The Dark Side of the Spectrum
By the day after I'd begun writing American Zen, which was the fifth anniversary of Shock and Awe, I was already so immersed in my novel that I had barely noticed it was the date we'd invaded Iraq. It was raining here in Massachusetts that day and, I'm ashamed to say, that was the biggest reason why I didn't try harder to get a ride to Moveon.org's candlelight vigil in neighboring Marlborough.
This year, long after I'd put the finishing touches on my book, this past March 19th went completely unremarked by me. In fact, I'd written nothing but increasingly frantic Craigslist ads begging for adequate housing. It's not as if I no longer care about our brave men and women in Iraq. It's just, to quote "Five Deferments" Dick Cheney, "I had other priorities."
But it had occurred to me today that, due to external forces beyond both my control and comprehension, what I sought out to do in American Zen not only did not happen, the exact reverse did.
My novel's first person narrator, Mike Flannigan, was my idealized self, an ideal that I thought writing and publishing AZ would help me realize (since it was painfully obvious by last year that I'd fallen far, far short of his example). Even though he doesn't realize or appreciate it until the end of the book, Mike has it all. This lucky but momentarily ungrateful bastard has a nice home in the toney town of Wayland, Massachusetts, a great wife and three wonderful, loving kids, a family who actually frets when he's not home. For good measure, he also makes a pretty good living doing the one thing he loves to do and is better at than anything besides playing a Stratocaster: Mike's also a well-known and somewhat feared investigative political journalist, sort of a Seymour Hersh-in training.
On the other, darker end of the spectrum is the band's former drummer Billy Frazee. Billy's a former SEAL, on the very edge of life and seriously considering ending it all. When Mike and his ex-bassist Rob Svenson show up at Billy's motorcycle repair shop in Connecticut, Rob notices after Billy accidentally cold cocks Mike a noose tied off and still swinging in the bay. Billy left his family a decade ago, still haunted by what he'd done as a sniper in the Persian Gulf in the early 80's.
Billy was where, what and who I used to be and from whom I was convinced I was moving away while making my slow but sure transition to where Mike was.
It didn't occur to me until long after I finished the first draft that Mike and Billy are really opposite sides of the same coin. Minus the hardcore Republican conservative belief system, I used to be Billy and wanted to be Mike. Right in the middle, during this painful but still-interesting transition, crawled yours truly.
I always thought that penning American Zen, unquestionably my most brilliant sustained effort, would help make me Mike Flannigan and put Billy, or his violent past, out to pasture. I thought, like Mike, that I was just in a rut and publishing this book through the best agent in the business would restore the credibility that I'd always lacked in this family.
But these past several weeks, I've found that I'm actually being pushed closer to where the acid-tongued but suicidal Billy is until he, too, achieves his own salvation at the end of the novel. These past few weeks, I've been harboring the dark thoughts that Billy had squirming in his brain ever since 1981, alternating between fantasies of coming out of retirement one more time for the deserving or just ending it all.
But Billy, as I'd just said, achieved the salvation that comes to every principal character in the book with a little intervention from his childhood friend Rob, who convinces Mike to swing by Troy, New York so Billy can begin repairing his relationship with his estranged ex wife and daughter. Billy, like me, was baffled and buffeted by forces beyond his control and comprehension. But toward the end of the book, he has this exchange with Mike at a garage:
“Mike, did you ever get those books for your kids, the ones with all the different endings?”
I said I never had. It violated every principle of storytelling that I could imagine. Even though I’ve never written a novel, I’d said more than once that while there are countless ways to begin a story, there was only one way to end each one.
“Just before me an’ Liz broke up, I got Jay this book for her third birthday. It had like five or six different endings. I read it to her a few times when I wasn’t too beered-up. She kept asking me to read it from the beginning and giving her a new ending until there were none left.
“She told me she didn’t like a single one of them. So you know what she did?” I shook my head. “She thought up her own ending and I’ll be fucked running if she didn’t think up the best one of them all. She was always a quick little shit. Thank God she’s got brains on her mother’s side of the family.
“Well, that’s what this point in my life is like, Mike: A shitty book written by someone else where all the endings suck. Well, I’m taking a cue from my little girl and writing my own fucking ending.” He pointed toward the bay doors.
“Being in this place, hearing the impactors, smelling the grease, hearing metal on metal… It reminds me that I should be at my own shop, taking care of my own business, sobering up and reclaiming my family. That’s why I threw away the gun.” He’d also popped all the bullets out of the clip and tossed them out the window into the foliage on I-90 just before we got to the garage. “That incident at the bone yard, dude, told me that I can’t be playing the middle-aged hero. You can’t be a SEAL forever.
“So I’m going back with Rob. Hell, we’re in Springfield, Mike- we’re just north of Connecticut. There’s no sense in going back to P’town. And it’s not the fag thing. I just gotta reclaim my life. We all do.”
Indeed, Billy. I'd offer you a beer if you weren't trying to unsteadily climb onto the wagon.
American Zen, even though I was its author, taught me so many lessons I cannot even begin to count them. This novel is the most vivid and organic delineation of characters actually thinking with a subterranean wisdom independent of their creator, of characters literally taking a life of their own.
Billy's not the smartest guy in the world but he's basically good and compassionate and is determined not to live a Calvinistic existence in which those above him in the economic and social hierarchy determine his fate or lead him to think that he has no power to exercise control over his own destiny. Bullshit, Billy says, and I agree.
One of my readers recently wrote something that embedded itself in my brain like a painless fish hook when he said, "Success is the best revenge." My novel is still very much in the swim with several literary agencies and I have many other appropriate agencies to whom I can submit this. I can also send this book "over the transom" (or submitting an unsolicited ms without an agent) to St. Martin's Press, the only major publisher that'll still read stuff sent by you, the author.
It looks as if I'll be going into a dump either Thursday or Friday but it will be temporary. And when American Zen hits the shelves to whatever success it brings me, the contrast between where I am to where I'll be will be enormous. And perhaps more than one person in this family will look at Ingrid and ask her incredulously, "That's the guy you threw out of this family?!"
So, thank you, Billy. You resisted the urge to go to the bright white light and found another for which you don't have to die to see. So will I.