Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 52

Exclusive Excerpt
The following is an early excerpt from Chapter VII of my novel-in-progress, Only the Dying. The chapter is tentatively titled 'Desperate Measures, Obeisance to Mammon'.

Career Change

Walter Brogan was freezing. If there was anything he was sure of, early on the morning of March 3, 1931, this was it. Everything else he found himself involved in on that particular morning was unsure ground. But he was doing everything he could not to make it appear that way.

A late winter freeze had had the township of Bentonville in its grip for the better part of a week, and it was quickly getting tiresome, Brogan thought. The temperature on the new thermometer he had nailed to the front porch of his home on 2nd and Evergreen had been a teeth-chattering 15 degrees; he’d made sure that he checked it on the way out the door earlier that morning. The unpleasant reading of the mercury had bothered him for two reasons: one, that he was going to have stand around ‘working’ in it all day, although working outside on cold days was something he’d done plenty of in his previous job. Two, he was now saddled with the concern that his wife would be too cold all day, because he knew she wouldn’t turn up the heat.

Normally, Greta Brogan’s frugality and self-sacrifice was something he wouldn’t take issue with. He couldn’t budge her anyway on such matters: he’d certainly learned that. Utility prices were murderous; just the cost of heating his house alone was drawing their already-strained budget close to the limits of its flexibility. But he hoped Greta would remember – well, certainly she remembered – or take into consideration the reality of her situation. For as of the first week of March, Greta Brogan was into the ninth week of her second pregnancy.

So far it had all gone down much differently than their first experience with pregnancy. Much less fanfare, both between Walter and Greta themselves, and in terms of their announcement of the news to the rest of their families. Greta had told Brogan around the middle of January that she had a suspicion she could be pregnant again, over dinner one night; the next week she visited the doctor, and received a phone call a few days later with a confirmation. She told Walter that evening when he arrived home from work. Brogan couldn’t feign great surprise or explode with nervous enthusiasm the way he might have done the first time around. And it wasn’t exactly a private moment between them, for their son Luke was literally tugging at his trouser leg for some attention when Greta delivered the information. Brogan, exhausted from his day’s work and trying to decompress from the struggles and inanities of same, managed to give his wife an embrace and a brief smile. He held her for a moment, before they moved into the kitchen where she had a beef stew and cornbread meal waiting for them.

But this was not to say that Walter Brogan was not happy with the prospect of having a second child. On the contrary. Brogan had always liked children. One thing that he and Greta had seen eye to eye on – since the first moment in their relationship when it seemed appropriate to even broach the topic – was the prospect of having a family together, with more than one child, if God’s will allowed for it. Brogan had wanted a son, and they’d been blessed with one the first time out, but he didn’t want the boy to have no sibling. Secretly, he began to hope right from the moment he learned Greta was expecting a second child that Luke would have a brother, for the simple fact that he never had one himself. At the same time, however, part of him was also intrigued by the prospect of having a daughter, and wondered about what having a baby girl would mean to him.

Nonetheless, it was difficult to react in quite the same way he had the first time – as much as his wife seemed to expect that he would. Their situation had been quite different when they’d learned about Luke’s existence, and so were the conditions around them. Winter 1927 seemed a thousand miles away from the place they found themselves in in March 1931, despite the relatively brief span of three years and a handful of months. The entire nation had been in a very different situation before from the pickle it was embroiled in now, and the mood of the people – their concerns, their hopes, their dreams, and their nightmares – had shifted dramatically. Brogan had already been inclined to worry, to internalize his personal questions and insecurities about his ability to provide a good home and a good life for the people who bore his last name – even before the bad reports that seemed to keep streaming in hand over first since this decade of the 1930s has begun. There was also the matter of the dead father who populated his thoughts and dreams - to whom he’d expressly promised, after his death, that he would secure those things for those who came after him.

But with every passing day in 1931, this calling, this responsibility, seemed to grow more and more difficult.

For Brogan, it would all be won or lost with his performance in this new role. This arena, that of his career, was the one in which he was obligated to excel. This was where his struggles would play out – right here, on the Hoosier ground where he now stood, where at that very moment a crew of workers was hacking away at the frozen soil in order to lay a new foundation.

He’d been hired by Standard Oil Corporation of Indiana two weeks before Christmas of the previous year. It had been a remarkable turn of events, at least from the Brogans’ perspective. For seven weeks following his face-to-face ‘walkthrough’ interview back in September with Standard’s Tom Spenlow and Bill Doyle – the latter of whom was supervising construction in the grass field – Brogan had heard precisely nothing about his prospects for obtaining the position. The closest he’d had to any feedback on how well he’d jockeyed for the job was Spenlow’s observation that day that it had been ‘very good’ to hear his condensed pitch for hiring him. The two men had walked him around for a while longer, dropped him back off at the Auto-Stop, and disappeared. By the beginning of December Brogan had more or less concluded that he hadn’t made the cut for one reason or another.

But then came the letter, from one Ralph ‘Whitey’ Pickering, the General Manager of Standard of Indiana’s North Gary Refinery, just over two hours away by car between Gary proper and East Chicago. It was a brief message, inviting Brogan to tour the facility and to ‘have lunch’ with Pickering and ‘some of my associates’ on Friday, December 17, 1930. That was the moment when Brogan first began to understand in his gut that the job would be his, and his life, or at the very least his career, was about to change.

He’d said this much to his wife on the evening the letter came. He remembered that she had been standing in their kitchen at the time, wearing an apron and cutting up chicken livers for a meal. She smiled warmly and said she felt that way too, and that she was positive that he would go up there and show those oil men who was the right man for the job. Brogan felt his confidence begin to swell – until Greta made one more observation.

‘Pretty soon though, honey, you’ll have to explain all this to my father.’

Brogan felt like someone had snuffed his best set-shot on the basketball court. But Greta was right. He’d thought of the matter before, but not recently, and not at all since he’d opened up that official letter of invitation that evening.

He’d asked her: ‘What do you think is the best way to go about doing that?’

To which Greta responded, after pausing for a half-beat to think about it, a large kitchen knife extended in front of her, parallel to the wood cutting block: ‘The sooner the better.’

‘Be direct about it. No pussy-footing,’ he’d said.

‘Don’t you think so?’

He did. After their dinner on that very evening. Brogan found himself strolling down the sidewalk in the pale, chilled moonlight towards his father-in-law’s house, where he lived with Gertie only. He carried the letter with him. He felt nervous as he still sometimes did when approaching a discussion with P.G. Heinricks, who had not softened one bit over the years they’d been related when it came to matters of business. Heinricks was a hard man with a keen intellect and a foreboding sense of loyalty.

All of this came rushing into Brogan’s mind anew when the front door of the familiar house abruptly opened. P.G. Heinricks stood rigidly before him, still dressed in his signature shirtsleeves and black tie, a lit pipe exhaling smoke into the night air. He stared at his son-in-law through the doorframe.

‘What the hell are you doing here?’ the old man growled.

‘Mr. Heinricks. Sorry to bother you. There’s something I need to discuss with you. It’s important. Do you have a minute?’

P.G. Heinricks stared some more. Brogan held his ground, looking straight back into Heinricks’ eyes, from his somewhat elevated angle, the way he had once done at the tail end of a church aisle on a day many years before, with a woman dressed in white by his side. ‘Come on in, then,’ Heinricks said, and stood to one side to allow Brogan through.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Four-Course Meal of Faulkner

Occasionally I will embark on a self-regimented “reading series” in order to read more deeply into a certain area of literary interest. A few years back I did this with 19th-century British literature, finally getting around to works of such giants as Eliot, Hardy and Lawrence. I’ve got plans one of these years to do one focused on the African experience in America (possibly in 2009), and one exploring modern literature from India. I even have a more ambitious project in mind (and I know I’m not the first to do this!) to “read around the world,” taking on books from six continents and “raiding into dark corners” (to steal from Benedict Kiely) I have yet to explore. Whether that happens any time soon, given my hectic home and work life, is anyone’s guess needless to say… but it never hurts to aim high.

Recently I decided to take on another of these series’, this time attacking the work of William Faulkner. As someone with a fascination and taste for American literature, I felt I needed to know more of his work… and even though I had read such standards as The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, I knew there was whole huge chunks of the Faulkner corpus that would reveal far more to me about this complex and intriguing writer. I decided to take on four other works from the Southern master: Sanctuary; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem; Absalom, Absalom! and finally his last novel The Reivers.

What it was like, plowing through four Faulkner works almost back-to-back? What did I learn from it? Well, it would be hard to sum up in a short post… but I would like to share some impressions of each book and take an amateurish stab at how they might fit into the greater Faulknerian body of work. I’ll take them in the order that I read them…

Sanctuary – This strange foray into the world of noir crime fiction (sort of) is definitely one of the stranger, and in my opinion less successful, Faulkner works. It’s interesting though because we know Faulkner worked for a time in the Hollywood system writing screenplays (most famously, I think, for his script for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), and I wonder if his time doing that sort of nudged him in this direction with his fiction, or whether it was the reverse somehow. Anyway, mixing Southern gothic and noir fictional themes together makes for a dark, murky, strange brew… which would be interesting if more happened in the story. Still, the climactic crime and courtroom scenes that revolve around it still hold some shock value even today… and in Popeye, Faulkner created one of the more menacing heavies in all of American fiction. Fans of Cormac McCarthy might pick up echoes of Faulkner’s descriptions of the Memphis underworld in Suttree’s Knoxville. This is definitely not the place to start with ol’ Billy though.

If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem – Probably one of the most experimental of Faulkner’s novels (along with perhaps A Fable), this tells the seemingly-unrelated stories, in alternating chapters, of a love affair between a man and a married woman and three convicts trying to escape prison across fields flooded by the Mississippi River. Literary types (like myself) will find interest in thinking about what possessed Faulkner to take these two disparate tales, which he was working on separately, and intertwine them together into a larger work… not to mention the utter mystery of taking that phrase from the Old Testament as his title (though this is something Faulkner liked to do, obviously, with his novels – see Absalom, Absalom!). By the way, based on imagery I noticed in this novel (the flooding river engulfing cotton fields and farms, livestock on top of henhouses, not to mention the fact that this is all set in Mississippi), I'm convinced that this book is one of the sources the Coen Brothers were drawing from - whether consciously or not, we'll never know - as they were conceiving and filming their underappreciated O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Absalom, Absalom! – Speaking of… not only was this the most powerful and accomplished of the four novels I read in this series, I think it’s also right up there with As I Lay Dying as my favorite of all Faulkner works. For years schools and literature courses have been using The Sound and The Fury as a way to introduce Faulkner to readers, but in my opinion this is the one novel that best represents his work in terms of setting, themes, characters and concerns. It chronicles the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen and the estate he built up in the Old South – the slaves he kept, the affairs he had, the children he neglected and his dogged ambition to build up some kind of ‘legacy’ in his adopted home state of Mississippi. Rich, complex and deeply evocative of a Southern culture that was quickly fading (although not the racist attitudes that grew up out of it, unfortunately), this is considered by many to be William Faulkner’s masterpiece… and I would have a hard time arguing against that. I think I enjoyed reading Dying more, but this novel amazed me nonetheless with its poetic language and seething passion, rising from every page like Southern humidity.

The Reivers – Faulkner’s last published novel is considerably different in tone and style from all of those previously mentioned… it read to me like the work of a more mellow, older and perhaps wiser writer who’s reflecting on the life he’s led. Hence its (important?) subtitle, A Reminiscence, and its warm and elegiac tone. I’m not sure if this is based on real memories of his or not, but it was interesting to read him writing in the voice of an 11-year-old boy this late into his career, and the upbeat ending came to me as something of a surprise given the somber and menacing tones the other books had struck. It may be a classic case of an artist “mellowing with age” and perhaps losing a bit of his former bite… still, there are interesting aspects to this comic novel, especially in its depiction of the newly-emerging phenomenon of the automobile. His descriptions of driving and maintaining an early Ford and what it was like to traverse long distances through state lands without highways were both humorous and fascinating.