What happens when the clichéd “novel left in a drawer” is exhumed and exposed to light?
I’m finding out and sharing the results as I retype the typescript of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon I retype them. The tenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the last chapter in Part One.
Robin returned to the hostel without incident. He hopped right into a second class subway car and found an empty seat. He gave it to an old woman who got on at the next stop and he started to feel a little faint from standing. He seemed blind to the world around him as he dragged himself out of the ground and back onto the street. He stopped and had a beer at a café near the hostel. He was trying to think about what he’d write in his journal and what he’d say to Anne when he saw her the next day. There was a pinball machine in the café. He played a few games, because he liked doing things which kept his hands busy and allowed his mind to wander.
He nursed his beer for about ten minutes and then he walked back along a familiar side street to the hostel. He stopped into the office of the guy in charge to ask about leaving early in the morning to catch a train. They communicated to each other, in a combination of broken French and English, that John and Robin wouldn’t have to do any work around the hostel in the morning if they had to leave early. The guy who ran the place was the kind of guy who appealed to Robin instinctively. He had hair about as long as Robin’s but a shade or two darker. Robin was jealous of his beard; it was thick and a little darker than his hair. Robin’s was barely thick enough to cover his face; he wanted a bushy beard more than anything else. (That would attract girls for sure.)
He climbed up the stairs to his room. He talked to a couple of tall blond-haired kids from Minnesota as he pulled his pack from his bunk. They looked like they were straight off the farm. They were on their way to visit relatives in Sweden. Robin was glad. They matched his stereotypes perfectly.
He stopped talking to them as he located a couple of big spiral notebooks with school seals on them in his pack. He kept a journal of his trip (following Anne’s example) in one and he wrote letters on the paper in the other. He rolled out his old green sleeping bag and lay down with a pen and the thicker of the two notebooks.
I didn’t write anything about Anne this morning. I was distracted when I first got up. However, I’ve been thinking about her most of the day and I guess I’ll write about her now. I’ve been thinking about what I’ll say when I see her tomorrow. I saw a girl over by the Eiffel Tower who looked like Anne to some extent, and I also saw a girl on the Boulevard St. Michel with a great body who gave me a big smile. Maybe my main problem is simply a lack of self-confidence. Sometimes I get the feeling that girls are attracted to me but I turn them off with my timidity. I’m pretty sure that’s the way Anne felt anyway./ I was able to use some French today. I’m sure that I’ll be ahead of the rest of the second year students when I go back to school in two weeks. It’ll be good to see Joan and Aaron and Paul and Mary and everyone else. This trip has made me appreciate my friends more./ Tomorrow I’m taking the train to Switzerland. I’ll only spend one overnight at Anne’s apartment in Geneva and then I’m going to head for the Alps. It’s going to be good to see some high mountains and beautiful countryside. Cities, especially French-speaking cities, are starting to get on my nerves./ À demain.
Robin didn’t write at all about John. His entries usually focused on his problems with women. This one was surprising in that it contained some plain facts about what he was up to. As he started to put the first notebook away, he was distracted by the two young Minnesotans again. They asked him lots of questions about where he’d been and what he’d done during his two months in Europe. He felt at ease talking with them. They both seemed friendly and they didn’t disturb his ideas regarding the accepted behavior for farmboys.
“How long have you been in Europe?” Robin asked.
“Oh, we landed this morning.” The one who answered appeared to be the oldest. He answered with a perpetual smile on his face.
“How do you like Paris so far?”
The other one answered, “It’s okay, but we haven’t seen any of the monuments. We walked down to a little park not too far from here. It was pretty nice and there were some fishermen and these big rocks with tunnels carved in them. They’re like on this island that you have to walk to on a hanging bridge and there are…”
“I know the place.”
“Well anyway, someone pissed on all the rocks and the whole island smelt like piss. We got away from the rocks and sat down on a bench next to this Tunisian guy who told us his life story and asked us for money.”
“He spoke English?”
The older one answered again, “No, I spoke to him in French. I had French in high school and a year of college French. I speak almost fluently.”
That disturbed Robin’s preconceptions. Everyone knows for a fact that Minnesota farmboys don’t speak French, let alone speak it fluently. They’re supposed to speak Swedish or German if they speak anything at all. Robin excused himself by saying that he had to write a letter. Robin really couldn’t think of anything he wanted to write to anybody at that point, because his mind was firmly riveted on his visions of the legendary Anne. She lost all human proportions in Robin’s expectations about the following day’s trip. John walked in as Robin was lying on his mattress and thinking. “Hey Rob, what’re you up to?”
“Just writing a letter…or trying to anyway. I have things on my mind.”
“You’re really hung up on her, aren’t you?”
“I said you’re really hung up on her. I could see you staring at every girl that came within ten feet of us today. You weren’t enjoying them though. You were staring at comparisons of your lost love back in the states. Or is it that girl you’re going to see in Geneva?” Robin was annoyed because of the matter of fact tone that John had adopted. He was annoyed that his emotions had become so visible.
“Well, I have a little more loyalty to my girl than you’ll ever have. At least I don’t go running off to whore houses the minute I’m alone.”
John never mentioned that he didn’t make his planned trip. “That’s true. But you don’t enjoy yourself either and I do. I try to… As for commitment, I found myself so committed to a girl back in college that the intensity of her telling me that she didn’t love me almost killed me. I don’t know if I could go through that again for anyone. I’ve had women give me my greatest pleasures and my deepest pains. We all get hurt but I’m just looking for pleasures now.” John was still calm and Robin fell silent. He didn’t feel like this argument. John excused himself, “I have to take a piss.” Robin took this as his cue to unzipper his sleeping bag and crawl in. He just finished getting undressed and lying down when John came back into the room. He honored Robin’s desire to be left alone as he climbed into the top bunk and decided to start on some correspondence of his own.
How’s tricks buddy? Big first day in Gay Paree, I’ll save the big news for last. I woke up this morning and met this college kid – pseudo-hippie, preppy and very political. He’ll be a rich lawyer someday. He was friendly though which is a change from most people I run into lately. Even this kid’s friendliness scared me at first. I’m ashamed of my first reaction. I figured O, he’s friendly and he’s probably gay. I assumed it simply because the only male strangers who’ve been friendly to me lately have been Sunset Boulevard gays who praised my body as I looked for drugs and those bus depot and street corner robotized messiahs who inform me about the world’s newest religion which they’re trying to finance with my money. This kid didn’t have the glazed donut look of religious zeal in his eyes so I figured he was gay. But he’s just normally mixed up. Confused by women like you and me. But that initial apprehension of mine would have turned me off totally to this new acquaintance if he hadn’t mentioned Zermatt and the Alps. We ended up spending all day together despite those first doubts. I see those fears of mine in others. Like those women who pass by without slowing down on the highway for their fear that every male hitchhiker is a rapist. And those fearful looks we got back in high school when we had our long hair and patched jeans and dilated pupils and anti-war buttons. We represented those things grown-ups were afraid of in their own children. Drugs and sex. Peace. (Am I grown up Art? I am 24 now.) There are so many examples of this fear which keeps us all apart but this aerogramme is so small and I tend to ramble. I still have to tell you the big news. The Snake’s in Paris.
Your friend, John Matthews
John folded the sky blue aerogramme neatly and simply printed “Artie Sultan” on the envelope – no address. He placed it carefully into a mailbox as he walked with Robin to the train station on the following morning.
As he drifted off into sleep, Robin became engrossed in watching the springs of John’s bed and the windows on the other side of the alley behind the hostel. It looked like the windows belonged to a factory or something and there was a night watchman turning lights on and off as he walked up the stairs. Robin found himself wondering what the place looked like on the inside. He was twenty years old but he had yet to see the inside of a factory. As the lights in the factory went off and stayed off, he found his eyes drifting to the inside of an open window and around the room. They rested on a sign written in English on the side of an old wood stove. “Do not touch. DANGER.” The words were accompanied by a primitive hand-drawn skull and crossbones. He looked around at all the shiny nylon packs and sleeping bags. His old canvas pack and cotton sleeping bag really needed to be replaced. His feet were cool because his bag was worn so thin. An emptiness in his groin reminded him of Anne. Thoughts of her kept his mind active and awake for a little while even though his eyes were closed. He eventually dozed off. He awoke a few times during the night. He dreamt vividly and erratically.
He was a traitor. He wore the short blue uniform that all traitors wore. The green-uniformed men were right behind him. They rode two-legged horses and sported blue and green plumes in their iridescent helmets.
He came to a ravine. He stopped. A two-legged horse pushed him down and the green-suited soldiers, who were Indians now, laughed and chanted in their slow, sticky voices. He was afraid of the Indians and their strange language. He started rolling in the ravine. It really wasn’t a ravine. It was a slight, soft grassy slope. Spears landed on all sides, but the Indians didn’t charge.
They looked afraid.
Robin sat with his back to a haystack. He watched the Indians gallop past. A jeep followed them and stopped before the haystack.
The haystack was no longer there. The jeep was no longer there.
Robin was on top of a grassy knoll. Nothing in sight but grass and a man in a grey business suit. He arrested Robin and they walked into a house. The man’s wife was preparing dinner. She smiled at Robin. The man said that Robin would be shot and hung in the attic with the laundry after he’d been interrogated. They were in the man’s study. Animal heads on the wall. The man’s hair was an oozing black liquid.
The man turned on a bright light and the room went dark…
Robin woke up. He had been sleeping with his face towards the ceiling when someone had walked in and turned on the bare light bulb. Robin turned his face towards the wall after he realized that he was awake. He liked his political dreams. He hadn’t had one in awhile and they brought back old memories. Most of the old memories were no more than memories of books and worn daydreams that had become more real with the passage of time. He hoped he could fall back into the same dream.
The zipper on his sleeping bag melted into a roadbed. He and his mother, father and brother were in the family’s Buick on the way from their home in Garden City to his aunt’s house in Rhode Island for a wedding.
He wasn’t in the car anymore. He was in a cramped hotel room and his suitcase was open on the floor. He dreamt that he was ejaculating into Anne’s mouth but he was pissing into the suitcase. His family walked in. He turned around and pissed on the bed and wall. His mother looked at the floor and asked if he had pissed on it. She didn’t speak a word, but he understood what she was asking.
“No, a dog did it.” His pants were at his knees.
Only he and his mother were left in the room. A girl walked in to sleep in the room. More people came into the room. It was a big room in a hostel now. Everyone piled up there new green shiny nylon backpacks in one corner. He was alone with one girl now. They were reading each other scenes from pornographic classics printed on the sides of golf balls. She was lying on the bed and he was standing – balancing on two golf balls.
A golfer came in to examine the balls. He turned out to be an anthropologist too. He gave Robin an anthropology lesson from a giant book filled with color pictures of wild animals. Robin saw one picture of a witch doctor and a voodoo doll carved in his image.
He was a woman waiting for himself to come fuck her. He, in his masculine form, opened the closet and gasped. He, in his feminine form on the bed, started screaming. All this time a police car was pulling up the long driveway to the hostel. The policeman heard the screams and came running up the stairs. They (he) were (was) scared of a picture in the closet which looked like a picture of the secretary of state at first, but was actually a picture of a torn window shade, a picture hook and an empty frame. The policeman – no face – said that it was a rare portrait of the secretary of state at his birth and that the secretary was a national hero. He took the picture.
Robin was restored to one body again. He found himself walking down the hallway of the hostel looking for a bathroom. The hallway was longer than he remembered it. It was endless. He saw a door that said “rest rooms” and he walked in. It was a secretarial pool with fluorescent ceiling lights which practically blinded him. A bald, sexless, white-robed secretary told him that the bathroom was past the hallway filled with vending machines.
In the hallway he passed vending machines that sold dogs and candy. He bought a German Shepherd and a pack of spearmint gum. The hallway led into a giant department store.
Everyone in the store stared at him and his dog as they chewed their gum. They were naked…
Robin woke up. The sunlight brought an end to his sleep this time. He thought a little bit about the strangeness of his dream. He wrote down parts of it in his journal. He wrote a lot about the gum-chewing dog from the vending machine, but he left out the parts about pissing on the floor and making love to himself. He was mortally afraid that someone might read his journal after he was famous, and they might determine that he was crazy (or a sexual deviant unfit for academic and public prominence) after interpreting something like that. He made a vow that he had to try to interpret his own dreams one of these days. He meant to do some reading on dreams for a while, but he never got around to it. John would have told him that he was crazy just for wishing to interpret such dreams. Nonsense is nonsense whether it takes place in sleep or in full consciousness.
John had fallen asleep right away and passed directly into a recurring dream occupied by a snake with scales the size and shape of Volkswagen hoods. He knew what his dream meant for him and he didn’t have to interpret it. He was still asleep when Robin touched his shoulder. “Time to get up.”
“Fuck! That makes two mornings running that you woke me up in the middle of my dream. You’re as bad as my mother was when I was living at home.”
“Don’t blame me. We have to catch a train.”
Back in 2017
Congratulations and thank you if you’ve made it this far. We’re on page 101 of the manuscript and we just finished Part One (of three). It has more structure than I remember it having; I like the way that it begins and ends with John and Robin waking up in Paris 24 hours (or slightly less than 24 hours) apart. When I started typing the first chapter a month ago, I mentioned that I didn’t think the manuscript would mention the year, let alone a specific date. I was wrong. We found out from Robin’s journal entry that all the action in the first ten chapters took place on August 15, 1975. That got me curious, so last night I went up to the attic and opened some boxes. In a old yellow and blue Löwenbräu carton whose limp cardboard sides seem ready to disintegrate, I found what I was looking for, a pile of old notebooks, one of which was my journal covering most of 1975 when I was living and going to school in Europe. August 15, 1975 was the day I saw the woman I loved (and love) off from Le Bourget airport in Paris on a flight home to her boyfriend waiting to meet her at JFK in New York. It may not be up there in literary history with James Joyce and Nora Barnacle’s famous first date on June 16, 1904, but her departure was significant in my life. On the following day, I took a train to Geneva.
I also found in the box another notebook that contained, in minuscule illegible handwriting, the very first draft of Exile. Rather than beginning with a quotation from D.H. Lawrence, the quote on the endleaf was from a Carlos Castaneda book I read during my first weeks of writing.
“You see, people tell us from the time we are born that the world is such and such and so and so, and naturally we have no choice but to see the world the way people have been telling us it is.” –Don Juan, Journey to Ixtlan”
That’s a little too spot on. I like the mystery of the D.H. Lawrence epigraph better. My journal tells me that I had just read Castaneda’s A Separate Reality and Le Tour de Gaule d’Asterix, and was in the process of reading Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund when I started writing the novel. I read Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan, Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico, and Peter Reich’s Book of Dreams during the first couple of weeks of writing. The book’s original working title was Rêvelations. Get it? That circumflex makes the title a portmanteau of the French word for ‘dream’ and the English word ‘revelation.’ That’s just a little too clever, and I’m very glad I changed it. Also, the dreams seem to take up a larger part of the first handwritten draft; I’m glad I cut down on those as well. Few things can be as boring as someone else recounting the details of their dreams, or as John puts it as the end of Part One, ‘nonsense is nonsense.’