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 rekey the only typewritten copy of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon as I get them onto a computer. The eighteenth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one. This is the first chapter in Part Three (of three).
Je crois à la résolution future de ces deux états, en apparence si contradictoires, que sont le rêve et la réalité, en une sorte de réalité absolue, de surréalité, si l’on peut ainsi dire. C’est à sa conquête que je vais, certain de n’y pas parvenir mais trop insoucieux de ma mort pour ne pas supputer un peu les joies d’une telle possession.*
– André Breton, Manifeste du surréalisme
“Your passport please?”
The French guard at the Geneva customs station was making a supreme, and somehow comical, effort to ask for John’s passport in English. John acknowledged the attempt by answering in French – “Voila.” – as he pulled his papers from a side pocket of his pack.
John wasn’t worried at all as he looked down the hallway lined with French and Swiss flags and customs agents. Robin was the one who was shaking. He was wishing that he didn’t have this knowledge about the LSD in John’s packframe. They drifted past the mundane searching faces of the customs agents without being stopped. John didn’t betray any worries, because he truly didn’t have any. Robin thought he was going to piss in his pants from fear. It wasn’t even fear for his own safety (or John’s). He just worried about everything that could possibly upset the predictability of his days.
“Why do you take risks like that?” Robin asked while flicking a drop of sweat from his moustache.
“Like walking through customs with LSD on you,” Robin exclaimed half under his breath.
“You were the one taking the risk. You…”
“You were the one with beads of worried sweat on your brow. I’m a little surprised they didn’t tear your pack apart.”
“But they wouldn’t have found anything on me. They would’ve stuck you in jail for life. Why take the risk?…Isn’t acid sort of out of date anyway?”
“Out of date?”
“Well, nobody I know trips. I thought maybe it was just going out of style.”
“It isn’t a matter of date or style. That’s like, um..balling going out of style. It’s something that’s irreplaceable for me. It supplies me with a lot of feelings that I can only get in one way.”
“But sex is a biological necessity. I wouldn’t call LSD a basic requirement for life.” John didn’t answer Rob’s arguments, so Rob continued, “Right before I cam over here I was reading some stuff by Wilhelm Reich for a psychology course…y’know, he was a student of Freud’s and then he broke with Freud and some of his major ideas…”
John had read a little by Reich, but he just kept silent as they continued to walk through the station.
“Well Reich talks about sexual repression as a main problem of modern society. Lack of food and lack of sex can cause problems, but hallucinations just aren’t one of man’s necessities. A person can…” Robin rambled on while managing to drop three more impressive names in the process.
John kept his mouth closed as they walked. He found it a little funny for Robin – Robin – to be lecturing about sexual repression. He was one of its prime examples. They both stopped to change their traveler’s checks into Swiss francs before Robin called and asked Anne to pick him up at the station.
Anne arrived and John sat down to wait for the 4:14 train to Brig and eventually to the mountains and Stalden. He flirted with the idea of tripping before he even got on the train, but he started to think about Artie, and his willpower was bolstered. He had been trying to keep his mind off Artie for the last year or two, but Robin had brought back his memory. It was only one unimportant similarity they had. They both had the same habit of saying “what?” in the same tone of voice after every other sentence. Otherwise, they were very different. John had been thinking a lot about the trip that he and Artie had taken to Europe while on the train between Paris and Geneva. Now that he was just sitting and waiting with no distractions, his mind was wandering into the forbidden area of Artie’s death.
A girl with long blond hair and a bright orange backpack sat down and greeted John in a cheerful, expressionless voice. Her face was pretty and equally as forgettable as her voice. She looked and sounded like a fashion model.
“Hi,” John replied. He was thankful for the distraction.
“Have you been in Geneva long?” the model asked.
“No, I’m just passing through on my way to the Alps.”
“Me too,” giggled the model. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“John. What’s yours?”
She looked like an Amy.
“Amy Beth Wilkinson.”
She looked like an Amy Beth Wilkinson. John was trying not to laugh but he was finding it hard to take anything seriously.
“Where do you live? – California?! You’re from California? – Do you surf? – Oh my God, you’re kidding! – Have you ever seen any movie stars? – What do you do? – Oh, I’m from Indiana and I’m a senior in high school but I’m gonna go to charm school and become a model and move to New York or Los Angeles but I don’t know which. Do you think I have a chance. Most people think so and my mom says that I’m twice as pretty as the girls on the covers of Glamour or Seventeen. My parents gave me the money to take this trip to Europe. I’ve been here for a week and I’ll be here for a week more before I go back to my last year at TOHS. – Huh? – Oh, Tumbling Orchards High School…”
John did give in to his laughter as she began to sing the Tumbling Orchards fight song. He was one of those subversives in high school who didn’t even take his own football and basketball teams seriously.
Amy Beth was hoarse and smiling with an embarrassed look on her face as she stopped singing and began talking again. She didn’t stop talking as the train pulled into the station and they climbed on. The tempo of her voice didn’t slow and the tone didn’t change at all as they sat down in seats facing each other. Her voice became like the lapping of waves or the bouncing of the train. “…and my favorite subject is social studies. I like reading about wars and heroes. Did you go to college? – University of California? You must be smart! My sister when to the University of Chicago. My parents like her more than…”
She didn’t bore John, because he was finding it easy to answer her in monosyllables and ignore her altogether.
“Yes. – No. – Yes. – University of California…” John’s lack of concentration on his answers allowed his mind to wander once more.
John’s breath escaped in thick white clouds which seemed to hang motionless in the cold mountain air and falling ice water. John felt glad to be climbing a steep path. The cold air poured thickly and luxuriously down into his lungs. It’s always good to hike in the winter. In the summer, the hot, dusty air never comes as fast and smooth as you’d like it to. Summer air tends to stifle more than refresh. Even the cold rain couldn’t steal the pleasure of the air which John gulped gluttonously. (“With your diaphragms. Breathe down here. Breathe with your diaphragms,” as Mr. Black, his old scoutmaster, used to say. John didn’t appreciate hiking then.)
John looked up above the next couple of switchbacks in the trail and he saw snowflakes. He wasn’t sure at first, but he picked up his pace and after fifteen minutes he left all the rain behind him. He stopped at a wide point in the trail, hooked his thumbs into the hipstrap of his pack and threw his head back towards the sky. He loved the way that the snow looked black against the grey sky and white against the dark backdrop of rocks and pine trees. He decided to stop for a while to let his companions catch up. He sat down on a rock while removing his pack. He dug out his down jacket and a pair of gloves. His light sweatshirt kept him warm as long as he was walking, but he could feel the cold in his joints now that he was immobile.
“Breathe with your diaphragms, shitheads!” John bellowed as Artie and Kathy came panting around the corner of a switchback. John had enjoyed his short wait. He watched the snow starting to stick to the pine branches and needles as he just smoked and serenaded the clouds with a cappella acid rock.
“Unh…look at the snow,” panted Kathy.
Artie and John both laughed for no special reason. They definitely weren’t laughing at what Kathy said. As kids who were born and raised in Southern California, none of them had ever lost any of their amazement or curiosity when confronted with snow. The combination of the snow and his five-day vacation from school made John feel and act like a kid. He skipped up the trail far ahead of Artie and Kathy as if his legs and lungs never felt a strain. He ambushed them at every corner that had enough snow to make snowballs, and when it became deeper they began to have full-fledged battles. John won every fight out of sheer energy and playfulness even though he was outnumbered.
“Truce!” Artie screamed in the heat of battle. He stood up and started walking toward John as a snowball shattered against his chin and collar. “Come on. You’re acting like a kid. I have to talk to you about something.” Artie feigned annoyance partially to impress his girlfriend. John sensed it and laughed. Artie was glad to be the one with the girlfriend for a change. He enjoyed taunting John with the fact that he was “the one who’s gonna get laid on this trip.” He was risking the loss of his letter-sorting job with the Post Office to take this trip while John had his Thanksgiving vacation from U.C. and Kathy was taking a break from her freshman year at San Fernando Valley State. Artie met her there, at a party with old friends, back in September.
This was John and Artie’s first combined camping trip since their excursion through the Alps in August. John had talked him into taking time off from work for this trip and it hadn’t taken Artie very long to agree, despite the risk. Relatively, his job wasn’t that important.
“What did you want to talk about?” John asked as he threateningly molded another snowball in his grey-gloved hands.
“Do you think we should go on in this weather?”
“Huh?” John drew his whole face up into a look of mock confusion.
“Seriously…the snow’s falling pretty steady now and I don’t want to get stuck up here with just our tents and a propane stove for warmth.”
“I didn’t tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Just as he finished asking his question, Artie swung around and caught Kathy trying to stuff a snowball down behind his collar. Artie grabbed her by the ends of her long red Irish hair and she threw her arms around his waist and they kissed for two or three minutes. Aware of contrasts – freezing skins, warm mouths.
John answered as though nothing was going on between them. “You mean I didn’t tell you that there’s a hiker’s cabin at the end of this trail with a fireplace and old mattresses and shit? Someone at school told me that some French guy built four or five of them on his own in this part of the Sierras. Remember that…”
“What?” Artie gasped as he finally freed his mouth. He had only been half-listening to what John had been saying.
“I only mentioned that there’s a cabin at the end of this trail with…”
“You mean I’m fucking carrying eight pounds of tents and storm flys and poles and stakes for me and Kathy and you were planning on us staying in a fuckin’ cabin with a fireplace the whole time?”
“Yep,” concluded John. He had been speaking calmly throughout the entire time that Artie was losing his temper and control of his words.
The way that they spoke to each other always struck Kathy as funny for some reason. The sight of Artie yelling and John embarking on one of his matter-of-fact monologues simultaneously was enough to send her into hysterics.
John ignored the laughter and the echoes of the yelling as he continued, “Remember that cabin where we stopped in the French Alps, with the loft filled with mattresses and the room downstairs with the benches and fireplace?…Well, the one up here sounds like it’s pretty similar.”
Artie made a last attempt to assert himself against John. Not because of John (although John’s constant refusal to raise his voice did annoy him), but because he always felt this need to assert himself in front of “his” girl. Artie hadn’t been able to hold onto a girlfriend for more than a couple of weeks in the two years that separated him from high school. Sometimes John worried about him. Artie worried about himself a lot. There had been no reason for worry.
They all laughed after Artie’s final outburst. John laughed because he was happy for Artie. Kathy had been laughing at all of them all along. Artie was laughing because of the wet freckled face smiling up from his shoulder. The rain and snow on his skin camouflaged his tears of joy. He couldn’t remember being so happy as they began to hike again.
Kathy began to talk to both of them. “I’m so happy to be in the mountains. – I’ve never been in the Sierras before – never – How do you like school, John? – Me too. Valley State is boring. – Drop out? I don’t like it but I wouldn’t drop out…”
Kathy didn’t talk like that at all. Amy Beth Wilkinson did. Sometimes John’s memories blended with his present.
“I’m so happy to be in Europe. I’ve never been in Europe before – never – How did you like school?…” And so on. That was Amy Beth speaking.
Kathy wasn’t brainless by any means. She was intelligent and strong despite her love for Artie. She reminded John a lot of Sue. He hoped that Artie wouldn’t have to go through the same thing that he did.
A dog somewhere up the hill bayed through clouds and fresh snow. John barked ferociously and Kathy and Artie imitated him before breaking into hysterical laughter. Artie started laughing a second too late. John noticed right away and he thought that Kathy must’ve noticed too. (She didn’t. Their infatuation was still fresh enough to obscure things like that.) Artie thought that John’s dog noises were genuinely funny. He would have laughed spontaneously if he and John were alone, but he looked to Kathy first; he was only laughing because she was laughing. Artie was eager – much too eager – to avoid any mistakes. John sensed that Kathy was too independent to put up with games like that. He was right. She wouldn’t have put up with it for very long.
John became more tired from slowing down to their leisurely pace than from hiking at his own, so he sped up. “Meet you at the cabin,” he called back as he turned a switchback and faded into white. He could still hear them laughing and talking when he was two or three switchbacks ahead of them – glad he left them alone. John stopped in snow that was about three inches deep and kicked his old work boots against a fallen trunk. A thick cake of compressed wet snow fell off onto the ground. He stood and smiled and listened for a minute. He heard the dog bark far up the hill. He didn’t hear anything but the falling snow and an occasional gust of wind from down below, so he let loose his ridiculous dog imitation. “Rooof – roooof – arooooo… Rooof…Rooooof…Aroooooo…” He listened in the silence following his calls. No laughter. The voice from up above responded with a coyote-like howl and John just laughed inside his head.
The snow continued to fall almost silently and John felt a deep surge of satisfaction from leaving his footprints, and only his footprints, in the first snow to fall on this path at the beginning of a new winter. Every time he finished a long straight stretch of path, he stopped and turned back towards the row of tracks which exposed the brown and grey trail under a field of white. He became conscious of his breathing again. It was even deeper than before. He tried to feel the diaphragm that his scoutmaster used to talk about. He couldn’t. He concentrated on his breathing to the extent that he was able to synchronize it with his footsteps. Every time his right brown boot hit the snow, he could feel his throat, nose and imaginary diaphragm being soothed and recharged by gallons of cold air.
All of his senses became extremely sharp despite (or because of) the fact that the snow and the low clouds limited his field of vision to nothing. He became of a gradual brightening in the sky as the afternoon progressed. Every sound was amplified. The creaking of his packframe was the most prominent sound along with the rubbing of his jeans and the sound of his shoes striking hidden rocks. When he stopped and listened carefully, it wasn’t hard to hear the falling snow, especially the small piles of snow which fell from the pine branches to the ground. The occasional barking of the dog up ahead erased the more subtle sounds for a moment or two.
The falling snow became louder as John neared the timberline. The snow had changed texture too. The flakes were smaller and fell faster past the stunted, high-altitude pines. The snowflakes farther down were large and wet and they began to melt and lose their individuality as soon as they hit the ground. This new snow kept its form even as it lay on the ground. It had a sting to it when it hit John’s eye and nose too. John didn’t try to put this change in the snow into words, because it wasn’t that important to him. An eskimo from one of those tribes that John studied in anthropology would have made the distinction almost unconsciously. They have a separate word for each type of snow because they live with it for such a large part of the year. John found it intriguing that the mother tongue and society of a person could completely alter the way in which she or he looked at something as simple as snow (or as complex as snow, depending on the vantage point of your ethnocentricity). John became absorbed by his thoughts as he continued hiking. He saw, despite his visions, that he was still a captive of society – his society. He wasn’t aware of the falling snow or his creaking pack or even his exhausted legs as his mind stayed active.
Deep thoughts and introspection often seemed to flow more easily in direct proportion to the altitude. It was above these short trees that John first consciously thought of extremes in diagram form – as arrows pointing towards the same spot.
His thoughts of the snow enabled him to provide labels for the arrows and the missing arc. If the missing arc was Beauty (not the beauty of this or the beauty of that, but Beauty), then the arrows could be seen as extreme complexity and extreme simplicity. Both awed John. Both shared the example of snow.
A pure white snow field could be seen as the representation of the One and the monism of the world’s (East and West) earliest (and best, in John’s mind) philosophical traditions. He was humbled by the fact that “I am all and all is I.” His words were awkward; they were no more awkward than the attempts of those old great minds to express the inexpressible simplicity of the Truth.
Great complexity met the challenge of the simple pure white field admirably in the contest to propel John into the missing arc of Beauty. Snow could be seen as the one white mass or as an infinite number of complex crystals produced in infinite variety.
“And isn’t that a model of the universe?” John’s mind raced, “Each component so complex and the whole so simple.” John’s thoughts progressed quickly from a bottomless pit of spiraling complexities toward a state of thoughtless bliss. He was deaf to the outside world until he met a barking German Shepherd and his master in a cabin at the end of the trail.
Back in 2017
After the introduction of Anne Jenkins in the last two chapters of Part Two, I’m not proud of the cartoonish Amy Beth Wilkinson and the roughly-sketched Kathy in the first chapter of Part Three. It’s not just the one-dimensional women; all of the minor characters seem like mere outlines to me (take, for example, Anne’s parents who seem little different from the adults in an animated Peanuts cartoon with their disembodied trombone voices). But this isn’t a multi-generational family novel, or a plot-driven adventure or mystery with a cast of thousands. This is a Bildungsroman written by a nineteen year old, so the solipsism is almost a requirement of the genre, isn’t it?
*Translation of the Breton epigraph at the beginning of Part Three:
I believe in the future resolution of these two seemingly contradictory states, dream and reality, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, so to speak. It is in quest of this surreality that I am aiming, certain that I won’t reach it but too carefree about my death not to calculate to some slight degree the joys of its possession.
(I don’t know why I didn’t come up with an epigraph for Part Two, because I love quotations. Fire Answers Fire has an epigraph before each chapter.)