Tripping To Dickeyland
by Michael Hanson
Everything is how much glory is in it.
. . .only connect. . .
--E. M. Forster
Sinking again, like my life was rushing away from me and I couldn't cry or scream or say anything, only sit there with a scary cold emptiness closing itself around me while outside the window cardinals and robins and wrens were making the morning songs associated with my waking.
A friend had phoned first thing up to tell me the news I naturally had no notion of, still lingering lazily in bed on a Monday morning, and what could I say to him except thank you, thank you for calling to tell me what I never wanted to hear ever, that it was here finally and I would have no choice but to face it, deal with it on this very day as well as every one following because now it would be the world in which I lived and what other luxury is one allowed in this life save that of living it? I slid suddenly down while hopes I had harbored for over a decade sank out of sight. . .again. What good does it do a person to prepare for these occasions when in fact he is never ready? I had anticipated this moment for so long that in a paranoid fit I was likely to think I willed it, caused it to occur by way of all my worrying. And here it was on a cold morning in January, the calamity come to pass but the birds still singing in spite of it. With whom could I share my sadness when the one who would have sympathized the most and who would have wanted to memorialize the moment in some symbolic fashion had himself put me in these same sad sorry shoes six years prior, left me to live in a world without him in it? And here is where I found myself: hating the birds for their singing, hating my hopes and fantasies for not coming true, hating my life for being like all other ones. I had so hoped things would happen the way I imagined them, and had worked like an animal for as many years as I care to recall to assert complete control over my life so that I could see such things come to fruition. But boyhood dreams die hard, same as everything else.
I wish I could claim to have discovered poet/novelist James Dickey on my own but naturally the credit goes to someone else—my friend Chris Fuhrman. Chris had seen Dickey give a reading in Savannah, Georgia, the place we called Home back then, and the Saturday morning following he drove me to the now-defunct Colony Book Shop to purchase a collection of poems by his newest hero.
A simple enough outing for young wannabe writers, but the significance of which can hardly be overstated. First I was force-fed Dickey's enigmatic poem "The Sheep Child", obviously appealing to a sixteen-year-old by virtue of sheer shock-value alone, then worked my way excitedly through some of the less audacious ones on my own. And what immediately struck me as a common element in all of what I read was the air of silence, the quiet way in which the p, but what you end up doing. You know: doing."
Dickey said the same of himself, of course: in the 1976 Paris Review Interview he confessed, "I'm the kind of person who can't be interested in a thing without wanting to see if I can't get out there and do a little of it myself." Chris and I thus inherited the same sense of wonder that Dickey seemed to embody and—like the man himself—we applied this approach not only to curious antics like blowgun-hunting but also to writing. Both of us had come to the decision to write completely independent of one another, even at different times in our life. I cannot say for certain when it was that my friend made that resolution for himself but for me it was the result of a gradual immersion into awareness that began when I was around twelve years old—near as I can recall—and sprung from something that was then an obsession for me: Edgar Allan Poe. I'd plunged into Poe by way of a paperback mail-ordered from a middle-school catalogue: a book of short stories gratuitously given an ominous title, Six Tales Of Terror or some such nonsense, a successful strategy for coaxing youngsters to read the work of an artist who, come upon in a classroom literature text, would have been yet another of those subjects about which we would have remained entirely uninterested. But primed as any other twelve-year-old for a tale of terror, I read that book with the relish of something longed-for, and found myself—if not terrified—completely captivated, mesmerized by the mysterious aura of stories like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Fall Of The House Of Usher". To this very day I have a fondness for Poe that borders on reverence (the fiction and essays, at least—even I can rarely tolerate the poems), for he managed to bridge the gap between what was fun to read and what was high art, the reason for which seems to be the aforementioned atmospheric quality of much of his writing, that sense of itself as haunted, easily discernible to any seventh-grader and only later appreciated as being the result of linguistic mastery, technique. Like him or not, few can argue against Poe's mastery of craft: while one may not care for what he does with it the man could manipulate language like few before or after him. And somewhat like the author I was later to learn so much from, I could not help but try my own inadequate hand at writing something in the Poe vein. He had infected me with something, at first believed to be just another in a long list of youth-born hobbies later abandoned, but years after recognized as an addiction, and a positive one at that—a productive way to spend one's time in the world.
To this day I have two manila folders full of the stories and poems that were the product of my puerile, Poe-charged imagination. Some might say that therein lies the beginning of my so-called literary efforts, but for me that formidable occasion occurred four years later, when Chris and I made that trek to the Colony Book Shop where I shelled-out seven dollars for a book of poems by some guy named Dickey. In truth I was not really writing at this time but the work in that book sparked something within that caused me to begin thinking about writing, serious writing, and once I met the man himself whatever doubts I still harbored toward the undertaking would be wiped-out, eliminated entirely.
I was a sophomore at the University of Georgia and Chris (by then an undergraduate at Yale) came south to stay with me for a couple of days because our main man of letters was to be part of a panel of writers the school was bringing to town for a celebration of area authors, even though of the five or six they brought not one of them still called the state their home. Once my friend arrived we hauled ourselves up into the north Georgia Appalacians to camp for a night in that section of the country Chris had taken to calling Dickeyland, since it was there the man had set his most famous book but also because supposedly he still had relatives in the region. We rose early the morning following to head back to town and drank the whole way down in an effort to affect our hero's colossal appetite for alcohol and also, I now suspect, to bolster our bravery enough to introduce ourselves to him, both knowing deep down that the day would be a waste were we unable to summon the simple but extraordinary courage required to shake his hand and say to him how strongly we felt about the work he was doing. Into the newly-built Student Center we dared to smuggle two sixteen-ounce cans of beer, which we cracked open audaciously in the middle of the crowd once we'd gotten in to where all the minions were mingling, awaiting the arrival of The Reader. When Dickey did appear, walking kingly down the stairs into the lobby outside the big open ballroom where the reading was to take place, he carried all of the larger-than-life charisma of a favorite movie star one was catching sight of for the very first time. He was an immense figure, over six feet tall with a barrel of a torso, wearing a black t-shirt beneath an open green blazer behind which a big medallion hung about halfway down his chest: it looked like some kind of creature skeleton encased in a clear, biscuit-thick plastic disk. On his head he sported an overlarge wide-brimmed hat with a diamond-patterned snakeskin wrapped around the rim. In truth he looked more like he had just come off a safari rather than was preparing to read poetry to a group of gawking academics at a university, where I got my first glimpse of the mystique Dickey had been building for himself over the thirty-year course of his career as a writer.
Which is not to say it was an entirely false presentation, a lie Dickey fashioned and successfully perpetrated on the poetry-buying public; what Dickey's persona did was favor certain facets of his personality over other ones. He was without question what one would call an intellectual, having graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt and maintaining ever since an encyclopedic knowledge of poetic tradition, but elected instead to boast about other, less traditional, aspects of himself: that he loved to hunt with bow-and-arrow, had been a college athlete who played running back on the football team and ran high hurdles, not to mention was a war veteran (though not nearly so decorated as he'd led people to believe). In interviews he would excitedly recall archery tournaments he had won or canoe trips he had taken without so much as a single nod to the National Book Award he received for Buckdancer's Choice in 1965. This was part of his ploy to give the public a surprise when it attended a poetry reading—those unfamiliar with him might arrive expecting the usual antiseptic evening, with everyone wearing ties and nodding dutifully as the poet quietly sowed his stuffy wisdom to the learned listeners. No, when Dickey entered a room for one of his readings the intensity of his energy was so palpable that it was likely to arouse people to applause before he had even opened his mouth. Or, like my friend Chris, whistle loudly like he was at a football game or rock concert.
This was no run-of-the-mill poetry reading.
We sat on the second row, dead center, mere feet away from the man who then meant the whole world to us. I could hardly keep my seat, such was the excitement I felt being so close to him—it was as if William Faulkner had walked into the room and stood right in front of me: it was that important. When Dickey began to read, his piercing concentrated enthusiasm put me on a virtual roller coaster of emotional and intellectual sentiment, and as booming as his presentation could become at times it also commanded the power to silence completely the five-hundred people in attendance to the point of being able to hear yourself breathe or notice the beating of your own heart. This dichotomy was no better illustrated than during his recitation of the nostalgic poem "Looking For The Buckhead Boys." It begins as a conventional quest for one's lost youth, as the now-middleaged narrator returns to the neighborhood of Buckhead where he was raised in search of the friends he once had there:
If I can find them, even one, I'm home. And if I can find him catch him in or around Buckhead, I'll never die: it's likely my youth will walk Inside me like a king.
But beyond it's traditional introduction, Dickey allows the voices of the people to enter into the poem directly and, further, to speak boldly in their redneck vernacular, as when he recalls a favorite hangout the boys used to frequent, a filthy pool hall called Tyrees:
Charlie Gates used to say one of these days I'm gonna get myself the reputation of being The bravest man in Buckhead. I'm going in Tyree's toilet And pull down my pants and take a shit.
This was poetry? Without a doubt. Perhaps of a different order than Wordsworth or Keats, but there was no mistaking the seriousness or the singular integrity of purpose behind Dickey's verse, even when it employed the crudities of down-home humor and left five-hundred people literally howling with laughter. The work I had read prior always impressed me with its courage, it's willingness to push the parameters of what was appropriate or acceptable in poetry, but seeing the work read by its creator caused this aspect to emerge in ways I could not have conjured. And when he finished this particular poem's final stanza, my friend and I fired one another a tacit glance I will never forget—in fact I cling to it, all these years later. For Chris' face was brightly splashed by a delicious astonishment I can hardly begin to describe the beauty of: the exhilarating life-awe we feel so shamefully seldom during our time here, the simple profound acknowledgment that anything is possible for one willing to put himself out on one of the world's long limbs. . .anything at all.
So out on the limb I went, easing myself just far enough to see what would happen, and the rest is history, my history. I began composing poems at what seemed to me an unheard-of rate, one a day typically but sometimes even two or three. Any spare second I had would go toward writing them: eating breakfast or riding the University transit bus to campus or sitting in the classroom awaiting the arrival of the professor. And once they began coming out it was all I could do to stop them. Every afternoon I'd hurry home to my girlfriend Michelle and share with her the products of the day's efforts, and in no time at all began to see signs of improvement—already the first batch of poems were showing their age when compared with the work I was currently composing. But rather than being a source of discouragement I found myself actually fueled by this awareness, for it only served to illustrate how much better I could be if I continued to work at it, the result of which was that soon enough I ceased to pay attention or take notes in any of my college classes: I'd found something important on which to focus my energies.
That same year I signed up for an English course that advertised itself as a survey of twentieth century American poetry: I decided it would be good to learn more about who our great poets were and what it was they did so that I could then get busy making myself better than they were; like many another college undergraduate, such were my competitive aspirations. The instructor for that class was an unlikely professor named Coleman Barks, who looked to me like a wise old sage with a bushy black beard and a wild windy thicket of stormy dark hair, and not only did he assign poems by none other than James Dickey, he actually knew the man, was able to refer to him casually as a friend, Jim Dickey he'd say, and I'd shiver with awe and envy from my seat in the second row. Arriving home that afternoon I hurriedly telephoned Chris in Connecticut to tell him the news, who responded to my gloating with appropriate proportions of irony and envy: he may have been attending one of the nation's top-ranked universities but he couldn't begin to boast the unbelievable good fortune of having for a teacher a man who was actually friends with the living writer we then admired more than any other. "You lucky bastard," he said.
It need be noted here and now that meeting Coleman Barks has been as important as anything that has happened to me. Himself a poet of tremendous power, Coleman—nearly thirty years my senior—could not only match but actually surpass all of my youthful enthusiasm for poetry with his own, beyond which he also had one hell of a knack for making the lowly ignoramus likes of an undergraduate feel as if he too could take part in the poetic process if he so desired. Needless to say it took no time at all for me to burden the poor generous bard with my own uninformed efforts (horrified though I was when handing them to him) and some days later he gave to me just the opportunity I needed to send me soaring: he enjoyed my poems, he said like a saint, and wondered if I might be interested in taking the Creative Writing course he would be conducting the following quarter.
The class contained approximately fifteen students and I must confess—again—that from the very start I saw all of them as competitors, not comrades. Fortunately there were only a few among them who seemed to be half as serious about writing as I was, while the rest figured such a class would be an easy-enough alternative to writing term papers. On the first day Coleman (as he insisted we call him, ditching a "Doctor's" formality) outlined for us the rather unorthodox method he would employ to give us grades, admitting at the onset that he could not be less interested in "grading someone's creativity" but that this was, after all, a college course and University policy dictated that a student taking a class should be assigned a grade for the work he did there. The only way one could find himself with a final grade of F, Coleman said, was by refusing to write anything at all, a slim possibility. In all likelihood, he added scarily, there would not be many A's assigned either, as this grade was reserved for those who were not only prolific but who also showed some special degree of talent and—most importantly—a dramatic improvement in their writing over the course of the quarter. The majority of the grades would therefore fall into the B and C range.
It was a fifty-minute period to which I looked forward all day long and the second it was finished I began counting minutes until the next one; the fact that I felt thusly is a minor miracle in and of itself, for school as I saw it was merely a malaise I was forced to suffer in order to please my parents, not to mention the expectations of a nameless society at large. . .a sort of four-year test of one's tolerance. I had hated school for as far back as I could recall and college was no different—that is until Coleman came into the picture.
Our time was spent with all of us sitting around a big rectangular table (a first for me—classes typically were arranged like church, with the students as a lowly bunch of brainless nobodies sitting in rows before the priestly pedant up front, handing down the Great Knowledge like laws from on high) and, although there were days during which we spent the class discussing the work of some already-established author, the majority of them were spent going over student efforts, with everyone offering opinions and suggestions while the poor wannabe writer minced around in his seat wondering why his piece wasn't perfect already and waiting with baited breath to hear what Coleman would say. I quickly learned which of my fellow students were the ones whose advice I should take seriously, and in truth there were a few writers among them whose work was good enough to terrify me: Jody Cass, Melinda Hawley, Ted Slautterback. . .these names have stayed with me over the years though I couldn't begin to tell you whether they still write or even where any one of them currently calls home. They were superior talents, and regardless of how exceptional I might have believed my own work to be these three challenged me to make it better. (They also, it should be said, were more than generous with their compliments and coupled all of their criticisms with encouragement of some kind.) It was a challenge I both cherished and accepted: I worked on poems constantly, changing and reworking them and all the while learning without a hint of frustration that there were infinite ways to write a single thought or episode. . .one's only limit was his imagination.
Approximately four weeks into the quarter I walked way out onto that long limb by asking Coleman if he might be willing to share with me James Dickey's address so that I could send to him a letter—a fan letter, truth be told, but back then I never would have done myself the disservice of calling it that. Even though I was comfortable with Coleman in a way I had never before been with a teacher, I recall being a nervous wreck when I asked him for the favor, certain he would only scoff at my suggestion as the pitiable pipe-dream of a presumptuous student who was far more ambitious than he had any right to be. His response, however, was supportive and enthusiastic. Not only did he think it a good idea for me to send such a letter to "Jim," but why not send a sampling of my poems as well? And since he (Coleman) had been meaning to contact his old buddy also, he thought he might go ahead and write a quick note to include in my package, which notion nearly caused me to collapse right there in front of him. It was nice to know that he thought enough of my work to warrant the suggestion of sending it, but the fact that his letter would be part of the same package also assured me that Dickey probably would take the time to read my letter at least as a favor for a friend, not just drop it into a dusty pile of anonymous, unopened mail from his innumerable admirers.
I no longer have a copy of that first-ever fan letter and feel confident I'd be disappointed and even embarrassed by it were I able to have a look at what I wrote way back then. Writing to one's hero is no small task—indeed, it is the enormity of the endeavor that seems to discourage most of us from doing it more often. All that I can say for certain regarding the contents of my letter is that it was an honest attempt to convey both my appreciation of Dickey's work and my damn-all determination to follow in his footsteps, neither of which was as simple to say as it should have been since one's passionate sincerity often threatens to sound like silly teenage fawning. . .not the way a "serious" writer wants to be seen. But I gave it my best, and carried it to Coleman along with the ten poems I'd selected to send so that he could stamp it all with his personal seal of approval. He did, and promised to have his letter completed and the entire package in the mail by week's end, subsequent to which I would endure for the very first time the element of sending away one's work for which there is no solace and no preparation: the agony of waiting.
Naturally an entire lifetime seemed to unfold in the time it took to receive a response. Every day I hurried home to the mailbox all excitedly hopeful, only to mope away despondent when nothing awaited me there. Seeing Coleman for class I made every effort to conceal from him the fact that I was being driven damn-near insane with anticipation, wondering how he could seem so calm and collected about the very thing that was making me a madman. Fifteen years later, the author of six novels I have poured my whole heart and soul into, I am no better equipped for this agonizing aspect of the profession. Whenever I put a manuscript in the mail I begin immediately to expect a response, not just a lukewarm reply and certainly not a rejection but rather an effusive impassioned litany outlining the miraculous merits of my work along with the promise that not only will it be published, it undoubtedly will earn the deserved distinction of the Nobel Prize. Such is the dangerous sort of fantasizing to which I am subjected whenever submitting something, and I believe that the source for that painful optimism is in part traceable to the package I mailed to Dickey as a determined college undergraduate. You see, I didn't really expect much in the way of a response from that submission—I only wanted to know that it was received, that he had read my letter and understood why I wrote it and would be grateful for my having actually taken the time to do so.
It was 1986, a Friday afternoon in February that was cold enough to warrant my wearing a heavy coat to class. Entering Park Hall, home of the English Department, I bumped into a friend of mine who wanted to know whether I might be willing to meet for a beer later that afternoon. I was on my way to Coleman's class and had one other still to attend subsequent to this one, but if he could hold out until around two-thirty he had himself a date. We picked a place downtown and said we'd see one another in a while, then I rushed on to class which was scheduled to have started five minutes prior. Just outside the door Coleman and I nearly ran into one another, he as tardy as I. "Afternoon," I said, and a big smile broke through his beard when he replied, "I've got a good letter in here," motioning to a notebook he was hugging to his chest. So I followed him into the classroom with a quick panic wreaking quiet havoc within me.
Once we were all situated around the table Coleman explained to everyone that he and I had "sent some stuff to Jim Dickey," and he had received a return letter that he thought he would share with the rest of us. I noted two empty seats. . .two slackards had skipped so would miss it. He began reading and I recall stealing one glance from Jody Cass, who looked at me as if to say You sent something to James Dickey? after which I froze my face in a downslant so as not to advertise the terror to which I was suddenly enslaved. The first half of his letter was directed strictly to Coleman and made no mention of me. I was listening, but also obsessing over what Coleman had said just before we walked into the classroom: "I've got a good letter in here." Innocent enough, not making me any promises. But then there was that smile. . .the smile was what I could not escape. It had set me up, said so much more than the sentence he'd uttered. Coleman said, "I've got a good letter in here," but the smile seemed to add, "You're in for one-hell-of-a kick, my friend." I was certain of it, had seen it with my own eyes. Hadn't I?
Which is when my name leapt out of the letter and grabbed me by the throat. I had a hard time swallowing, breathing. Coleman stopped for just a second and looked up at me. . .I suppose to make sure that I was paying attention. You're in for one-hell-of-a kick, my friend. Then he read on.
Tell him I will write him a separate letter when I get out from under a little of this necessary work; that I have not forgotten, nor will I pass him by. Tell him I think he is most extraordinarily gifted. If, as he says, I have had some effect on the way he writes, I have not spent my time for nothing: have not, in the language of telephonics and desperate mariners, been sending with a dead key. Ask Mr. Hanson if I may keep his poems, for living-with awhile. Tell him I think he is not far from a first book, and that when he is ready I have some suggestions.
I swallowed, took a breath. Coleman read the last little bit but I hardly heard it, then it was quiet. Dead quiet. Who knows what the others were thinking, who knows what I was thinking? He handed the letter to me and said, "Why don't you excuse yourself and go make a copy of this. In fact, why don't you make a bunch of copies." He chuckled and smiled knowingly, and out the door I went.
Intuitively I focused on the task at hand—finding a photocopier—so as to stave the volcano of energy building steam inside of me, threatening to blow and cause embarrassment. (In retrospect I should have ripped off a rebel yell and run whooping through the church-quiet halls of the English Department—what good does it do to squelch one's excitement over something so significant as that letter was to me?) The secretary in the departmental office said I could use their machine to make a copy but I cheated and made three: one for me, one for my mom, one for Chris. On the way back to class I reread three times the paragraph in which Dickey referred to me, a paragraph I would more or less memorize over the course of the next month, not from any concerted effort to do so but simply by virtue of having read it hundreds of times.
One might suppose that I would have been indifferent to the class proceedings that day but in fact Dickey's letter caused me to be even more enthusiastic than ever toward what we were doing there. I remember vividly that we discussed poems by Melinda Hawley, whose work I believed to be of the highest order, and I felt badly for her having to follow all of the letter excitement with those quiet, even-tempoed poems of hers. But read them she did, and accepted with no show of scorn the suggestions of classmates without a clue as to why her work was already alarmingly close to perfect. Which excited me even further, for suddenly I was starting to believe that we were onto something, that my classmates and I were on the cutting edge of literature's future. "Tell him I think he is not far from a first book," the famous poet had written to me, so then surely the same could be said of those three or four writers in the class with whom I felt some connection. It was as if we were given confirmation that the work we were doing there mattered somehow, was leading us straight toward a desired end that suddenly was in sight, and I wanted nothing more than to have company for the trek—perhaps with some prescience I perceived even then the lonely life that writing would demand of me so wanted to share what of it I could while still able to do so. And contrary to what one would expect Melinda's poems actually managed to pry their way past all of my selfish excitement and fire me up even further, so that by the time our class came to a close I was damn-near explosive with ebullience, all the while quietly gathering my books as if it were just another day. Jody and Melinda and a couple of others approached to say their saintly congratulations, me basking in the first and only sense of fame I'd ever felt but trying still for some silly reason to squelch it all and play it down as if it didn't make that much difference, was no big deal. Saying goodbye to Coleman my excitement must have leaked out a little around the edges because he said, "It's fun, isn't it?"
Stepping outside the cold smacked me in the face and reminded me that I was awake and alive. It was 1986, a Friday afternoon in February on which I felt so immeasurably magnificent that I was actually able to forget it was all ephemeral, was even then escaping from me like time. I decided without a second thought to skip my next class like a laggard. . .wander around downtown a bit before meeting my friend Stephen for what by now had become a celebratory beer. In search of a pay telephone I found myself, hoping first to catch my mom and then Chris. I moved at a pace nearer a jog than a walk with the photocopied letter—which I'd read twice more since leaving Park Hall, admiring the personalized letterhead, my hero's name and address boldly emblazoned at the top—burning a hole in my hand. It was happening. . .all of it. . .everything was happening. The world was opening itself up before me, me, the little red-headed runt of a so-called writer who never excelled in anything was not far from a first book for Christ's sake! And as if there were no limit to what the day could provide I actually succeeded in reaching both of the people with whom I so desperately wanted to share my news.
Which is the one aspect of the memory that causes me regret when reduced to retrospection. Though the particulars of what was said during my conversation with Chris have long escaped me, I can vividly recall the one thing that was not said, even when it should have been the first thought to leave my lips: Thank you. Thank you for showing me, opening my eyes. Thank you for carrying me to the Colony Book Shop where I grudgingly paid seven dollars for a collection of poems by some guy named Dickey I'd never even heard of; for contriving a snake-hunting excursion with something so antiquated as a blowgun and making me believe it was important we were doing it; for coming to visit me in this sleepy little college town where I would lay eyes on our hero for the first time; and finally for convincing me, with all the false conviction you could summon, that it could happen to us, that we could be the admired ones to alight hope in the heart of some shrimp of a kid who may never make six feet in height but might one day be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in spite of the fact. The letter I hold in my hand would not be here were it not for you, my friend, and for that I thank you.
No, this was not the tone our conversation would take. I was too busy reeling in success, a first-ever sense of myself as someone to whom things could happen, someone who could accomplish something, something huge and impressive. Hence would have to live with the sad fact of that neglect forever after. I was just so excited, you see. How could I know that I would lose that chance? We were kids, for Christ's sake, with nothing but time stretching out forever in front of us like a future whose script we could write for ourselves. I had it all figured out, and how could I have imagined how different the world would be within five years' time—that, among other things ever more tragic, I would be no closer to publishing that promised first book and still searching in vain for that enormous elusive Something that would make me feel good about myself?
Though I wasn't cognizant of it at the time hindsight has since convinced me that our canoe trip was a sort of test of my initiative, one of those all-too-rare occasions on which I actually concocted a crazy scheme myself rather than waiting on someone more capable—like Chris—to take the lead and do it for me, for all of us.
I was newly graduated from college and living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with my long-time friend Lamar who was part of the gang that had clung together scared and thrilled and bored to tears all those youthful years in Savannah, the gang that included Chris and our other favored friend Mark who by then had fathered a son and was settling quietly into family life against our wishes. Chris was still a student, now in the Creative Writing program at Columbia University in New York. Three days subsequent to receiving my final grades Lamar drove down to Athens to move me up to his place in Chapel Hill, where we hoped like hell we could hammer-out film screenplays together as a team. This is what I had announced to my parents on a trip home just months prior, sitting in the sunroom of our house with my voice shaking: I was fully prepared for them to crucify my plan with pragmatics, shoot down my boyhood dream by endeavoring to convince me that writing was not the kind of thing most people would call a "career", and wouldn't I consider something a bit more stable for my future, financially speaking. But I was dead wrong. . .I'm the first to admit it. My mother and stepfather offered nothing but support for that pipe-dreaming son of theirs, saying I'd be sorry if I didn't "give it a try" and would henceforth live out my life mired in regret and wondering What if. . .? So Lamar moved me to his neck of the woods where we were to write together but since he still had one semester more of classes to complete before he graduated I went ahead and got busy working by myself on short stories, fiction. And never stopped.
Lamar couldn't accompany us on the canoe trip because he was unable to take the time off from work, and it was not financially feasible for Chris to do it at the time either, so the group that ended up going included Mark, Chris's younger brother Paddy and a more recent acquisition as far as friends go who was older than the rest of us by roughly a decade, Craig. All three of them were living in Savannah and drove up to my place on a Thursday night so that we could begin our adventure first thing Friday morning, which we signified the start of at five a.m. when I popped in a videocassette copy of the movie Deliverance to watch/listen-to while we packed our supplies, a tape whose colors were long faded and whose picture had gone grainy from a relentless repetition of viewings. By this time Mark and I both knew the film by heart (for an entire summer he and Chris joked about figuring a way to splice the video so that it would run continuously on a loop, such was the seriousness of our obsession. . .whenever we all got together that summer we eventually ended up watching it, typically at two or three in the morning with eyes blurried from booze) so could successfully quote all of the dialogue along with the characters in the movie. Mark's mimicry of the accents was hilariously uncanny, and the last line he uttered before we switched off the set to start our journey was, "Sometimes you have to lose yourself, before you can find anything."
The drive home after our trip was more of the same, fun and good talk. But, for me at least, there was a lot of sadness looming just beneath the surface. We had finally done it, that which had been secretly inscribed on my private agenda for the past two years, the groped-after experience that I thought would never happen simply because I wanted it to so badly. We did it and now it was over and done with.
But the river underlies, in one way or another, everything I do. I suppose that the only way to cope with one's memories, and the sad nostalgic longing that always accompanies them, is to make new ones—spend one's entire life in a determined ceaseless search for that something new under the sun rather than relying on the same old tried and true ones to make you happy. If I cast our weekend in metaphoric terms, wrenched it for the ramifications that make me sad, I would say that our violent spill on the first set of rapids—me in a tumbling fit being banged-up by big murderous rocks—held my mortality in front of me as if on a movie screen, and that this realization has caused me to see my life like a long rollercoaster river cluttered with stones threatening to impede safe passage. And that, ultimately, I will be broken by it and not proceed any further.
But if I allow the trip to stay in my first mind, where it originated and took place, I would say simply that it was a wonderful, adventure-blessed weekend that—try though I may—will never be duplicated.
I wrote an account of our adventure and titled it, aptly but derivatively, Desperately Seeking Deliverance, and dedicated it to James Dickey. It was composed in one thrilling six-week concentration of effort just subsequent to our going: a trip that had transpired exactly as I had wanted it to with the notable exception of our awful accident on the very first set of rapids we faced. It was a weekend that would not have happened were it not for me—I created it, made virtually all of the arrangements myself so that the guys need only agree to go and it would be there waiting when they showed up. And in truth the bad accident we had helps make the whole weekend that much more memorable, for we were in the spray-filled center of a violent drama that threatened our safety and even garnered us a great deal of attention from other people paddling the river that day. Granted, I would have rather ridden right through those rapids unscathed and without a hitch, for it was frightening and physically painful as well (at the time I believed I had broken my leg but it was only badly bruised). Still, all these years after the fact, that accident is the first thing that comes to mind whenever one of us mentions the trip to the others. It really stays with me, whereas I can hardly recall the scary damage done by those rocks.
I moved to Atlanta the following year. Having just finished my first novel and started work on a second, here I was residing in the very same city in which my favorite living writer was raised. Though Lamar would later relocate there as well it was no longer with any notion of writing screenplays with me: by then we were both resigned to doing our own work, which did not include for either of us the shrinking of literary aspirations to fit the meretricious demands of movie-making. I was then living with the same wonderful supportive woman named Michelle who had for years willingly made countless sacrifices so that I could keep on writing, and write I did. Write and write and write. Not forsaking the ascetic regimen I had imposed on myself the minute I moved to Chapel Hill, I continued to rise at five every morning without fail to pursue the vague pleasures of being a novelist before the sun rose up and the phone started to ring. At around eight I would finish for the time being and grudgingly descend to the dreaded real-world requirements we are all condemned to endure, working for a while at a catering company and then later securing something a bit more stable by accepting an office job on the campus of Georgia State University. At five in the afternoon I would herd myself onto the subway same as everyone else and, arriving home by five-thirty, fix a pot of coffee to stir the waning after-work spirits so that I could for the second time that day sit myself down behind the cardtable I call my desk and—conjuring my life in terms Dickey made famous—try to buy back a bit of my soul by doing the work that mattered most to me. These were the days, I am now well aware, when I concretized the course my life was to take forever after. . .when certain habits became set in the very marrow so that I could no longer imagine my life without them. Between the full-time job and the manuscripts that monopolized my attention I was working very long hours, sometimes sixteen and seventeen per, and although the professional aspects of writing (namely publishing) may have left me more than a little malnourished my soul was anything but—I was in hot pursuit of that silent but immense satisfaction so few of us are able to find, one that left me feeling like nothing less than the luckiest fellow in the whole wide world, a man after God's own heart. It was quite a place to come to, where I felt a sense of hope and purpose that left me almost giddy, and allowed me a confidence my name never was able to arouse prior to arriving there.
Let's call it Dickeyland.
I had not heard from the famous author since the reading I'd attended only a few months following the secondhand receipt of his letter: it was conducted at a small college outside of Atlanta, to which I drove with a friend who spent most of her time trying to tap my courage so that I could summon enough of it to introduce myself to the man. Which I did, at long last, finally making good on the promise me and Chris had failed to follow through on all those years prior, shaking his hand after the reading and reminding him that I'd written to him through Coleman Barks some years back, and he stared me straight in the eye with a scary look of seriousness and said, "You're a good writer, Mr. Hanson, and that's no bullshit. I'm not here to bullshit you." These were the first words out of his mouth, the first words he ever said to my face, and they left me limp-kneed and more than a little shook up.
At a mid-afternoon panel discussion with three other poets he graciously inflated my ego even further by passionately addressing some issue or question raised by an audience-member before turning to me—wide-eyed in the front row—to say, "Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Hanson?" or "Don't you find that to be true of your work, Mr. Hanson?" to which I would casually nod in quiet confirmation, as if the circumstance of this well-known writer including me in his conversation was something that happened all the time, was not causing such a commotion within me that I thought I might be sick to my stomach. And this wasn't the last of the day's beneficent surprises. When the panel discussion ended Dickey asked if we would like to join him for the "closed" luncheon immediately to follow, which my friend and I did, though I was still waiting on someone to shake me and say that it was time to wake up. I sat right beside him but said next to nothing the entire time, too nervous to contribute to the conversation but thrilled to be so close to him, then when it was over we said our goodbyes so as to make the two-hour drive back before nightfall. He told me to stay in touch and let him know how my work was progressing, then shook my hand, me trying right to the end to assimilate all that had happened as if I couldn't quite accept that he actually was who he said he was.
Two years later here I was living in Atlanta, and once there the opportunity to see him again would present itself on a couple of occasions, wherein I could—were I again able to summon courage from its safe slumber—avail myself to him for some of his time now that he supposedly knew not only my name but also my face and had some small fondness for the work I was doing. Of course these opportunities had always been available, but living in North Carolina I never heard about them: no one I met there seemed much interested in James Dickey, who most people knew only as "the guy who wrote Deliverance." All of the local writers were revered and talked-about, but beyond the boundaries of the state no other writers seemed to exist. Even though South Carolina was the state in which Dickey had made his home since the late sixties, Atlanta still claimed him as one of its favorite sons, consequently any time the man made an appearance anywhere near the city, or within the state, for that matter, newspapers and magazines made a fuss about it like it was the chance of a lifetime.
No denying it was, and I was no less aware of the fact for having already faced it, because what little of his time I was fortunate to have had was just enough to make me yearn for more of it, especially now that I was starting to accept the notion of myself as a writer, a "real" writer—not necessarily an equal to someone of Dickey's stature but at least someone who was aspiring to his example with a certain seriousness, one I was starting to see as exceptional since more than a few people I had known who wanted to be writers had long ago given up on the idea and were going back to school in droves in order to obtain a teaching degree. And avoiding this retreat is no easy hurdle for a young writer, though it is, I think, an important one, a crucial step that can help him in ways no one else can see. Although I'd been given a vote of confidence from the man and writer I admired most, completed two creative writing courses with lots of compliments and A's in both of them, even published a few of my poems in little-known college quarterlies that not only accepted my work but actually paid me for it ($50.00 apiece for two of my poems. . .the first and last money I have made from writing), all in advance of my twenty-third birthday, still I had difficulty seeing myself as a writer. And naturally this is what I desired more than anything else at the time—I needed it, so set out to satisfy this one simple goal that can prove to be so slippery, especially starting out.
My formula for cauterizing this damnable insecurity was to devote myself to the work with a die-hard discipline that would make a Marine sergeant look like a lightweight. I would set the alarm for five a.m. and drag my lazy butt out of bed as if there were something tangibly valuable to gain from having done so, and less than a year later I had completed—and collected rejections for—over a dozen short stories and also finished my first novel, a task of which I never imagined myself capable. I had just turned twenty-four when I started a second book, still wondering if I really was a writer. Believe me when I say that I recognize the pointlessness of this particular anxiety but, vain or not, the so-called validity which some sort of professional success can bestow upon a career is difficult to deny and carrying on without such a thing requires a stamina of faith that is far from simple to sustain—twelve years later, six novels to my name, I still have cause to wonder. But I was working very hard in spite of this concern, or perhaps because of it, and the sixteen-hour days did nothing to drain the abundance of creative energy my ambition lent me. I was riding one hell of a rush and even the rejections I regularly received for my fiction served only to fan the flames I felt burning within me. Let's be the new gods, Chris and I used to write at the close of our letters to one another—my feeling then was that we were well on our way to becoming just that.
When I learned there was going to be a writer's conference in Charleston, South Carolina, and that Dickey was one of the artists the conference was proudly boasting as a participant, I actually considered shunning the opportunity simply for the fear that being around "real" writers might deflate the illusion of myself as one of them, an illusion I'd been working diligently to maintain for two solid years. At this point I was approximately three-quarters of the way through my second novel (or so was my estimation, based on instinct rather than some sort of actual outline) and had hit a hard stretch where I wasn't exactly certain how to enact what I'd decided I wanted for the ending of the book. My pre-dawn work began to stall, became an agony: I'd sit for two-and-a-half hours with less than a paragraph to show for my efforts, and for the rest of the day would deprecate myself over the lack of progress that morning. In the evenings I was dictating the book to an angelic soul named Hillary, a friend from college days who'd agreed to type it for me since she had access to a word processor, and she was the one who strongly suggested I take a week off to attend the conference. What harm could it do, she wanted to know, when the work wasn't going so well anyway?
What I decided to do was compromise: I would not register myself for any of the conference classes (all of which required payment of some kind) but would drive down just for the weekend so as to attend the readings that were offered openly to the general public. My girlfriend Michelle, with whom I was still living, decided to accompany me, so on a sunny Friday morning we borrowed my best friend's car (since mine was not road-worthy enough to be trusted for the trip) and set out on our way, me fending more than a fair share of guilt for going to see other writers when I should be staying home to work so that eventually they would be coming to see me.
Rumor had it that most of the "famous" writers supposedly were staying in a big hotel called The Mills House, but by the time we arrived the place was already booked to capacity so we were forced to go find less ambitious lodgings. It was not as easy as I suspected, for the conference drew a much larger crowd than I had anticipated and consequently most of the inns and hotels in the downtown area were without vacancies. But on our third stop we did manage to wrangle a room, only, according to the woman at the front desk, because they'd just had a cancellation, so our timing turned out to be fortuitous.
Once we'd checked-in and dumped our stuff upstairs we decided to go where the action was, at least that's how I saw it: if all of the writers were staying at the Mills House then by god that's where we needed to be. I may have claimed our reason for coming was to attend the readings but in reality I had my hopeful heart set on another meeting with Dickey and—who knows?—maybe even one or two other writers I admired on the conference roster. . .meaning my agenda was pretty much the same as every other writer attending. Which is not to say I was there to do any "networking" (a repugnant verb in any vocabulary), making connections with important people so as to give myself a potential career-boost—I was far too naïve in those days to know that such a thing even existed. And for better or worse thus began a pattern I would later find myself unable to break, as I met writer after writer after writer who perhaps could have helped me in some professional way were I to put myself out and ask; instead I staunchly refused to compromise what I saw as infinitely more valuable, not to mention enjoyable: namely the potential friendship I might be able to strike, the companionship of someone who had been where I was then and knew exactly what I was going through to write those books of mine, therefore would be able to share the sad loneliness I always seemed left with. . .the freakish feeling that I was completely isolated in the world with no one save Chris who had a clue as to how I was struggling with insecurity and aspiration. I had not yet learned that if these writers wanted to meet people, find new friendships for themselves, it certainly was not with the lowly likes of young nobodies such as myself who had nothing beyond friendship to offer—those people who, were they given the opportunity, might just have the talent to steal away whatever attention these superiors had managed to secure over the years.
When we arrived at the Mills House I went first to check the bar but found no one there for whom I was searching so we just decided to wander a bit, see who we might happen upon. I was a nervous wreck, for whatever reason, but Michelle god love her kept reminding me that, at least with regard to Dickey, I had already broken the ice in a sense and should have no qualms about approaching him. Which was more or less true but I had one hell of a time believing it. My first meeting with him had been nearly a year prior, hence my concern for the moment was that he would have absolutely no memory of me whatsoever, regardless of the letter I'd written him in the interim. This was a man who met more people in a day than I did in months, and as far as letters go I could hardly conceive of the countless numbers of strangers who might pen such missives to him as the one I wrote way back when. Why would he bother to remember me, of all those? When I spotted a bookstore I immediately beelined to it, leaving Michelle in the lobby and seeking the safe refuge of a place where I could appear to be searching for writers when what I was really doing was burying myself in books so I wouldn't have to bother. The first thing I confronted was one of those tall rotating racks on which popular paperbacks are displayed, and that is why I did not spot Dickey standing behind it until I'd nearly bumped into him. I was scared speechless, but like a hero he bailed me out. "I owe you a letter," he said, extending his hand.
I had just exhausted my stock of innocuous chit-chat regarding the drive down when he suggested we get a drink in the bar since he had "some time to kill. I was just looking for something junky to read." With trepidation I confessed that I was accompanied by my girlfriend, figuring he would say Well then to hell with it and mosey on to some other admirer. Instead he said, "I'll meet you two in the bar," and off I went.
My mate would be better qualified than I to write the rest of what transpired that afternoon. For me time seemed first to freeze, then leap, and what I was left with was three-and-a-half hours of terrified bliss and a hangover. Contrary to all the media talk about Dickey slowing down and sobering up, hype for which he himself was responsible, I watched in confused amazement while that man pounded double martinis for three solid hours, me playing it somewhat safer by drinking mugs of dark beer; I say "somewhat" because in point of fact I did everything in my power to match his drinking, keep up with him, suckered into the textbook fallacy that my seriousness as an artist could be conveyed by my capacity for alcohol, so that by the end of our visit I had gone well beyond my limit and would end up crashing before eight o'clock that evening. But such was no matter, as I saw it: here I had the opportunity to get gloriously drunk with a hero and I was not about to let it go. In truth there were even moments during the course of our conversation when I was allowed the luxury of this wonderful self-awareness: some stranger would stop to shake the celebrity's hand, say how much he admired his work, and the reality of my situation would strike me suddenly and I would just reel from it, stealing glances at Michelle that said Can you believe this is happening? to which she would slyly smile back with eyes shining, Of course I can! I would watch Dickey deal cordially with the people who were interrupting his conversation in order to introduce themselves, and I would relish the fact that there I was sitting with him, right there, not interrupting his conversation with some other lucky bastard who would look at me with a mixture of pity and self-satisfaction. You would think there might have been awkward lulls in our talking, since over thirty years of experience separated us, but there were not; fact of the matter is there was so much I wanted to talk to him about that I could hardly get my thoughts out quickly enough, afraid I would forget something. And what was most surprising is that this fantasy did not play itself out like an interview, with the young wannabe firing-off one question after another to the wise old superior. On the contrary, Dickey did nothing if not make every effort to treat me as an equal (which I was not) and the only time it became blatantly apparent that our private intellects were light-years apart was when he would launch into a recitation of some obscure Latin passage to illustrate a point he meant to make, or likewise recite entire stanzas in French from a favorite poet, Paul Valéry. Otherwise we conversed as if we were comrades, Dickey often responding to my queries by shooting them right back at me, wanting to know my work habits or asking me to elucidate for him my preference for a particular writer.
When I confessed to him the frustration I was then facing for the first time regarding the writer's inability to work something to a state of perfection, he gave some simple advice that I am regularly reminding myself of all these years after the fact: "You may not be able to get it perfect," he said, staring me straight in the eye and becoming deadly serious, "but you can get it close." When he asked what were the titles of the two books I was then working on I actually hesitated: I'd never told anyone my titles before. . .it seemed to me such a huge step to take. But this was a day for such steps so tell him I did and awaited his condemnation with a quivering ego. Naturally it did not come. In fact, one of the titles he honestly seemed to be taken with, so much so that he brought it up again later, confirming his approval by saying, "That's good."
Some time was spent discussing the projects he was currently involved with, particularly his latest novel, Alnilam, about which he was still very excited. By this date Dickey had more or less dismantled most of the hype he'd built-up around his book-poem The Zodiac, a work whose moments of genuine insight powerfully rendered were undermined and eventually overshadowed completely by disastrously drunken descents into self-aggrandizement. But Alnilam, a big sprawling book supposedly some thirty years in the making, was another matter. I told him how much I admired the book, one that—for all its faults—proved once again that Dickey was not at all interested in repeating himself, and was a true heir to Faulkner's notion that a novelist's supreme aim was to write a noble failure. This is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from Dickey's example, or at least it made him as distinct from other writers as did his written voice: that one should constantly challenge himself by doing something completely different with each book he sought to write, something he has not yet attempted, and this could be accomplished by way of changing voices or by way of linguistic gymnastics, or both. This was the writer's only means to growth, the best way in which to reinvent not only a reader's interest in the work but also his own. Dickey's poetry had proven this personal proclivity for change time and time again, sometimes to his readers' chagrin—one typically prefers a certain "type" of poetry over another, hence wishes the poet would stick with that particular style rather than spiraling off into experimentation. And like it or not Alnilam confirmed that his approach to fiction was no different. Unlike the protagonist of the bestselling Deliverance, this novel's narrator was a far cry from the smart, likable, sensitive sort of fellow that we followed through the first book; he was inarticulate and unemotional, more visceral than intellectual. And to make matters worse (for readers wanting a repeat performance), rather than employing what the author himself referred to as the straightforward, stripped-down style of Deliverance, Alnilam was wordy and voluminous in its stylistic scope, sometimes splitting its perspective straight down the page to reflect both the world through sighted eyes and also that experienced by his blind protagonist. The book was—to say the least—an ambitious follow-up to Dickey's previous fictional effort, and he dearly paid the price for his daring both publicly via poor sales and critically via mixed lukewarm reviews.
But the man was excited. . .you would have thought he'd written another Moby Dick.
It honestly never had occurred to me until then that there might be some amount of pressure exerted on him, from within and without, to deliver a Deliverance sequel, but Dickey made it very clear to me that day not only how simple such a thing would be from a writing standpoint but also how much money could be made from a professional one. This is a man with a family to support. . .I found myself thinking, remembering him as human all of a sudden.
"I guess it's hard to avoid," I mused aloud, "writing a Deliverance II just for the money," half joking as though he'd probably never considered any such nonsense. But his smile vanished in an instant and he stared at me with a sad sort of resignation when he said, "You have no idea how hard."
Three-and-a-half of the finest hours of my life raced by in this manner, and when we stood to say goodbye, shaking hands and saying our Thank yous, I felt truly connected to that man in some way, might even be thought of as a friend. He said to please let him know if there was anything he could do for me as far as my work went, and pressed me to stay in touch, keep him posted on my progress. After which that towering figure turned and walked away, the huge hulk of him seemingly unshaken by the enormous intake of gin—a physical memory firmly implanted, but one that would later become cruelly juxtaposed with the painful one I was to acquire on our final visit together, when Dickey's phthisis left little doubt that any day could be his last.
The Atlanta apartment that Michelle and I were sharing at this time was called a one-and-one-half bedroom, the one-half referring to a small room that my soulmate generously sacrificed so I could call it my office. In it there was just enough space for the cardtable-desk I use to this day, a stack of four filing drawers, and room on the floor for me to lay myself flat in order to stretch my back when I'd been working for a while and had begun stiffening rigidly to the h-contours of my seat. On the walls I tacked pictures of my heroes at the time—Dickey, filmmaker Bob Fosse, my mom—and, just to the right of the doorway as you entered, a large piece of white posterboard on which I had created a calendar: twelve months reduced to six-inch rectangles, 365 days squeezed to one-inch squares within each month. Every day when I finished working I would count the number of words I had written and pen the number on the corresponding square of the calendar, above which a quotation was inscribed in all-caps on an index card: ". . .SO AS NOT TO KID MYSELF." The line was uttered by Hemingway, from whom I had copied this method of keeping track of my writing habits, a strategy I'd started using immediately subsequent to college graduation and one I continue to employ all these years later (though I have ceased using the oversized cardboard). Under my bed at this very moment, however, three pieces of this dusty posterboard are pressed between paintings I have not enough wall-space to hang, and if I extract those cardboard calendars I can see exactly how much—or how little—I accomplished in my first three years as a committed novelist. I like looking at them every now and then for the fact of the matter is I accomplished quite a lot in those fiery young years when the world was so full of possibilities I could never keep count of them all. The squares are all drawn with black magic-marker and the word-counts written in red, the inks of each fading just as fast now as my memory of that time. I was hard on myself, and kept those calendars "publicly" displayed on my wall so that anyone who came to our apartment would see them, therefore motivating me to fill-up those little squares with something other than embarrassing red zeros. There are zeros present, of course, because I refused with a die-hard discipline I still feel good about to lie when I was lazy, so whenever forced by honesty to put a zero on a particular day I would work that much harder on all the days subsequent so as to overshadow my shameful failure and the awful red-inked proof of it. (There is even a month in which I apparently wrote not one single word, and the sententious young side of me has written in big bold letters that take up the entire six-inch rectangle, WASTED DUE TO LAZINESS. God only knows where my mind was that month.) There is something else, too: below the word-count for each day a square may also contain an asterisk, depending on whether I took the time to do my daily exercises and go for a four-mile run, so that in effect every single facet of my life was thus reduced to a discipline, and every discipline had its roots in my writing; if I skimped on any one of them I was not a "real writer" and thus would never see my name added to the canon of literary history alongside those I admired most.
The strategy succeeded. The sight of those zeros successfully shamed me into shutting that door and getting down to work, though anyone with eyes could see that I was beginning to become more obsessed with history-making than could be considered healthy, alienating most of my friends and living with a woman I loved dearly but rarely took the time to talk to. "If you want me to be honest with you," a close friend confessed years later, referring to this period of my writing life, "you had become inaccessible." To say the least, those sixteen-hour days left little time for any sort of social life, and the wear-and-tear on my relationships began to take a serious toll, though at the time I devoutly refused to recognize it. All that I could see was what my ambition held as hope before me, and since I saw myself more or less as a loser, a short little runt of a fellow whose intellectual prowess was sadly comparable to that of his sorry physical stature, I realized that the only hope I had of rising from the dubious ranks of the lemmings to the glorious heights of my heroes was determination and discipline. . .WILL. Think about it, Hanson, Chris wrote me when I was sixteen, in response to the constant bemoaning of my state as a shrimp who'd never amount to anything (an insecurity he shared but grew out of), it's a blessing in disguise, and made me at least everything I am. You're a cool S.O.B. and you'll make it because of your disadvantages. Isn't that some shit? hence planted within my heart the notion that would eventually become the driving force in my life—namely, the desire to distinguish myself in spite of obvious shortcomings, an idea I am certain was subtly adopted during my late teens and to which I became fiercely committed subsequent to college graduation. And the drunken afternoon with Dickey served only to inflame these obsessions even further.
Using these old posterboard calendars it is easy to calculate the intoxicating effects of that visit. The triumphant days of the trip are marked on the weekend of September 9-12 with the initials CWC—Charleston Writer's Conference—and the numbers immediately subsequent to that weekend reflect the surge of energy and enthusiasm I felt after spending some time with that artist I so revered: there are many days during this stretch when my word-count exceeded a thousand—a rarity really, as my average would more accurately occur around the two-to-three-hundred mark. It was this big push that finished for me my second novel and, still reeling from all the excitement over the visit and the adrenaline that accompanied it, I plunged headlong into a third book without so much as a second thought to what I should be doing in order to see the previous two published. These were the days when I had to make hardly any effort whatsoever to rise above the agonizing insecurities provoked by publishing: I was building a body of the most passionate fiction on the planet, only the world wasn't aware of it yet; once I was ready, however, I would hand those books over to the publisher, who would have been waiting with baited breath all along to help me make history, and that would be that. . .next thing I'd know ambitious young bucks riddled with insecurity over their height or their red hair would be writing letters to me, telling me how my work had changed their life, motivated them to move beyond the borders they imagined imprisoned them and pour all of their pain and joyful passion into something so magnificent as a novel. This was the way the world worked—you slaved over something until you succeeded, reached that vague goal you'd always known was out there waiting for you, then sat back smugly to reap the beneficent rewards of such slavery. I had it all figured out, everything, and I was only twenty-five.
I was about fifty pages into the third novel when I went to visit my friend Coleman for a weekend, excitedly making the one-hour drive from Atlanta to the college town in which I'd endured over four years of student life, and on that Saturday night the two of us took turns reading aloud from the projects on which we were then working. I was first, stumbling along somewhat sloppily due to the hasty slanted script of my cursive which was more than a little difficult to decipher at times but satisfied my Dickey-induced desire to keep the task of writing as primitive as I could—"Writing should involve as little machinery as possible," he said once. Also I was extremely nervous: I'd not shared my work in this manner since I'd done so with Coleman back in my college days, now three years prior, and in that time had worked without any sort of guidance or influence whatsoever, a method that by then had become recondite, as the majority of published writers were the product of some high-powered writing program churning out poets and novelists like other programs produced doctors and lawyers—a condition with which I am still uncomfortable. But read I did, my terrified tongue loosening-up a little once I'd gotten past the first couple of pages and began to become captured by what I had written, rolling right along as if the text was emerging spontaneously from within me at that very moment and even wondering myself where the story was going to go.
And it was before I'd finished ten pages that Coleman stopped me in mid-sentence and said, "This is a first draft?" his tone incredulous enough to confuse me, only I went on to read another five or six pages before he stopped me again saying, "You're not my student anymore," to which I wasn't sure how to respond until he continued. "You've left me and Dickey behind. The voice I'm hearing belongs to somebody else. . .somebody brand new," and I felt something break open inside of me and blossom as a big stupid smile stretching the full width of my face. I'll never forget the feeling I had that night, for Coleman was convincing me that I was not just some crazy naive pipe-dreamer, that it actually was within my capacity to do the things I wanted to do with my life. And I was beginning to believe him, was able for the first time in forever to open arms outward and accept myself, to embrace who I was as someone with something to offer rather than the self-loathing little twerp who had nothing within him worthy of giving. I can do it, I really can. . .I seemed to be thinking. After all, could someone so qualified as Coleman really be wrong about me?
The letter was not my idea, so when I wrote to Dickey to request it I said as much right at the onset: Coleman suggested I do this. . . By this time I had hit what I estimated to be the half-way point of the new novel, on which I worked every morning while in the evenings busied myself making revisions on the first two, and what I wrote to request was whether he (Dickey) might be willing to write for me a kind of letter of recommendation, something I could submit to publishers along with my manuscripts in the hopes that they might then be more inclined to read the stuff rather than just attach the standard rejection slip and return the material unconsidered. I was completely ignorant of the ways in which one should approach publishers but this sounded like sort of a longshot, a request Dickey might even resent me for making. But Coleman seemed to think it was just what I needed so I trusted him as a superior, screwed my courage to the sticking place and sent the letter as suggested. Then I got back to the business at hand: my third novel, whose rift-filled narrative was taking me farther out onto that long limb than I'd ever gone before.
What immediately struck me as strange was that the response arrived in a big manila envelope, not just folded three-ways into a standard letter envelope, so for the first time since sending the request I actually felt hopeful about Dickey's response. Opening the package I found two letters, the first addressed to me and the other "To whom it may concern." I read the personal one first, which suggested I use the enclosed letter and also have Coleman write a similar one to submit as well, for Coleman is a fine writer himself, and his name would be very meaningful in this connection, I'm certain. Then he made some other thoughtful comments, one concerning something I'd discussed with him briefly before because it was an issue to which I was giving some serious consideration and I wanted every opinion on the subject I could get—marriage. Michelle and I had been together for over six years, half of which was spent sharing the same livingspace, and since it was something she felt very strongly about I was thinking I should do it for her, regardless of the fact that I was perfectly content with our arrangement the way it was. Dickey, not surprisingly (since he was by then deep into his second marriage), was all gung-ho about my going through with it: It's the only true state, I'm convinced, he wrote. That way you have something to build, and someone to build it with.
But the closing comments were what sent me into orbit, for they seemed to hint at a future that would always involve him in some way, one in which he would be there for me through the worst: My best to you, Red-head. Let me know how all this comes out, and regardless of anything and everything, I will back your play. This was what I had to look forward to. . . a hero for a cheerleader. . .and what could possibly be better than that? I may have been slaving over those books of mine but what struck me at that moment was how utterly simple life seemed, how gracious and giving it would be for those willing to put in some hard work. And now here it was all happening for me, all of those wonderful things I didn't even realize I wanted until they were right there in front of me and—Christ!—I hadn't even read his recommendation yet.
It hangs in an old black metal frame that I found collecting dust in my mother's laundry room back home, and right beside it is tacked a dirty yellow hospital band with my name on it, a remnant from an accident that could have killed me, but didn't. From the seat at which I have spent the last eleven years of my writing life, they hang to my immediate left and I see them both for roughly three hours every single morning. What a life we have. I could not have imagined back then that receiving this gorgeous letter, in which the writer I admire more than any other speaks of my work as if it is special, significant, would mark the beginning of a slow downward spiral that would send me not only to near-death in a hospital but also through a divorce followed by the death and funeral for one of the most remarkable friends I would ever have. So much happens within me whenever I look at that framed letter—it releases so much joy and hope and anguish, so much painful memory, so much astonishing awe at the unfathomable mystery of our miraculous lives, that you'd never know it was only ink stamped into shapes on an aging piece of paper, yellowed a little more each day on its way to disintegration despite all of my glass-framed efforts to keep it forever.
Excited beyond my capacity to keep it I immediately mailed Chris a copy of the letter, and though some part of him was obviously happy for me another side was sadly envious, figuring that such should have been his due not mine, since he was the one initially responsible for our hero-worship and even had written to Dickey just as I had done but without the benefit of going through a personal acquaintance in the way that I went through Coleman. Welcome to the way of the world—Lesson 1. And even though it had always seemed completely clear to me how personally responsible Chris was for turning my misguided life around and getting me involved with the world in a very positive manner, I'd never really said as much to him so I suppose he might have remained uncertain, felt unappreciated, hence there was no avoiding the serrated jealous streak that eventually surfaced between us—especially since we were both writers and wanted to do important things and one of us was bound to have some luck before the other one. And while I knew all along that it was he who had the greatness to get anything he wanted, perhaps even the genius to do so, he must have wondered in some inimical part of the mind whether the world was going to play an awful joke on him by dropping unearned success into the lap of the little redhead who would still be wandering around without a clue were Chris not there to have shown him the way. Friends may sincerely want for each other, but they want for themselves first—Lesson 2.
Privately the complications were not so profound for me; they were, however, no less difficult to deal with. Fact is I became obsessed with having my work published once I'd received that letter. Here I had written two novels and half of a third without really worrying over such a thing as the rejections I'd received, then all of a sudden I imagine I've got a guarantee. So when I submit my manuscripts and still get shot-down I wonder what the hell is going on, how could they turn me down when someone of Dickey's stature says I'm talented and worth their while?
Meanwhile my domestic life was becoming stranger by the minute, a surprise every step. Michelle and I eloped on a cliff in California (where we would relocate within a year's time) only to have some of our closest friends react angrily because we'd gotten married without including them. I wrote letter after letter after letter, apologizing for following our hearts and wedding ourselves without the big fuss everyone seemed to expect. Chris and I at least had made some notable progress as far as working past the wedge my good fortune had driven into our friendship, so his response to the whole thing was appropriately outrageous, just like the old days. He mailed to me a one-page letter, at the top of which was pasted a color picture of a scantily-clad brunette stretched out lasciviously lounging in black panties and brassiere and beneath which he wrote See this? Take a good, hard look. Doesn't that slaughter you? Okay, now forget about it. Don't ever think of it again. Ever. Congratulations on the wedding.
Having smoothed out as best we could whatever wrinkles remained amongst our friends Michelle and I packed everything we owned into a big rented truck and drove three-thousand miles from both of our families before unloading it all into a three-bedroom house in Pasadena, California, one we were to share with a great friend of ours from college named Peter. Michelle was planning to enroll in a graduate program in clinical psychology while I was to continue writing all those great novels no one was reading, and the next sixteen months went by in a blur from which I would awaken as if from a nightmare into a very different life from the one I had known for the longest time. Two-and-a-half months subsequent to our arrival in California (and two weeks before Christmas) a carbon monoxide leak in our house sent all three of us to the emergency room at four-thirty on a Saturday morning. Michelle and Peter were able to drive themselves. Not me. Supine and strapped into a stretcher in the back of an ambulance with tubes shoved up my nose I imagined it was all over for me and wept at the thought. But I was wrong. My intake of the noxious gas was three times what the others had inhaled but was not enough to take me out entirely: a "28-count" of carbon monoxide poisoning, 40 being the magic number where brain damage begins with death soon to follow. "You have a lot to be thankful for this Christmas," a nurse said to me after I'd spent six hours breathing pure oxygen for the first (and last) time in my life. I went home from the hospital that afternoon determined to believe her.
Christmas came and went with just enough in the way of festivities to make Michelle and I both miserably homesick, and to make matters worse still we were fighting most of the time. . .with each other, with Peter, with our swinish landlord who arrogantly refused to pay my hospital bill even though it was his heater in his house that produced the life-threatening leak—I phoned one lawyer and city official after another until he realized I was serious about suing so coughed up the cash.
January brought my twenty-seventh birthday which came and went with absolutely no festivities whatsoever, a situation that pained and disappointed me far more severely than I allowed anyone to see. Michelle and I spoke seriously of splitting up. . .years of stored resentments seeping to the surface. . .but in truth I didn't believe we would do it, not for a second, and Peter wisely remained on the periphery of it all by spending most of his time at a girlfriend's house. I plodded along with the still-unfinished third novel but the mess of my life dragged at me every minute and made it virtually impossible to focus on fiction, especially since I'd wanted this particular book to have a happy ending. When the alarm horned at five for me to get up and get busy before the sun rose, I would shut it off and drift back to sleep, grateful for the opportunity to lose consciousness for a little longer. It was sometime that same January that we got the news about Chris.
I have never written so much as a single sentence with any sort of map or outline to guide me, trusting instead the emotional truth of a story—as opposed to the factual one—to take the material in the direction it should go. There have been occasions, however, when I felt strongly that a particular story should end with a certain feeling, and I would lean my efforts toward getting it there even if I wasn't exactly sure how it was all going to play itself out. I passionately desired an affirmative denouement for my third novel, a book suffused with so much pain and loss and loneliness that it exhausted the reader by its conclusion and could have left him that way, but I loved the woman narrator and felt compelled to find some source of hope for her, some small scrap of something for her to hang on to after all she had been through.
But my god. . .Chris had cancer, twenty-nine years old and he had cancer. He who turned around the life of a twelve-year-old, he who was going to be the first to become famous, he who did everything against the odds like nearly failing out of high school but then going on to graduate from the most prestigious universities, BA from Yale and MFA from Columbia. What the hell was happening?
Less than a month later Michelle left, drove away in our car, crying, with all of her stuff crammed practically to the roof of it. February. I was in California, living alone in an efficiency apartment, and it was seventy degrees outside. Three months later Chris would be dead and I would be half-way to divorce. May. At six o'clock in the morning one day that dreadful month of May I awoke from a fitful sleep to find my deceased friend standing at the foot of my bed.
"Don't hate me for dying," he said.
"I don't hate you," I answered aloud, "I miss you."
This is no joke. In fact, all these years later I am more convinced than ever that he was actually there. . .right there. The memory is very vivid. He was standing in that room just as sure as I'm sitting here, writing this, telling you. What's the difference, anyway? Suddenly sobbing and scared to death I phoned a friend of mine that very minute and asked her to come over because I was terrified and alone with ghosts and when she got there ten minutes later I told her it was official—I had cracked.
At a memorial service held for him in Savannah I saw my friend for the very last time sitting on a table inside a small black box no bigger than a square-foot, and after the ceremony some of us who were closest to Chris carried him as he'd requested to the Ogeechee River outside of town where we used to go canoeing once he had discovered Dickey. I was in one of two boats and Chris sat on his crying widow's lap in the other one. Once we'd located a suitable spot at which to spill him, she opened up that black box to reveal something like a sandwich bag inside, complete with a twist-tab, and within which was the dirty proof of what it all comes down to.
I've taken up close to two pages with this but in truth it happened a lot faster than that, relatively speaking—Lesson 3.
So it wasn't until I moved back east some nine months later in an attempt to pull my life back together that I tried to reestablish contact with that other hero of mine whose moves I once followed almost as closely as my own, and by then I was looking at life from the standpoint of a survivor. I wrote to Dickey a brief but all-inclusive letter that conveyed the whole of what I had been through without going into the minutia of it, and waited with an anxiousness I could do nothing to assuage for him to respond. I finally finished that third novel and even managed an ending that was optimistic enough to please me, but months went by without a word from Dickey so I considered starting on a book that would deal with all I had been through in the past year and would either make or break me as a writer, especially now that I realized I was really on my own again—without a best friend to share the solitary struggle; or a wife to love and encourage me; or an established artist to help me see my work into print. I still had that letter, though, a framed limpid page generously littered with descriptions like "dead serious" and "talented", and decided that regardless of how much or how little I accomplished in the public eye at least I had that glowing recommendation hanging like a diploma to prove that even though I may be a loser now there was a time when I was anything but: I was once good enough for the man I admired most to write these kind words to me.
Which means I was grasping at straws. Fact is, I had lost all faith in myself as a writer. Though the person had survived a year of dreadful misfortune I harbored grave doubts about the author, whose identity I must admit I was skeptical about even before Chris died. . .before I blew my marriage. . .before I fell out of favor with Dickey. Now that none of those people were around to lie to me, tell me I was worthwhile and could be a great writer if that is what I wanted, it seemed that some huge insurmountable obstacle had been placed in my ambitious path. How can a man overcome his own inherent mediocrity? I wondered. He can't, I decided. By virtue of being on the very planet at the exact same misty moment in history as I was, Chris had challenged me to do just that, but without him here to goad me the will would have either to rise to the occasion or capitulate to the obvious—it was not within me to do. It is a hell of a thing to have three novels written, a soul wreaked on hundreds of pages that took many years' worth of joy and anguish and plain hard work to complete, yet still perceive yourself as incapable, a fraud. It is not a question of quality, either: I could pick up any one of the three books and hold those hundreds of soul-weighted pages in my hand and the question that would occur to me was not is this a great novel or is this a good novel but is it a novel? So coming from such a perspective as that how was I to start over, begin again with a brand new book to see if this time I might actually manage to write a novel—that indefinable groped-after goal I had set for myself so long ago—especially when one considered the subjects with which I would be forced to wrestle this time through?
One word: a book must always begin with one word. . .to be followed by another and then another until the writer has said what it is that is within his heart to say. So, searching deeply within myself, afraid and frustrated and alone, the word was finally found that would seem to be the only source for starting, the one place that could not be avoided forever and from which all failure and success would spring: I.
Once that simple word was written the rest streamed out right behind it and I burned my way through all of the myriad feelings that had pained and scared and saved me over the past year by burying myself in that new novel only to see if I had the audacity to dig my way out, which took just over a year of my life. But by god when I surfaced and looked at what I had brought forth from that sad painful journey I felt like someone with a new lease, a second chance. It was as if I had just finished my first novel, such was the sensation of having conquered something incredible. I was beginning to experience again at least some sense of personal satisfaction, something that had been missing from my life for far too many months, something vague and quiet and overwhelming that had nothing to do with professional ambition. I even decided I was ready to give myself over to Love again: I had no desire to live my life alone so would find that lonely courageous soul out there who was willing to take all the risks inherent in a relationship and when I found her I would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that pure all-hearted devotion was well within my disciplines, my divorce be damned. That separation may have been a significant piece of my history, but once I finished that fourth book it became clear to me who it was that could help control the course of that history.
Then something incredible occurred: the novel Chris had submitted to fulfill his MFA requirement at Columbia, The Dangerous Lives Of Altar Boys, was going to be published, had actually been purchased by a university press who thought enough of the novel to put it out despite the sorry fact that they would get no more books out of its deceased author. I had not read the book but Chrisanne (his widow) decided to share the manuscript before its proposed release with some of us closest to him, so when the big brown package arrived in the mail I plunged right into it and read the whole thing in two days and was actually disappointed because all I found in there were words typed onto sheets of bond paper. . .Chris was still dead and I was still some lonely anonymous soul among the millions who would one day follow his ill-fated footsteps down to the long home that awaits us all and the fact that I'd read his book did nothing to change the cruel inevitability of this.
Which is to say I had expected much more than any book could ever hope to deliver, so I waited a week and began reading it again and this time the scared lonesome beauty of the book unfolded in front of me like nothing less than a miracle. Chris's presence rose up renascent out of those pages and sang me back home, reminded me how powerful was that very special energy he had, incandescent, and I laughed and laughed and cried and cried and finally decided for certain that my friend had been a sort of prophet in that he saw his own fate and faced it up front and was grateful for his life even if it was condemned to be cut so horribly short. There were so many of us whose lives were impacted by Chris: his charisma could hardly be ignored even by those who were critical of him. So when two characters in his novel are discussing the premature death of their teenage friend who was cursed with a similar Chris-like charisma, and one says to the other, "People like that die young. They have an influence on other people that lasts, but they don't. . ." it struck me that in some dim unconscious way my friend had been well aware of what was expected of him and had actually tried his best to acknowledge it, open his arms to Fate and say, "I accept." In the novel he had cleaved his psyche into its two opposing duplicities—the go-getter who craves a life of action and consequence versus the insecure play-it-safer who'd rather find his riskless comfort zone and stay curled up calmly inside it like a cocoon. This time through my reading proved that the book wasn't limited to words on a page at all—Chris was there, loud and clear and very much alive, like a friend you could call on the phone and say My god your book was amazing. . .
So when the favor was asked how could I say no? Chrisanne wondered whether I would be willing to write to James Dickey about Altar Boys, ask him for an endorsement we could use on the dustjacket. She forwarded to me the publisher's uncorrected page proofs of the novel to enclose with my request so I sat down determined on a Monday morning to try to carve out what would end up being as difficult as anything I'd ever dared to write. As I perceived it this was an attempt on my part to impose some sort of justice on the world, for Chris of all people rightly deserved to have this endorsement (provided Dickey liked the book) and here was an opportunity for me to sacrifice my own selfish hopes and dreams for a change and write to the man regarding someone other than myself. I felt completely confident that Altar Boys would win Dickey's favor, not only because the book concerned itself with some of the same issues to be found in his own endeavors but also because, stylistically speaking, it was a meticulous piece of work in which all of the author's painstaking efforts could be seen by one with eyes for such a thing as literary risk-taking. Chris was a great admirer of your work, I wrote, introduced me to it, in fact. And the notion of you reading his novel is one he surely would have seen not only as a triumph but as an honor. As it is I feel these things for him.
The sad truth. I wept my way through the writing of that letter, spewed it out in a single emotional sitting and sent the package off that very afternoon, grateful to be finished with it. (Although I let myself linger a little over the page proofs, jealously marveling over the amount of money and work and attention they were devoting to my friend's book and wondering if I would ever be allowed the luxury of seeing it done for me, forgetting for the selfish moment that such was a luxury even Chris could never enjoy.) The deadline for endorsements was bearing down on us, about which I had informed Dickey in the letter, so if he was going to contribute I knew we would hear from him within a few weeks' time.
But we never did, and I decided then that for whatever reason he who had been so generous and good to me for so long had finally washed his hands of me forever. Who knew why? Who could speculate what might have been his motive for showing me nothing but silence after all of the interest he'd shone before? Perhaps he'd reread those early mediocre poems of mine, seen them for what they really were and decided—
A possibility I dared not admit to myself, then or now.
Dickey's third and final novel, To The White Sea, was actually in the bookstores for more than a few months before I knew about it, but naturally the second I saw it there on the shelf I had to have it: despite our personal distance Dickey was still an important artist and I could never abide by a refusal to support his work over something so silly as his disregarding my pleas for attention (especially after all he'd done for me previously).
I'd read about thirty-five pages before I threw in the towel, resigned to its inferiority: bored with the subject, peeved by the novel's arrogant and wholly unlikable narrator, and thoroughly displeased that Dickey had decided to enslave the style to first person when the result was as unpoetic as anything I'd ever read. He had turned his back on his strengths as a writer, I decided, and though that was his prerogative as the author it was mine to find a better book to read.
When Altar Boys hit the bookstores I bought two copies and proceeded to reread the published version, which sent my respect for the book soaring. Though it pains me to admit, seeing a published novel is a far cry from reading the same material in manuscript form, and tends to affect directly the way in which you see the book before you. Dean Rohrer's fittingly explosive cover-art, coupled with immaculate typesetting, thick pages invisibly bound, and complimentary blurbs covering the entire back of the book, caused me to see it now as a novel, whereas a manuscript seems more like a paper—the author's attempt at a novel. This is a hurdle every writer faces and the fact that someone such as myself—who has spent the better part of fifteen years dealing with books in manuscript form—is guilty of this same misconception just goes to illustrate how very real and pervading a problem it is. Aside from the aesthetic differences in the packaging, I think the reason for this can be attached to our intuitive awareness of what a manuscript must go through in order to reach this final stage of the publishing process: that is to say many people have read it, not only to find they enjoyed it but thought it worthy of an inordinate amount of time and money and attention, so much so that they would spend years of their life seeing it laid-out and organized and type-set, finally printed and bound and covered to produce thousands of glossy copies that will then be distributed to hundreds of bookstores where it will be marketed and promoted as a work that should be read by the public at large. . .all of this quite in opposition to the thousands of awkward, bulky and difficult-to-deal-with documents comprised of loose unbound pages that litter offices all over the world, of which six such manuscripts I myself can claim to have contributed personally.
Reading the published version of my friend's book I found myself highlighting with a florescent yellow marker damn-near every other paragraph, a habit I acquired not from college but from my own desire to give attention to the nuts and bolts of a book so as to learn something about the way words can be strung together to produce a particular effect on the reader. Subsequently I rarely look at the manuscript version of the novel that I have kept nevertheless like a precious memento, and if I do it is only to appreciate Chris's notation on the title-page that the novel was produced "entirely without computers" as well as a desire to look at the few places where he had made handwritten corrections in the margin—these things give me a concrete sense of Chris as having once been in my shoes, slaving over sentences he hoped but never realized would one day be read, and adored, by the world around him.
When reviews of the book began to appear I lapped them up thirstily as if it were my own work being discussed and was thrilled to find that, for the most part, they were extremely favorable (our hometown newspaper in Savannah being, to this very day, the only periodical in the country to pan the book entirely). There is no denying that I was enjoying vicariously what my own books had henceforth failed to provide me, but it was more than that. What seemed to matter most was sharing the loss of Chris, as one critic after another bemoaned the tragedy of losing a singular talent before it had had the chance to blossom. I was moved to tears more than once by some of the nice things said about my friend, particularly a review from the Philadelphia Inquirer whose author obviously appreciated the subtle enormity of Chris's accomplishment: This is the real thing, he wrote, writing done with everything on the line. . .causing my heart to sink with sad gratitude. It was so amazing to me that people who'd never met Chris could see so clearly what he was capable of, and the experience of witnessing this firsthand just reminded me why it is that I ever bothered putting pen to paper to begin with: done with a purity of purpose and a certain extreme measure of emotional sincerity, writing can cause a communion of souls who otherwise will never know of one another. In their own way these people who so loved Chris's novel missed him every bit as much as I did, giving me a comforting sense of company in a time of unnamable sadness.
Eight years after the planned post-graduation collaboration on film screenplays that never actually occurred, Lamar and I managed to make good on that long-ago commitment when we shared the task of adapting The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys from a novel to a screenplay. The resulting script was close to two-hundred pages long but we had tried to remain completely true to our friend's book and keep intact some of its more idiosyncratic moments and flavors. Again, this was done at Chrisanne's request, who fully realized that a screenplay was to be written so decided that no one was better qualified than we were, our lack of experience with the particular medium more than compensated-for by our closeness to Chris.
So we did it, and when we were told by those who know best that seventy-five pages needed to be trimmed from our script if it was ever to be considered as a viable option then we bore down and did that too, though by the time it was done I had lost any and all fondness for the product, deciding that movies had for the most part become a shallow medium and very few people involved with them were interested in doing anything more than scratching the surface of things in a timely fashion—who had time anymore for subtlety and nuance or the long patient immersion into character? When the film rights for Altar Boys were sold some time later, the first order of business was for them to hire a "real" screenwriter for the job, so Lamar and I patted one another on the back, reminded ourselves that we'd done the work for personal reasons having nothing to do with our ambition as writers, and tried not to think about the one-hundred-thousand dollars given the new guy for his version of Chris's story.
I'm thinking of you these days so decided to say it. In honesty it has been so long since last we spoke or corresponded that I am not even certain my name will mean anything at all to you, but that will not stop me from speaking those words I so often find myself feeling when my thoughts turn to you.
There was a time in my life, my youth, when you and your work represented all that was possible in a world that constantly confronts us with trouble, and like poor Job before us we grapple for something solid to cling to as Faith. For more years than I care to count that Something to which I clung has been the thought of you—all you've accomplished in your life and your work, all of the encouragement you were willing to share with someone young and already struggling against life's bleak anonymity—and for reasons unknowable to me I recently feel compelled to remind you of the fact.
Never cease to know, Mr. Dickey, that the world is a better place for your being in it.
I believe the "unknowable reasons" actually may have been attributable to a poem called "Mangham," Dickey's amazing little masterpiece about a math teacher who suffers a stroke while lecturing a class but—pressing an ice-filled handkerchief to the side of his frozen face—goes on to complete the geometry proof he'd been working on the blackboard as if nothing in the world mattered more at that moment. I had sat awestruck some ten years prior while Dickey read this particular poem in front of nearly five-hundred people, and remember like it was yesterday the breathless exhilaration of both his rendering and my overwhelming response to it, and whenever I reread the poem I do so always wondering whether it will produce the same sensations that coursed through the college undergraduate I was when first I heard it.
It did, on this occasion as on all others, so I decided to write to him. I had not heard anything from or even about Dickey in quite a long while, so what would end up being the fortuitous timing of the contact is as much a mystery to me as anything in this world. To my complete astonishment an envelope bearing his old familiar letterhead appeared in my mailbox less than a week later, and despite our long stretch of silence I tore into it with all of the same excitement hearing from him always elicited. The letter was frank regarding the severity of his physical condition, afflicted as he had been for the past two years with jaundice (among other things). He did not speak then of the chaotic state his domestic life was and had been in, the bitter divorce he was enduring as a seventy-year-old, but made it clear that my letter did some measure of good in spite of the scary mess he was currently surrounded by. When a sufferer receives a letter like yours—no, your letter—he is in the position of one hearing from a better universe: a place where kindness and generosity are natural to people, and are exercised without calculation. I am not given to gush, but I hope what I say here will register with you and that you will realize the depth of my response. It was this profession of his gratitude, coupled with the same strange desperate pull toward him that I could not name or define, that gave me the courage to request a visit with him, and two letters plus a phone call later I found myself in the car heading straight to Columbia, South Carolina, as scared and nervous and thrilled as I'd ever been in my life.
The drive took three-and-a-half hours, in which time I was able to listen in its entirety to an abridged reading of Deliverance on audio cassette, done by the man himself: I was psyching myself up, and it worked with a vengeance. I had been given detailed directions to his residence so once I arrived in Columbia I made my way to a very large depressing shopping center that I knew was within ten minutes of his house, having still another hour to kill before my scheduled appointment. I thought at first I might have a drink to settle my nerves but then thought better of it, deciding I would rather the experience be raw and crystal clear without any chemical adornment, even a cup of coffee—figuring that by the time I finished the purgative I'd be far too fidgety to sit still at all, frantic as I was already. Spotting what appeared to be a bookshop I headed straight to it and, walking in, found myself within one of those huge stores you think will have virtually every book you could ever want to buy but in fact seems to have none of them.
Naturally I had to test the place by gravitating first to the poetry section but they didn't have him there so then I went to fiction and they didn't have him there either. Not believing it I seized the attention of a clerk and asked if they had any books by James Dickey, feeling foolish for the very asking. She said, "Oh, yes," so I decided she was going to lead me starry-eyed to a specific section devoted entirely to the local celebrity, but instead found myself in front of a range of books under the heading SOUTHERN WRITING (evidence of our current obsession with categorizing everything) where I did manage to locate one title by the celebrated National-Book-Award-winning author who lived less than ten minutes from this very store—a paperback of Deliverance, naturally. Dickey was indeed out of fashion, his literary stock frighteningly low, which I'd been told more than once by various persons who pay attention to such things, so much so that even his hometown stores apparently didn't bother to stock his books unless they happened to be best sellers.
I browsed around for roughly forty-five minutes, discovering that this store had other notable shortcomings in its collection: only two titles each by Faulkner and Hemingway, to name the most obvious. Such a lack of concern for literature by those purportedly there to serve it can be discouraging if you take the time to notice, especially when one is foolish enough to become bent on joining the ranks of the aforementioned writers, but I naively consoled myself that this was just a lousy bookstore and was the exception rather than the rule. When I stepped outside again a mere fifteen minutes separated my mentor and me, just enough time to make a phone call to help bolster a suddenly-crumbling self-confidence.
My mother answered on the second ring, all excited to hear from me. I told her how terrified I was but she reminded me that there really was no reason to be: I'd faced this before, albeit a decade prior, and this—in conjunction with all the correspondence we'd exchanged and the simple fact that Dickey had agreed to see me when he obviously could have avoided it—should be enough to reassure me, convince the skeptic that there was nothing to fear. Hanging up I morbidly and without volition imagined how awful my life would be one day, when that woman I so worshipped and felt unnamable gratitude toward was no longer here to share such an occasion as this.
It was scorchingly hot, easily in the upper nineties, so I was sweating nervously as I maneuvered the car through the safe comforting streets of a typical middleclass suburb, the trimmed hedges and manicured lawns looking nothing like the stomping ground of one's literary idol. Turning left onto Lelia's Court I pulled into a driveway that appeared to be the one: a modest ranch-style house whose simplicity surprised me, such being the way our imaginations can get to conjuring when it comes to people we consider "famous". I sat still in the car for a few moments, drenched in anticipation and taking deep breaths of stifling summer air, then walked boldly to the door and rang that bell as if I had any business being there.
A young man answered, catching me off guard, and led me to the living room where sat a stormy-haired shape surrounded by tall stacks of books. I was completely unprepared for his appearance: the big barrel-chested man of my memory was now looking frail and very ill, his long arms leaned-out, his gaunt face pulled groundward by gravity, a wild head of thinning hair giving him a crazed look that seemed to me full of fear and angry intensity. Everything in sight suggested chaos, a life coming apart, as Dickey sat smack in the center of a room that was literally overflowing with books, not even shelved in bookcases, just stacked up on the floor in towers of ten all around him. . .there must have been hundreds of them taking up the better part of this big room in which a piano cowered in one corner. He held out his hand to me and said, "You've had a terrible time, son," referring to all of the despondent self-absorbed letters I had sent to him unanswered while enduring divorce and the death of a best friend, and when I opened my mouth to respond what came out was, "Haven't we all?"
My memory of what was said during the three hours within that house is very murky, I'm afraid—the part of the mind that could have held onto everything was undermined at the moment by a skeptical refusal to accept where I was and who I was with, even though there were times during the course of our visit when we were both silent, just sitting before one another not forcing conversation, and at those moments I distinctly recall reminding myself to take note of what was happening. . .that I was there. . .right there. . .and had better believe it because I wasn't going to be there for very long. Neither was he, which we both knew. (Anyone who saw him in his final months could not help but notice the ominous sense of closure that was enveloping Dickey, and he did nothing to try to conceal it.) Even now, as I sit here trying to reconstruct the reality of that room in which I sat with a man who marked my life forever, a hero who was dying, I have a hard time believing that I was actually there, right there, in the thick of it.
Periodically he was envictimed to a persistent hacking cough which would have its way with him for minutes at a stretch while I sat scared shitless, convinced I was witnessing the Last Gasp, his whole body broken up by it as he fought for air while a tube connected to a portable oxygen canister clung to his upper lip.
He twice mentioned the wife he was in the process of divorcing but the anger in his telling persuaded me not to encourage such talk as it only appeared to infuriate him. He spoke of various writers, people like his friend Robert Penn Warren—men I saw as GIANTS—with a casualness I might slip into while discussing my domesticated feline. (He told me that he and Penn Warren had filmed a documentary together, one in which they "interviewed" each other at their respective residences: Dickey traveling to Connecticut to converse at Warren's home, the latter then coming south to Columbia to talk to Dickey on his Lake Katherine dock, all of it apparently the brainchild of a public television producer. "Next time you come down I'll drag it out for you," he promised, sensing my enthusiasm.) He seemed pleased about the recently-published collection of some of his journals, all written in the nineteen-fifties and also containing some poems—composed in the same long-past decade—that miraculously had never seen the light of publication. It must have been strangely satisfying for him to see such a personal thing published after forty years of writing, confirmation that he'd done something right in all those years. When I asked how he thought those old poems in the collection held up, how did they strike him now, his reply had the scary perspective with which one becomes ever more familiar with the passing of years: "I wish I could get that young man's angle on things again," he said, not sadly.
What he was most excited about was a proposed film adaptation of his last fiction, To The White Sea, ironically the only one of Dickey's books that I was completely ill-equipped to discuss since my first false-start with the novel three years prior. Fortunately he did not get into specifics regarding the structure of his book, sticking instead to prospective directors for the project or actors that he thought would be best to play his "hero" Muldrow. Though he had nothing directly to do with the project he was very pleased about the interest others seemed to have in it, and ran through a long list of directors and actors to see what my personal opinions were regarding the potential candidates. At the time I was quietly depressed by this aspect of our visit, thinking that for Dickey to fret over such a thing as a Hollywood adaptation of his work was beneath him, but I've revised my harsh judgment since then—for him it was part of the whole package, I think, yet another indicator that he was doing something right in his work that so many others had an interest in, not to mention the simple fact that Hollywood had in at least one sense made James Dickey (like it or not), certainly in the eyes of the general public who were, after all, the ones who paid for him the bills his true craft could never touch, providing more for his family than forty years of teaching and poetry-writing ever had or would. I'm sure that for Hollywood to make a big production from one of his books, particularly one published twenty years after Deliverance had made him a household name, would have done wonders for Dickey, and I'm speaking not only in the financial but also the spiritual sense.
Of course my friend Chris came up, the context being Altar Boys. Dickey did not mention the letter I had written him in that regard five long years prior, and seemed to have no knowledge of the novel having been published. This was somewhat shocking to me, having a hard time imagining that one's life could be so chaotic that he no longer even saw his own mail, but was the first glimpse I was to get of just how out-of-control Dickey's world had come to be, confirmation of which would surface posthumously when biographers combed the specifics of his personal life for clues to his genius and mania. Dickey did admit that the author's name struck some familiar chord in him so I said that was probably due to the fact that Chris had written to him while still an undergraduate at Yale.
But later in our conversation he asked if I had mailed him photographs of me and some friends holding a six-foot blowgun-shot rattlesnake, acting on an essay he'd published—I swallowed hard, a great gulp of sad nostalgia and shortcoming that threatened to choke me up, and in a second's reflection was sorry for being there, as if I didn't deserve to be. "Chris sent those pictures," I said. It felt like a confession.
At some point I told him how much I loved writing, how it gave me an excited sense of significance I could find nowhere else, but that I loathed the lonely anonymity of it. "You'll have your time," he said. "Trust me."
There were subjects I longed to broach but in the end lacked the bravery for doing so. I longed to ask how he felt about the fact that he was dying, was he as terrified as I knew I would be (already am), did he believe in any kind of physical or spiritual life beyond this one? (As if the poetry hadn't already answered these questions.) Dickey is a man whose passion and intellect have inspired me in ways I cannot even begin to explain the profundity of, thus an understanding of his feelings and beliefs as he faced this last great challenge, one I regrettably obsess over, could have proven invaluable to me. This was an opportunity of which I should take full advantage, I kept telling myself, for there were very few people in the world with whom one could openly discuss the dreadful fact of dying and if anyone had the courage and the wherewithal to do so surely James Dickey would. Just ask him, I thought a thousand times that afternoon in a futile attempt to coax myself, but I never did, silently harboring a concern that to do so would only remind the dying man of that which he wished to forget. . .even though he could not, obviously. And who of us is so selfish that he will force such an acknowledgment from those he loves most?
Death did make an appearance, however, when I asked him if he was at all able to continue working in spite of his condition, to which he replied, "A little. There are things I'd like to finish while I'm still here. . .still on this side of the shadow-line."
Three hours later he remarked that he hoped I would do this again, pay him another visit, which I took as a not-so-subtle hint that it was time for me to be on my way. Having put it off until the very last moment I pulled from the backpack I'd brought along a bound copy of one of my books that I wanted to give him, a novel that has seen so many rejections I feel sadly certain it will never be published but one into whose female protagonist I poured every bit of my fear and joy and lonely longing, not to mention took a great many risks in the writing of: Lissa is a book I will always love even if the publishers couldn't care less. It was a good time to give him one of my novels, for I could do so now with a conscience clean of professional calculation: Dickey was no longer in any position to help me get my work published so what motivated me was something else entirely, having more to do with a pure simple expression of undying gratitude: putting one of my manuscripts into his hands gave me as great a satisfaction as I've ever been fortunate enough to feel. He asked specifically had I signed it for him and I assured him I had, then skimmed the manuscript only for a second (me mincing in my seat) before asking if I would do for him a favor. "Take this and put it on my chair so I can have a good look at it, otherwise it's likely to get lost in the shuffle." I knew what he meant, as the mountains of books stacked around him attested to the depth of the "shuffle." He instructed me as to where his study was located and off I went, navigating his household like it was an amazing museum. The hallway down which I traveled was a virtual tunnel of books shelved floor-to-ceiling on both sides, then taking a left I found myself in that sacred place I had seen described in innumerable articles and interviews: another library of books, only these were neatly arranged around the walls of the room. To my immediate left and right were racked a variety of archery bows, some of them large and elaborate, the first evidence I had seen of the author as archer. And straight ahead of me was his "desk", which stretched the entire width of the room before a rectangular picture-window overlooking the lake on which he lived. I moved slowly to his seat and placed the manuscript in it, then remembered that risk leads to greatness as Chris once said so took a quick scan over both shoulders to insure that I was alone, and then did it: I sat down in that seat, surveyed the view from that oft-dreamt vantage, and let the floodwaters roll over me.
Six years prior to that sainted moment I was still living in California, and in order to satisfy a demand I had made of myself when first moving to the state I took a pilgrimage to the enshrined home of another hero, the deeply-feeling and perhaps even prophetic poet Robinson Jeffers, whose "Advice To Pilgrims" I have carried in my wallet on a worn scrap of paper since my twenty-first year. One member of a guided group of seven, I made my sad excited way through Jeffers' uniquely primitive homeplace wishing only that I could spend a night there. . .feel for some short stretch of time the special energy that might remain embedded in the stones and wood of this house he had inhabited for the better part of fifty years. The last stop on the tour was Hawk Tower, his self-constructed stone monument to his wife Oona and for me a symbol of the man himself that I had longingly looked at pictures of ever since I was a college undergraduate, and in the base of which sat a large oak chair he had built and seated himself at in the mornings when he wrote. As our group exited the tower a gracious guide (a middleaged man who knew I was a novelist and apparently noted the tears on my face when—earlier—he'd read to us some lines of Jeffers' verse) turned to me and, pointing to that sacred seat said, "Why don't you just hang out here for a few minutes. . .see if you can get some inspiration."
So down I went. For five full minutes I sat there, all alone, riding the rollercoaster of sentiment that sent me reeling into mystical contemplation, convincing myself that I was meant to be there, sitting in that seat. . .that some strange communion of souls was in fact occurring which connected me in a very real sense to that man I so admired. There is no means to measure my gratitude for those few precious solitary minutes in that monument, and I feel absolutely no sense of shame confessing that it actually felt fated. . .like an unlived moment that needed nothing more than me in order to become a real one.
So here we go again. . .climbing to the top of the first rise before the rollercoaster lets us go and sends us racing across Time like a track already laid down on which for us to travel. The back yard was big and open before sloping down to meet the lake, and pushed up against some trees on the left fringe was an upsidedown canoe that looked like it hadn't met water in a while. Ed Gentry, Dickey's Deliverance protagonist, lives on just such a property, overlooking just such a lake. I imagined the work being done from that seat. . .the things thought by a mind unlike any other man's. . .the powerful poems which had their humble beginnings right where I was sitting, and what I would do for just an hour of privacy perhaps to pen some kind of commemoration from that very special starting-place. I was overcome all-at-once by an inscrutable urge to cry, like something important was coming to a head and I was not ready, not prepared, I needed more time. I must have been in that seat for less than ten seconds total (nervous as I was about "getting caught") but already it seemed like days, years, like I'd been away on some extended spiritual journey and by the time I returned Dickey would say suspiciously, "What took you so long?"
So I stood, placed on the now-vacant seat a manuscript in which an effusion of my emotional life was distilled, and walked out of that room full of confused feelings, the least of which was not the hope that I might actually summon the courage to ask if I could sit there at length. . .one of these days.
Our goodbye lacked drama, the finality of a last farewell. Why wouldn't it? I fully intended to make the trip to see him once more in a month or two, and Dickey had no cause to doubt that I would do so. I took his hand and told him to please take care of himself, and he very sternly admonished me to do likewise. "Don't be so hard on yourself," he said. I must admit that the only apprehensions I had about leaving occurred once I was out the door and in my car, sitting in the driveway staring at that simple suburban house where a great poet had just sacrificed three hours of his life for me. It may seem like nothing to some, but for one fighting for breath even as oxygen is being forced into both nostrils through a life-saving tube, the monumental awe of Time must be reduced to something small and seemingly insignificant—something like a moment.
The long drive home allowed me time to reflect over all of the things I had forgotten to speak to him about—it occurred to me that, nervous as I was, I should have compiled a sort of checklist beforehand. There were other people who had played a significant role in my development as a young writer, people with whom Dickey had had contact of one kind or another and about whom I would loved to have heard his opinion—people like filmmaker Sam Peckinpah or writer Frederick Exley who, at one point, actually phoned Dickey to say he was committing suicide (he didn't—not then, anyway.) I was also curious to know whether anyone had approached him about writing his biography, something I had considered proposing while still a college student. The fact that I had forgotten to ask these things did not undermine me for long, however; instead I was able to imagine there was always the next visit, about which I could fool myself into thinking I'd be far more relaxed than on this one and could better focus on some of those things I wished to say. That very week, in fact, I dropped him a note just to reiterate my appreciation and at the end said I hoped to be back down his way sometime near the end of August, around five weeks later.
That Friday night when I arrived back from Columbia I had drinks with three holy friends who wanted to hear all about my time spent with a hero, and I, having allowed Dickey's presence on the planet once again to infect me to the point of forgetting his physical condition, vowed that I would see him again the following month. And wasn't this an amazing world that a loser like me could see such a fantasy come to fruition? Sitting at a lovely bottle-glittering bar with favorite friends I felt quite confident that the life we were then living was without a doubt one which many another only dreams of having: replete with fierce heartfelt gratitude and harboring no regrets over what might be missing, none whatsoever.
I did not make it back that August, and six months later a friend phoned at seven o'clock on a Monday morning to tell me what I never wanted to hear. For years, literally, I had fantasized this, imagined what I would feel and—most importantly—what I might do to immortalize the moment somehow, make it different from all others. What I failed to realize is that this conjuring had always allowed me the luxury of Chris with whom to commiserate, the one who'd found the man for us, yet he'd been dead for five years only I'd forgotten to remove him from the fantasy. So when the awful event finally came to pass James Dickey was not the only one suddenly gone from the world.
Had someone shown me a map and pointed to that mountainous, youth-sprung place of peaks and possibilities where once my passions had soared, the location labeled by a best friend and named for a hero, I still could not now envision myself capable of reaching it, almost as if the vehicle needed to launch the journey no longer existed for me. The birds were singing outside the window and it was already sunny. I was on the verge of tears but cruelly they wouldn't come for some few minutes. . .I simply sat frozen and stonefaced, wondering what on earth I was supposed to do with the information I'd just been given. We do die. Harp on it, Coleman once wrote, like a wiseman. You think you know this, are aware of it. You even lose sleep over it sometimes. Then it happens to someone close and you realize what you really thought was that there might be some way around it.
My initial pouting and determined refusal to acknowledge his death was purely selfish and harbored little consideration for others who might be having an even harder time with the horrible truth of it. I didn't think about Dickey's family—his two sons, the sixteen-year-old daughter who'd have to adjust to a life lacking a father when the biggest concern for most of her peers would be getting a driver's license. Nor did I think about those friends who were closest to him; nor the readers all around the world who admired the man every bit as much as I did.
I thought about me. I thought about the sense of possibility Dickey had always embodied and wondered where now was I going to find it. I thought about the vain desire I'd secretly hoarded for years to publish one of my novels before he died so he could see that his encouragement and support had not been for naught. I thought about the fact that the first hero I ever had outside of my immediate family was a pale skinny sixteen-year-old named Chris Fuhrman, perpetually clad in corduroys and white t-shirt, who would years later introduce me to the work of the second hero I ever found, James Dickey. Chris convinced me then that there was nothing wrong with being ambitious, that the desire to make an impact that would rival Faulkner's or Hemingway's was nothing to be ashamed of or take lightly, and Dickey being in the world convinced us both that we didn't have to be dead in order to do so.
Or did we?
Here's the worst of it: a latent inability to act on my own. Dickey's death shamed me into silence, stagnation. I so yearned for the world to stop just long enough to acknowledge the passing of Greatness yet I did nothing to encourage it, I did nothing out of the ordinary. I ate breakfast, went to work, came home, went to bed. Then I got up the next day and did the same thing, and I've been doing it every day since.
Twenty-three years young when I finished my first novel, and determined—like many—to take the world by storm at an early age so I worked like an animal to see it happen. Just after I made that first-ever contact with Dickey one of my poems was accepted by a little magazine published in Atlanta. Then two more were taken, for which I earned fifty dollars apiece. I was on my way, began writing fiction, had the glorious good fortune of getting drunk with my literary god.
That was fourteen years ago and six novels later I am no closer to taking anything by storm. People wonder when I'm going to give up the pipedream, admit that things in my life just will not work out the way I have always wanted them to. Chris and I used to exchange letters vowing that we would be "more famous than Faulkner," but then once Chris died I found it harder and harder to keep convincing myself that I could do it on my own, without him.
Dickey, however, was still around, and in a world where someone like James Dickey was sharing our space anything could happen. . .anything at all. Then the phone call came and I sat on the bed feeling as if everything was futile: I was sinking, and cold, despondent to the point of being unable to express it and without a clue as to how I might make the day different somehow. So I just did the same old tired thing that we all do by putting in my eight hours at work and getting to bed on time which makes me nothing less—or more—than anyone else.
Three months later I picked up To The White Sea and tried again, this time determined to sweat my way through the thing come hell or high water. I'd been rereading Dickey's poems and wanted simply to keep feeling him, even when I expected the work to be inferior to some other.
After fifty pages I began to grow accustomed to the deliberate awkwardness of the style and admired the author once again for his unflagging conviction toward doing something completely different each and every time he set pen to paper, even when it meant neglecting his great mastery of the poetic in exchange for a simple style that would more accurately convey the world as his protagonist Muldrow sees it. I began then to enjoy the book, as unlikable as its narrator still seemed to me, and the more isolated Muldrow became the more interested I was in what he had to say. The further he traveled physically the more inward his journey began to appear, and this—coupled with an increasing personal efficiency that rose in direct proportion to his isolation, his solitude—caused me to see something emerging from the narrative that bore little resemblance to what I originally perceived as a guilty pleasure, a superficial book lacking any of the depth I'd always sensed in Dickey's work.
Then: in the final fifteen pages Dickey did what I never imagined he could do so long as he was speaking through this inarticulate voice: he took my breath away. I read with my mouth open, overcome by a silent astonishment I can only stand in awe of. Told in a butchered broken tongue that the poet of thirty years prior never would have employed, To The White Sea soared to heights in its conclusion that even I did not imagine for my favorite writer. Truth is I had sold Dickey short, deciding that the man who produced works like the monumental "May Day Sermon" (what Chris and I used to call Dickey's Ulysses) was long gone, had outlived himself and pickled his talent in alcohol. Yet there I sat with the final page turned and tears on my face, all-at-once reminded of how the entire world can be reinvented with words on a page put precisely in place. Dickey's final novel, different as it appears on the surface, falls right in line with the work he had been doing from the very beginning by concerning itself with one simple, profound notion: finding the center within oneself and operating outward from that source alone. And although such a pursuit would cruelly demand that individual's solitude, his isolation, if he was true to his own inner life he would willingly—even gratefully—accept the sacrifice it necessitated and realize that, ultimately, it connected him to the world in the purest, most essential sense.
The wisdom, of course, can be applied in whatever fashion one selects for himself, and if after six novels my will to write was being questioned it is par for the course that the answer came from that same hero who had sent me on the search so many years prior, and whose own example is in the service of the system of belief he so passionately espoused: that in the end we are all alone in this world, but there does exist a tacit spiritual connection that we should seek out however we can. Words are one means to doing this, as inadequate as they seem at times. Spoken, they can bind us to all those sharing this space, this moment; written, they can connect us to that collective unconscious world of which we can hardly conceive during these noisy days of ours. This goes even for the lowly redheaded likes of a shrimp from Savannah, Georgia, who wanted his life somehow to matter more than it seemed to, and who yearned for an acceptance if not from without, at least—at last—from within.
Those who I call heroes convinced me that this was the Way, the source of strength, and they wrote books to prove it. Try to stay tough and sensible, Chris wrote in the last letter I would ever receive from him, mere months before his death. Life sure is hard. . .but there are still a few good things left. Which is why I wept over the final pages of Dickey's last fiction, because within it I found one of those good things. . .the feeling. . .that oneness with the world which can only be realized within the confines of one's own heart. But then shared in some fashion. . .any fashion, in fact. So I clung to that closed book for an hour after finishing, just gawking at it and turning it over in my hands and skimming its pages like it was this precious thing.
And it was in my hands, you see, the source of my tears: I was crying for the alienated yet self-redeemed Muldrow, whose spiritual transcendence might, after all, mirror our own; which in turn caused me to cry for his creator, who at last had crossed that final chasm as well; all of which led me to cry for myself, still struggling to find the vehicle, the voice: a means to reach a redhead riddled with fear and insecurity and doubt, afraid he'll amount to nothing. But therein lies the last lesson, my life, my love. A world opened with words, like a book. Wholeness and clarity. . .circle unbroken. . .possibility. . .
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