Harold Hill, warrant officer helicopter pilot, was back from Vietnam with ribbons, medals, wounds, and heavy tales of jungle descents and whirring, roaring rescues, flash of fire from the Cong, gasping and grateful GI’s, marines hooked miraculously aloft to safety. He told his friends in a modest monotone, not boasting at all, depressed and astonished by this new manifestation of Harold Hill as a hero.
It had been an unusual war.
His friends listened politely for half an evening, sometimes less, and then said, “Aw, knock it off.”
There was nothing in the American tradition to match it. Out of the eye of death he plucked this mote.
“Aw, knock it off. will you?”
Every writer has a lot of stories in him, more than enough for his lifetime, though never enough, either; and there are some that nag at him, but he doesn’t write them for one reason or another—they hurt, they cut too many ways, they are more conception than story, they are personal and involve his friends, he’s lazy. The story about Harold Hill has bothered me a long while. I think it’s true, true to our lives, in that it tells the awful fact about the American connection with the undeclared war in Vietnam. We feel it as an annoyance, alas; not a tragedy. But it is also very distracting to write this moral history as an insult to suffering. Am I sure of my own moral purity? Then better stay clear of judging others so harshly till I purify myself.
There are times, of course, when unjustified rage makes a kind of art. I’ve given way myself to rage in writing: to the desire to destroy my enemies. But if I start to think about it first, then all is lost: I can’t be unjust by calculation, though I can out of my own pain. Harold Hill and his friends, this America and that war, are ideas in my head. I mustn’t persecute ideas as it they were people; assault them, yes; nag at them, no.
A childless couple in Detroit sleeps with a fluorescent cross over their bed. The bed is heartshaped. They are both credentialed schoolteachers, graduates of Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. They very much want a child, a little angel to complete their happy household, but it’s impossible, despite all their prayers, because they have taken a vow to abstain from tobacco, alcoholic drink, and sexual contact. Being educated people, they recognize the problem of reconciling their desire for a child with the happy gift of their bodies to the Lord. Mobilizing their intelligence, they come up with a logical solution; adoption.
The social worker, sent by the agency, listens to their pleas. She realizes that they are gentle, loving, kind, and tender people, eager to take a little creature of sin into their happy household. She makes inquiry into the reason for their barren state. She herself has been through a traditional Freudian psychotherapy, and also she has participated in group encounters, psychodrama, T-groups, and once, this funny orgy in Coral Gables, Florida, on her way to Miami Beach. Well, it was an experience.
The Fundamentalist couple explains that they want to raise a child with their own principles, generosity, givingness, tithing to percent of earnings to Bob Jones University, no drink, no tobacco, and, um, no carnal acts, In addition to being gentle, loving, kind, and tender, the social worker decides they are also paranoid.
And yet they function smoothly as teachers—no traffic warrants outstanding, no blemish on their job records, no financial problems. And all over the dreary town of Detroit . . . Flint . . . Lyndale, there are those little tykes, offspring of waitresses and hippies and troubled adolescents, languishing in institutions.
And so she asks them . . . she tells them . . . she decides . . . she remembers how she opened up this poor repressed post-office clerk . . .
Well, that story doesn’t work through; it’s unyielding. I may lack a little sympathy for the lonely couple, and as targets for irony or wit or attack, they are too foreign and easy. Now the social worker might be an interesting tack to take. Suppose I see the conflict of a traditional Fundamentalist aberration with the contemporary normal aberration of the passionate do-gooding analysand. I might bring in the social worker’s boyfriend—a slouching Brooks Brothers hippie with a dropout mustache, an antiwar marcher—in fact, maybe one of the people who doesn’t listen to Harold Hill. Hmm. A linked series of stories about the failure to make contact in contemporary America; its real passions and needs are—aw, nuts, that book is published every day.
If you’re interested in the questions which agitate folks today, you run the risk of being banal. If you take the classical topics, you may simply be out of touch. So find the classical in today, and make it relevant, true, moving, and yet mysterious.
Big-feel sex story. Young professor goes off to play tennis with graduate student at Utah State University. But her racket is being restrung, so instead she takes him up the Wasatch Mountains to look at the view. She tells him she feels lonely today. He tells her he is always lonely, including today. They get out of the car in a secluded spot and start to climb in the June sun. Dry heat, isolation, sweat, smells of body and sagebrush (look up Utah-Wasatch vegetation in atlas). They joke about her husband. They joke about his wife. Conclusion; both after a little. They touch, they talk, they grope, they stoop and glance around. They are, man, like isolated. They can do it right out here with nobody to see, under the sky, under the sun, in the dry hot air, with nothing on their minds but the innocent gambol of it. (Forget their spouses for a moment.) Are they caught? Are they found? Are they betrayed? Oh, no, but they are on a steep slope of hill, and, dammit, they just can’t get a grip to hold to one place long enough to effect this unfamiliar conjunction—they can’t. The gravel and pebbles slip, they stumble, little landslides barrel down the mountain each time they try some friendly contemporary stunt. They can’t even manage a traditional stunt.
When they return to their families, they are neither sadder nor wiser, but rather, they are happier and more ignorant. They are happy because the adventure has left them with cuts, bruises, scrapes, and aching muscles, and yet no guilt. They did their best. They couldn’t manage. The holy terrain saved them. And they are innocent of evil, still horny, hornier in fact, and so it’s a hot time in the old home foyer this night. Both their partners feel that the day in the sun—“I wanted to walk, dear.” ”I had a little hike, honey"—really stimulated them, turned them on. There’s nothing like nature except unnatural acts.
Perhaps a nice epilogue in the hippie coffeehouse of Salt Lake City. They go out for a candlelit evening. The couples salute each other. As they stare, show the puzzled looks: one wife has scratches and cuts, so does one husband. Fade-out.
There’s nothing wrong with sexual comedy. I like writing it. In fantasy I laugh at fantasy, my own and others’. But is the world suffering for lack of this story? Is it unique? Well, it’s never been done to the Wasatch Mountains, so far as I know, and that gives it an exotic aura. Make them fallen Mormons, perhaps—jack Mormons, as they’re called. But do I really need to tear the lid off the Wasatch Mountains and the Mormons? I have pleasant memories of Salt Lake City, except for the time the police chief hassled me in the coffeehouse. He came in with his light meter to test the level of the illumination for immorality. It got to be a peculiar scene with the cops, so I took my date to see a movie, Teen-Agers From Outer Space. The Martian adolescents landed on earth with their dissolve guns, climbed out of their spaceships, and I noticed they were wearing Booster Keds. Perhaps that’s the story—movie night in Salt Lake City. No expose of sex and laughter, but a sad little sketch about bored visitors going to a double feature in the dirtless, sanitized, geometric capital where Joseph Smith said, “This Must Be The Place!” (honored by the This Must Be The Place monument of Joseph Smith) , and the sea gulls ate the grasshoppers to save the crops, and God made them throw up and eat more grasshoppers, and eat more and more, and it was a miracle. But now it’s pretty quiet out there in Salt Lake City. Where have all the regurgitating sea gulls gone? Another possibility for a story here.
Well, I know other exotic places. Let’s see.
Haiti. I lived there, and I’ve written more than enough stories from Haiti to make a book of Haitian Tales. An editor who has published many of my stories used to say to me, “Come on, how much will it cost us to get you out of Haiti?" He took to refusing to read anything that mentioned Creole, Port-au-Prince, voodoo, Choucoune. But it’s a part of my nightmare life, and someday I must do a book about this lovely, desperate, sad, and beautiful land. A story I haven’t written yet: My friend the dentist visited me in Port-au-Prince. What to show him after the usual tourist pleasures (voodoo, Choucoune, Creole beauties) ? Well, how about a mass arrest. I knew of some revolutionists, I knew the police knew about them, many of the revolutionists wanted to be martyrs, there was to be a meeting, and the police would be arresting everybody. Fine: a Latin farce. We dressed for spectator sport. Here come the Booster Keds again—young adults from outer space. My friend draped two cameras around his neck. The custom was for the arrest to be made, the traitors to be kept in jail briefly, and then family pressures would get them released. Police and revolutionaries, ins and outs, were generally related, anyway.
We watched the little secretive band of conspirators enter the house in the Canapé Vert district of Port-au-Prince. We stood on the flowered street, smelling bougainvillaea. Then suddenly a screech of sirens and a mass of police Buicks and army jeeps converged on the house, and what seemed like a small army burst out, with submachine guns and light mortars. Oh. Lord, this wasn’t going to be just another playful arrest, this was to be a massacre. But the commanding officer caught sight of us, the American writer and the American tourist. The command was given not to blow up the house. The CIA, they decided, was watching. They got into their cars and roared away. An American dentist had inadvertently saved the lives of a group of Haitian elite. Someplace a report went down that the U. S. of A. was “interested" in the matter.
Now we have another problem. The story is true, but too amazing to be easily believed unless I simply tell it as fact, as personal history, and not as story. But as soon as it’s told that way, it becomes part of my memoirs and loses the magic of created fiction. Personality is diminished through being presented as mere personality. I dislike the current fashion of putting the writer forward as his chief character. Mostly this self-dramatization depends for its glamour on the background material, media and TV and literary fan puffing of writers, and there will be the reaction to them that there was to, say, the Goncourt brothers’ journals. Who cares now, other than perhaps a few scholars and literary historians? (Goncourt, Edmond (Huot) de, 18221896, and Jules (Huot) de, 1830-1870) Of course, through the personal voice of an Orwell or a Proust, in their different ways, the real story emerges, and the person is only the setting for a subtle and complex refraction of light.
Something ordinary and true—the death of a friend, war experience, falling in love—can be made extraordinary by the gift of telling. The general is made particular, and blazes. My adventures in Haiti may make a curious history, but turning the search for adventure into thinly disguised fiction is like the late Hemingway’s courting of attention. “I, I, I,”howls the operatic star, and the truth of that blessed lying which is fiction recedes before the tender self-concern of a dramatic actor.
The great events of my times in Haiti should be written as reportage or history. The small horrors and blessings of Haiti—the children, the hope, the misery, the lovemaking and death-fearing—can be ripened through time and feeling into stories.
There’s this young psychiatrist who feels uneasy with his career. His mother wanted him to become a doctor, so he became a doctor. His mother wanted him to become a psychiatrist, so he got himself that diploma too. Then he went into analysis and worked himself up and around to be a psychoanalyst. Now are you happy, Mother? But she just wants to know why he doesn’t tell her his problems anymore. She has a point there. He’s gotten secretive. And with all her experience in human nature, having one herself, a human nature, who better should help a young doctor diagnose the human mind (with the troubles she’s had raising her own children) than his very own mother? So she sits in the other room, and while the patient talks, she listens, just like on the telephone, and later on she tells him what to do. A bit of admonition here, a nice girl there. Why is that patient so whiny? Why doesn’t he stand up straight?
Surprisingly enough, his patients do very well under this regimen. He writes learned papers on a new variation of the idea of group analysis—one patient, but a balanced group of therapists, such as one doctor and a lay person. One day, however, when he happens to have a cold, his mother insists on minding the store alone and he can stay home and the patients are clearly going to do even better without him.
But as soon as I say “black humor" to myself, the impulse dies. To tell a story must involve a personal and individual propulsion that has nothing to do with categories, schools, or principles, and if possible it should avoid the 1959 Mike and Elaine routines, which tend to be Peter Sellers movies in 1969.
If the day is cold and gray, and the air is foggy over North Beach and the bay, and the coffee is strong and my fingers itch, almost anything can seem justified as I wiggle the straw between my fingers or punch at the typewriter. Writing is a physical pleasure like swimming, lovemaking, or sculpting. There’s an agreeable floating in the mind and an agitated expense of muscle and blood. The pencil is an awl, the typewriter is a riveting machine or an acetylene torch, the body wields these tools like weapons against unyielding paper and teasing imagination. Men and women heave into view, ideas shove them about and are moved by them; I am exhausted at the end of a confrontation between what might have been and what should be.
Not every good story that a writer conceives can be written. Certain kinds of virtue are imaginable in the abstract, but not in the concretely moving and personal fashion that enables a particular storyteller to work the mystery of his own personality around the mystery of the characters he hopes to bring into life. A film producer once said to me, “How do you block out a story?" and I stared at him with blocks in my eyes and a block on my tongue. You don’t block out a story. You let it grow. You nourish it, encourage it, even push it a bit with sweat and ferocity, but you go where it goes. You try to travel on with it. It surprises you. Any tentative outline or scenario is made to be destroyed. You are the victim of its will. Therefore, a “good story" may turn out to be impossible, and sometimes, for mysterious reasons, a trivial (James Joyce: “No, quadrivial”) story may have meanings beyond meanings which engage you in the parental task of watching over its development. A blocked-out story is like a blocked-out child: “Congratulations, we’ve given birth to a nice Jewish doctor.” Or like an overplanned evening: “From eight to nine, discussion ol current events. From nine to ten, drunken banter. From ten to eleven, sexual overtures. Twelve o’clock: lights out.”That’s not how children or parties or stories get to be vibrant and healthy. Planning kills. Damn plans. But bless proposals.
And so the writer stares out the window, looking within. He gives up childish things to take up the responsibility of infantile pleasures. He seeks to master what he knows and, more important, what he doesn’t know. He looks to illuminate blood, terror, spirit, catastrophe, energy, the complex of hope and desire, fear and death—the commonest truths and, in short, what we will never understand, no matter how much we learn. He looks into the dark secret chambers of the soul, where there is knowledge beyond knowledge and moralities beyond the prescription of morality. He uses the rhythm method to make the invisible visible and the visible invisible. He abandons the hope of utter closeness in favor of a sense of intimacy with men in their lonely rooms, crowds on their lonely streets everywhere. He knows that there is nothing more boring than someone else’s dream, and yet he is sure that his waking fantasy can tell everyone what life means.
All, now I’ve got the action for a great full-length novel. It sums up our condition. There is the murder of a father—I see it so clearly—and a crazy half brother. And one brother is a dark rationalist, tormented by doubt and disappointed faith, and one is a saint with turbulent human feelings, and one is a passionate gambler and lover, enraged and tender, and they all care for each other—show how deeply they care—and the world and their world and the world of all of us closes down upon them, and I’ll call them Ivan, Alyosha, and Dmitri Karamazov . . .