Tuesday, December 26, 2006


As has become the tradition on this blog, here is my annual "Notable Books" list, in which the ten books that impacted me the most during the year are described. As usual, comments welcome!


The Fall, Albert Camus – This bleak but fascinating meditation on the human condition and the nature of justice, in the form of a long monologue from a Parisian lawyer in a seedy bar in Amsterdam, penetrates deep beneath the skin and lingers in the mind long after it’s over. It was a stroke of brilliance for Camus, a writer of rare genius indeed, to set the story in this notorious city, in which the winding canals purposely echo the descending levels of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Who’s ultimately to blame for this mess we’re all in? Is it God? Is it ourselves? And will the accounts be reconciled in the end? The Fall wrestles with these Big Questions as hauntingly as anything I’ve ever read.

Testimony of Hope, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan – These written texts of the Lenten spiritual exercises Cardinal Thuan preached to Pope John Paul II and the Vatican staff in the Jubilee Year 2000 are among the most unique and moving meditations on the subject of hope you will ever come across. Drawing heavily from his experiences while in prison for 13 years (9 of them in solitary confinement) under various Communist governments in Vietnam, Cardinal Thuan gently but powerful urges us to grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus in the midst of our personal sufferings. A shattering, perspective-changing book that both challenged and rewarded my faith.

The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric – This epic novel of war-torn Bosnia, told in the form of a history of the villages surrounding a massive stone bridge from the sixteenth century through World War I, vividly depicts a suffering that transcends both race and culture. But it also is a moving and rewarding meditation on the value of community and tradition, as a means of preserving hope in the midst of calamity. It’s the sort of book that makes you feel idealistic about the abilities of art to cross the chasm between races and cultures and be a force for peace in the world. Andric’s crie de coeur for his shattered homeland ought to be required reading not just for literature students, but for anyone studying diplomacy and/or foreign relations as well.

Pastoralia, George Saunders – This year brought me into contact with the hilarious and bizarre work of George Saunders, and trust me when I say that alone is worth celebrating. Saunders’ second collection of stories is strange, satirical, bleak and, at times, surprisingly moving. A writer of remarkable wit and compassion, Saunders can make you laugh out loud at any point, but can also turn around and give you a chill down your spine. This is one of the most memorable collections I’ve read in a long time. Characters wrestle with boring office jobs, morbid reality TV shows and sarcastic, rotting messengers from the underworld, but there’s a deep-seated longing within them, and you recognize it as something common to us all. Each story puts its finger on it somehow, and refuses to let go.

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, Donald L. Miller – Of course I’m not qualified to properly rate this book as social history, but it was a meaningful and memorable read for me this year, as it cast my home city in an entirely new and different light. This fascinating account of the founding of the city of Chicago and its emergence as a central force of American capitalism and tenacity (especially following the Great Fire of 1871) kept me engaged through its 600+ pages, with interesting anecdotes and vivid portraits of the city’s major characters – and there have been many! It’s often been said that the story of Chicago’s rise from the central plains is the story of America itself in microcosm, and with Chicago’s complex brew of courage and corruption, brutality and bravery, I can certainly understand the claim.

Gitanjali, Rabidranath Tagore – What the heck is this, and what is it doing on this list? Well, what it is is a book of poetry-in-prose form from the first non-Westerner to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Why it’s here is simply this: it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before, nor am I likely to again. These fascinating, beautiful meditations on the Divine, the natural world and human longing absolutely bowled me over, not just for their deep wisdom and the stunning beauty of the language, but for how they spoke to my Western heart despite their obvious Eastern origin. Reading them as a Christian, I was completely shocked at how this Hindu writer could connect with my heart, speaking as a fellow man doing his best to understand the mysteries of life. Thomas Merton took a lot of heat from other Christians for seeking to find common threads between Eastern and Western religious traditions, as Tagore was trying to do long before… but reading something like this reveals quite clearly that such threads exist, and are worth exploring.

Prince of Darkness, J. F. Powers – After years of putting off reading him for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I finally picked up a used copy of Powers’ debut collection of stories (he only had three, I was surprised to learn, and just two novels in his lifetime), and immediately regretted the delay. These funny, deeply insightful stories contain some of the most brilliant writing I’ve read all year. Powers is of course most famous for his satiric fiction about all-too-human priests, and indeed his best stories are the ones in which these men of God wrestle with fallen humanity, in either themselves or others, in amusing and often poignant ways. But in the final story, when a priest fully expecting to be named a pastor of his own parish learns he is instead being re-assigned to serve as an associate once again, his superior’s words in a hand-written note remind us of the profound spiritual import of these earthly struggles: “…and when you get there, I expect that you will find not peace, but a sword.”

The Border Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy – Of course I understand this is cheating since we’re talking about three books here; however, as I read them – perhaps unwisely, I’m still not sure – all in one shot (my copy of the novels includes them all in one volume), I figure I can get away with it. I might not have put any one of the three novels on this list (with the exception of The Crossing), but taken together they amass a weight and a cumulative power unsurpassed in recent literature. All three novels focus on young men embarking on long and painful journeys that take them across the U.S.-Mexico border and back again, during which blood is shed, hearts are broken, and souls struggle to come to grips with a God that would allow for so much evil and pain in the world. All written in prose as starkly beautiful as poetry, and as muscular and free-ranging as philosophy. McCarthy’s fiction is on another level entirely from that of his contemporaries.

The Toilers of the Sea, Victor Hugo – This is surely the strangest, most obscure of the books on the list this year… but it’s also one of the greatest man vs. nature classics you’ll ever read. Here’s some trivia for your next party: Hugo wrote three huge books in a kind of trilogy that was meant to expound upon man’s most important “contentions”: Les Miserables was a tale to explore man’s struggles with God; Notre-Dame de Paris man’s struggles with Law; and this one, man’s struggles with Nature. In it, a humble fisherman ventures out alone to the wide open sea to recover the engines of a wrecked steamship, and there he wrestles with the elements, himself and, climactically, a giant octopus (“devil-fish,” as Hugo puts it). As wild and unruly as the ocean itself, the book could have used serious editing, but is nevertheless a fascinating, rambling treatise on the physical and spiritual struggles of the human animal. And by the way: if you want to write a huge, sprawling, philosophical novel, you almost have to set it upon the open sea, as both Hugo and Herman Melville seemed to realize instinctively…

Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, Christopher Dawson – This important and insightful book surveys the formative impact that religion, most notably Christianity, has had on the common culture we have to come to know as “Western civilization.” I say “important” because in our time, as the European Union seeks to draft a new constitution that denies its own religious heritage, it is more important than ever to recognize and seek the meaning of Christianity’s influence on our understanding of human life, society, and culture. Dawson artfully lays out how Christian beliefs led directly to the institutions we, until very recently, had always taken for granted, such as the university, the courts, marriage and the family. And in a provocative last chapter of particular interest to readers of this blog, he demonstrates how one literary work, William Langland’s Piers Plowman, could have changed the course of history if its profound insights on the relationship between religion and society were taken more seriously.

BONUS ROUND -- Books that I would have put on the list if it were not limited to 10: District and Circle, Seamus Heaney; The Harafish, Naguib Mahfouz; Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Katherine Anne Porter; The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer; The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright; The Collected Poems of Richard Wilbur

Saturday, December 23, 2006


This year-end top ten list reveals my ten favorite books that I read in 2006, presented this year in order of merit.

10. A Quire of Seven, Halldor Laxness. Seven short, rare tales from the Icelandic Nobel laureate which testify to the quixotic intensity of his fertile imagination and also demonstrate his concern with and insights on the mysteries of the human soul.

9. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, Jay Parini. This biography of Faulkner apparently got mixed reviews and may not surpass Joseph Blotner’s two-volume definitive work on the subject, but for my purposes this was one of the most illuminating and insightful books I’ve read in a long time about a writer whose brilliance will remain uncontested for all time.

8. The Stranger, Albert Camus. The French Nobel Prize-winner’s famous short novel about the existential angst of a man on trial for murdering another man for no apparent reason is as powerful and intellectually arresting as I’ve always heard it was.

7. Seeing, José Saramago. This allegorical sequel to Saramago’s well known Blindness is a blistering critique of modern democracy that surpasses its predecessor. Written with his singular wry humor and rife with his unsettling ability to powerfully illuminate the absurdities of life in ‘civilized’ nations.

6. Beloved, Toni Morrison. Devastating novel about a horrific choice made by a black woman to prevent her child from living a life in bondage, this novel is beautifully written, ingeniously structured and emotionally shattering.

5. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk. Winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, this novel was my doorway into Pamuk’s writing, and is one of the most challenging and original novels I’ve read in a long time, a composite of a murder-mystery, a treatise on art and creativity, a history primer on the Ottoman Empire of Turkey, a literary history of that nation, and a fascinating window into Islamic culture all wrapped up in one novel. Furthermore it is fascinatingly structured and written with obvious boldness and originality.

4. The War of the End of the World, Mario Vargas Llosa. A feast for the senses, this epic novel tells a spawling but riveting story of a religious community led by a charismatic prophet named The Counselor in late 19th century Brazil that comes together to form an insurrection against a totalitarian government.

3. Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow. This famous novel about the turn of the 20th century in America is one of the most flawlessly written novels I’ve read in a long time. Every single page of this powerful story that intertwines an upper-class white family, a black family and a poor Jewish family is interesting. This is a modern classic.

2. Suite Francaise, Iréne Nemirovsky. Two small novels of a planned five written by an extraordinarily talented Russian-born Jewish woman about the devastating events of the Second World War. The most amazing thing about this book is not the truly incredible tale of its discovery by her daughter after sixty years, nor is it that the writer, who died in Auschwitz after composing the novels in hiding, had the courage and skill to write about these events as they were happening – it is the extraordinary literary quality of the writing itself.

1. The Road, Cormac McCarthy. This nearly perfect post-apocalyptic masterpiece by one of the greatest American writers working today permanently cements his status as such. It is a stunning novel about the capacity of love to endure over even the most horrific evils and is without question the best novel I read all year. (See my blog post of October 2006 in the “Archives” section for more details.)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #44

Just about everyone would agree that one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, in any genre, was the famous Chilean poet and 1971 Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. No less a writer than Gabriel Garcia Marquez called him "the greatest poet of the century, in any language." And few poets have ever had a broader appeal and readership than Neruda: he was tremendously popular all over the world (one of his first collections, Twenty Love Poems, made him an international name), which is astonishing when you think he began his life in an obscure village in the rainforests of southern Chile, far from anything you might consider "modern" or "cosmopolitan." He also, interestingly, enjoyed a long and successful career as a diplomat, serving at posts in eastern and western Europe, as well as the Far East. When he heard about his selection for the Nobel, he was in Paris, serving as the Chilean ambassador to France.

I am only just starting to get to know some of Neruda's work, and I can say that he is one of these rare poets in which, upon your very first readings of his work, you realize you are dealing with a genius, a visionary gifted with the power to transport his audience to another place through the power and beauty of language. Usually when I notice this quality in a poet's work, my head finds the work itself to be difficult to understand, even though my heart is responding to the music of the verses. That's certainly the case here -- it is the same thing I experience when reading the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, for example, or T. S. Eliot. I don't pretend to understand it yet (and likely never will fully), but I can certainly appreciate it and enjoy the unique reading experience. In this way, to me anyway, reading the truly great poets is like reading the mystics of the Church: you never fully grasp what they are getting at, but there is more than enough truth, beauty and wisdom to, in Seamus Heaney's immortal words, "catch the heart off-guard, and blow it open."

Here is a poem from Neruda that, I think, captures the astonishing visual, even cinematic, power of his language... it describes a place I guarantee you have never been to and most likely never will, and yet when you read it, it takes form within your mind's eye in all its terrifying and beautiful splendor. I don't pretend for a second to know exactly what this poem is saying, but whatever that is, it sure is saying in it in a striking and original way. I was particularly struck by his comparison of that frozen, craggy landscape to a cathedral. Stunning work!



Antarctic, austral crown, cluster
of frozen lights, cinerarium
of ice broken off
the terrestrial fabric, cathedral rent
by purity, nave brought down
over the basilica of whiteness,
immolator of shattered glass,
hurricane dashed against the walls
of nocturnal snow,
give me your double breast stirred
by the invader solitude, channel
of the terrifying wind masked
behind all the corollas of an ermine,
behind all the klaxons of the shipwreck
and the white scuttling of the worlds,
or your breast of peace polished by the wind
like a pure rectangle of quartz,
and the un-breathed, the infinite
transparent material, the opened air,
the solitude without earth or poverty.
Kingdom of strictest meridian,
whispering ice-harp, immobile,
close to the enemy stars.

All seas are your circular sea.
All the resistances of Ocean
concentrated in you their transparency,
and salt settled you with castles,
the ice raised high cities
over a crystal spire, the wind
swept along your briny paroxysm
like a tiger burnt by the ice.
Your cupolas gave birth to danger
from the vessel of the glaciers,
and life lies in your dorsal desert
like a vineyard underwater, burning
without consuming, preserving the fire
for the springtime of the ice.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Celebrating a True Christian Classic

Recently, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of but have learned it's always better not to question, several people close to me have been reading a book that has been one of my favorites for many, many years. If "Christian fantasy" is a legitimate literary category (and I would argue that it not only is, but enjoys a long and distinguished history, from early classics such as the anonymous Anglo-Saxon epic The Dream of the Rood to Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and beyond), certainly C. S. Lewis' short but vivid tale The Great Divorce stands as a classic of the genre. I know for a fact that he wrote it with many of these older classics very much in mind, but as with all fiction that he produced, he also wrote it to explore his own thinking on theological and philosophical questions that were important to him.

If you look at all of Lewis' "fantasties" and fictional writings, and are familiar with his more "serious" non-fiction works (I put that in quotes because he himself would scoff at the assumption that a work is more "serious" simply because it is non-fiction... in reality, I am almost sure he would argue for the opposite position), you will come to realize that all of his fictions were simply the manifestations of the ideas and questions he had been grappling with his entire life. It's been well-documented by far more capable and wiser minds than my own that his Chronicles of Narnia, for example, represents the "fleshing out" in story form of most of his own theological beliefs and hopes. His rich, mythic novel Till We Have Faces does the same thing, only this time was intended for adults and is far more complex and melancholic in tone (taking as one of its primary themes the necessity of suffering as a path to genuine redemption). In The Screwtape Letters, quite possibly the wisest book I have ever read (excepting the Bible), he famously mused on the battle between sin and grace raging underneath the surface of every human life (as observed from the point of view of one of the devil's master tempters). And he memorably and poignantly, in his last years, mused on thorny questions about prayer in an imaginary correspondence with a friend he called "Malcolm" in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

The Great Divorce would seem to be his musings on the nature of the afterlife, as in, what it might be like and how we live once we're there. But those who have read the book will tell you that that's really not what it is at all. For despite its fantastic premise of a bus trip from Hell to Heaven and back again, the tale is much more concerned with how we live our lives before we die than after. And of course in this it is only continuing very much in the tradition I described above: the idea of writing a parable of the afterlife in order to spur readers' hearts to face tough questions about our present lives is a very old one indeed. Heck, Jesus did it himself (think of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man).

Through a series of ingenious dialogs between passengers on the bus and residents of Heaven/Hell, Lewis illuminates our reasons for believing what we do, or for refusing to believe, as the case may be. I can't remember if this exact quote comes from the book or not, but this story is certainly the manifestation of Lewis' profound insight that "the doors of Hell are locked from the inside." Meaning, if there is indeed a Hell, we will only go there if we choose to: God, because He is all-loving according to His very nature, does not condemn anyone to Hell. He does, however, allow us to make the free choice to be separated from Him forever, because He knows that all geuine love must be free. Here Lewis memorably depicts for us the residents of Hell who are only there because their pride is preventing them from accepting the grace and mercy of God.

My wife and my sister, as well as my partner in crime on this blog, have all read The Great Divorce recently, so they would be much more able to comment on it than I am at the moment, my memory of it being far foggier than I'd like (sucks to admit that, but it's true -- obviously I'm due for a re-read!). Therefore if any of them read this, I invite their comments on this wise and witty story. In the meantime, if anyone else reading this has not read Lewis' little classic, I strongly urge you to rectify this as soon as possible! I think I can safely say that, like all great literature (hence the entire point of this blog), diving into this book can only be good for your soul...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 30


"For at least the first three months of 2006, I decided I am going to embark on a 'reading experiment' unlike anything I have tried before. I am going to spend the first quarter of the year doing what I guess I am going to call 'research reading' in preparation for a writing project I plan to attempt." - Mutt Ploughman, December 6, 2005

'Tis the season for year-end reviews, so I am going to devote this edition of the Journal to a retrospective of the first year of progress on the writing of what, let's hope, will become my first novel, tentatively titled "Only The Dying".

On the publication front, aside from working on the novel, I have made a number of attempts to get published again this year, but most of them fell short. My lone success this year was the publication of my book review "Freedom's Warriors" in America magazine, on May 10. I sent out at least four short stories, two more reviews, and a number of queries, and I also entered one short story writing contest, but none of them worked out. So be it, that's the writer's life. I STILL have not made it into the ranks of published fiction writers, after at least ten years of trying. But I will, eventually. I guarantee that. I do have one story still out for review so I guess there is the remote possibility that it could be accepted for publication, but it won't happen in 2006.

Back to my main focus for the year, my novel in progress, set in Indiana between 1924 and roughly 1960. As you can see from my post of almost exactly one year ago, I started the year conducting research with the intention of hopefully starting a novel. I wanted to limit the period of time I allowed myself to research: so I decided I would read exclusively about the time and places I was interested for a period of 3-4 months. I read numerous books about the Depression, the oil industry, and the State of Indiana between December '05 and March of this year. This was the first time I had ever read a series of books with the specific intent to research a writing project, and it was a really interesting and informative learning experience. I feel like I gained a great deal of background information, but it was no where near comprehensive. I didn't want to overload myself on the research. I only wanted to do enough to get myself to a starting point, following the model once famously put forth by the novelist E.R. Doctorow.

Since I actually begin to write the Prologue to the novel in March, I think the research worked well for me in this regard. Sooner or later, you have to just dive in. I had only done 3 months' worth of 'hard' reading for the novel, but I knew that I had been mulling over themes and potential storylines for years. Then an idea for a way to begin (and eventually end) the novel came to me in the form of the character of Father Luke Brogan, S.J., the son of Walter Brogan, the protagonist of the novel I was intending to write. So I just picked up the ol' automatic pencil and started knocking out a Prologue, set in the present day. So curiously enough, after all the period-oriented reading I had been doing for over three months, when I actually started writing the novel I placed my character in the present day. But this character had been raised and his character formed during the period I had just spent three months researching, and my hope was that whatever knowledge I the writer had gained about that time would somehow be translated into the appropriate voice for the elderly priest I was creating. That was the idea. I don't know how successful it was.

In the eight months that have passed between March and early December, I have written and revised a Prologue and the first two Chapters of Part I of the novel. I don't write at a fast pace, obviously, but I think I've gained more ground than I might have hoped in the first year of effort. I try to set long-term goals for my writing life, and this novel is no exception. But I also try to keep them attainable and realistic. I always knew that if I ever started writing a novel - especially one that was set in a time that I did not live in - I was going to need a lot of time to stumble my way through it. First novelists, in one sense, having no name and no contract, no pressures from anyone other than themselves, have all the time in the world. The only deadlines are self-imposed. I try to keep mine reasonable. At one point in my life I had the goal of obtaining a Master's degree before I turned 30. I just got that in under the wire, finishing my graduate thesis in May 2000 (my 30th birthday was in November). [Note: that "thesis" was supposed to be my first "novel", a story about soliders called "The Faith and Fire Within". But it never quite got itself together; I think it was too soon for me to make a serious attempt. Although at the time I was very serious about it. I wrote about 300 longhand pages, which I still have, but they're painful.]

Now, my next longterm goal is simple: finish this novel before I turn 40. I am currently 36. As you can see, I am giving myself a lot of time. But I know myself and my work ethic; I also know the time constraints I have working against me and how my lack of experience will cause me to take more time. But in light of this timeframe, I think that the fact that I have 3 chapter-sized portions of the book written in draft means I am making pretty decent progress. I have a Prologue and two chapters, and I just started working on a third. Since I envision the book to have maybe somewhere between 12-15 chapters, I think I am off to a pretty decent start. So I have to note here for the record that I am pleased with the progress I have made so far. This is without a doubt the most serious attempt I've made at a dream I've had for at least 16 years: to write a novel. If you have a dream and you stick at it for 16 years or more, you're either dedicated, stubborn as hell, or just plain crazy. Most writers would probably tell you that it takes all three of those to get a novel done. I am certainly learning that myself. But I'm proud of what I've written so far, and I am proud that I am sticking to my vision for the book.

Am I writing a good novel? Can I do this for another 3 or 4 YEARS? Will anyone publish it? Will anyone want to read it if someone does? Does anyone give a damn besides me one way or another? Who knows. Those aren't questions I am interested in right now. All I want to do is write the story that's been brewing in me for a long time.

Thus, I make my pledge for 2007: 3-4 more chapters. As I see it, if I succeed with this goal, by this time next year the novel will be halfway done, more or less. I advise all readers to get in on the ground floor now. Start throwing your support my way and then brag to all your friends later that you were behind the book from the beginning. (Just kidding.) But seriously, there it is: my goal for 2007. Write more of the novel, non-stop.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #43

***TST would like to wish a very happy FIRST birthday to Jane Charlotte!!! Ad multos annos and much love, little one!***

Here is another terse, minimalist poem that packs a profound wallop, much like Jean Foillain's stunning "Music of Spheres" (POTW #22, back in January of thie year). This one comes from the Polish poet Anna Swir. Czeslaw Milosz was a huge fan; in fact, he published a lot of her work into English... so that gives you some indication of the talent at work here. If somehow reading this little gem doesn't convince you of that already.

I myself have always viewed the sea as something worthy of awe, or even "fear" in the Biblical sense of the word... I believe it was Saint Augustine who said "no man can look at the sea and not be reminded of God," or something to that effect.Well, I'm not sure if Swir was thinking of God at all in this poem or not, but she certainly draws our attention memorably to an important reality: the utter smallness and insignificance of man in the face of nature's mysterious, and often terrifying, power. And yet brilliantly, in that last line, she reminds us of our privileged place in the created order of things.


The Sea And The Man

You will not tame this sea
either by humility or rapture.
But you can laugh
in its face.

was invented by those
who live briefly
as a burst of laughter.

The eternal sea
will never learn to laugh.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Books I'm Thankful For, 2006

Presented by Mutt Ploughman.

In honor of Thanksgiving, I now present for 2006 six books that I am thankful for: not only favorites books of mine, these are the books that I literally feel grateful that someone had the guts and heart to write, the ones that have meant the most to me personally in my development as a writer and a fan of literature. The selections are presented in no particular order.

Wishing everyone a happy holiday and God's blessings for this holiday season.

WINTER'S TALE, Mark Helprin. This book will always have special meaning for me. It blew the doors off of my conception of what the novel, and the imagination, could accomplish and remains a luminous and fascinating story.

MARIETTE IN ECSTASY, Ron Hansen. One of the novels I admire the most of the 20th century by one of the writers I respect the most. A virtuoso concoction of poetic beauty, literary quality and spiritual potency.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH, John Steinbeck. A novel which literally changed my life. It may be THE book that made me really want to try to write fiction for as long and as far as I could sustain the effort.

MOBY DICK, Herman Melville. I've only read this once, but plan to change that; this is the ultimate story of obsession that in my mind delivers the greatest reward for the terrific investment one puts in to read its nearly 1,000 pages. This book has a perfect conclusion.

THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy. People will be surprised to see this new novel on this list, but this novel is nearly perfect in my view, and affirms in a most arresting and memorable way the power of love and, at least in my reading, the overwhelming Majesty of God. Also, it is a thrill to see a truly great writer silence critics who question his skill late in his life.

COLLECTED WORKS*, Flannery O'Connor. I was simply unable to narrow it down between the four books she published during her life. All of her works are brilliant, endlessly mysterious and extremely important to my writing and literary life.

* - ok, ok, so it's not one book.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 29


Progress is limited on completing Chapter 2 of my novel, but it is coming along slowly. I have already written the draft in longhand, and I am currently engaged in the second revision of the chapter. It's difficult work and fairly tedious and I don't enjoy it as much as I do composing the chapters themselves, even if I don't know where the hell I am going in the story. My guess would be that most novelists, if pressed, probably don't like the revisions as much as the initial writing, but who knows. Everyone has their own methods, so I suppose everyone has their own preferences. I find it pretty hard to write the chapter over 6-8 weeks and then revise it painstakingly three times, but that's the M.O. I landed on for this effort, and I am hoping that this work will pay off. I never was a very good revisionist with my writing in the past and it usually showed. But there is a higher standard in place here, and I am going to enforce that standard, since this is the largest and most ambitious writing effort I have undertaken to date. As well it should be. Everything I have done before has led to this. Even I don't know what "this" really is yet. So the revision work I am doing now is extremely important, and I recognize that about it. Additionally, I know the book will probably go through many more revisions. I recently read an interview with one novelist where she said that after she has written a first draft of her novels, they get revised so many times that almost none of what was there the first time is left when it's published. That's hard to believe, but probably the truth. I sincerely doubt I will revise my novel to that extent; whether that proves to be a detriment remains to be seen. Right now, as I have written, I am in the second revision of the second chapter. The second revision for me typically is the most "intense", where I try to consciously improve the language, cut out anything that isn't required, and sharpen the focus. Following this I will make a third revision which will chiefly consist of additional cuts - stripping extra fat away. Hopefully this will not take me all the way until Christmas to do, but if it does, so be it. I only get so much time, and I only work so fast.

Chapter 3

With my focus on revision, I have not come up with many very concrete decisions with regard to the storyline as it runs through Chapter 3. But I do try to keep a partial view on it peripherally while I revise the previous chapter. And hopefully things will slowly begin to come together and I will recognize where this story "wants" to go. I know the time frame for it (5 months forward, to November 1924) and I know the place (back in Bentonville, IN). And now, for my rapt readers, I will reveal general plot concepts thus far for the upcoming chapter. These usually change to some degree, and frequently have to be pared down, but for now, here you go:

For Walter Brogan, it will be a time where his main efforts are trying to assert himself in his business and establish a normal life for himself and his wife. When Edward Jackson, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, is elected governor, Brogan will become determined to do something to help combat the presence of the Klan in his community, having bitter memories of their previous intrusion into his life (Chapter 1). He will seek the advice of his father-in-law and admit that the Klan intruded on his wedding night. He will also establish a rapport and friendship with a farmer named Cal Wittenberg, a fellow resident and member of the Knights of Columbus, since the Knights are considering taking more aggressive steps to counteract the Klan's presence. Meanwhile, we will get more insight into Greta Brogan's routine at her parents' house and some background on her life. We will find out some details about her brother, Peter, who has gone against his father's wishes, dropped out of law school, and traveled to Texas to serve as an apprentice to the supposed "oil tycoon", "Pops" Wheeler. Finally, if I can get all of this in there, we will see at least something of Myron Devreaux (who is featured "off camera" as it were in Chapter 2) positioning himself for an eventual foray into local politics in Bentonville.

What will Chapter 3 eventually look like? Time will tell. But what I hope I've done here, an absolute exclusive for blog readers, is provided you with an idea of the vision that I have for the next installment of this expanding saga.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #42

This justly-famous poem from the celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (not the greatest poet named Thomas from Wales, however, in my view – that honor would go to R. S. Thomas) is an inspiring expression of what motivates the true poet – better yet, the true artist: “Not for ambition or bread/Or the strut and trade of charms/On the ivory stages”… Dylan Thomas certainly had his issues, but man, his Gaelic poet’s soul certainly shines through in his work… it cannot be denied!

Enjoy this one for the sheer richness of the language and its inherent understanding of the artist's true vocation...


In my craft or sullen art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New variations on an old, old tune

I have a work colleague who has become, over the course of the last year and a half or so, a pretty good friend. Like me, he has a real interest in good books and good films, and we enjoy recommending things we've read or seen to each other, and comparing and contrasting opinions as if we were Siskel & Ebert or something. Also like me, he is happily married and the father of a son close to the age of mine. In short, we have much in common, and that is part of why we seem to get along.

There is one major difference between my friend (let's call him Steve) and I, however -- one that was bound to come up in our discussions of what makes great art, family life, fatherhood, etc. Steve is a committed atheist -- and I don't mean one who simply believes that there's no proof for the existence of God and so he just doesn't want to be bothered trying to solve the riddle that no one can solve. No, he's the type that takes it a step further, and claims that not only is there no rational basis for belief in any kind of supreme being, but that religion itself is the root of all evil and the main cause of much of the suffering that has been endured by the human race throughout the ages. That no human being who claims to be a rational person and to be concerned with the future of humanity has any business whatsoever clinging on to what, in the words of a recent movie character, is a "ridiculous superstition." It's not only wrong-headed, in Steve's view, to believe in a God -- it's morally irresponsible. To do so is to perpetuate and foster unnecessary conflict and division in a world that could use a whole lot less of both.

Obviously, Steve is not shy about sharing his opinions and thoughts with me concerning why religion is a sham and why the world would be a much, much better place without it. In fact, he regularly challenges me on my Roman Catholic beliefs, which are well known to him, and on the idea of believing in God in general. He does not do it in a mean-spirited way, and I have actually enjoyed the ongoing dialog we have had on these subjects. As I said, he has become a friend, and there is much about him that I respect and even admire. He's a witty, intelligent man who obviously loves his family and cares about his work and the way he lives his life.

I bring this up only because our ongoing conversations happen to coincide with a trend in the publishing world that is pretty hard to miss if you are at all tuned in to the world of books. In the last few years there has been a spate of popular books about atheism, books that openly and brazenly challenge the very idea of religion in general and, in many cases, call for its out and out dismissal. And as in all things in this business, if one book is successful, a whole slew of others will follow as sure as the sun rising in the morning. You can always count on that.

To wit: about two years ago, a young Stanford philosophy graduate named Sam Harris made a splash with his first book called The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. The book basically took the events of 9/11 and made them the jumping-off point for a full-scale attack on religious faith in general, arguing that it always leads to division and conflict and ought to be more or less discarded for the good of humanity. This type of argument is, of course, nowhere near anything new: in fact, he seemed to be re-hashing many if not most of the same arguments made a long time ago by figures like Voltaire and David Hume, and more recently, Sigmund Freud and Bertrand Russell. Russell's book of essays from the 1950's in particular, Why I Am Not a Christian, still remains an oft-cited text for contemporary atheists.

Harris is back at it this year with a smaller book called Letter to a Christian Nation, which is supposedly his response to all of the mean-spirited, Hell-invoking letters he received from Christians in response to the first book. (I don't doubt that he did receive such letters -- I wish I could say I did doubt it, but we American Christians especially are unfortunately pretty accomplished at picking at splinters while ignoring planks.) He's also been in major newspapers, magazines and web sites a heck of a lot lately, I've been noticing, preaching his "religion is the root of all evil" and "all religion is inherently opposed to 'genuine' morality" gospel pretty much wherever he can find a pulpit. Maybe it's just chance (thought I doubt it), but these appearances in Op-Ed columns everywhere happen to coincide with the rash of brisk-selling atheistic screeds I mentioned earlier. The Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins' new book The God Delusion is currently a bestseller, garnering a front-page review from the likes of the The New York Times Book Review, and Daniel C. Dennett's recent Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is also selling well, from what I have read. And let's not forget that everybody's favorite British-contrarian-posing-as-an-American-journalist (one of Steve's favorite columnists, not surprisingly), Christopher Hitchens, will bless us with his own offering into the sweepstakes, wittily titled God is Not Great, next year! (Speaking of Britain, even the Guardian (UK) has noticed this phenomenon in American publishing, and posted an article about it recently online.)

As Steve likes to say hopefully, "Maybe Americans are finally starting to come around!" I like to playfully counter remarks like this with observations like, "Steve, your problem isn't with religion -- it's with us! Human nature itself... if there were never any religion, and humanity had been guided all along by other noble polestars such as Science or Philosophy, we would still be divided into our separate camps, bickering and fighting and even sometimes going to war to defend our own entrenched positions. It's just the way we are. You can't simply pin it all on the back of religion." Which is exactly what Harris seems to be doing also, in those well-articulated and aggressive arguments that are getting so many column inches these days. (Look on the Boston Globe and Newsweek web sites for recent Op-Eds by Harris if you're interested.)

I will admit that at first, this recent trend in all of its manifestations disturbed me, especially since I was dealing with similar arguments in the workplace (and still am). But since I've had a chance to think about it a bit more, I realize that these are just the newest variations on a very old tune. This is not to say there aren't compelling points within these arguments that we need to take very seriously -- there are, and we do. We always do. In fact I think the very presence of such arguments in the public square, and even in our relationships with friends and relatives, is good and healthy for Christian people. It forces us to think carefully about what we believe and how to articulate that in a clear and coherent way that has meaning to our contemporaries… just as St. Peter exhorted us to do: “…always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear…” (1 Peter 3:15, 16)

There’s no doubt that we live in a dangerous age filled with hurt and suffering, much of which is indeed being caused by ideologies informed by religion. But then again, think of all of the pain, death and despair caused in the 20th century alone – bloodier than the 19 centuries previous to it COMBINED – by ideologies that made a point of rejecting the notion of a God entirely. Some of these scientists and “progressives” seem to think that if we could just get the pesky monkey of religion off of our backs, we could then finally settle down and do some good in the world. Tell that to the victims of genocide in Communist Russia, Communist China, Nazi Germany, parts of war-torn Africa, France during the Revolution, etc. Theirs is an argument based on a crippling, and perhaps willful, ignorance of both human history AND human nature. You will never prevent men from searching for something transcendent and higher than themselves. You will also never prevent men from hurting and killing and visiting evil on one another. But without the hope that the first impulse might temper the second, nothing is left for us but despair. No matter what our latest highly educated, “enlightened” thinker may claim.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Journal of "Novel"-Entry 28

Teaser: Chapter 2 - "A Premature Death, New Experiences"

The following is a brief teaser from the second chapter, just completed, of my novel in progress, tentatively titled Only the Dying.

He’d been born in Michigan City in the year of the new millennium, in October. His father was 35 at the time, although he’d married his mother when she was only 21; the age difference was one of the barriers between Walter and Julius that had never really been broken down. By the time Walter was born Julius had already held several jobs: in a glass factory, selling furniture, then for a long period as a station agent for the Monon rail line, which terminated in Michigan City. When Walter came into the world Julius had transitioned into law enforcement in the Michigan City Police Department. He worked constantly and spent little time with either the boy or his two sisters after they arrived.
Brogan’s most vivid and cherished memories of his father’s life came from when he ran for Sheriff of LaPorte County in 1916. That was the last time that Brogan could remember his father with energy, conviction, something to prove; the whole family became tied up in Julius Brogan’s campaign. Unfortunately, he was running on the Prohibition ticket, and the cornerstone of the campaign was the protection of the citizenry by the promotion of a constitutional amendment to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States, and his vision for enforcing the foreseen law in the county. He faced stiff competition from corporate interests, traditionally Republicans, and from Roman Catholics (his father’s bitterness towards them never let up after the election, which troubled Brogan later on for obvious reasons), but what had really done him in was the infighting among Protestant circles themselves. On the issue of Prohibition, Protestant churches were a house divided. The ‘wets’ – those against an amendment for Prohibition – threw themselves behind the Republican ticket, and Julius Brogan was defeated that November.
Until his death in 1920, Brogan’s father had never been the same after that. But Brogan remembered vividly the feverish activity of the campaign itself, and all of the door-to-door canvassing of the electorate Julius Brogan had done on his own behalf, tirelessly at the age of 51, meeting with people face to face to explain why his policies would lead to a safer place to raise one’s children. Brogan’s primary job on the campaign trail was to distribute flyers with his father’s picture on them, which he had to pick up at the printing press in Michigan City next to the police headquarters and carry them by bicycle as far and as wide as he could. Brogan had pedaled all over town in the summer and early fall, nailing his father’s picture to trees and telephone wire poles, and the image of that portrait would linger in his consciousness for the rest of his life as the exact visual representation of who Julius Brogan was: a firm, decent man with a square-set jaw, in a dark suit and tie; a serious man, ready to take action to clean up the streets and the hamlets in LaPorte County if only given the chance. A man with little time for horseplay, a man with a job to do and a constituency to protect.
Brogan remembered how earnestly he had tried to do his job and how badly he wanted his father to win the election. Looking back on it later, he could sense that much of his eagerness to see his father elected Sheriff was driven by his fear of the effects of a defeat – with good reason, as time eventually proved. The young Walter could sense on some level that his father’s strengths lay in the service of his community at large, rather than his relations to his own family. Although he would openly pontificate regularly about being a good father and protecting his family, the reality was that his intensity and seriousness about work and making a difference in the world was something he could never detach himself from for enough time to simply enjoy being with those he strove to protect. He was always stern; life allowed one precious little time for dallying around when so much work was still to be done. Brogan could remember in his final years when the automobile was becoming more and more prominent in the social lives of common citizens that his father was vehemently opposed to ‘motoring’ and Sunday drives, even if they were only for picnics or visits to the park. He believed such activities spawned laziness and moral laxity. ‘A family should spend their time in their own homes, after church,’ he could almost hear his father ranting. ‘Before you know it, the automobiles will replace the churches themselves, outright. I refuse to bow to the holy church of the Henry Ford Motor Company!’
After Julius Brogan’s defeat, however, as Walter Brogan could recall so well, his spirit almost immediately declined. He became more tired, more irritable, more frustrated with life in general. He returned to the police force full time and continued to work hard to enforce the laws, which he considered his sacred duty. But he was putting in longer hours with diminishing energy and strength; he would come home in a state of total exhaustion, snap at his wife, barely converse with his children.
Walter Brogan had been so sad and angry at his father’s defeat that he couldn’t see his behavior after 1916 as any form of negligence towards his family or his paternal duties: all he wanted to do was lift Julius’ spirits, somehow, in some way. He made it his singular purpose to please his father; he would stop at nothing to make something of himself, to succeed in everything he could so that he would one day rise up and avenge his father’s defeat. Maybe in politics, maybe in sports, he didn’t know how he would do it: but he would become someone worth of the community’s respect and admiration.
For a few years after the fateful election, even as Julius wore out his body as he wore out his heart, this determination on his only son’s part did seem to bring him some small measure of comfort. He particularly relished Walter’s prowess in sports. Brogan was driven fiercely by the prospect of giving his father something to cheer for, and excelled at baseball, basketball and football. The latter was the sport Brogan enjoyed the most. He played linebacker and doubled as a drop-kicker; his kicks in the final seconds of numerous high school contests helped make the difference between a defeat and a dramatic victory. He seemed to relish pressure situations on the football field and clearly had confidence in his abilities. When playing defense he charged opponents and tackled them relentlessly even after he suffered a knee injury in his junior year. He recovered slowly and was never quite as fast after the injury, in which his left knee had been hyper-extended, yet he still played well enough to compete for and eventually win a scholarship to play for the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame.
In those days the Irish were not as prominent as they were soon to become under head coach Knute Kenneth Rockne, but under the regime of coach Jesse Harper up through 1917 the Irish had an .863 winning percentage and were on the cusp of becoming a permanent national power. When Brogan was in grade school, Julius had taken him to South Bend to watch some of their games, and even though Notre Dame was a Catholic school, it quickly became the place many young Hoosiers dreamed of playing football regardless of their religious background. Walter Brogan was observed in three games in his senior year in 1917 and was offered an athletic scholarship to play for the Irish just as Knute Rockne’s coaching staff was taking over.
The next two years, particularly in the football seasons of 1918 and 1919, were the happiest and proudest of Walter Brogan’s life. Though he struggled with pain from his lingering knee injury and barely played in either of his first two seasons at Notre Dame, he benefited immensely from Knute Rockne’s relentless coaching style and he succeeded, he believed, in adding happiness and pride to his father’s life. Julius Brogan attended every home game and several away games as well, hollering for his son to get in the game. Brogan did not play at all as a freshman in 1918, for the Irish had some of the greatest talent in all of the Midwest. At the beginning of his second year, the fall of 1919, he played linebacker in the first two contests of the season, one game at home and one away, before re-aggravating the knee and sitting out much of the rest of the year. That year the Fighting Irish went undefeated and were one of a number of teams to be selected by various organizations as the national champion. The pre-eminent star of the team was George Gipp, and Brogan would always tell personal anecdotes about Gipp later in life when he wanted to impress people.
Brogan had very high hopes for the 1920 football season, which was to be his junior year at Notre Dame. He was hoping to recover fully from his knee injury and compete for a starting position, although it would be an uphill battle against his talented and fiercely competitive teammates. But after the conclusion of the 1919 season, unfortunately, Walter Brogan never saw another day in a football uniform.
During his first year in South Bend, the United States Congress had ratified the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and passed the Volstead Act, making the commercial sale of alcohol illegal throughout the nation. Julius Brogan, who had been a member of the Prohibition Party for years, was thrilled to see something of his vision finally come to pass. The elder Brogan was not a member of the Temperance movement – he did not want to see alcohol banished entirely, and indeed enjoyed partaking in a couple fingers’ worth of scotch whiskey in the parlor of his own home and under the umbrella of his own self-discipline and propriety. But like so many other Christian gentlemen of his time, he did feel that the sale of alcohol in bars and night-clubs was inextricably linked to the general decline of morals in society at large and was a largely destructive force working against the development of the new generation of men and women in the United States. It was a bad influence, and Brogan felt that Christian men with any investment whatsoever in the future owed it to their children to keep it in permanent check.
When the 18th Amendment was put into effect on January 16, 1920, in the winter of Walter Brogan’s second year at Notre Dame, his father volunteered immediately as a ‘Prohibition Agent’, a member of the police force whose specific purpose was to uphold the new law. Less than two weeks later, after attending a lecture on American history, followed by a short meeting with Coach Rockne and the entire Irish football squad to discuss the 1920 football season, Brogan boarded a train for the short trip back to Michigan City. A light snow fell during the return journey. Brogan breathed out his exhaustion. He was greeted at the Michigan City Railroad Depot by his uncle, Garfield Brogan, and the Reverend Howard Doak, the minister from the First Methodist Church of the Nazarene, where his father was a standing member of the Biblical Education Committee. Even without the Reverend Brogan would have known it was something terrible, related to his father. His uncle Garfield didn’t bother very often with himself or his two sisters. But at least he’d had the decency to come out in the cold on that winter evening to help break the news to his nephew that his father was dead.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 27

Chapter 2 in the Books, So to Speak

Not much meat to this post, mostly gravy, but I did want to note for the sake of the general historical record (??) that the writing on Chapter 2 is complete, and I am now entering the revision and editorial process on the Chapter, which is officially titled "A Premature Death, New Experiences". I started writing the chapter on August 31 and finished the actual composition of it October 27. It will probably take me a number of weeks to revise and edit it, so I'd say that the goal now is to at least have started on Chapter 3 by the time we hit Christmas. But at that point at least I will have a Prologue and a good two chapters completed for the draft of the novel. I am not really sure how well the chapter turned out; certainly I will be working hard on it over the next month or more, trying to make it better. I think I covered the general themes and plot points I had envisioned, and I also think I ended the chapter on the right tone, which hopefully will set us up nicely for Chapter 3.

New Working Title in Contention

Also, I also have a new working title for the novel in official play, contending for the right to grace the cover of what may end up being my first novel. The original working title, which is not exactly off the table, is "Obeisance to Mammon", which I have defended on this blog, but I am not totally sure of it all the same. The new working title is "Only the Dying", which I have taken from the work of Indiana's best-known poet, James Whitcomb Riley. The name of the poem is "Our Kind of Man", and the verse was written as follows:

And the sick man sees the sun once more,
And out o'er the barren fields he sees
Springing blossoms and waving trees,
Feeling as only the dying may,
That God's own servant has come that way...

I have to think on it more, but I think the imagery of someone who is 'sick' - which could be interpreted a number of ways - looking out over the 'barren fields' is evocative and in some ways recalls to my mind a man such as Walter Brogan. Additionally, the phrase 'only the dying' provides a link between Walter Brogan and all of us: for in one sense, who is not among the 'dying' of the world? I think this is a title that sounds good and is worth consideration. Therefore, it is officially in the running.

Hope everyone has a Happy Hallowe'en. Personally, I can think of little scarier than trying to write the rest of this novel....!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #41

IN MEMORIAM: R.C.S. 1927-2006

This week's justly famous poem is from Robert Frost.


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Mutt Ploughman: "The Best Novel I Have Read in 2006, Bar None"

"As in all the best fiction, in McCarthy's work, language is not a tool; it's an element." - Reviewer Michael Helm, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

"The Road", a new novel by one of my all-time favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, is the best novel I have read in 2006, bar none. Yes, at least in my view, it is that good.

I'd like to present some of my thoughts about why, but in so doing I am burdening myself with two challenges. One, to keep my comments about the book brief. I don't plan to say a lot; it's just not necessary. My firm recommendation to all who read this is just to read the novel. The second challenge is not to give any of the story away.

I suppose it may be too early to begin year-end lists, but this book will not be equalled by anything I read between now and December, two months' time. With the possible exception of my annual Dickens read ("Nicholas Nickelby" this year), nothing will even be in the same class, and as great as Dickens was, it's hard to draw a comparison between McCarthy's book, which is a veritable clinic in economy and technical precision, to anything Dickens wrote, to which you couldn't possibly apply the same terms.

The bare bones plot of "The Road" has been outlined in numerous reviews and blurbs which exist in countless places already. It's some time in the future, and the world is a devastated corpse of what it once was, due to an unspecified, and probably nuclear, calamity on a massive scale. Most of the planet is charred and dead, including almost all wildlife and plantlife. Everywhere there is carrion and destruction. Through this landscape, two survivors, a father and a young son around age 10, walk alone on the literal and metaphorical "road" of the novel's title, scavenging for food, heading south for warmer weather, and trying to escape from bands of other mutated survivors who eat other people: the only steady food source still around.

Their journey is a story of survival. There are plenty of horrible sights and terrifying encounters. But their authentic and moving relationship to one another is the emotional core of this bleak but brilliant story. And the writing itself is the true treasure of the whole experience. McCarthy has been writing brilliantly about nature and about metaphysical truths for decades. Here he hones down his longer, Faulknerian passages of old for short, concise paragraphs, by turns lovely and visceral, lush and violent. Like the reviewer Michael Helm wrote above, Cormac McCarthy's use of the English language becomes in itself a force of nature. You will feel cold, desolate, hopeless and lonely when you read this book.

But through it all, especially if you have children of your own, you will feel warmth from a single source: the father's desparate and all-powerful love for his son. He will stop at nothing to protect him, and he will not abandon him short of his own death, for any reason. In the hands of weaker novelists, this element of the story would be laughable, or simply trite; in McCarthy's hands, it is literally a torch, and you will follow it willingly through the darkness of this book. There are some brief scenes that are nearly unbearable in their agony: the father cannot force himself to take certain steps that COULD help them in the long term, but may hurt or terrify his only son in the short term. His love is stronger than some of his most primal instincts.

And just when this book cannot get any darker there is a brief but hopeful conclusion to the novel that dares to offer the suggestion of victory for love and life in a world annihilated by senseless evil and death.

This novel's final paragraph is one of the most breathtaking and luminous passages I have ever read, and it's only about 3 sentences long. In it, McCarthy pulls the camera of his expansive vision back and revisits a dream-world, back when the earth was teeming with beautiful creations only a Supreme Being could have designed, and offers a single glimpse of beauty and magnificence that even today is available to everyone, if only you can pause and open your eyes for long enough to see it. It is a single paragraph that could invoke hours of discussion and interpretations, but in the end it is simply a final flourish of a haunting and lyrical literary masterpiece.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Music of the Alley: An Introduction to the Fiction of Naguib Mahfouz

I can't speak for other readers, but for me there is always a feeling of enchantment when I encounter the work of an accomplished foreign novelist or poet for the first time. I experience the thrill of discovery as I am inducted into an entirely new world, one which I had not been previously aware of. Of course, this experience is neither new nor exclusive to me, but it is one that seems to be less and less sought after these days, which is a monumental shame.

There are places in the world I know I will never lay eyes on, never set foot anywhere near... and when I stop to think about it, this feels like a real loss. But there is a way to visit these foreign shores, to immerse oneself in others cultures and times and places, and the best part of all is that it doesn't cost you a dime. To read the great writers of the world is to partake of the great banquet of civilization, to sample dishes with flavors foreign to our Western palates that have the power to awaken hungers, or even cravings, we never realized we had. I vividly recall the thrill of "tasting" for the first time (for example) the spicy stew of South America through the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, or sampling the dark, heady brew of Scandinavian cultures via novels from such great writers as Sigrid Undset, Halldor Laxness and Tarjei Vesaas. And if any American reader would like to be fully immersed into a great seething cauldron of diverse and fascinating cultures, there is no experience quite like the Ivo Andric's epic of the Balkans, The Bridge on the Drina. Both Mutt and I have posted on most of these great writers on this blog. (And by the way, for more on the pleasures of eclectic reading, I would refer you back to one of Mutt's earliest posts entitled "Basking in World Light: In Praise of International Literature," in the Archives under August 2005.)

But the "gustatory" experience that comes through reading the work of a novelist from the Arab world was something entirely new and different for me, which is why I had been eagerly anticipating dipping into the ouevre of Naguib Mahfouz for a long time. Why start with Mahfouz? Well, for one thing, there just aren't that many novelists from Arabic cultures known to those of us who live in the West. When Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988 (and oh yeah, that's another great reason to read his work), he was the first Arab writer ever to win it, and it exposed a great many people to his many novels that had been totally unaware of them previously. He was to a large extent unknown to the Western world. I certainly had never heard of him; in fact, I don't remember thinking anything about his winning the prize in the year he won it, since I was just beginning college and wasn't thinking much about reading and literature in those days. Later on, as I begun to read more widely and specifically, began to get a hankering for foreign fiction, I became aware of his name and reputation, but little else. Still, I was intrigued enough at the very idea of reading supposedly great fiction from a country as obscure to me as Egypt that I made a mental note that I wanted to read one of his novels at some point. Unfortunately, it took me many years to get to that point.

Anyway, I have just finished one of his more well-known novels called The Harafish. This being my own initiation into the work of this fascinating and prolific writer, I thought I would share a few thoughts and impressions about it, as a kind of introduction to the fiction of Naguib Mahfouz. It is also, I ought to note, an appropriate time to post these thoughts as Mr. Mahfouz just died a few months ago. So this is also a kind of tribute to his life and work and an admonition for more people to discover it.

My entry into a world totally foreign to my own sensibilities was announced before I had even read a word of the book itself -- for the very title and structure of it carry with them traditional Arabic literary overtones. First, the title -- The Harafish. "Harafish" is an Arabic word, as the English translator explains in an opening note, meaning the "rabble" or "riffraff". But then she quickly adds that "in this novel it means the common people in a positive sense, those in menial jobs, casual workers, and the unemployed and homeless." Then there is the interesting and Arabian Nights-like way the book is structured, with each chapter not listed as "Chapter 1" or Part II," but in this way: "ASHUR AL-NAGI: The first tale in the epic of the harafish"; "LOVE AND IRON BARS: The third tale in the epic of the harafish"; etc. It is obvious that Mahfouz was intending to model his story after the folk tales and myths that he grew up hearing and that have been handed down to him through the culture he lives in. Even as subtle a change as structuring the book in this unorthodox way provides a hint that, for American readers anyway, Dorothy ain't in Kansas no more.

The Harafish was definitely a new and interesting experience for me as a reader. New, and yet, no so new after all. Because Mahfouz is exploring themes that are certainly universal to men and women of ALL times and ALL cultures -- the hardscrabble lives of the working class and the chasm of injustice between the haves and the have-nots; the turbulent and absurd relationship between the sexes; the inherent mystery of human life and particularly human suffering; the influence of religious tradition on society, etc. -- but he allows his readers to view all this through a distinctly Arabian, and I imagine a distinctly Egyptian, filter. And yet, it should be remembered too that Mahfouz studied philosophy and was a insatiable reader of Western literature as well, admiring writers like Dostoevsky, Camus, Beckett, Faulkner, Dickens and Proust. So what you end up with is a curious and inimitable mix of mysticism and pragmatic philosophy in his prose, with powerful undercurrent, naturally, of Arabic folklore and Islam pumping just underneath the surface. Perhaps a few passages cited at random will help demonstrate what I mean. Here is the opening "sub-chapter" of the first tale (each "tale" is broken up to as many as sixty brief numbered sub-chapters, sometimes only a line or two long -- which also makes for a narrative that is driven along by quick snatches and images, rather than a long and linear storyline):

In the passionate dark of dawn, on the path between death and life, within view of the watchful stars and within earshot of the beautiful, obscure anthems, a voice told of the trials and joys promised to our alley.

The first tale tells of a baby, eventually named Ashur al-Nagi, who is abandoned (we never find out by who) at the doorstep of an Islamic monastery in an alley in Cairo. This baby grows up to become a giant of a man, eventually rising to become the "clan chief," apparently a prominent position in the back alley societies of Cairo. It's never fully explained in this book, but Mahfouz often wrote about particular "alleys" in his native city of Cairo and the lives that are lived within them (one of his other famous works is called in English The Children of the Alley), and so I can only assume that the word "alley" roughly corresponds to what we know as "neighborhood." (Whether or not it's literally one alley I am not sure, although for all that is described in the stories, I doubt this is the case -- it seems a bit more geographically spread out than that.)

At any rate, the rest of the tales simply tell of the lives of the many descendents of Ashur al-Nagi: their triumphs and failures, loves and losses, and their frequent losing and regaining control of the alley itself. As the book moves along, the original al-Nagi becomes more and more of a legendary figure, almost corresponding to a saint in the Catholic Church, which is strange, since he was a thief and adulterer who ended up losing everything he had (wrongfully) gained and then disappearing forever without a word to anyone. Although in that culture, adultery at least seems to be viewed as something that can't be avoided, and is more or less accepted by everyone, even its victims. Even monogamy for that matter is not something held out as sacrosanct.

It becomes clear as you read these chronicles of the successive generations of the al-Nagi family that Mahfouz is using this device to do two things: one, ponder the mystery of human existence in all of its squalor (and occasional grace); two, to create a rich panorama of the lives of the simple, hard-working people who inhabit the forgotten alleys of his native city. Yet by tracing a family's history generation by generation, he imbues the narrative with an epic, almost scriptural tone -- it feels like you're reading stories straight out of the book of Genesis, although maybe the Koran would be a better text to use for comparison (I plead ignorance, having never read from the Koran -- something I plan to correct one day). Anyway, the stories feel like myths handed down through the years and told around campfires -- they are riddled with hilarious human foibles, acts of incomprehensible evil and violence, sordid love affairs and illegitimate children, and the like. But interestingly, what links all of these stories together are the presence of the harafish as constant witnesses of the repeated failures of the al-Nagis, and the mysterious chants heard nightly in the main square from over the ancient walls of the monastery -- with its huge, impenetrable wooden doors that remain closed to all who might be curious about the mysteries contemplated within.

Part of what makes Mahfouz's novel so much richer than just your average chronicle of passing generations of a particular family in a particular place is the deep spirituality that saturates every single page of the book. Obviously this is a Muslim culture, so the character of that spirituality is going to different than that which a Western Christian is used to; nevertheless, there is certainly deep human wisdom contained in all of the world's religions, and it is fascinating to hear the insights of the Islamic faith applied to specific lives. Here is a typical passage in which a character contemplates the past and the mystery of time (keep in mind that the novel that supposedly influenced Mahfouz more than any other was Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu):

For the first time he began to brood on what was past and what was to come. He thought about people who had died, about saints who had lived for a thousand years. About the processes of decay that turned strong men into objects of ridicule. Betrayal was not only caused by spiritual weakness or the acts of men. It was easier by far to wreck an armed parade than to unsay things that should never have been said. You could rebuild a ruined house, but not a human being. The pleasure of the music is only a short-lived veneer on the song of parting.

I don't know why and I can't point to any specific examples to back this up, but for some reason it just seems to me hard to imagine a Western writer making the same points in the same way (especially in that beautiful and evocative last sentence). Here is one more example of the deeply spiritual, wise and beautiful prose Mahfouz delivers, even in translation (a character has built a towering minaret and has just climbed to the top of of it, and is now looking down over the alley he calls home):

At the top the language of the stars was audible, the whisperings of space, the prayers for power and immortality, far from the exaggerated complaints, the lassitude, the stink of decay. Now the poems from the monastery sung of eternity. The truth revealed many of its hidden faces. Destinies were laid bare. From this balcony he could follow successive generations, play a role in each, join the family of the celestial bodies for all eternity.

I hope these passages will give you a taste of the exotic and enticing flavor of Mahfouz's fiction. The Harafish did not strike me as a perfect novel -- it is definitely repetitive in places, it is very difficult to keep the multitude of characters' names straight, and it is perhaps a little bit longer than it needs to be -- but overall, I found it to be a fascinating, wise and deeply affective work of art. Many times his prose soars with a lyrical beauty that reveals his obvious talent, his true writer's soul. And the insights into the mystery and fragility of human relationships makes the novel well worth reading and pondering for a long time afterward. The Nobel Prize committee seems to me to have gotten it right when they wrote in his citation that Mahfouz "through works rich in nuance -- now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous -- has formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind."

After reading just one novel, I am convinced of the truth of this statement, and will definitely be returning to his extensive body of work in the future, God willing...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 26

Chapter 2 Gets a Name, Nears Completion

Here is a small update for all those millions of interested readers on the progress of my novel. The drafting of the second chapter is coming to a close. I still have two more 'scenes' to write and one of them is pretty critical (I don't know if any piece of the book, really, is any less critical than any other). But I know what both of these 'scenes' will consist of and I know, more or less, what I want to accomplish in them. Then the chapter will be printed, edited, revised, rewritten, and printed again to repeat the cycle. So far I have been going through about 3 drafts of each chapter (I consider the Prologue to be a chapter, more or less) before moving on to the next one. It's probably not enough, but it's a compromise: when I used to write longer manuscripts in the past, I would try to get the whole thing down in one long shot before going back and revising the entire thing. But the job of editing and revising the entire thing 3 or 4 times is not appealing to me and hasn't worked well before (note: my story collection "A Son of the Suburbs"). Hence, the new method is to rewrite and revise the chapters 3 times before moving on to another one. More than likely, when I get to the end I will still have to do more rewriting, that seems almost certain. But at least this way I have the feeling that my chapters are somewhere in the neighborhood of where I want them before I move on to the next one.

All that is to say that once I have completed the draft of Chapter 2, it will more than likely be another 6 weeks or so before I put a single word down on Chapter 3. But at least I have finally settled on a title for Chapter 2: "A Premature Death, New Experiences". Hopefully that title will sound interesting enough to some people to entice them to read on after finishing Chapter 1.

How has Chapter 2 turned out? Well, ask me when I finish the next two scenes. But overall, I am happy with it so far. It did not really turn out like I first envisioned it, but that's all right with me. I didn't really have a clear sense of what I wanted to get from it, so I can't be surprised that it's not really what I thought. But I think it accomplishes at least in broad terms what I wanted it to accomplish: it provides a window into Walter and Greta's very early days of marriage; it gives some background about Walter's father Julius; and it begins to position Walter Brogan up against some of the larger negative forces which will continue to work against him for the rest of his life, in some significant ways. That last part of the chapter is not overt; I think only the initial inklings of his struggles can be detected in the chapter, but they are there under the surface, and throughout the rest of the story, hopefully, they will continue to grow in their unfortunate tenacity.

Right now, the thing I am most pleased about with Chapter 2 has nothing to do with the story itself. It has nothing to do with the events of the chapter. It has to do with the creative process. The fact is that around late August, when I was beginning Chapter 2, I only had very vague notions of what I wanted to do in the chapter, as I said before. I knew I wanted to get into Walter Brogan's backstory, which I did. I also wanted to explore some of Walter and Greta's interactions with a wealthier, elitist class of people, which I am doing now. I thought I wanted to get into some of Greta's backstory, but in the end I didn't; that still must happen at some stage, possibly Chapter 3 (see below). The point is: I didn't really have a plan, I didn't know what I wanted to say. But here I am in October, about six weeks or so later, almost finished with the chapter. The writing happens when you sit down and persist with it. I firmly believe I have a story to tell, but it does not write itself and it does not 'work itself out' beforehand in some auto-pilot mental literary process, leaving me only to sit down and 'transcribe' what is already neatly written out in my head. It doesn't work that way. The best thing about Chapter 2 is that for me it is a total vindication of the writing process. I trusted that I could keep the story going if I worked at it. This chapter - although it may not be a good one - is proof that I can do it. Once this is done, I have 3 chapters in the first draft. Before Christmas, I will hopefully be well into a fourth (Chapter 3 of the novel). To me, this is progress. This means my novel is being written. I just have to stick at it. "Persistence pays off", says a writer whose work I deeply admire. I think he's right.

Chapter 3 - A Teaser

Well, don't ask me to give you a name for this chapter yet. It took me forever to get the name for Chapter 2. But I think I have some general ideas about what is going to happen here. The story will skip forward 5 months to November 1924. The election will have just taken place, putting card-carrying Klan member Edward Jackson in the governorship of the State of Indiana. This will be the tipping point for Walter Brogan, who will seek out advice from his father-in-law, P.G. Heinricks, about how he can take action against one of the negative forces that is operating in his life. He will receive sensible advice that he doesn't expect, and events will prove that his father in law knows what he is talking about. Meanwhile, this may be the time when we learn more about Greta, while she and her husband are trying to start a life together while living in the house she at least partially grew up in. Why she left home at 18 to live in Michigan City, away from her parents. How she and Walter came to meet. That sort of thing. Lastly, we will perhaps see some early maneuvers of one Myron Devreaux, the young attorney who once pined for Greta, but has his own ambitions now to keep him occupied.

One thing at a time; got to finish Chapter 2 and get it as close to 'complete' as possible. But it's a lot of fun to flesh out ideas here in this journal, so thanks for coming along.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

"Be grateful that no one knows you": Cautionary words for young writers from Rainer Maria Rilke

Call it a guilty pleasure: lately, whenever I can find the time, I have been sneaking in bits of Rilke's work into my reading, hitting upon various poems and prose pieces here and there. He was certainly a genius, and I find the language he uses vigorous and intoxicating, even in translation... this is not to say I understand everything I read by him, but it always seems to me to be worth the effort for the beauty and wisdom I find in his writing.

Here is an example of that wisdom that I thought my partner in this effort, Mutt, would appreciate. I just happened to come across them at random in one of his uncollected prose pieces -- in this case, an appreciation of the playwright Henrik Ibsen. Now I know Mutt very well and when he reads this his first reaction will be, "Ha! This doesn't apply to me; I'll never be in the situation he describes." But O Mighty Mighty Mutt, I beseech you to read on, read on, until you reach the end! Then let the profundity and wisdom of these off-hand comments, which seem to be only tangential to the main points Rilke was trying to make in the essay, work on your mind and heart a bit... I found them to be fascinating and insightful, and I hope you will too. Certainly, if nothing else, they give you a sense of the kind of mind Rilke had, and how seriously he took the craft -- no, the vocation -- of writing. And they might also serve as cautionary wisdom for young writers who may, in their sheer humanity, be tempted by the idea of "someday becoming famous." I'm not saying that's your temptation at all (in fact, see Mutt's oustanding "Journal" post, the one prior to this one, to learn all you need to know about what motivates him as a writer!), but I do think you'll appreciate his points... Anyway, it is the last two paragraphs that got my attention and made me want to share this, especially the astounding last lines.


[NOTE: These are the opening paragraphs of an essay simply titled "Ibsen".]

There I sat before your books, obstinate man, trying to understand them as the others do, who don't leave you in one piece but chip off their little portion and go away satisfied. For I still didn't understand fame, that public demolition of someone who is in the process of becoming, whose building-site the mob breaks into, knocking down his stones.

Young man anywhere, in whom something is welling that makes you shiver, be grateful that no one knows you. And if those who think you are worthless contradict you, and if those whom you call your friends abandon you, and if they want to destroy you because of your precious ideas: what is this obvious danger, which concentrates you inside yourself, compared with the cunning enmity of fame, later, which makes you innocuous by scattering you all around?

Don't ask anyone to speak about you, not even contemptuously. And when time passes and you notice that your name is circulating among men, don't take this more seriously than anything else you might find in their mouths. Think rather that it has become cheapened, and throw it away. Take another name, any other, so that God can call you in the night. And hide it from everyone.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 25

On the Spiritual Exercise of Writing this Novel

"I believe God created me for a purpose ..... but he also made me FAST. And when I run, I feel His pleasure." - Eric Liddell, as stated in the film "Chariots of Fire"

It is a good moment to react to some comments posted to my last Journal entry by my cohort/fellow artist/twin brother, Duke Altum, who points out that this blog is about literature generally, and can be related to the writing of literature as much as to the reading of literature. I appreciate that observation because most of my contributions to the blog have been more about the former than the latter, but hey, that's me.

The above quote from Chariots of Fire (which Duke will no doubt appreciate) more or less expresses my idea of the spiritual value or the spiritual exercise of writing the story I am currently writing. I am not entirely sure of my specific purpose for having been created, so I can't say it's NOT to write fiction. But I do believe God knows what my purpose is, and that He has one for me. I'd say one of them, if there can be more than one, is to be a faithful father and husband, which I try my best to be. There could be others, and possibly writing books is one of them. I guess we'll find out.

But to Liddell's point from the film, in addition to my role as a Dad and husband, I think God gave me specific talents, and writing is unquestionably one of them. That's not arrogant, because it's a matter of how much I have, and I am not sure I have very much - but I have SOME. Let's just be honest about that. The challenge for me is to develop whatever talent I have to the highest degree possible, and turn that talent into something specific and of value to someone, anyone. That's what the last 16 years have been all about for me in some respects. And that is the work that I am currently engaged in. it's a long road, but I am committed to it. If I wasn't, I would not have wasted my time, whenever I have had it, trying to learn to write good stories for much of the last 16 years - close to half of my life.

So when I am griding through a piece of writing - as I surely am doing now - it is best for me to try to remember the lofty goal of trying to make the most of one's talent for God's glory. I am not saying I think of that very often when I am writing. But I do think that when I remember to think about it this way, it helps me stay the course, and it gives my efforts some purpose where most of the time it is easy to feel that there is none. Consider the odds of gettting a book published, what people feel will "sell", and all of that. Why does a feldgling writer keep at it in the face of such overwhelming odds against his success? For non-Christian artists, it is hard for me to answer that question. For me, it has a lot to do with trying to fulfill God's hope, in one sense. Although God loves me unconditionally, one has to feel that when He gives us talents, in a certain sense He becomes filled with a kind of "hope" that we will deliver on them. He invests in us, and like all investors, He expects to receive a return. He knows that it is possible that He won't, and yet He still makes the investment.

Hemingway once wrote that a writer must "face eternity" every day when they sit down to do their job. He didn't mean the comment to be spiritual in nature, and yet by the very language he used, it is. For me, the prospect of facing eternity has something to do with this idea of attempting to give God some return on His investment. God is eternal and will hopefully take eternal pleasure in what we do with our lives. If I end up writing this novel, or another one, or a great story, or anything that could be considered a success on any terms, I hope God will feel that his investment was rewarded. Or, if I consistently try and fail, but remain committed to developing my talents until God decides to take me back, perhaps I have will also have done my job. In the eternity of God's "retirement" - the age that follows Christ's triumphant return - perhaps God will enjoy some of the spoils of my labor. I hope so. To honor him in writing is my prayer. I may not always act or feel that way, but so let it be written here by me, so that it may one day be be done for Him.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #40

Of course I've known the name of W. H. Auden for a long time -- you can't be a person who's interested in poetry in the modern era and not have heard it mentioned or referred to at one time or another. But embarrassingly, I have not yet read much of his work, despite its stellar reputation. (Actually I probably know him better from Richard Wilbur's stunning elegy, simply titled "For W. H. Auden," than I do from anything Auden's actually written!?!) He's just one of the many writers whom I know I need to get more familiar with, but haven't gotten around to yet... another name on that increasingly long list... I'm only one man, by God, and a father of young kids at that! My time is severely limited!!!

Anyhow (end of pity party), when I read this poem of his for the first time recently, I was utterly bowled over by it. This is one of those poems that re-introduces you to the power of poetry, that reminds you of the ways in which simple observations can lead to monumental truths, life-changing truths, in the hands of a truly gifted wordsmith. It struck me as darn near perfect when I had finished the last line.

I don't want to write any more about it -- to explain it in any way seems to rob it of some of its own unique impact. There's so much profundity within this one short poem, that to express appreciation for it might take a week... so instead I implore you to read and enjoy, and feel the potency of Auden's wisdom seep into your soul, like spring rain on a soft and fertile field...


Musee de Beaux Artes

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 24

Look for My Completed Novel Coming Soon......in around 2010

Well, let's face it folks, this stuff is slow going. It's been a month since I posted on this blog with a journal, or anything else, and I guess it's about time to contribute something to the conversation. Which is pretty much one-way......luckily for ST readers (all one of you!), the mind-plowing Duke Altum has been keeping his chambers loaded and kickin' stuff out of both barrels. His intelligent "Mining the Modern Malaise" series will keep your brain humming for weeks while you try to figure out if you have the rocks to check out writers like Saul Bellow.....I know I don't.....

In the meantime, I have been writing Chapter 2 of my novel in progress, "Obeisance to Mammon". I am not sure what the title of the chapter will be yet. Originally it was reported here as "Taking the Cure", but I don't think that will work anymore. I'd say I am about halfway through the Chapter or maybe a little over that. We'll see. I have a lot more to write on it though, I know that. I think the chapter will probably be equal in length if not longer than Chapter 1 was, and that chapter wasn't very short, so it looks like this novel will be written in fairly thick chapters, which is not a really big susprise if you know me or my writing.

How long is this damned book going to take? On the way to work this morning I was doing some of the math: I started the Prologue in around March of 2006, and was working on that until the beginning of June. I worked on Chapter 1 from June through August. And since August I have been writing Chapter 2. This will probably carry me until at least November if not December. Which means I wrote about 3 chapters (the Prologue is around the same length) since March. MAYBE, if I work at the same pace, I will produce 4 chapters in 2007. That brings me up to 7 chapters. Now, i always thought this novel would be somewhere around 12-15 chapters, but it could be more. Let's say 15. That means at the end of 2007, if nothing happens to majorly slow me down even more, we're talking about 2009-early 2010 when this sucker's done! See you then!

One particularly frightening possibility I have made with this discovery is: that means there could be at least three more years' worth of this dreadfully boring journal.....

The Broad Picture: Chapter 2, and Inklings of Chapter 3

As I said, I am about halfway through Chapter 2, more or less. It's been going hard, but it's still going. I haven't killed the story yet and it hasn't killed me. What's it about? As I've said before, in this chapter the newly married Walter and Greta Brogan are on their honeymoon in southern Indiana in a famously opulent motel and spa. They do their best to acclimate themselves into their highly temporary surroundings while Walter Brogan wonders what to do about the "secret" he's holding: the unexpected and troubling encounter which readers are witness to at the end of Chapter 1. At the same time, we learn about Walter's backstory - how he had football dreams, played at Notre Dame for two seasons under the young Irish coach Knute Rockne, and how he arrived back in his home town one night after class at Notre Dame to find out his dreams of football were over, killed, along with his father, in the line of duty.....Walter and Brogan have encounters with some wealthy lawyers at the hotel and discover that one of them has a mentor-like relationship with someone they both know. The chapter will end with Walter and Greta returning to Bentonville to begin the rest of their "normal" life together.

After that, hopefully, the novel will begin to slowly move forward. It will jump ahead about 5 months (slow progress at first, gaining inertia hopefully) to November 1924. The Indiana government has just been taken over by a new chief, Governor Edward Jackson, a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Walter Brogan, colored by previous experience, will begin to feel that he must take decisive action to protect himself and his family. But he will receive advice to the contrary from a worldly-wise older man. Meanwhile, Peter Heinricks will pursue grand adventures in the world of big oil, and local politician-in-waiting Myron Devreaux will begin plotting his moves for a future bigger than anyone predicted he'd have. (Not a little embellishment there, but that's the basic tenor of the ideas that are kicking around right now. Ought to be interesting to see if they come to fruition!)

Epilogue: A Teaser

Finally, thinking of the much longer term arc of the novel, out of nowhere recently I had an idea for the Epilogue to the story, which I've always had some idea of the voice for if not the content of. (Hint: first person voice, not Walter Brogan's, and not Luke Brogan's like the Prologue.) It will be called "The Embrace of the One-Armed Savior", and hopefully in more ways than one will circle the wagons all the way back to the beginning. We'll see if this in any way ends up being part of the book, but it was fun to drop in here at the end of this post, and hell, maybe in 2008 or 9 of whenever I am writing the end of this novel, I can come back and say I had the idea first in 2006.

Happy reading and doing whatever it is that you do! Back to the grind!!