Thursday, May 29, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 45

A Special Edition entry which concerns Fathers and Sons
I dedicate this entry to my own son.

As I am writing this latest entry in my journal, it is Thursday, May 29. Tomorrow morning, May 30, if all goes according to (the latest) plan, my wife is scheduled to be induced into labor, leading to the birth of our third child. Avid readers of this blog, should they exist, may remember Duke's generous post concerning the birth of my second child, Jane Charlotte, in November 2005 (see the archives!). Since this new child is not here yet, I am unable to reveal the baby's name, but I can disclose this: that this third child is our very first boy. Yes, I stand on the cusp of the dream of most men - to meet my first born son. Needless to say we are very much in slightly nervous anticipation mode in our household, but as some faithful family members have pointed out to me, May 30 is the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and I have confidence that Jesus' universal love for all of us will include my wife and my newborn son tomorrow, and that, as William Shakespeare put it, 'all manner of things shall be well'.

But this journal is about the making of a novel, and has been following on that course for more than 2 years now; so what does my family situation have to do with it?? By coincidence, or by Providence, the two things seem to be co-mingling in a way I don't think I ever, ever would have expected. I'll explain how.

Currently I am at work on Chapter V of the novel, the concluding chapter to Part I of a planned three parts, as has been pointed out in this journal. In spite of all the upheaval soon to visit our home, I would say I am 'hard at work' on this chapter, and I hope to continue working as hard as I can on it even after my new son comes home and all schedules and routines are overturned. It won't be easy but I will try to do my best. This entire chapter has been difficult in coming and I have had many lapses of discipline in writing it. But I would say that now, probably a little over halfway through the chapter, I am fortunate to be getting that now-familiar feeling I have when I know a chapter will get done. I count on that to occur if I stick to the job, and although this time it came later on in the process, by now it has come. I know I will finish at least this chapter. I am never 100% confident that I will finish the book; but to me it doesn't matter so much as long as I persis with the chapter at hand and worry about getting that one done. The idea is that one day, God willing, I will turn around and one day realize I have the end of the novel well in my sights. As long as I keep persisting, there is no logical reason why that cannot happen.

For the last few days, I have been working on the chapter, and have arrived at a point in the story that, incredibly, happens to correspond almost directly with my own personal experience right now. I never would have predicted this to happen, since the story has been developing organically, and yet it is. The scene I am working on right now in the story takes place in July 1928, just as the protagonist, Walter Brogan, is waiting expectantly on the birth of his firstborn son, Luke. I have him seated on the front porch of his own home, drinking a small tumbler of whiskey (to calm himself - even though it's the era of Prohibition!), while the actual birthing process is taking place in the upper bedchamber right above his head. This scene is partly based on the circumstances of my own father's birth, in 1930, right in the house his family lived in. Of course, fathers in those days would not have been present in the 'delivery room' while their wives gave birth, at least in most circumstances, so Walter Brogan sits and waits elsewhere while his wife struggles through the experience. Later in the scene, I plan to have Ilse, his mother-in-law, join him on the porch while the birth is finishing up, where they will have an exchange that may have significant overtones for later on in the story.

It probably won't be very interesting to anyone else reading this (but the same can be said for the entire journal!), but to me I find it very fascinating indeed that 2+ years into writing the novel my own character and I would arrive at the same significant life moment at the same time. After all, when I write this character, the primary inspiration for me is an imagined version of my own grandfather, upon whom Walter is based. As I never knew him, for me this character is all about an attempt to give him or a version of him some kind of life in my own imagination. In that sense, then, this writing project, if NOTHING else, has actually afforded me a unique opportunity - in the sense that it could only come to a fiction writer attempting something as audacious as this - to experience the anticipation and the subsequent joy of fatherhood along with my own grandfather, in a way.

This, readers, is among the many reasons why the novelist's job is a unique one and filled with its own rewards. This, in short, is one of the fundamental reasons why I write. How else might I be able to have this experience? And it was utterly unplanned and unanticipated, since I didn't know I was ever going to have my own son, didn't know if I was going to include this birth 'scene' in my own novel, and didn't really know where ANY of my story was going to go when I started writing it in March 2006.

Does this, ultimately, point to the hand of Providence in this project? It's a question for me to ponder and perhaps sometime later decide - if I haven't already.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Blog-Exclusive: A New Essay by Mutt Ploughman

Deliver Us From Nowhere
Family; Springsteen; the last lone American night.

by Mutt Ploughman

I was 14 years old, riding a bike with a couple of $5 bills in my pocket to the music shop to pick up a record for my older brother, Luke. He had heard that I planned to venture ‘downtown’, to the commercial center of the small New Jersey suburb we grew up in during the 1980s, in order to buy some new music. He gave me a five and issued strict instructions to purchase him a copy of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. By comparison, the record I bought that day was Mötley Crüe’s infantile manifesto for pimple-faced misfits, Shout at the Devil. The eventual chasm between Springsteen and Mötley Crüe in terms of cultural significance illustrates the pronounced disparity between my brother’s judgment and my own at the time. Luke, the oldest of six siblings, was a smart kid. I, second son and one of a set of identical twins, was still finding my way, let’s say.

Aside from the memory itself, there are two things from that otherwise unremarkable day in our slumbering suburb that have endured: Springsteen’s music and my family. Both of them would return and provide the impetus for a most memorable occasion 24 years later. It was Super Bowl weekend 2008, and Luke was celebrating his 40th birthday the day after the big game. I traveled from the East coast with two of my siblings to Ohio to surprise him with an unannounced visit and a weekend party. Sharp as he is, Luke did not see it coming. Needless to say the weekend rapidly degenerated into ridiculous eating, drinking, and overall regressive behavior, even though by now all of us had children of our own and had more or less grown into responsible adults.

It’s so easy for me, and I suspect the same for my siblings, to associate our older brother with Springsteen. He was the original Bruce Springsteen fan in our family, the only one who recognized relatively early on that Springsteen was a classic and here to stay. Most of us arrived at the same conclusion, but only later; for me it took until I was 21 years old to see the light.

Luke was the one who attended the classic Giants Stadium concerts in 1985; he was the one who had the white concert t-shirt that became a fashion fixture for the period whether you liked Bruce or not. My wife tells me she never liked Bruce at any time, but she still owned the t-shirt. (Never managed to make sense of that one, but I’m not exactly known for having my finger on the pulse of fashion.) Luke bought all of his LPs; he had Greetings from Asbury Park and The River and Nebraska and everything else in his legendary record collection – the one my other brothers and I used to wander through like some forbidden forest when he was safely removed from home.

Even back then, especially back then, Bruce was ‘the Boss’. He had energy, stamina, a Fender Stratocaster on his shoulder, big guns under his rolled-up sleeves, and the girls went nuts over him. Every song on U.S.A. seemed to be a hit nationwide, but most people we knew felt that he was singing about us – average, hard-working New Jerseyans.

In our family, or at least among the kids, Luke was Boss. He was a natural leader; everybody looked up to him. He used to take on all five younger siblings in sporting contests that I don’t know how we even conceived of – 1-on-5 kickball, 1-on-5 soccer, etc. – let alone executed. No matter; he always crushed us anyway. One time he was photographed specially for the high school year book; they turned the picture into a silhouette and plastered it onto a full page with a banner that read “Are You a Typical Senior?”, then added tiny labels pointing to various parts of his wardrobe and school accessories. The point of this space-filler was, if you were ‘in’, your profile ought to closely resemble his.

People liked my big brother. One of the most miserable job experiences I ever had in high school was when my twin brother and I were hired to work for some computer parts company mainly because the owner had previously hired, and loved, Luke. That guy hated my twin and me, and never seemed to forgive us for not being Luke. He gave us miserable, menial jobs that had nothing to do with computers, such as cleaning gutters or cutting grass at various properties he owned. These tasks felt like a kind of cruel and unusual punishment for our general shortcomings.

Needless to say, I didn’t much enjoy my position with respect to my brother at the time, and wanted to cut my own path, which I like to think partially explains why I was buying Shout at the Devil that day. A bad move: but, sometimes, we manage to live those down.

Of course time eventually passes, and you grow up to some extent, and one day it occurs to you that it was probably not so easy to be the oldest. Luke probably had his own share of insecurities, for which he had no outlet: he was Luke; he was supposed to handle stuff. Never mind the fact that he was the first to high school, the first to college, the first to get a ‘real’ job, the first to get married, and the first Dad. All these thresholds took courage to transcend; we took it on faith that they were cleared with ease. When it came time for the rest of us to do those things, we figured we could manage it because someone had done it before us. Luke had to take every new challenge in stride, for others were perpetually watching. This phenomenon continues to this day.

Then, suddenly, it’s 2008 in the wintertime. Luke’s turning 40, and a few of us show up on the doorstep of his lovely home in, you guessed it, a suburb. We barrel in, making a lot of raucous noise, thoroughly upending his ‘quiet’ Super Bowl weekend. What does he do? He takes it in stride. Within an hour after our arrival, on a clear Friday evening, we’re out in the backyard, standing near their big deck, grilling huge steaks, drinking beers, horsing around with his young kids, cackling our heads off. And it was great fun. But then, the whole moment went somewhere else: enter the Boss.

Here’s what happened: Luke’s wife, Dana, decided some tunes were required to round out the experience. So, in a moment of genuine inspiration, she went into the house and put Springsteen’s Nebraska on the sound system. As Dana knew so well, this was Luke’s weekend; the Boss was mandatory. Since their house is equipped with external speakers, the night air was soon resonant with the melancholy but oddly nostalgic sounds of the title track from the 1982 album. It seems curious to make my next observation – given the fact that that song concerns a serial killer on a spree, and the entire album that follows is a somber, dark-hued patchwork of vivid stories about dispossessed individuals. But the mood abruptly changed, and I think all of us enjoying that winter night somehow became a more tightly-knit family as a result.

It is hard to articulate exactly how this happened. As far as I know, no one in my family has spent any time in Nebraska, and we are more than fortunate that we have never come in contact with the aberration of a serial killer. No one we knew in suburban New Jersey would have been desperate enough to board a Coast City bus in hopes of scoring a big payoff, and the truth is that our home, though not extravagant, was probably closer to a mansion on a hill than anything Springsteen lived in as a kid. We didn’t count any state troopers among our friends; our father was consistently there for us, if not always warm and cheery; nobody in my family knew what a carburetor even looked like, let alone had the ability to clean one out. And the closest I ever came to knowing someone called “Johnny 99” was having a twin brother named John, and he sure as hell has never done anything that put him before a judge.

And yet…. it is true that when we were young teens, these same songs were playing from behind our oldest brother’s closed door. We were New Jerseyans, and Bruce was Boss, all along the way. We all moved down separate roads in college, but Nebraska and the other albums always went with us. Later, as we progressed into our 20s and discovered the mirage of freedom that appears hazily in one’s early adult life, it was the reality found in the fine details of those Springsteen songs that resonated with us and drew attention to the fact that life was not a frivolous enterprise. Year by year, we shed away our youth, and arrived by divergent means upon the recondite knowledge that the American way of life had a cost. The price was your own blood, your toil, your money; possibly even your dreams. All the while, Springsteen’s music played on in the background, enforcing those lessons we were all in the process of learning.

By 2008, we all had those children I mentioned, and innumerable other gracious blessings. We were all working in different ways to support our families, but now we knew about what it took. All of us had faced struggles of one sort or another. For some of us, it was working one or two jobs supporting your wife and children on your own ability to earn money. For some it was giving up your own career ambitions to put family first. For others it was working and parenting simultaneously, while enduring the skyrocketing costs and rigors of higher education for the possibility of a more comfortable lifestyle later. In the midst of the struggle, I think, and in a time of war, high gas prices, a faltering economy and a vacuous spiritual landscape, it had become increasingly easy to feel inconsequential, adrift in some nameless void where even your best was not going to be good enough.

But not that night. On that milestone occasion, with those children running around, and under that beautiful dark fabric punched through with stars, all seemed at peace, and I have rarely felt less like I was marooned in a void. We had family around us, my twin brother was clinking his bottle of beer against mine, my sister-in-law was spinning up tunes, my little sister was on the backsteps looking like all she needed was an ice cream cone. And where was the boss? Posted at the grill, of course, taking the orders, giving the orders, keeping everyone fed and contented, on his own patch of dirty ground. Nothing feels better, the poet reminded us through those outdoor speakers, than blood on blood.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Grand Opening, 1929

The following is an unedited excerpt from Chapter V of my novel in progress called Only the Dying. The setting is May 1, 1929, in the small fictional town of Bentonville, Indiana, where P.G. Heinricks, father-in-law to Walter Brogan (the novel's protagonist) is presiding over the opening festivities of a new family restaurant he has established called The Golden Wheel.

‘Congratulations, Mr. Heinricks,’ Brogan said with a degree of formality, extending his hand.

‘Thank you, Walt,’ replied his father-in-law, his grin fading a smidgen, not so much as a reaction to Brogan’s words, but because his mind was already turning again to business. He gestured with his head over Brogan’s right shoulder, in the general direction of the gas station across the way. ‘You got Benson running the show today? He’s going to be hopping all day long.’

‘Yes, sir. He’s all right. He can manage. And I’m going to be stopping over later on.’

‘He’s got plenty of business already,’ Heinricks observed, still looking towards the station. Brogan glanced over his shoulder himself now and saw cars at all four pumps – they’d dug in two new ones earlier the same year – and one car waiting for a turn. Dick Benson, Brogan’s deputy at the station, flitted between the cars like an insect, always happy to be in charge for a day.

‘Good,’ Brogan answered. ‘That’s exactly how we want it.’ He smiled.

‘You’re right there, son,’ Heinricks agreed, and with that he turned back to Greta. ‘Your mother’s inside, whipping up the kitchen staff. Everything’s going full steam! Come on over, you’re just in time for my big speech! I’m also expecting the governor any minute.’

A small group of townspeople had begun to gather around the entrance to the restaurant. From where Walter and Greta stood they could see a red ribbon had been secured by some means across the double doors through which they’d once passed as a newly married husband and wife into The Golden Room dance hall, in a moment that seemed farther in the past than five short years.

Heinricks had started off towards the entrance, with Pinchot following after him like a sheep hound. He’d stick to Heinricks like a shadow for the rest of the day, of course; when Heinricks made a major business venture, he himself was always the center of the story. Greta watched as her father began greeting guests and waving like a politician on his way to the stump.

‘He’s still got it, all right,’ Brogan commented, shaking his head.

‘Yes, he never quite changes,’ she answered, jostling their son again.

‘Did he just say the governor? How could he possibly have managed—’

‘He means Governor McCray,’ said Greta. ‘He was saying to us last night that he had persuaded him to come out and say a few words at the last minute. He really had to twist his arm, though.’

‘I can imagine,’ said Brogan.

‘The fact that he’s back living in Kentland again makes it a lot easier to just come over.’

‘Do you think he’ll get a kind reception?’ Brogan asked with a noticeable degree of incredulity. Considering the fact that McCray had been run out of office in 1922 and convicted on corruption charges, and even had to spend a few years in jail, it was hard for Brogan to see how Heinricks’ invitation to have the former governor make some remarks could be a wise decision. The only reason the man wasn’t still in the clink was because President Hoover had pardoned him.

Greta smiled and looked at her husband. ‘You’re not from around here if you think he won’t. In this town he’s still a local hero. In fact, for some of these people, the fact that he did time is practically a badge of honor. The man was a farmer, like most of them. In a weird way the fact that he got thrown out for doing what he did proved to people that he never lost sight of his roots.’

Brogan chuckled. ‘Only in America. I guess creditors have a way of making sure you don’t lose sight of nothing.’

True to form, Governor Warren McCray arrived without fanfare, and as promised. He stepped out of a non-descript car and began greeting people like old friends.

After spending his three years in prison, his stained governorship consigned to the annals of Hoosier history, the governor had returned to his hometown of Kentland, just over the county line, and taken up his former life as a struggling farmer. But his ties to P.G. Heinricks traced back to the years preceding his political career. The two of them met years earlier as young businessmen, and in 1913 they joined together to purchase a farm implement business.
Heinricks had told Brogan before that at the time he ‘didn’t know a plow from a cornpicker’, but that Warren McCray sure did.

They’d each paid half for the cost of the business, about $7,000 total, and for a while they managed to make some return on their investment. Heinricks was pulling in about $75 a month in salary plus half the profits. But they couldn’t sustain a sufficient level of profitability to keep pace with the rapid advancements in farming technology. New and far more innovative tools and equipment were springing up much faster than they could afford to purchase them from manufacturers and sell them again. The business failed in 1918. McCray turned to politics and was elected governor in 1920, and Heinricks struggled until he was finally able to open The Golden Room in 1921.

McCray was still a formidable figure by all appearances. He was not particularly tall, but had a stocky, strong frame, a longish face with a slender, regal nose; plump, clean-shaven cheeks; and dark hair neatly parted slightly off-center underneath his hat. He looked ruddy and robust. True to Greta’s words, the townsfolk who had turned out for the opening treated him like a celebrity. After stepping out he talked and joked with the crowd and shook their hands, dressed for the occasion in a gray suit and vest, a brown fedora on his head and a curved pipe in his mouth. Brogan heard him howl out loud at someone’s joke as he moved among the small gathering. Pinchot snapped photos left and right, then scrambled to change out film before the speeches began.

Meanwhile, Heinricks was herding his personnel, all of whom were dressed in the same starched whites, the cooks in aprons already battle-stained, their faces flushed from the heat of the kitchen ovens and stovetops. Ilse Heinricks emerged, dressed in a floral print frock, with a group of six young women, also dressed in white like nurses. These were the waitresses. Among them stood Gertie Heinricks, tall and lovely at 22, whose red hair and perpetually rouged cheeks were not easy to miss. The entire staff assembled like some army of angels to the left side of the front steps of The Golden Wheel. Shortly a hush cam over the crowd as Warren McCray ascended to the top of the stairs and turned to face them. It was almost exactly 12 noon.

‘Folks,’ the former governor began, ‘looks like ol’ man Heinricks and I here are managing to do something today we never quite got down when we were in business together. That is, to start something on time.’

Everyone laughed politely. The breeze picked up slightly, and a large truck carrying a gaggle of agitated chickens rattled by on the highway to the back of the assembly, feathers fluttering behind in its wake. The white aprons of the staff flapped noiselessly. The governor paused, gathering up his thoughts, his eyes lowered. Then he lifted his head again.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon to you all. It’s good to see you all again. I don’t get out and around as much as I used to these days. My public life, in so many words, belongs largely to my past. I’m perfectly happy to live out my days the way most of you always have: working my land, tending to my own flock. Which I trust is just fine to you folks, since my speeches were never that exciting to begin with.’ More laughter, some of it this time more genuine and less polite.

‘However, as perhaps some of you have noticed along the way, Mr. P.G. Heinricks doesn’t lie down easily, and he sure doesn’t take “no” for an answer, unless “no” was the answer he wanted in the first place. Just ask these fine workers dressed in white over here.

‘The truth is, friends, that I was honored to be asked to be a part of this today. Because this is a happy day for our community, and it’s a proud moment for an old friend. It’s a happy day for everyone here because we now have a lovely new eatery and gathering place that will draw people from far and wide, and it will make all of you proud to be from Bentonville, Kentland, Fowler, or wherever you’re from. Folks from the cities and from the plains are going to flock to The Golden Wheel, and they’ll leave having sampled the very best of our Hoosier hospitality – and maybe even a slice of Ilse Heinricks’ rhubarb pie, which I’d like to recommend highly from my own personal experience!’

There was a brief, spontaneous round of applause. Greta saw her mother allow herself a slight smile.

‘I also said this is a proud moment for P.G. Heinricks. And I believe it is. Ladies and gentlemen, this restaurant did not come together easily. Mr. Heinricks has been working long and hard to bring it to you. In these recent years of prosperity, he’s done more than his part to bring much of it to our community. No one will ever forget his big-band dances in their heyday, all of the fun and excitement he created in this region. Back when he and I were in business together, we worked tirelessly, and I saw Mr. Heinricks forming his steel character and his unshakeable optimism. Our business, ultimately, was not successful. But I could see then that P. G. Heinricks would be. And by jove, he is. The proof is behind me.’ He turned slightly towards Heinricks.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to say publicly to my old friend, hearty congratulations and Godspeed on this wonderful new endeavor. And it’s an even bigger thrill to help him now to officially open The Golden Wheel restaurant.’

Now there was a groundswell of applause and even a few whistles and cheers. Gerard Pinchot shoved his way forward to capture the moment as P.G. Heinricks stepped up to the top stair and vigorously pumped the ex-governor’s hand. They exchanged a few words privately, drowned out by the crowd noise and general bustle. A young staffer, a boy who could not have been older than seventeen, darted forward to hand Mr. Heinricks a large pair of metal shears, looking like the sort of thing used to fleece cattle with. Heinricks and McCray then turned towards the door and without additional flourish the restaurant’s owner clipped the red ribbon, and The Golden Wheel was open for business.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

And now for a few brief comments on Mutt's 'Journal of a Novel' posts

Here is a little entr'acte in the form of a brief comment or two on our man Mutt's periodic posts loosely gathered under the title of "Journal of a 'Novel'." (I don't like using those idiotic quotes on the word 'novel,' but he insists on it and out of deference to him - especially since it constitutes something of a nod to John Steinbeck - I will play along.)

I think the last post (#44, "My Point Is...") was indicative of the direction Mutt has been taking these entries lately, and I'm not sure who's noticed but these meditations are getting increasingly introspective and, for lack of a better word, spiritual as they go along. I wanted to point this out not just because it is an interesting trend to observe, but because it fits so well thematically with the stated intentions of this blog. "Literature and the Spiritual Life" is how The Secret Thread is described on its masthead, and while it was meant to refer to the books that we read and how they impact and enhance our interior lives, Mutt's ongoing "dialogue with himself" (and with blog readers) as he struggles to write his own meaningful book tackles some of the same themes, but from a decidedly different angle. What does it mean to create art, or to even attempt to create art? How will such an attempt shape and color one's own spiritual life? What is the point of the writer picking up the pen (or the artist the brush, the musician the instrument, etc.) if one's "success," at least in worldly terms, is never assured - and in fact, as he points out in this last post, is statistically likely to go the other way??

These are profound questions that resonate with anyone who has ever tried to create art in any way, or is even interested in the process and purpose of creating it. The impulse to create and the impulse to worship seem to have strong and mysterious connections, and Mutt's entries increasingly draw attention to this profound relationship - whether he is conscious of it or not (I think certainly in this last one, he was in fact consciously trying to explore this mystery). Nowhere is this connection more apparent than in the Biblical psalms, where images of the created world praising God abound... trees clap their hands, mountains shout for joy, etc. And it's no accident that when both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien described the "creation" of the worlds in their respective fantasy tales, they both did so using art, in this case music - both Narnia and Middle Earth were brought into being by singing.

What's the point of all this? Just that Mutt's posts are worth reading and thinking about, because they don't simply chronicle the progress of a novel he is trying to write about a couple in Indiana during the 20's and 30's... they've become increasingly interesting and profound meditations on the obligations of the would-be artist to himself, his family, his own vision, and to the God that has blessed him with all of these things, and has seemingly indicated that these are the tools and circumstances with which He intends Mutt to "work out his own salvation with fear and trembling." God obviously doesn't promise us fame and fortune in the worldly sense: in fact, Jesus has told us the opposite ("In the world you will have trouble"), and perhaps no one is more keen to this fact than the struggling artist, trying to make ends meet while staying faithful to his/her own inner calling! But Mutt's efforts to maintain this fidelity and integrity across multiple fronts is a journey worth following, because it reminds us all of the "secret thread" that links our own desires to create to the impulse, and indeed obligation, we have to give thanks to the One who blessed us with the very life we long to celebrate and (simultaneously) figure out.