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 manuscript of my 1970’s novel Exile in serial form, posting chapters as soon I retype them. The fifth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one.
After the beers, they walked a little farther into a statue garden behind the Louvre. At least these statues possessed more life than the military and neo-classical statues they had just been walking past. Most of the statues here were of naked women, or maybe the same woman, in a hundred different poses. It was a relief to see a woman rolling on her side or just sitting peacefully after looking at victory monument after victory monument. There were some large military monuments in this square too, but they were dwarfed by the humanity of the women.
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot.” Robin was playing the role of tourguide again. “You can see the top of the Eiffel Tower from here.”
John wasn’t too interested. He was captivated by the emotions portrayed by the statues and he didn’t have much regard for the Eiffel Tower, other than as an unfinished skyscraper. He looked around anyway and stood in a state of shock.
Robin hadn’t stopped talking. “…and it’s sort of hard to see today because of the heavy clouds. It’s strange that the sky is so cloudy over there. Straight up it’s as clear as a bell.”
John didn’t see any clouds, and the Eiffel Tower was no more than a thin outline, partially obscured by a snake’s back with a distinct diamondback pattern. So it had waited over here. But John still couldn’t understand why no one else could see it. This was no hallucination.
It was cold for late September in California as John and some other kids from his troop were driving into the San Fernando Valley from the east. They had been camping in San Jacinto and other places in the mountains above Palm Springs and their appearance betrayed that fact. They had been caught in a rainstorm without their tents and they looked a little seedier than usual. Everything was alright now. They were the cream of the crop, the patrol leaders, and they were riding home in Artie’s father’s Land Rover. He’d always drive them back on dirt roads until he hit the valley and its freeways.
The valley was down below them now. John could pick out the suburban communities of light and the serpentine freeways which shone red and white and joined those communities together. They’d be zipping along the Ventura Freeway soon with the rest of those lights, but now they could play God from their perch in the hills. Mr. Sultan stopped his Land Rover, ground it into four wheel drive and climbed a little knoll from which even the other mountains looked small. With the same mannerisms he’d use every time he did this (which was often), he’d say, “What do the people down in their houses on the hills have that I don’t have? They’re so high and mighty looking over the valley, but they’re just part of my view now.”
John and Artie and the other John, John B., and Dave never really thought too deeply about the people down below them. For them, looking into the valley was akin to looking up at the sky. Now instead of picking out Orion and the Little Dipper, they were trying to pick out Canoga Park and Tarzana.
“Isn’t that Topanga Plaza over there?” loudly.
“You’re cracked Artie. The Plaza’s on the other side of the valley.”
“No, I could’ve sworn…”
“Kids! Shut up and appreciate the view!”
After a few minutes, they all got tired of the screaming and decided to head for home. The last leg of their trek home was fun. There were lots of jokes being told and rumors about Bob Williams and the strip poker that he and his brother played with fifteen year old girls. John was as lively and excited as the rest of them, and he was the center of attraction now. He had heard directly from Bob’s best friend about the poker games and he was trying to remember all the details without adding too much.
All of a sudden, John stopped talking and his mouth dropped open. They were all tired, but this was ridiculous. It looked like someone had just hypnotized him. Besides, he was in the middle of a great story.
“So what happened after she took her shirt off?” someone whispered urgently.
“There’s a fuckin’ giant snake over there!” pointing.
“Will you boys watch your language back there?”
John was too excited to hear anyone. He pointed back towards Sepulveda Pass and said even louder, “That’s the hugest fuckin’ snake I ever saw!”
The Land Rover was in a state of total confusion by this time. Artie’s father was threatening to pull off to the side of the road and “smack the living daylights” out of John if he said “fuck” one more time. John B. and Dave were laughing hard at the whole situation and specifically at the way which John pronounced “fuck”. Artie was the only one who seemed interested in what John was saying.
“Where’s the snake?” Artie asked.
“Over there.” He was still pointing to the same point in the pass.
“Yeah, I guess if you look at the freeway over there in the right way it sort of looks like a red and white garter snake…because of the lights.”
“No..No! That’s not what I mean! This snake has a diamondback pattern and it’s lying right where the freeway should be. Don’t you see it’s brown and grey and it’s alive…You can almost see the blood pumping through it!”
He was quiet after that last outburst; it was obvious that no one believed him. He kept on staring though. When the jokes commenced again he didn’t join in. He finally caught a glimpse of the snake’s head and it was staring back. John didn’t make a sound. Why should he? The snake didn’t scare him. It didn’t have the head of a rattlesnake, just the body. The head was the head of those black and yellow snakes they used to catch out in Dave’s wood pile. The head was egg-shaped and kind; it didn’t have the menacing fangs or forehead of a poisonous snake.
John knew that snakes couldn’t smile – not like a child smiles anyway, with his ribbons of white teeth – but this one did. It smiled more like a benevolent grandfather waiting for his grandchildren to open their gifts on Christmas. Its mouth hardly moved, but there was warmth in the snake’s eyes. The snake disappeared as they took the freeway ramp down onto the boulevard. John was confused – more confused than he could ever remember, and he didn’t say a word until they dropped him off in front of his white stucco house.
“Thanks for the ride Mr. Sultan. Bye Artie. Bye John. Bye Dave.”
“Hey John, don’t forget the troop meeting tomorrow.”
“oh yeah, right,” but as he walked across the lawn to his front door, he was hoping that his teachers would pile on the work the next morning so he’d have an excuse to miss the meeting. He couldn’t face his friends so soon. He really made a fool of himself.
He walked into the house expecting the normal questions about his weekend. His parents didn’t disappoint him. They asked for all the details. They thought he was over-anxious to take a shower and get to bed. Usually they ended up begging or bribing him to take off his jeans and boy scout shirt.
He dreamt profusely and awoke confused. Now he wasn’t really sure of what he had seen the night before. It was like that time the month before when he went to the movies with Caroline and she kissed him the way she did. He found himself trying to relive the pleasure and he couldn’t. It was already in his past.
Now here he was in Paris, staring at the same snake with a new found friend who, despite all his education, was just as blind as a twelve year old boy scout. He couldn’t tell Robin what he saw where Robin saw only dark clouds. There were already enough people who were convinced of his madness. He had to act like nothing was happening and he had to stop staring.
“I’m going over to the Eiffel Tower.” John was hoping that Robin wouldn’t follow; it was no more than a pipe dream.
“Oh yeah, this is a good time for us to head over there. They turn the fountains on in an hour or two.”
John tried to aim his eyes lower and act interested in the conversation as they started walking. “They have fountains by the tower?”
“Not right next to the tower, but across the Seine at Trocadero.”
“Oh good.” John couldn’t stop his voice from trailing off weakly as his eyes were drawn back to the snake. It was the same one. Its body shone like it was anointed with oil, and it was translucent in the bright sunlight. He could almost see the blood pumping underneath the fragile skeleton.
Robin could see his friend’s preoccupation, but he thought that he was staring at the Eiffel Tower. He was afraid to ask him what he thought of it or why he was staring, because he was sure that John was watching the tower dance, or at least shake a little. Robin would have been convinced of John’s lunacy if he had been told the truth. Snakes just aren’t hundreds of yards long. He’d never even read about one in a fairy tale (just dragons) and if such a thing existed, everyone would write about it.
John managed to look down and try to carry on a coherent conversation when the snake and tower left their field of vision, but the walk seemed endless to him. It had been a few years since he last saw the snake and he had almost convinced himself that it was merely an hallucination which kept on recurring in his dreams. He was glad that it wasn’t.
Young John awoke early. He could hear his mother and father talking in the kitchen. It was nothing important. They’d always just talk about work and bills and and every once in a while he’d hear a loud kiss. He knew he had a half hour to get ready for school after his father left. He also knew that as soon as the front door closed he wouldn’t have a moment’s peace from his mother (especially on the first day of the school year), so he put his arms between his legs and drew his knees up to his chest and tried to squeeze the last few minutes of sleep from his pillow.
He was still confused. He had to exchange a world where snakes and unworldly things became the center of his existence for a world where such things were condemned to the realm of fantasy. At least his room faced the west and his drapes were drawn tight so the transition into harsh reality didn’t have to be too sudden. At least the…
“John? Time to get up.”
After the second or third call, he finally managed to call up the courage he needed to walk into their bright yellow and orange kitchen.
“Did you have a good weekend? Your father and I didn’t talk to you much last night.”
They talked for fifteen minutes or so about the rain and what they ate and how they were going to air out his sleeping bag so it wouldn’t mildew, but he couldn’t mention the one thing on his mind. This was exactly like that Sunday morning after he and Caroline did all that kissing with the tongues. He wanted to say so much, but he had to keep quiet. He could joke about it with his friends, but he couldn’t talk about it. There are certain things that one can’t talk about it.
They were almost to the tower when John’s feelings began to overwhelm him totally. If he had been examining the snake anymore closely, his eyes would have burnt holes through it. The snake was lying behind the tower. The tower just seemed to be a thin shadow in front of it.
John’s mind tried hard to grasp the reality of what was going on. There were definitely people occupying the same space as the snake but they didn’t seem to notice it. The snake couldn’t be real. But look at the people. They weren’t really there. They were little more than thin outlines just like the tower and the buildings all along that bank of the Seine.
Man’s civilization was the hallucination. Just like in Los Angeles where the desert keeps a constant watch over the city. There is a natural world which lives unencumbered by man.
John seemed to understand better now. This snake was his only real link to another world – another dimension – whatever it was. He had hallucinated before, but this was totally different. Wherever the snake went he erased traces of the manmade world and left the natural world intact. “And he leaves me intact and he lets me see,” John thought to himself. He was glad but he couldn’t explain why. “He’s my link.”
John was still puzzling as the snake turned towards the southeast and faded.
John hated to come to school in September. Especially on days like this when the temperature rose above ninety degrees. The school looked a lot like an army barracks with its rows of tan bungalows and its twelve foot high chain link fence. Sometimes John would pretend that he was a soldier returning from a dangerous mission as he marched through the front gate.
This morning he sauntered into his homeroom as an Air Force captain into a debriefing room. He had just flown a dangerous mission far over German lines to knock out a ball bearing plant.
The homeroom teacher read the day’s announcements. “As you all know, today and tomorrow are half days. You’ll go to your morning classes today and your afternoon classes tomorrow. If you…”
He droned on while John quietly accepted the next day’s mission, a milk run over Malibu Canyon to knock out a large snake that’s been harassing some residents. “Cake, sir,” John replied bravely.
After the flag salute and John’s dismissal, he walked down onto the blacktop in front of his classroom. His classroom was even worse than most of the others. It was just a trailer that they set up on the playground to accommodate the overcrowding in the city’s schools.
As he walked out the door, Artie came running across the baseball diamond (the name given to those yellow squares painted on the school’s ubiquitous blacktop).
“What did you see last night?”
“What?” John heard the question perfectly, but he wanted to make it seem like it was the farthest thing from his mind.
“What did you see in the pass last night?”
“Nothing,” John lied as he fidgeted nervously and dug his hand deeper into the lunch money in his pocket.
“You were white as a ghost and screaming about a snake!”
“Pretty good joke, huh?”
Robin couldn’t guard his curiosity any longer. “What were you staring at before?”
“You didn’t see anything strange? You were as white as a ghost.”
Back in 2017
Would Kafka’s Metamorphosis have been more successful if Gregor Samsa hadn’t become a cockroach until chapter five rather than in the first sentence? At least that D.H. Lawrence quotation about snakes at the beginning of the book now starts to make a little bit more sense (even if the snake itself may not). I’m still fighting a constant urge to rewrite sentences as I type, but I’m successfully resisting the urge to make even small corrections to spelling and punctuation. I’m glad to see that I could spell fairly well without access to spell checkers and the internet when I typed this draft forty years ago.
It will probably be about a week before I have a chance to read and re-type chapter six. I’m looking forward to see what happens next and I hope you are too (we’re about 40 pages into the 220-page manuscript at this point).