Sunday, December 16, 2012

Chuck Parker is a type of Huck Finn. He's a [C]huck. A descendant. He is not motherless but he has problems with his daddy. Chuck also has to travel. He has to escape. The title is not completely ironic because any kid who gets to light out for the territories and spend the night alone in the woods is living a pretty merry life. Especially if he has a warm bed to return to. Like the eponymous hero of Bud, not Buddy, I wanted to send a kid across Michigan. I had more than one reason for choosing Lowell as his destination. He needed to go down to get to his roots and dig up his granddad. 

This traveling aspect of Chuck appealed to me from the beginning. He was always going to have a trip. I decided that before I began writing anything. And it was going to be a trip to find an ancestor. For me this is like finding an ancestor in Huck Finn. Or Twain. I need to feel connected to trailblazers. I'm too much of a coward to strike out into total terra incognita. I have long struggled with feelings of being an intellectual orphan, an artistic illegitimate child. Who am I to attempt not even The Great American Novel but even a great American novel? Who am I? Why I'm some latter day Huck Finn. I'm Chuck Parker. And I'm a survivor. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

It's Christmastime, 1958 and Chuck Parker wants Peace on Earth and Joy to the World. And a new Schwinn sure would be nifty. A puppy that could sleep in his bed might not be all bad either. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Race and Play

I mentioned in my last post that race had always been a part of the story in my novel. I wanted to make sure there were no doubts about this so I left clues in the text. Back in grad school we would have said something very funny about encoding the text with an absent presence. 

Allusion is the writer's conjuring device. To allude is literally to play with some other text. It isn't just a reference. That is more like a quotation. Allusion is playful. It's writers playing together. Unfortunately one of them is usually dead at the time. I played with a number of texts in the writing of The Merry Life of Charles Parker and made present some things that weren't overtly apparent on the page. There are nods to Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. I won't give away all my secrets but The  Merry Adventures of Chuck Parker don't merely point to Robin Hood. Isn't Chuck a type of Huck? He isn't as wily as Tom Sawyer but he lives in their shadow. Like Huck, he's haunted by his father. 

As for race, that's a story that is bigger than what Chuck understands. It's a narrative that takes place around him. I knew this but Chuck doesn't. So I built it outside of his story. Chapter titles can be useful. "Parting the Waters," "A Pillar of Fire" and "At Canaan's Edge" are chapters 21, 24, and 27 respectively. They are also the titles of three books by Taylor Branch about America in the Years when Martin Luther King, Jr. was active. This allusion and the story of Phil Groll -- Stevie's older brother -- sets up a Venn diagram. The fate of Kenny Kilpatrick can't be separated from the fate of MLK. Of the characters we meet, only Phil would have some awareness of that, being a pre-law student at the University of Michigan. 

The playfulness of allusions can only take us so far from very painful realities. There were people on the margins of Chuck's story. I don't believe in THE great American novel. But I believe we can attempt to write great novels in America, ones that take a hard look at where we've been. 

How else will we know where we're headed? 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Race in Fiction

Racism in historical fiction. It's a tough topic. If the writer isn't going to sugarcoat the past there will inevitably arise situations that make the reader uncomfortable. I don't think that's all bad. And as far as fiction goes, a necessity to some degree since narrative as we know it means there is some tension. But there is a lot of wiggle-room for the how and the how much of showing our uglier elements. Christopher Paul Curtis writes Bud, Not Buddy without ever using the N-word, whereas in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the word appears 13 times in an Amazon search.

There are a number of racial slurs in my novel. One is spic. That word appears in many works dating from before 1959 -- Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, for one (1934)  and it was one I heard growing up in Michigan. This brings me to a good point, How do we know that people in 1959 used words like these? Were they being taped? Maybe. I don't have access to any FBI files! But there are other ways of guessing with some accuracy. If a term has quite a bit of currency sometime before 1959, we can figure that it was used there. If not that exact term, then something similar. In 1947 Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire opened. In that play Stanley refers to the Mexican character Pablo (we are never told what his citizenship is) as a "greaseball." Wiktionary says this is usually a term of abuse for people of Italian decent. Stanley does right around this point in the play start talking about his time in the war in Italy. There may be some blurring with an older term, greaser, for Mexicans. Wikipedia cites some interesting book titles such as Bronco Billy and the Greaser (1914).

For me the term greaseball seemed not quite right for Chuck. But it wasn't something I labored over. I have him refer to some Latinos as greasers. Maybe in the back of my mind I was thinking of John Travolta and Lenny and Squiggee. Who knows? I may have even been misremembering the line from Tennessee Williams. It is a bit of trivia that I once played Pablo in a community theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire, on whose authority I was going to stand with the term -- until I looked it up! It could be that our Stanley was saying greaser and not greaseball. The larger point is, these were offensive terms then and still are today. Although, apparently beaner is used a lot again. And I think that is a resurrection of an older term. I didn't get to flamboyant with terms of abuse for Latinos. I'm not sure why. There are more racial epithets for blacks in my novel than any other group, and I suppose that is not completely unexpected, given our history in America.

There is a lot more to say on this divisive and important topic and I'll have to return to it. Let me end here by simply saying that I always knew there was a racial element to this story. It wasn't the easiest part of the story to tell, and harder still when my characters thought the "funniest thing" -- I use that phrase once and only once in the novel -- was a terribly racist remark. It's a telling moment. It shows that Chuck survives in part by imagining others in rank below himself. His dad may be in jail but at least he isn't -- you fill in the racial slur. And it is at this moment that we then learn of the fate of Kenny Kilpatrick, an even based on an historical occurrence.