Month: February 2010

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”

~~Rainer Maria Rilke

A quick reminder: Don’t forget to sign up for the “Drunk At First Sight” Blogfest–a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy’s Day! Get all the details here.

If you’re stopping by for Friday Link Love, I’m sorry.  I haven’t been able to do my usual link-collecting routine this week.  Your funny bone will just have to wait until next week.

But I have something else cued up.  I originally developed this piece for the “Love At First Sight” Blogfest (if you haven’t checked out some of this fiction yet, you really should!) but decided to put “The Dragonfly” up for the Blogfest instead.

To me, this scene entitled “Love Is Blind”, had some merit in the end, so I thought it would be fun to share it with you.  Here’s part one.  I’ll put up part two on March 1st, so check back.


Love Is Blind 
(Part One)
(c) 2010 Jon Paul

    The minute I heard her voice, I gave Phillip a nudge. “Who’s that?”
    “By the kitchen?” he asked.
    “No, over near the living room window.”
    “Ahh. You sly dog, you.” The party wasn’t loud, so he leaned in and whispered to me in a conspiratorial manner. “You have good ears, my friend. That’s Sloan Brady. Lawyer. Boston College grad. Intelligent, great sense of humor, but…I don’t know….”
    “She’s a bit of a handfull.”
    “Well, you know. I was thinking about Sarah and stuff.”
    I could hear the tentativeness in Phillips voice. It had been a year since Sarah left me, walking out one Tuesday morning after breakfast, sending me a breakup text that afternoon. A week later, the moving guys showed up to get her stuff. She never told me why it was over, but I thought I knew the reason.
    The birthday party had been Phillip’s idea. Get you out of your shell, he’d said. Meet a new girl. At the time I had agreed; maybe I was ready for something new, but now that it was time to step up to the plate, I wasn’t so sure.
    Phillip laughed. I bet the look on my face told him exactly what I was thinking. “You want I should introduce you two?”
    “Do you think she’ll have a problem with–”
    “I think there’s only one way to find out.”
    I took a drag of my beer. “What’s she like?”
    “Well, you know. She is a woman. But…well. Maybe she’d be too much for you.”
    “Too much? What does that mean?”
    “You know. Like you couldn’t keep up with her. She’s too smart, too witty. You’re getting slow in your old age after all.”
    “Funny, I thought it was graceful.”
    Phillip chuckled. “Naw. Just slow.”
    “The problem is I can’t figure women out. I always think–“
    “Dude, I know. I know. We’ve been over this ground a hundred times. But you gotta pull the trigger sooner or later.”
    “Yeah, I just wonder if now is the right time, when–“
    “Look, I don’t care. You want me to ask her over or not?”
    I thought about it. It was now or never, right?
    “Ok. Sure.”
    “Right. One hot lawyer introduction, coming up.” Phillip walked away.
    I leaned against the wall and took a measured breath. I wasn’t nervous; rather the need to relax before any first time run-in with a member of the opposite sex was an old reflex, operating in the same mental space as tying my shoes or straightening my tie before a big performance: I did it without thinking. I rarely noticed it, except when my Spidey-sense told me something unique might happen. Like now.
    Phillip returned with Sloan in tow. “Sloan, I’d like you to meet Eric.”
    “Pleased to meet you.” Her voice hinted at a cautious interest, exuding a chocolaty coolness like the hush of a bowstring gliding over a cello’s middle register. I extended my hand and she gave it a refined shake.
    I waited a beat too long before I let go, then smiled at the faux pas. “Thanks for coming.”
    “Thanks for having me. Happy Birthday.”
    “Thank you.”
    Phillip patted my shoulder. “I’ll leave you two to get acquainted.”
    Dress shoes clacked on the hardwood as Phillip disappeared into the clamor of music from the other room and left Sloan and I alone. Harvey Sneed, my music coach, was telling an off-color joke in the kitchen. The crowd’s laughter kept the silence between us from becoming uncomfortable. I’d heard the joke before and Harvey told it well. With great fanfare, he delivered the punch line–“When pigs fly!”–and Sloan chuckled. The rest of the gang laughed too and groaned as Harvey started another joke.
    Sloan spoke again. “So this is your place?”
    “How long you lived here?”
    “Let’s see. Going on five years now, I think.”
    She took a sip of her drink, like she was thinking. “I like your art.”
    “No really. I mean–I don’t mean to be, well–obvious–but how does a guy like you get such cool art to hang on your walls?”
    The art had been Phillip’s idea too. When Sarah moved out, he said I needed to make a fresh start. Redecorate the apartment! he’d said. He helped me pick out the paintings. Actually he and Camille, a gallery owner he knew, picked them out. In the process, he tried to set me up with her, but in the end he said it would never work: she was too visual.
    The art was inexpensive. According to Phillip, the collection of pieces reflected my personality perfectly. Enough visitors had made similar comments in the last nine months that at some point I had started to believe it. Still, the fact that everyone made the same remarks about the art felt a little like a joke to me. I caught myself smiling and looked away. I could tell she was looking at me.
    “I hope that wasn’t a rude question.”
    “No. That’s a good question, actually. People ask me that all the time.”
    “Are your laughing at me?”
    “No. Sorry, I was thinking of something else.”
    She reached out and pinched me hard on the forearm.
    “Hey,” I said in mock alarm. “That’s not fair.”
    “Don’t lie to me.” She said, laughing herself. “I can smell a lie from a mile away.”
    I liked her confidence. And her voice. I couldn’t get over the sound of it, like a song far away and near at the same time.
    I reminded myself to take it slow. My affection for women ran in an easily recognizable pattern: meet a great girl, fall head over heels for her, go out for awhile, break up, pick up the pieces. And the girl always seems to think that my problems are the same as everyone else’s problems. But they’re not.  Funny.  My lifestyle seemed obvious enough, but the girl never understood it was going to be a problem until I had already committed one-hundred and ten percent. By then, it was too late.
    “So it’s your birthday,” she said.
    “What do you want?” I could feel her eyes on my face, appraising me. She let the suggestiveness in the question stand, gauging my response. I wondered if her directness rattled hostile witnesses when she cross-examined them on the stand.
    “Oh, you know. Cure for cancer. World peace. The usual things.”
    “I see.”
    I took a sip of my beer. “I hear you’re a lawyer.”
    “Yeah, pays the bills. You know.”
    “So you…don’t like it?”
    “I didn’t say that. But it isn’t my, shall we say, first love.”
    “What’s your first love?” I asked.
    “My aren’t we nosy.”
    “If this relationship is going to work, I’m going to have to ask you to show better discretion.”
    “OK.” I nodded and smiled like a schoolboy who’d learned his lesson.
     Sloan talked about her job. She worked in a law firm downtown–pretty prestigious from what I could tell. She’d been there for four years and guessed she might make partner in another five, if she really worked. She hated the office politics, the backstabbing. She couldn’t trust anyone, which was a real adjustment for her because growing up she had always trusted everyone. She was constantly catching herself with her guard down and had now become super careful of anything she said. To her, it was like working in a police state.
     I nodded and smiled, trying to imagine her workplace, wondering what her office looked like. By the sound of it, the rest of the gang had moved from the kitchen out onto the patio. Phillip came by and asked if we needed anything. We requested another round of drinks and he said he’d be right back.
     Sloan said she wanted to sit down and so I led her carefully across the room, edging around the coffee table with my knee. We sat down on the couch together.
     “You know I saw you play once,” she said with a hint of bravado.
     Here it comes, I thought. She’s going to drop the standard line on me about how great my performance was, how she loved the concert, how the evening was such a treat for her. I loved playing the violin–it was my life–but the drudgery of going through the same story with a thousand different people over the years had taken its toll. I just couldn’t bear to do it over and over again–almost verbatim–without busting into a sarcastic smile.
    I did what I could to keep a straight face. “So, how did you like it?”
    “I didn’t think you were very good, actually.”
    Ouch. I didn’t see that coming. I waited for the joking laugh, but it became clear after a second that she was serious.
    “I guess you can’t please everyone,” I said.
    “I do remember reading in the papers that you were ill at the time–but went on with the show anyway. So there is that. Maybe it was just an off night.”
    She didn’t pull any punches, that was for sure. “Yeah, that was probably it.”
    “But you know, I’m really no judge of music. I’m more a literature person.”
    “Ah. I see.”

Thanks for reading.  Go here for part two!

**[Author’s note: If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home. In other words, I am off the grid. As soon as I am able, I’ll make the full go ’round and respond to comments and check out any new followers. Thanks, and see you all in a few days.]**

“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.”

~~G.K. Chesterton

A quick reminder: Don’t forget to sign up for the “Drunk At First Sight” Blogfest–a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy’s Day! Get all the details here.

Now, down to business.  Any long time follower of this blog may recall I posted a web article I read discussing “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles back in January.  Subsequently, I purchased the book, read it, and today I am going to review it.

When I first sat down to write this review, my draft narrative drifted all over the place (I mean more “all over the place” than normal!).  I was trying to review the book and answer the issues raised in Metcalf’s article simultaneously, with little success.  After wrestling with it for awhile, I realized I had two posts on my hands: a review and a discussion.  Therefore, I’m going to give you a straight review of the book in this post and publish a second post at a later date discussing the provocative issues Metcalf raised in his piece.

“A Separate Peace” tells the story of Gene and Phineas, two fast friends who attend a New England prep school called Devon, reportedly modeled after Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Gene is the best student in the class, Phineas the best athlete, and the story relates the fierce rivalry between the two boys, set against the backdrop of a country mobilizing for World War II.  The separate peace of the title refers in part to a brief period of calm during the summer session–when it seems almost as if there isn’t really a war, and Gene and Finny and their chums won’t soon be enlisting and shipping off to distant places like Guadalcanal.  The title also refers to the primary conflict between Gene and Finny, and how that is finally settled.

The key incident in the story comes when the two boys are high on a tree limb overhanging the Devon river.  Inexplicably, Gene jounces the limb, and Finny’s superlative athleticism does not save him from a nasty fall.  He lands too near to shore and is seriously injured.  Gene is confused and shocked, and much of the rest of the novel centers around whether Gene knocked Finny off intentionally (it is never made clear–and the subject of Gene’s intentions has been the subject of many a High School English class) and what reparations Gene should make as payment for this awful act.

When I read this story as a teenager, I remember being stung by it’s vibrancy, devouring the pages in short order because they spoke to me so clearly.  Much time has passed since then, and before picking it up this time, I wondered if Gene and Finny’s struggle would still be real to me, whether I might have lost the understanding I brought as a teenager, so close in time and action to the age of the main characters, in the intervening years.  Perhaps I wouldn’t like it at all, and the fact that I had mentioned it over the years as one of my favorites had in fact, with the passage of time, grown into an inadvertent untruth.

Happily, Knowles’ novel did not disappoint me.  Gene and Finny’s story is still as real to me as it was back then, and the problems that face these two boys are, I am now convinced, timeless.  Rivalry.  Insecurities.  Friendship.  Wonderment as yet unsullied by how the world really works.

Knowles’ does an amazing job balancing many of the stories threads, and deftly handles scenes of great drama that would feel tinny and overdone in the hands of a lesser talent.  I found the imagery remarkable in its clarity; the scenes practically pop off the page, written in prose powerful enough to put you indisputably in the moment, almost like poetry, like in this scene after Phineas is injured and Gene returns again to the river:

“As I had to do whenever I glimpsed the river, I thought of Phineas.  Not of the tree and pain, but of one of his favorite tricks.  Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others to maintain this supreme fantasy of achievement, his skin glowing from immersions, his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might by gently pushing upward with his foot glide a little way higher and remain suspended in space, encompassing all the glory of the summer and offering it to the sky.”

Some will argue that Knowles’ tends to overdo it from time to time.  I would argue that it is our tastes which have changed, not the brightness of Knowles’ language.  In an age when novels are expected to be off and running in the first three pages, it is no surprise that it bothers the occasional modern reader that Knowles’ stops and savors the moment from time to time.  My own feeling is that, even considered the rigid criteria of the modern commercial novel, “A Separate Peace” still holds its own.  There was never a moment where I felt the action dragged, or saw a scene I felt should have been cut.

In fact, not only is this a remarkable book, but it is astounding that it has stood the test of time as well as it has.  Despite having written it in 1959, John Knowles’ could almost have published it last year, with the Iraq War as the backdrop instead of World War II.  The themes and images of “A Separate Peace “could be transplanted from 1959 to 2009, with young men readying themselves for war, measuring themselves against each other, puzzling over how to leave friends and family to go abroad, to fight, to dare to hope for a safe return home, to wonder at the end of it all what sins have been committed and what price has been paid.

These questions troubled me as a teenager–for fear that I should one day have to face them–and they are questions that trouble me now as I return home from Iraq.  That Knowles’ could have distilled these truths so purely so many years ago shows both his clear literary talent and his unflinchingly prescient view of human nature.  His every page speaks to us effortlessly across the years, and will continue to communicate it’s wisdom to readers for years to come, I have no doubt.

So I highly recommend “A Separate Peace”–one of the finest examples of American writing I’ve read in quite some time.

Have you read “A Separate Peace”?  What was your impression of it?  Are there other classic books which you’ve recently reread that you loved/hated?

**[Author’s note:  If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home.  In other words, I am off the grid.  As soon as I am able, I’ll make the full go ’round and respond to comments and check out any new followers.  As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I’ll see you all in a few days.]**

“Writing is a product of silence.”

~~Carrie Latet