Friday, July 27, 2012

El Camion Vacilador

July 27th 2012

The Olympic Games open today in London, providing a spectacular opening ceremony and a month of events we will follow and then forget.
Books can be like that, too. Some offer fireworks but leave little trace, some offer not much of anything. But the kind that you make room for on your book shelf, the kind that draws you in and lends you its world to live in for a while, you don't forget those. I name among these "Zorba the Greek," "Lady Chatterly's Lover," "Consider the Lilies," "Sunset Song," "Wuthering Heights," "Tortilla Flat," "Of Mice andMen," "Cannery Row," "Grapes of Wrath," "Travels with Charlie," "Angela's Ashes," "The Meadow," "Tinkers" - I could go on. Every so often, a new gem comes along, and you stuff it impossibly onto a shelf already stuffed. It's like bringing friends along on the journey. They sit up there being very still, marking various stretches of the path you walk along.
A month or so ago, when I was moseying around the book room at the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas, I came across one of his titles I hadn't know about before. It was called "The Wayward Bus," though this is a bad translation. Steinbeck wrote the synopsis in Spanish and presumably the title, too - "El Camion Vacilador," which present the translator with a problem, because there is no good translation for the word "vacilador." "Wayward," certainly doesn't do it. "Vacilador," is a wonderfully Latin concept, a bit like what we call "Mexican time," which is time maybe a bit earlier than you expected, probably a bit later, but almost assuredly not now. Vacilador means that you have a destination but you don't care much whether you get there. This is not a term we gringos can get our minds around much, because we are very destination-oriented. But the bus in this story is vacilador, and as the introduction to the book concludes, it is a much overlooked book, coming as it did into a very tight spot between the publication of "Cannery Row," and "The Pearl." It's also quite a bit more sexual than Steinbeck usually gets, so the guardians of the moral majority at the time, and they were legion, might have seen fit to sweep it under the alfombra.
The story starts in Steinbeck country at a bus stop on a crossroad comprised of a gas station and a lunch room. The owner, Juan, is also the bus driver who collects pasengers from various other points and takes them to meet the Greyhound Bus on its way to Los Angeles. As the book opens, Juan's bus has broken down and the passengers have been forced to spend the night at the lunch room. All the passengers, including Juan and his drunk of a wife, are at another type of crossroads in their lives. As day breaks, the sky threatens more rain, and Juan isn't sure he should drive out, when flashfloods threaten to take out the bridge they must cross in order to get to their destination. There are only eight passengers, but Steinbeck draws each one meticulously, down to the shape of their earlobes. There's the young salesman, the older couple with a sham of a marriage; their randy daughter; an attractive blond who entertains business men (the husband of the couple is quite sure he's seen her before, but can't remember where); a grouchy old man who poses as a prophet of doom; Juan's adolescent car mechanic, and the lunchroom's waitress who thinks she's on her way to meet Cary Grant. The story sort of hangs around the character of Juan, who, perhaps more than the others, must come to a decision that will change his life forever.
Steinbeck conjures each character so deftly, that you find yourself climbing into the skin of their lives.  He manages a difficult task for a writer, that of making each of his character's words their own and not his.  You really can hear each one speaking.
When Juan's bus takes a much less travelled back road and becomes stuck in mud, each of the passengers is forced to crisis point. It always makes for compelling reading when social facades drop, especially with characters you are invested in. Anyway, I won't give away any spoilers. Suffice it to say that "El Camion Vacilador," is well worth a read. And you won't forget the word "Vacilador," either.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Five herons

2oth July 2012

Birds being what they are in our mythical history, I took special note last night when I was walking my dogs in the evening and saw five herons flying together. The most I have ever seen at a time is two. What could it mean? It's hard to know. In Cherokee folklore, an owl is a harbinger of death, in my own mythology from Scotland, the owl is good luck - but that depends whether it is on your right side or your left. I think there's something to these superstitions because of the way things work in our universe, everything intertwined, all moving patrs influenced by other moving parts like some massive mobile hanging there in time and space - no, not in time and space at all, but just hanging there by dint of some myserious force that science currently calls dark energy, but which our ancestors thought of as gods or goddesses, at any rate some kind of binding principle.
Yesterday, I was having a talk over tea with a writer friend about things literary. We were throwing back and forth ideas about what separates "Literary Fiction,' from "Commercial Fiction."  I would think of a book such as "The Meadow," by James Galvin as strictly literary fiction, and something like Diana Gabaldon's "Highlander" series as commercial. On the face of it, it might look as though the division has to do with what sells the most, though for the life of me I can't imagine why "The Meadow" isn't being torn off the shelf. If we lived in Russia, it probably would be. Some might call it heavy, some might think of it as a steak dinner instead of crackers and dip, but whatever it is, it isn't plot driven. Whatever else, Gabaldon's series is, it is plot driven, and in between the two there's a vast grey area. A few years ago, I was reading through Pat Conroy's books. I thought he was a pretty good writer. But when I went to our local bookstore to buy one of his books, I couldn't find it in the shop's front section with its glossy hard backs, its "Book of the Month" endorsements. I was told it was in the back in the "Popular" section, and this seemed to me an outrage. Who is deciding what's "serious" literature worthy of a spot on the front table or trashy commercial literature stuffed at the back with all other trashy paperbacks? If Dickens were a writer today, would he be on the shelf next to Pat Conroy? No one could argue that Dickens' books aren't plot driven. And who is to say that a plot driven book can't also be well written?
Whoever is saying that, I take issue, especially because, as my editor keeps reminding me, my book "Veil of Time," due out next summer, is not going to be on that front table. I'm going to be back there with Pat Conroy! The book has time travel in it, so it can't be literary, seems to be the consensus. But I write literary fiction. None of my other books has anything approaching themes like time travel -well, except for the book in which a woman turns into a Selkie, but we won't bring that up. Truth is, my heroes are the giants of the literary world: Steinbeck, Lawrence, Bronte, yes, and Galvin.  That's the kind of literature I aim to write. And if it can be commercial, too, then, who's to argue? Perhaps I'm just a straddler.
"Fifty Shades of Grey," is another question. I read ten pages of it on Amazon, and I just don't get its appeal. Of course, it's not the writing in this case, but, like Harry Potter and equally surprising to its author, it has struck some nerve. Millions of copies have been sold in four months; it has been translated int thirty-seven languages. I didn't even know there were thirty-seven languages. I wonder if it's been translated into Cherokee. But whereas the nerve that was hit in Harry Potter was easy to identify - that un-scientific nerve, which we all have in heaps at our core - I haven't a clue what a tale of sado-masochism could be hitting (no pun intended.) Has the women's movement all been in vain? Has the power been too much for us, and we all still want to be dominated by a faceless Mr. Grey? I shudder to think.
But the literary world has to take note of what is "Popular." Because those nerves it hits are the very ones litertaure coalesced around in the first place.  Literature can't work in a vacuum, neither can any of the arts. It has to be a voice; it has to have something to say. Which isn't to say it has to be forced or outright political. Literature groans under ther weight of politics and goes astray. But it has to hit nerves. It has to be a harbinger in some sense. Like those five herons I saw, it has to turn the eye and then turn the heart.

Friday, July 13, 2012


July 13th, 2012

Australian writer Geraldine Brooks, who won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2006, said at a talk recently in Aspen, that every morning before she starts to write, she lets the Norton Anthology of Poetry fall open at any page, reads the poem and is all set for her writing session. I think this works because poetry exists at a deeper level than the nitty gritty of our ordinary lives. It's a kind of dream language, and dreamtime is the best place from which to write. To create any art out of. Becuase it connects us to the undercurrent of human experience which is what Carl Jung called The Collective Unconscious. If it comes from anywhere else, if springs from the individual brain and never gets any further, then it becomes the bearer of what Pat Conroy called microscopic epiphanies or what Steinbeck described as litanies in empty churches.
Last night I went to the launch of my friend Karen Chamberlain's posthumously published collection of poetry called "Ephedra."
She writes:

The body, not the shadow
of feeling, is what I want of memory,
of language, of the yet-unconsummated
marriage of the two. But words, hours,
faces, all pale, crowd into sameness,
and this tedium braces only panic.
Words, especially, seem nothing
but their sum of letters, scattered,
unfocused, like a hundred schoolgirls
giggling and shrieking in uniform
idiocy, running from the shadows
of two dark strangers -
articulate rage, speakable grief.

Poetry has to get you in the gut, not in the exchange of ideas. In our age we have become lost in the zone of ideas. We think, therefore we are. We turn away embarrassed by the depth of things. We have become to fashionable to plummet them.
Here's Dylan Thomas.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

Great poetry, any great art, sets you on a path into the sun. It is a sweet and devastating look into the place  you come from and your destination, as well. It is worth the sum total of any religion - just the one line that pierces the human brain and steals into the heart of the matter.
One last poem, though I could go on. It's WB Yeats, who else?

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I have shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

So, Geraldine Brooks is onto something. Before you sit down to write next time, delve into the soul of the poet. Sit down in the cool green shade of it, lean back against the heft of it. There is much to be gleaned there.
(In memory of Karen Chamberlain 1942-2010)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Guess who's coming to dinner?

On one wall of my office are pictures of "helpful people" -  according to Feng Shui they should be on this wall and no other. I have five of them, starting chronologically with Friedrich Nietzsche with a heavy moustache, his cheek on his hand, his piercing eyes averted. I have seen thos eyes before - I don't want them following me around the room. Then there's Emily Bronte, in her only known portrait, looking whistful and intense both. Below Emily on the wall is D.H.Lawrence, leaning against an adobe wall in Santa Fe, on one of the stops on his global search for the ideal place to live. To get to Steinbeck, you have to cross over a poster of Braveheart, because it is signed and it was given to me, and I am proud to have it, Laddie. If you don't stop with William Wallace in full war regalia, you'll find John Steinbeck leaning back against a tree with his travel dog Charlie. I would like to invite that five to dinner and call it a short story. I would seat Emily next to Friedrich, because she needed him so badly. Even though he was only three when she published "Wuthering Heights," he must have been a very sombre and intense little boy. By the time he needed her, she was already dead, so I could give them this moment in fictional history to meet and love, and leave together. Lawrence would interrupt them, of course. He'd be trying to plummet the mind of this man he already knew was a genius back in his youth in Nottinghamshire. If I were at the head of the table, I would be trying to overhear that conversation. I would have my question, too: But Friedrich, why did you live like a monk when you knew the only way to sanctity was the path of Dionysus? I'd have Steinbeck on my right, and I would like learn fom him the craft of the smooth sentence, the enthralling paragraph, the scalp-raising metaphor. I don't know where I'd put William Wallace. He would probably already be playing footsy with Emily under the table. They would have saved her, any one of those men, because all she needed was a good Fanfaronade, and we would have had a shelf load of books like "Wuthering Heights." Or maybe not. It's the paradox of the pain again; it's the subject Peter Shaffer grappled with in "Equus."
I'm not a very good host of dinners. I have very little small talk myself. But I would go all out for these guests, try to steal a moment of levity for them. Emily would lay her consumption aside and revel in a death-by-chocolate dessert which she would lick off Friedrich's spoon. Friedrich would put his cataclysmic visions down by the foot of his chair and enage in a little flirtary. William could, just for this moment, step out of his role of defender of Scotland and sing a ballad by Robert Burns, whom I should also have invited, but there would have been no hope for Emily or for me. So, Burns had to stay downstairs with the maids, where he would be rejoicing with joy unspeakable. Steinbeck and I would take after-dinner port in the other room, talking until dawn about books and the role of the writer. I can't help being an egg-head. It comes naturally to me.