everything in it, I warn you, happens in the background, at a remove, the way most (not all) of the great disasters of the world one lives in do. So the reader inhabits with the narrator and her protagonist, Aldred Leith, the charred aftermath of World War 2 with all the questions it raised about the future, some of which is now.

The driver of this exquisite, leisurely-paced book is a love story between a 17 year old girl and a war hero in his early 30's, both bookish, idealized, but memorable. The author was married for a long time to a man twenty-odd years older than she. As a result, it is difficult not to view some of this story of intense longing for one's soul mate to the fact that she had lost her husband not long before she would have begun writing the book. (I imagine that an author who lavishes such attention on her prose and lets twenty years elapse between award-winning novels might write slowly.)


It is simply a wonderful novel. Highly recommended.