Pages

Monday, May 26, 2014

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

In my last post I hazarded some remarks about my nearly lifelong and possibly mistaken effort to elevate the Tombstone/ OK Corral story into art via an immense novel I recently completed which I call Riding the Hearse. In that post I acknowledged at least one major writer who made the same effort some years ago and who enjoyed a deal of success and prestige as a result.  This was the late Oakley Hall, whose 1958 novel Warlock, a masterfully fictionalized retelling of the Tombstone story, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination; and, in case any reader continues to doubt its merit and desires higher proof, I might mention that Hall's novel was republished in 2006 by The New York Review of Books as a classic of American literature. Thomas Pynchon has called Warlock an "agonized epic" whose "deep sensitivity" makes it "one of the best American novels."

It was Warlock that caught my eye when I was a college freshman visiting a bookstore in High Point, North Carolina, in the far-off year of its publication.  It in fact was the very work that lit the improbable fire in me which has yet to flicker out, which led me inexorably over the many years since to return again and again to what became Riding the Hearse.  And while I am ready to admit that my book may not be all I wish it to be, I can unhesitatingly agree with Pynchon that Warlock is one fine read, a tragedy of epic dimensions and probably one of the finest novels ever published in America.

I mention Hall's book because he not only wrote Warlock but also many other novels, plus a libretto for an opera based on Wallace Stegner's classic Angle of Repose.  Further, he was director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine and a co-founder of the respected writing conference known as the Community of Writers at SquawValley.  New York author Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer finalist, has written, in his introduction to the new edition, "rereading Warlock I found again the light I remembered, an afternoon brightness, a clarity that is, I think, the essence of good realism.  In an almost literal way it illuminated the characters.  When it focused on individual lives it seemed to vary its distance from each...as though there existed a different extension of sympathy or withholding of it for different individuals in the narrative.  The light I...recognized...as western light. Big Sky light. This is good realism."

Hall was not alone among major literary figures who in one way or another have taken up the Tombstone story as a pattern for profound examination of large and important themes. In 2000 British-born novelist, poet, essayist, critic and memoirist Paul West, known for his startling erudition, marvelous working vocabulary and winner of numerous international literary awards, published OK: The Corral, the Earps and Doc Holliday.  Though it earned mixed reviews, OK at least illustrated how the Tombstone tale could lay hold of the imagination of one of the finest writers of our time.  Similarly, Bruce Olds, in the front rank of America's postmodernists, in 2001 published Bucking the Tiger, a densely-imagined, challengingly written account of Wyatt Earp's friend Doc Holliday, set in the Tombstone period.

Like OK, Bucking the Tiger had a style that was probably too daring to win widespread popular approval, but it underlined the fascination the Tombstone tale can have for a recognized literary artist. Nor were West and Olds the last to pick up the baton, or--figuratively--the six-shooter.  Just this year, Larry McMurtry, in The Last Kind Words Saloon, retold the Earp-Clanton-McLaury saga in his inimitably terse and acrid style.  And Mary Doria Russell, widely-acclaimed author of 2011's Doc, a novelized account of the life of Holliday up to his time in Dodge City, Kansas, is reported currently at work on a novel about the OK Corral affair.

I think the fact that some of our best writers have considered the Tombstone events as somehow fundamental to an understanding of not only the American character but the universal human experience gives testimony to its value as a subject of serious literature.  While Riding the Hearse may not be worthy of mention in the same breath with the works I have cited, I hope at I have at least made a case for revisiting that tragic and compelling drama.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A TRIUMPH - OF SORTS

Recently--last Friday, actually--I completed several months' work editing and rewriting a novel I first began sometime in the summer of 1962 when I was a 24-year-old cub reporter for The Greensboro Record, a now long-defunct afternoon daily.  It is perhaps a measure of my obsession with the writing life, even so early, that I was spending after-deadline time on my very first paying job hammering out--on sheets of the same copy paper I was supposed to be using to report current events--a novel which, even then, at such a tender age, I conceived as the work of my life.  I still have, in my files, some of those very same sheets, yellowed now and crumbling around the edges, bearing the lines I pounded out in my halting hunt-and-peck style on my manual Remington typewriter fifty-two years ago.

I can still conjure up a clear mental image of that city room, with its dark oiled wood flooring, its tall frosted windows reinforced with what looked like chicken wire, its rows of metal desks and, at the front, the desks of the city editor and the wire editors, each with its steel spike on which were impaled sheets of our edited reportage waiting to be sent by vacuum tube to the composing room.   In back was the glass-enclosed office of the managing editor, a lofty presence who seldom deigned to speak to any of us.  On deadline the roar of our dozen or so typewriters, punctuated by the occasional ringing of someone's phone, filled the room.  But now, at midafternoon, the day's edition had been put to bed and the noise was more sporadic, less intense.  Still, though the worst of the day's anxiety was over, a cloud of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the room; all of us were four-pack-a-day smokers, on deadline or not. And some of us--I shan't say who, even now--kept fifths of bourbon in our desk drawers whose purpose was to soothe our nerves or fuel our creativity.  Yes, we were a dissolute bunch, and I've never enjoyed a job--or my co-workers--as much in all the years since.

I was convinced that my novel would be the sensation of the twentieth century.  I knew it was my destiny to achieve the heights of fame where dwelt my literary idols Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe, Hemingway, Agee and Mailer.  It never occurred to me that I wouldn't realize this dream; all I had to do, I thought, was perfect my craft, hone my skills to make them equal to the task I'd set myself.  I believed this as fervently as I believed anything.  Why?  Because the novel I had conceived was going to be, in my mind, entirely unique.  I was going to take a subject that had been done to death in the popular media over the previous decade--that had been reduced to formulaic triviality--and transform it into high literature.   What the popular media had treated as a simplistic clash between good and evil in the Old West--the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers in their conflict with the Clantons and McLaurys in the Tombstone, Arizona of the early 1880's--I saw instead as a tragedy of almost Shakespearean dimensions, bringing into confrontation different family dynamics, economic forces, political beliefs, philosophical concepts, historical forces and personal traits which, if clearly enough delineated, might rival Oakley Hall's magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Warlock or Faulkner's own Absalom, Absalom in its grand complexity.  No writer, filmmaker, TV producer, or artist of any sort had dared take such a topic to such an ambitious level; yet it seemed to me obvious that this story deserved just such a treatment.

Excessively ambitious?  Certainly.  Foolhardy?  No question.  But then, I asked myself, what great art, at its inception, did not seem excessively ambitious and even foolhardy?  Did Faulkner balk before the staggering scope of his Yoknapatawpha County novels?  Was MacInlay Kantor dissuaded from Andersonville because of its weighty theme and multitude of characters?   Did Mailer turn his back on The Naked and the Dead?  Wolfe on Look Homeward, Angel?  No, the very size and challenge of these works were what called forth the genius needed to create them.  One thinks that way when young; and so thought I.  It didn't occur to me then--and doesn't now that I am old and jaded--that a tale many would dismiss as a Wild West adventure would encounter difficulty being taken seriously as a work of literature.  Or that the Earp-Cowboy feud was hardly as elevated a theme as Faulkner's explorations of Southern Gothic or Kantor's meditation on the Civil War or Mailer's on World War II or Wolfe's anthem on provincial Southern Appalachia and the call of the artist's life.  I believed I could transform this unlikely subject into worthwhile art.  So what I saw then, and still see, as the Tombstone tragedy became the work of my life.  I'm seventy-five now, and have only just completed that work after more than a half-century of on-again, off-again effort.  Was it worth that effort?  I can't know yet.  I do know that the odds are against its acceptance.  I haven't been a writer since 1995 without learning that much.

Some of you who periodically visit this blog may know that I posted here, a couple of years ago, some excerpts from my Tombstone novel, which I now call Riding the Hearse.  Those postings drew no comments.  Of course I can't tell whether this is because the excepts were considered unworthy of remark or because no one visited the blog to read them.  I, of course, remain convinced that the work is an acceptable one and measures up fairly well to the goal I set for it all those years ago. But much stands in the way of its acceptance for publication.  There is the question of whether the treatment is worthy of the elevated theme I imagined for it.  There is the question of its size--550-odd typewritten pages, far too large, perhaps, for its subject.  As always there is the question of the quality of the writing.  But the work is done at last.  Toward the end, over the past few weeks, I began to wonder whether I would be able to complete the editing and the rewrite.  As I've mentioned on this blog before, I now struggle with cognitive impairments, vertigo and several other complaints of aging; and as I approached the end of my work on the novel I began to think of the effort as perhaps the last of my writing life--and thus as the actual work of my life, since I have been at it for so long.  One would very much like to have offered up a last work which might be considered a worthy summation of one's lifelong strivings.

Friday, April 11, 2014

MISPLACED PERSISTENCE?

If art was what I so diligently pursued all those years, was that pursuit subverted by the strangely selective way I went about it?  For the truth is, in the act of becoming the writer I wished to be, I insisted on setting my own terms for publication rather than acceding to the realities of the market. Strange, is it not, that an aspiring author should pick and choose his own notion of what to write and where to seek publication, rather than try to conform to the dictates of reality?  I knew what I wished to write, and knew furthermore that what I wished to write was not the sort of material most publishers sought.  Yet I not only flew in the face of economic reality, I did it knowingly and even defiantly. Why?  Ordinarily the fledgling writer trims his/her work to fit what he/she knows the reading public, and hence the publishing world, desires.  Not I.  Perhaps this approach was a variant of the motive I have previously mentioned, that I only wished to have fun--the fun of indulging my own tastes, my own preferences, above those of the industry I hoped to penetrate.

I must have told myself I refused to compromise my own vision of my destiny as a writer--a laudable thought perhaps, and one no doubt commensurate with my immature dreams of becoming known for the daring and dedication of my artistic goals, much as were Faulkner and Joyce and certain other literary giants of the 20th century.  I suppose I didn't wish to serve a long and dreary, if salutary and instructional, apprenticeship of submission and rejection.  It didn't matter to me that the historical fiction I longed to write no longer held the high place it had maintained in the 1940's and 1950's when my literary ambitions were formed.  I wished to imitate the successes of the historical novelists of my youth--Thomas B. Costain, Mika Waltari and the like--writers, incidentally, known not for the high literary quality of their books but for their popularity with middlebrow readers, and hardly comparable to my idols Joyce and Faulkner.  Furthermore, by the time I began to submit my work, the historical fiction genre had fallen quite out of favor.  Speak of a confusion of motives!

Yet I did, to a small degree, succeed.  I was published, against all the odds.  Was published five times in fiction and once in nonfiction.  This is a fact which still astonishes me and for which I remain deeply grateful.  When I think how many persons have nourished the burning ambition to write and be published, only to have those hopes dashed, I know how fortunate I have been.  But then, perhaps inevitably now that I am in the twilight of my writing career, I also begin to wonder how much my stubborn insistence on writing only what I wished to write rather than what the market desired may have limited my prospects.  Had I paid more heed to reality than to my own preoccupations, would I have been more successful?  And what, after all, is success?  How should it be measured?  By my own satisfaction at having maintained my selfish preferences?  For in having done so, have I not in a sense limited my own success and prospects for recognition?  And how important, in the last analysis, are success and recognition?  Large questions.  Questions without answers.  One thing I do know.  There are readers in the world who have told me my books have mattered to them.  And is that not reward enough?


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

ART FOR ART'S SAKE?

Shame runs in my blood.  Maybe this comes from having been a Methodist preacher's son and growing up with a deep-seated suspicion that, despite his example of rectitude, I somehow harbored an ineradicable strain of original sin.  Whatever the reason, I have always been--and remain today--ready to blame myself for any and all calamities that may beset me or, most especially, my loved ones.  It follows that my lifelong pursuit of what I will dare to call my art has been as much a cause of self-loathing as it has been a source of satisfaction.

I have come to see that in my quest to become a writer I essentially defrauded a succession of employers.  This was true of my very first job in 1961 all the way through to my last, which ended in 1991.  In each position I held something back.  I was incapable of full engagement because I was reserving for myself some substantial portion of my attention and dedication.  Why?  Because I believed my true destiny was to become a writer, not a 1) newspaper reporter; 2) urban planner; 3) management consultant; 4) environmental impact analyst; or 5) lobbyist.  For me, those were just jobs that put bread on the table.  Yes, I did well in all of them and was regarded by my employers as a productive staff member.  But I knew the truth--that in me they were not getting what they paid for.

More importantly, while I can readily acknowledge having defrauded those who employed me in my different professional incarnations, I have not always been as willing to admit having defrauded those who depended on me as a provider.  I realize the notion of the male as the exclusive provider is now somewhat antiquated, but after all I qualify as an antique myself and inevitably hold some of the societal beliefs of my generation even if I have also sabotaged them.  My preoccupation with becoming a writer imposed costs on the two women who chose to share their lives with me. Both had professional aspirations of their own yet were forced to deal with many of the practical problems I preferred to ignore in favor of pursuing my supposed artistic destiny.

Perhaps I could have been excused my fixation on what I believed was that destiny were I as spectacularly gifted, and as justly acknowledged, as such self-obsessed artists as Mozart, Picasso and Mailer, whose behaviors we tend to forgive because of the largeness of their accomplishments.  But my own accomplishments as a writer may have been far too modest to justify the costs I imposed on others in my single-minded pursuit.  This reality is, I think, the source of my shame.  Was my so-called art worth its cost?  I don't know.

                                                        TO BE CONTINUED  









Sunday, April 6, 2014

PICKING UP WHERE I LEFT OFF (ALMOST)

Checking into my own blog for the first time in a long while today, I made an alarming discovery:  It's been almost a year since my last post, and the content of that particular message may have led anyone reading it to think I have long since lapsed into the enforced silence either of senility or of death.  I feel obliged to clarify the record.

You may be cheered (or not) to learn that I am still alive and functional--at least in part.  I suppose one who has attained his seventy-fifth year and is afflicted with vertigo, partial blindness in one eye, occasional confusion, and a persistent, unidentifiable pain the the lower right lumbar region can be expected to have lost a step or two.  While I can agree with that proposition when applied to anyone else, I find it startling and disquieting to associate it with myself.  How can I, whose withered skin contains a soul that seems (to me, at least) to belong to a young, vibrant person with decades of experience and accomplishment still awaiting him, possibly have become an old man whose future is frighteningly limited?  It's not that I feel young--in fact, I feel quite the antique--it's that my mind seems to have fooled itself into thinking that I will always be young, at least in spirit.  But that's not quite right either.  I suppose it's more accurate to say that I'm surprised to find I've attained this age and state of being without having accumulated a corresponding fund of mature understanding.

I used to think growing old made a person wiser.  But I'm more clueless now than I was when I was twenty-five.  This world makes less sense to me the longer I live.  I feel like a neophyte at an age when I thought I would be as sage as Socrates.  I wonder if I have lived in vain.  Have I learned nothing? Understood nothing?  Has it all been for naught?  Perhaps it has.  When I try to sum up the purpose of my existence, I can name no exalted goal.  Last night in a conversation with Ruth I made an attempt to describe the real purpose of my life, I came up with an astoundingly puerile formulation:  I just wanted to have fun.  Of course the meaning of that statement depends on what is meant by the word fun.  I certainly didn't mean I wished to be a lifelong playboy or partygoer or any sort of similarly frivolous, trivial person.  I meant that I had always wished to avoid the conventional, ordered, success-oriented life that the typical male American is supposed to seek.  I wanted to be a writer, not because I thought such a course would make me rich and famous, because I knew it probably wouldn't.  But I seemed to have an innate love of, and aptitude for, storytelling.  For me storytelling was, and remains, fun, although the form of storytelling in which I now engage entails the hardest work I've ever done.

I had enjoyed constructing stories, an impulse that was first expressed in the rather crude form of drawing, or more accurately, cartooning, or at least cartooning as expressed in the comic books of that faraway time.  I invented a Western character called Buck Duck and drew rudimentary comic books featuring Buck as a sort of Matt Dillon-type lawman.  In appearance Buck was more akin to Donald Duck than to Marshal Dillon, with spurs on his webbed feet, a ten-gallon hat on his head and two pistols buckled around him.  He was, also, far more homicidal than the Arness character who, be it remembered, killed fairly freely himself.  I sometimes sold my fiendish Buck Duck comics to my grade-school chums for a dime apiece. Ruth, I've learned, would like me to think of that childish pursuit as an early expression of an artistic temperament that his since grown to encompass my current career as a novelist and historian, though I hesitate to apply the term art to myself or to my childhood drawings or even my most recent published works.  But let the term suffice for now, so long as we can agree that by using it I do not mean to equate myself with the actual Van Goghs and Faulkners of the world.

What is true is that I have perversely insisted, all my life from that early day to this, on giving priority to my desire to write.  That insistence has brought its price, and I have willingly, perhaps selfishly and unforgivably, paid that price, even when doing so cost not only myself but dear Ruth also.   If, as I paid it, I was continually tormented by a secret guilt for having placed that largely unremunerative goal higher than success, recognition, material gain or any other symbol of American accomplishment, still I was, and remain, proud of myself for having done it. But should I be ashamed instead?

                                                       TO BE CONTINED

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

PULLING THROUGH

Well, I made it.  Anybody who may have been following this blog in recent weeks will know that I have been struggling with aging issues, most especially during the period leading up to a tour earlier this month through central Colorado with my new nonfiction book Season of Terror.  Much to my surprise, the tour seems to have been a success; and so has the book, which this week ranked number three on the Denver Post's bestselling nonfiction list.  I seem to have carried off my part of the tour somewhat creditably, no doubt in large part because of the kind folks who turned out to hear me read, ask me questions, and give me helpful feedback.  Among these I must single out for grateful mention a number of descendants of the very Espinosas who figure prominently in Season of Terror as among the West's most deadly serial killers.  These descendants appeared at my readings at the San Luis Valley Museum in Alamosa and The Tattered Cover/Colfax Avenue in Denver and were uniformly courteous and generous.

It was no easy matter for me, a somewhat retiring soul and a born Southeasterner with no blood ties to the West (apart from the fact that my wife Ruth as a native of Colorado) to present myself as a supposed authority on a facet of Western history to an audience consisting not only of Westerners but also of Hispanics actually related to the murderers who were the subjects of my book.   It is a testament to the graciousness of my audiences that the experience was a notably agreeable one.  I shall long cherish my memories of this tour:  Reading from Season of Terror in the parlor of the 1874 Hutchinson Ranch and Homestead at Poncha Springs, CO, built and still owned by a family of Colorado settlers one of whom had a direct connection with Henry Harkens, the third of the Espinosas' victims; appearing in the San Luis Valley Museum in the same room with an exhibit containing the fringed and beaded buckskin outfit once worn by Army scout Thomas Tate Tobin, killer of two of the three Espinosas; and, most of all, meeting and shaking hands with an Espinosa descendant who told me she looked forward to reading my book and comparing my account with the stories of the Espinosas that her grandfather used to tell her when she was a child.

In my last blog I made mention of a possibly demented bird that seemed to be demanding access to my house by repeatedly pecking at my door and windows.  Well, he's still here.  Now, for reasons best known to himself, he seems focused wholly on the porch door.  Several times a day I see him perched on the brass handle of the storm door fluttering in vain against the glass.  But no longer does he seem the harbinger of ill fate that I supposed him to be in my last posting.  He only seems to be a sadly misguided creature blindly contending against a fate he does not understand.  Perhaps he is not the metaphor for dementia that I once supposed him to be.  Perhaps he is only a metaphor for life itself, which after all so often seems pointless in the moment but tends to gain meaning with the distance of time and perspective.

When I first saw him, before the tour, I suspected him of being a predictor of my ruin.  Now he is only a confused bird probably contending with nothing more than his own reflection in the glass--much as I myself do, much as all of us do, struggling to reconcile our own self-images with the images others hold of us.

How did my audiences on the tour view me?  I cannot know.  I only know that they were kind, and that their kindness sent me home restored.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

MY NEW BOOK - AND MY DEMENTED BIRD

It's always a thrill to hold one of my new books in my own hands after the necessarily long gestation period of the publishing process, made even more difficult nowadays by my inevitable aging with its concomitant realization that time is at last running out on me.  Yesterday a thump on the porch awakened me from my old man's afternoon slumber and I tottered down the hall to the front door to find a cardboard box awaiting me, left by the Postal Service.  It contained my author's copies of my long-awaited debut nonfiction book Season of Terror

Yes, it's odd but also exciting to be 74 years of age and still be able to regard oneself as capable of producing not only a new work but a work in a form heretofore wholly foreign to one. Of course I've previously published nonfiction pieces in magazines and have contributed, along with others, short articles in a couple of nonfiction books; but I've never before attempted a sustained written account that was not borne up almost wholly by my novelist's imagination.  Nor have I previously had to weather the scrutiny of fact-checkers and peer reviewers which is inevitably part of one's experience with an academic press.  But here it is at last:  Proof that I have, against the odds, done it again; written  a book that has found favor with a publisher of distinction, the University Press of Colorado.  Bless them for casting a bit of valedictory sunlight into the evening of my writing life!

But, as always, reality has its way of balancing every new good thing with something that may seem not so heartening.  Nearly simultaneously with the arrival of my books, there has come into my life what I can't help regarding as something like a harbinger of ill fortune.  Unlikely as it may sound, my messenger of doom is a pretty little slate-colored junco--yes, a tiny gray bird--which for the last week or so has been flying from one window to another of my house, pecking madly at the panes as if desperate to gain admittance.  I think it is male (my Roger Tory Peterson bird book suggests it isn't that easy to distinguish male juncos from their mates) and it may think it is waging some sort of protective war against my house, which does loom above the bushes where its nest may lie.  Poor thing, if this is so, of course it's engaged in a hopeless struggle.  Judging from the amount of droppings it's depositing on my porch, it may already know this, and be confounded by the knowledge.

But in my present state of mind, under assault as it already is by encroaching cognitive impairments, I can't help but regard my besieging bird as some sort of messenger of ill portent.  Perhaps, I think, this insistent bird is a living metaphor for my nearing fadeout.  Perhaps it is the shape of my death or my senility steadily pecking away, not at my windows but at me.  Only a self-obsessed writer could conceive of such an eventuality, you say.  And you would be right.  But still, how else to regard this resolute little courier who seems so anxious to deliver its message?

I must confess, though, that one feature of his behavior does not seem to smack of doom.  After a period of insane pecking, his custom is to retire to the porch railing, lift his head to the sky and unleash a beautiful stream of joyous song.  Could this mean that he is offering me not death or senility but a promise of something better?  Does he mean that if I admit him, the same giddy pleasure that is in his song will be mine as well?  Now, you say, this fellow Price is finally ready for the funny farm.  But think of it, the bird is here night and day; in the darkest dark I can hear that song of joy pouring forth between his pecks at the window-glass.  Yes, he may be demented.  Or he may only be persistent; he may only be determined to give me the message that there is joy to be had--joy unheard of in this world with all its troubles.

In an effort to fend off my junco, Ruth has festooned the porch with plastic bags which the wind inflates and blows about.  I wonder what the postman thought of them when he delivered my box of books.  But my bird is undeterred; he perches on the bags to peck, then flutters to the porch rail to sing, then flutters back to one of the bags where he defiantly remains, pecking away, now and then turning his head to fasten a beady eye on me as if to judge whether I am paying proper attention.  The sill of the window and the floor of the porch are spattered with his leavings, but somehow he seems proud of the mess he makes, of this evidence of his undying resolution.  At first I churlishly thought of dispatching him with my air rifle.  But now I'm growing fond of him, and of his persistence which I can't help thinking may be a kind of mad dedication.  Perhaps he believes he has a mission to perform; or perhaps he is performing it and is waiting for a signal that I know and understand his purpose. Are these competing signs, this bird and my new book?  Am I to believe by the evidence of the book that there is more remaining to me and to my life than I think?  Or am I to believe that the bird represents all that I am soon to lose?  And if that's the case, does his song mean that, after that loss, there's a joy to be known that I cannot now imagine?

What do you mean, little bird?  Why so anxious?  Why so determined?  Am I that important?  Or am I only a reflection of yourself in the window-glass?  Do I not exist at all?  Is your song a promise?  I wish I knew.