Tag Archives: novels about Oakland

Coup De Grace

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Having some difficulty with the novel, The Situation. Some of you are reading it, for which I am grateful, but some of you are not getting it, about which I am…hmm…chagrinned, to put it politely. I know. I’m a whining, narcissistic author, starved of understanding. I should accept the partial appreciations I am receiving, the enjoyment some are having, taking what they like, as they say in 12-step programs, and–and the corollary is huge–leaving the rest.

To hell with that.

I wrote both CFTH and The Situation, for various reasons: 1.) to express myself creatively, 2.) to entertain, and 3.) to teach something important as an adjunct to my psychotherapy practice, which happens privately, behind closed doors, thus generating a need to venture outwards. There are in my novels several themes of note, and as my own process is sometimes unconscious, I can’t account for them all. Not that I don’t try, so here’s a rough list of succinctly-termed ideas present in the text and subtext: addiction, trauma, the tyranny of workplaces, of secrets within closed systems, like workplaces and families; about the ubiquity of dissociation, of impotence, and indifference; about the distance of friends, the lingering power of the absent, and the tense battles between lovers, for each self to fit in.

I guess that should be enough, but especially for The Situation–the follow-up and coup de grace–there needed to be something special (not to mention positive), something to make sense of, tie together the story as a whole. Empathy. That was the quality–the redemptive, sobriety-supporting (as one reader puts it) quality–that came to mind, as the point. And so, the novel delivers a climax with empathy as its thematic core, and everyone, author, characters and readers alike, should get the point and transport said point, somehow, back to our (or their) daily lives. And they seem to, those supportive few. But there are clues along the way–words unfortunately skipped, I suspect–that are getting missed; and it’s important. Why? Because you might notice something in relationships as in art: you shouldn’t miss the details.

Anyway, much misunderstanding centers around a contentious section of Situation, entitled “Nightmare”. Bryan “Weed” Tecco, my cardboard villain from CFTH, referenced only in his absence in that novel, is thereafter my protagonist, and he’s alive, contrary to the suppositions of my other characters, and in all likelihood, readers of CFTH. Emerging not-quite drowned from a lagoon in West Marin, he holes up at an old friend’s house in villagy Bolinas, then hitchhikes back to suburbia, only to be picked up and later drugged by a man, Dan Pritchard, with a sadistic streak and an apparent diaper fetish. Apart from recalling Chris Leavitt’s wayward new diaper invention from the first novel, the notion here is to have my character make a psychic return to helplessness: to a time when all needs are taken care of (and Dan Pritchard does take care); to a time when the body is uninhibited; to a time when the mind is bewildered, and possibly terrified. Weed is humiliated by Dan Pritchard, and though he appears to escape uninjured, there lingers the suggestion that Weed has been violated, while asleep no less.

Attentive readers, those who stuck with the various backstories of CFTH, may think this just desserts, this victimization. After all, according to Chris Leavitt, Weed introduced friends like Chris to not only a drug using lifestyle, but also a milieu in which prostitutes, sex, and consent for sex, moves freely (from one POV), or inchoately, dissociatively (from another). Regardless, I had plans for Bryan “Weed” Tecco–plans to make him an unlikely hero, back from the dead, but more importantly, back from infamy and indifference. In the chapters that follow “Nightmare”, Weed resolves not to talk about his ordeal with Dan Pritchard, but as many in my practice have discovered, not talking about something far from means that one is un-impacted. However, time is short in drama, and therefore serendipity: Weed meets Jill Evans, a shared “friend” of Chris Leavitt, and as she accompanies Weed on his road-trip search for his friend, she lets slip the clumsy near-rape Chris had attempted in CFTH. For the determined separatist, Weed, this presents an opportunity for his own suffering to quickly metabolize so that he might support another.

And later, as he finally connects with Jules Grotius, the creator of the subversive online game, ‘The Situation’–the self-styled guru of a new medium through which conscientious activism can be achieved–he listens, half-percolating the needs of his re-emerging self, half-reconciling current events with past traumas, while absorbing the heroic purpose he has unwittingly lived over the previous several days. Weed the drug dealer may live on. Weed the woman-distrusting bully may even persist with old habits. But Weed the game-fixated, insular enigma has been dealt a death blow.

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Everything We Love Vanishes

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A quote from W.B Yeats. In The Silent Past and the Invisible Present, Paul Renn writes about the traumatized, the pathological mourning of those whose ambivalent yearning for and anger with attachment figures becomes dissociated; split off and embedded into personality. Through Renn’s case examples, the reader learns that those with attachment difficulties, personality problems, are beset with distorted representations of self and others, and that time is lost; meaning, past and present become conflated experiences: the past denied, but acted out in the present. In Crystal From The Hills, protagonist Chris Leavitt (nicknamed Crystal) is an itinerant trauma victim, suffering from (among other things) post-acute withdrawal resulting from (you guessed it!) methamphetamine use. He is unconsciously playing out a conflicted identification with absent caregivers: a distant, self-absorbed father, and a protective yet similarly detached and secretive mother. The backstory has yielded his character and thus the first two-thirds of the novel, his “acting out”. Chris tries to be “nice” in life, but as often as not his attempts are disengenuous, especially when dealing with authority. His mentor, Aunt Jenny, advises, “there’s nothing nice about being nice”, articulating the demand that he be real. And he has acted out upon anger: Chris’ problems at work–his “suspension” for insubordination–reveals his impulses, his sporadic rebellion against authority figures and systems. More sinisterly, his present-day drama contains a mystery: the disappearance of his friend, the malevolently reptilian Weed. Chris is noticeably evasive. If attentive, the reader must consider some dark possibilities as the mystery unfolds: is Chris psychotic? a killer? a rapist, even? Meanwhile, ambivalence thwarts Chris’ other ambitions: sleep disturbed, his dreams are interrupted, and his perceptions are marred by visions, his so-called “shadows”. His ideas, such as his strange and somewhat silly diaper invention (an indicator that his dreams entail regression) are tentatively delivered, but easily withdrawn or dismissed with self effacing humor. Back in the day, he once tried to be an actor, and still does affect the odd scene here and there (incongruous quotes from film or literature), but surely the best actors must first be grounded in reality, and reality, through no fault of his own, actually, has also been elusive.

Above all, Chris has failed at love, just as his father had. That is, Chris has tried to sustain love and relationships, but the truth is that parents, friends, women, have all left. And so the story begins upon a two-fold leaving: the disappearance of his doppelganger, Weed, followed by Chris’ disappearance into the anonymous milieu of Oakland.

 

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Fragments resembling accidents

In writing a story about accidents and trauma, I had the challenge of insinuating these themes into all areas of the narrative. I had to. Victims don’t have a choice. The memories of events are there for them everyday, in every waking moment, even disturbing the somnolent ones–encoded in the insignificant details of life. I sought to embed these elements into my characters, both central and supporting, but somehow let ’em leak out. There are leaks in Crystal From The Hills, my tale of an itinerant drug addict and trauma victim wandering the milieu of Oakland after falling down its idyllic hills. An accident. Chris Leavitt never meant to hurt anyone. He doesn’t mean to trigger the phobic response of those who understandably associate the sounds of ringtones and doorbells with disaster. He doesn’t intend to stir a chill in those who crave truth but are surrounded by secrets and liars. Accidents happen. That’s what people once said to Chris, trying to make him feel better. Feeling better: it never made him better. Observe a few revealing fragments:

“Have you spoken to your mother recently?”

“No,” Chris answered, suddenly robotic.

“She understands more than you think.”

“I don’t want to talk to her.”

Aunt Jenny held a napkin to her mouth, suggesting an emergent revulsion. She quickly eyed Magdalena, who was hovering about the table, not quite waiting upon them; seemingly undecided as to her role. Jenny nodded, uttered hints about forthcoming stacks of clothing including all that Chris had brought with him. Between them they communicated a solution: an ironing board. Old clothes of his ought to be unearthed from the guest room closet, she also directed.

The angelic, chiming sound of the doorbell stirred them all out of this quiet, embarrassed arranging. Magdalena shot a glance in the direction of the front door, as though the sound were one that triggered old, traumatizing memories. Fleetingly, Chris noticed her wide-eyed bearing and speculated that it was borne of full-moon nights when doors were knocked upon, delivering bad news, illness and violent death—or accidental death—of prodigal loved ones. Aunt Jenny, startled, gaped expectantly at her obedient servant.

“I wonder who that could be,” she said, surprised. Magdalena marched dutifully and solemnly to the door, whispering in Spanish some ominous imprecations. Aunt Jenny turned her puzzled, yet vaguely inquiring expression towards Chris. Shrugging, he suspended his fork over his half-eaten omelet, and indulged a nameless foreboding. He looked down upon his food, upon the raped shreds of congealed egg and frayed greens. What an accident this all resembles, he thought.

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Disconnect/Reject

My novel, Crytal From The Hills, is looking for a place to live. Give it a home, readers. Or give it an agent, or this blog a directory. Otherwise, it might become a rejected story of rejection, about a guy named Chris Leavitt who’s left home, looking for a place to stay in the aftermath of an accident, a disappearance, a trauma, and a mystery–the novel’s pitch. Irony? Actually no–it might be apt, this quiet response, this absence of yours. You see, this is a tale of disconnection/rejection; disconnects and rejects; relationships with the absent highlighted by absent relationships with the present. Longings: dream about longings, why don’t you. I thought about all this when I started this thing three years ago. That’s planning, I say. That’s contrivance, some might think. Anyway, I sought feedback. Really. I made calls, wrote e-mails, did what you’re supposed to do–I connected, and asked what others thought. But phone calls get dropped, and e-mails sometimes land in junk. Sorry, says the world: we didn’t get that.

Here’s another passage from CFTH:

“So, what are you gonna do after you check your phone.” Chris thought for a moment that she was mocking him, referring to his phone task like it was his major chore of the morning. Jill flung her purse on her bed—the only major piece of furniture in the unit—and stepped over to a desk to check messages on her land line. Almost simultaneously she pulled out her IPhone and began checking its messages; multitasking, like she was showing how it was done. To her left was a several square foot space she’d created against a wall. She gestured towards it, indicating several of Chris’ belongings. Chris had already moved in, it seemed like; he’d colonized her space with his motley collection of goods, things he’d once thought he couldn’t live without: a backpack made of hemp; a Nick Drake CD sticking out the top. Inside, there were several smaller items, such as another Ziploc bag, filled with Percocets. There was an IPhone that had been “blown up” several times, such that its memory was now full. Taking up the most space was an oft-malfunctioning laptop and a seeming trail of electronic dependency: wires, cords, stray flash drives. Somewhere in the backpack were a toothbrush, a bottle of arnica gel, and a thin squib of a soap-bar. His clothes, which included two shirts, a spare pair of jeans and one extra pair of socks, were strewn in a pile, looked aged and stiff. Chris appeared to be aiming for a staleness wherein some items would soon be able to stand by themselves, encrusted with dirt, dust, the curled up lint that hovers above tufts of carpet.
It all came back to him now, the minutes he and Weed had spent here the night of the accident. Chris and Jill had one argument that night amid the flurry of plans and excitement. To her he’d seemed manic—spun, in all likelihood, despite his subsequent denials. Weed stood in the background, grinning, watching them bicker, and staring at Jill especially. Greasy strands of hair stuck out from beneath his baseball cap. They actually looked like weeds, thought Jill, catching sight of him. Chris had a poster of James Dean which he’d plucked from a tube that he wanted to place next to the bed. Jill vetoed the plan, said it didn’t go with anything. Chris stared in protest at the sparsely decorated walls of her apartment, and appealed vainly for “logic” on the matter. Jill was having none of it, either the poster, or the premise. Logic? She’d swat that notion away easily enough. But the real issue, the underlying divide, was something else. She didn’t want him to feel at home.

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In broad daylight

The darkness of the city: in broad daylight. Jill Evans, Chris Leavitt’s nominal girlfriend in Crystal From The Hills, schools him earlier in the story, about his arrogance and naivite. It’s naive to wander the streets of West Oakland, patronizing the locals, imagining he is free and safe. She envies him. Women, I think, envy (and thus are irritated by) carefree young men who take for granted their advantages. And so, the next passage, a pre-climactic wake-up call for the similarly traumatized Jill, is foreshadowed, like all of the events of the story. It’s just a matter of what gets noticed really. For all Jill’s faux streetwise warnings, not to mention Chris’ obsession with Shadows, who used to follow him only at night, it is Jill who is caught off guard, thinking she is immune.


To cap it off she was jumped on the way home the following morning. Her mistake had been stopping at a light, obeying the rules of the streets, but not those of the street. Leaning back on her bike, Jill took a brisk swig from her water bottle, only to feel a hard thump against her back wheel. As her bottle tumbled away with water spraying from her mouth, Jill felt a strong tug upon her backpack; the force threatened to drag her along the pavement and for a split second she imagined that somehow she’d been ensnared by a passing vehicle. Feet shuffled around her as the bag was torn away. Her assailant turned to throw Jill’s backpack to a partner, the action resembling that of two basketball players executing a fast break. But with his back turned, the first of the two young men was rendered vulnerable. Without a second thought, Jill lunged at him and began wind-milling her arms, surprising herself with her own intensity. Instinctively, she opened up her right hand, and with a scything motion, slashed through his blocking limbs, scratching his face on the way through. The partner ran and faced her. Seeing him face-to-face scuttled assumptions, and reduced him in years. No more than fifteen, she guessed, regarding the gaunt, angry face of the boy. He reached for his back pocket; no small task given that his pants hung halfway to his knees. From the front, a web of denim hung between his legs, placing him at a disadvantage should a chase ensue.

 

 

It was as if she recognized him—not the boy per se—but the type: meaning, the age, the demeanor, the ephemera, and the race: black. She could hurt this boy, she realized. In her current state, that is—she could do real harm. And then she might treat him. In fact, it seemed to her that she had done, on countless occasions. She’d nursed young men like this. She’d dressed their wounds, their grisly knife and gunshot injuries. She’d replaced their bedpans, brought them food, and seen them wince as she’d replaced their catheters. With a look of sheer rage that masked humiliation, the boy brandished a gleaming firearm and dangled it with a fashionably downward arc towards Jill’s face.

            “OK!” she cried breathlessly, and held up her arms in surrender. The boy’s face shook. Looking around, seeing odd witnesses, he appeared to take stock of this moment, and decide what humiliations—past, present, and anticipated—will merit the ultimate retribution. With a deft turn, he then sprung away and disappeared, showcasing an impressive sprint. Later, she estimated that the entire incident had taken less than a minute of her time.

            Unhurt, Jill gathered herself, assessed her apparently undamaged bicycle, and then resumed her journey back to her apartment, though not before remonstrating in the street to no one in particular.

“Really. In broad daylight!” she exclaimed, feeling angry and bewildered at the community she’d chosen to live amongst and help.

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