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 fourth chapter follows, but click here to begin with chapter one.
I know what my logic was for establishing chapter breaks in more recent writing projects, but I haven’t been able to figure out what I was thinking in 1975 when writing this. The breaks seem almost random at times, just to give myself, or the reader, a breath. I’m also getting the sense in these first chapters that I’m spending too much time just clearing my throat before the real story begins (if a real story ever begins).
John and Robin came to the end of the Champs-Élysées and fought the swarms of small cars and buzzing motorized bicycles across the Place de la Concorde to the Tuileries Garden. Robin cloaked himself in his role as tourguide.
“Up there is the Jeu de Paume, the impressionist museum.” He went on to tell the story of Manet’s “Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ in Jeu de Paume and Ernst’s painting of the same name.
John chuckled at Robin’s naiveté about the whole surreal world surrounding him.
Down below Jeu de Paume, they stopped to sit down for a minute in front of a stage which was being rigged with microphones by two long-haired guys in tie-dyed pants.
“They look like Merry Pranksters,” John said, pointing to the men on stage.
“Did’ya ever read Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?”
“Well, the Pranksters were the stars of the Acid Tests. They ran around with Ken Kesey just tripping their balls off. The reason those guys remind me of them is because the Pranksters were really into day-glo paints and microphones and the parallels just hit me…It wasn’t really important.”
“Ken Kesey, the author? He took LSD?”
“How could he write like that if he didn’t?”
“I’d argue the cases of Shakespeare and every other great writer if I thought it would do any good.” Robin had resigned himself to the fact that he couldn’t reconcile alien minds.
“No, all I said was that he writes like someone who’s seen other worlds and can look at this one from the outside.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t know.”
“Yeah, I know you wouldn’t.” John didn’t let his opponents fold so easily. His final statement was just a twist of the knife which made Robin think a little harder about his position. John didn’t accept the idea that each of them could rest on their own prejudices. Neither one of them could learn or grow from a resignation like Robin’s.
He was going to try to revive their discussion, but they were interrupted by music coming from loudspeakers and a couple of tie-dyed leotarded girls joining their partners on stage. The music seemed to go off as soon as it came on. They were just checking the sound system. The women, who were obviously dancers, started doing simple bar exercises.
Robin was ready to suggest that they leave, but he was struck by the beauty of one of the women. She was blessed with long brown hair, round brown eyes and a well proportioned, petite body held in place by a tight yellow leotard.
John was impressed too. His surfing and hiking made him an athlete of sorts, and he was tremendously impressed by the muscle movements in the men and women. He was struck especially by the muscles in the necks of the women and the muscles stretching and strong in the upper legs of the men. As the music started slowly and erratically, their movements came together as a whole. They started moving as one – as a pack of lions would hunt if lions hunted in packs. John began to see animals themselves until the music changed violently. Suddenly. They were people again. Two dancing wildly – happily – in center stage while the other two paced curiously and jealously around the outer limits. He became thoroughly engrossed in watching the changing emotions as the couples traded and switched places. Always changing, but always with two in the center spotlight. And always accompanied by that same muscle control which had the ability to hold him in a state of awe for days.
Suddenly, like the surprise ending in a mystery or a break in a movie reel, the music stopped. One of the dancers at the zenith of a joyous leap came down with an awkward thud. The microphones picked up every footfall as the perplexed dancers tiptoed around the stage. Then a SCREAM as they realized they were being watched by an audience.
They were still dancers, but the lack of music had thrown them from their world and reality of dance into our world and the thousands of staring eyes belonging to the audience. After recovering from the original chaos of the change, John was able to draw all kinds of parallels between his voyages from “reality” and the dancers’ shock at entering ours.
Robin had hardly noticed the changes. He was too engrossed in watching the yellow breasts and ass of his brown-haired love to notice what was going on as a whole. He made a few feeble efforts to discover some sort of theme in the dance, but he didn’t try very seriously. He liked things spelt out for him; historical books and journal articles were more his speed. He was ready to leave a few times during the short dance, and he would have except for the fact that his friend seemed totally engrossed.
“How’d you like it?” John asked after he recovered a little.
“It was good, I guess, but I don’t really enjoy dancing very much.”
“Really? Why not?”
“It just doesn’t seem to have the same worth as other art forms like painting or music. It seems like it’s basically an athletic exercise. Any meaning it might have comes off looking like an afterthought.”
“You can’t say that. Painting and music have highly specialized skills at their base too, but you don’t say that they’re basically displays of manual dexterity. No art form has any worth above and beyond another. Dancing isn’t second best to anything. It just is – in itself, just as music and art are.” John seemed genuinely angry. He really thought Robin had the mental tools to see the worth in this art. He was simply refusing to use them.
Robin was still convinced that he was right. Watching dancers was the same as watching basketball players or something except for the fact that the dancers were prettier. However, he couldn’t dig up any logic from his academic bag of tricks which was sufficient to counter John’s argument. Instead, he made some totally noncommittal statements about the beauty of dance and suggested that they start walking.
They had a choice of walking towards the Louvre or towards the river and the Eiffel Tower. Instead, they just sat for a little while and watched the dancers putting away the microphones and covering their speakers. John was struggling for a little while with the clasp which connected a small plastic water bottle to his belt loop. His thick fingers fumbled along the rusted metal clasp before finally getting the bottle loose and bending some metal in the process.
“Shit,” John exclaimed under his breath as he lifted the bottle to his lips. “Here, you want some?”
“No. It must be warm by now.”
“It is. But my mouth felt like cotton.”
“There’s a water fountain right down the main path near the merry-go-rounds. We can walk over there and get some cold.”
“Okay,” John agreed reluctantly. He still felt like just sitting and letting his feelings ferment for a little while. The dance left him feeling like he was unbearably close to something that he deeply desired. Something nebulous. Something he could not possess. He was depressed in a way because the dance was over, but it was a content depression. The dancers brought back traces of emotions which had escaped him recently. They convinced him that this trip was the right move for him to make.
They walked to the water fountain where they had to line up behind a crowd of kids trying to fill all kinds of empty wine bottles and old plastic distilled water bottles. With a kind of childish delight, John started talking to all the children with remnants of his high school French.
“Comment vous appelez-vous?”
“Ça va Jacques et Jaqueline?”
Laughter, mostly suppressed giggling. A few of them ran away and peered at the strange Americans from behind trees and smiling eyes. Robin hated this feeling. He hated having his friends embarrass him. Anne used to do the same types of things, but she was easier to put up with. He felt like running and hiding from this madman just like those kids.
“Hey, où allez-vous?” John was still laughing and obviously enjoying the whole moment thoroughly. “Où allez-vous?!”
The trees shook with laughter.
There were no children left around the water, so Robin went and filled up the little plastic bottle and took a gulp. He tried his best to act nonchalant and ignore his friend and the laughing forest which surrounded them.
After the game was over and the kids ran to find other excitement, they started walking again. They weren’t consciously walking in any particular direction. They were simply continuing in the same direction that they’d been following all morning. They found themselves walking all the way through the Tuileries Garden and towards the gardens of the Louvre. John was in a very good mood now and he was extremely animated about everything he saw.
“Look at the toy sailboats in the fountain. Those red and green sails are really beautiful in the bright sun. Look at all these statues – I never saw anything as ostentatious as these – Hey Rob, look at these groups of Japanese tourists. You never even see their fuckin’ faces – ‘Hello, Mr. Nikon.’ – ‘Hello, Mr. Pentax.’ – They’re taking so many pictures I bet they could make a movie from the negatives…”
Every sentence was accompanied by overly exaggerated arm movements. Robin was again sure that the whole world was watching and laughing at them. He was walking silently beside his friend while regretting that he had to take that trip to Geneva with him on the next morning.
John spun around and faced a little outdoor café they had just passed. “You want a beer?” he asked Robin.
“No, I really can’t afford it,” Robin lied.
“Forget it. I’m paying.” To the guy behind the counter, “Deux bières Heineken, s’il vous plait.”
John saw the bartender’s face betray a slight glow of relief at this order. In a tourist area like this, all he heard in July and August was English and German. Any person speaking French, even with a heavy American accent, was a relief. Just that morning there had been a well dressed American woman in her mid-fifties who was yelling at him because he wouldn’t accept a fifty dollar traveller’s check to pay for her ham sandwich.
“Well, Iiii never! They told me at my bank that these were good all over the world,” she had squealed.
All he could do was to point to the check and shake his head no while trying to cope with the crowd behind her. Half of them were yelling at her and the other half were angry with him. Paris in August.
John and Robin sat down at a table sandwiched between a German couple on one side and a family of Texans on the other. Robin was sure that his friend was going to make a fool of himself with the Texans just like he did with the cowboy in McDonald’s, but he didn’t. He was pouring all of his energy into downing his beers (he had five while Robin finished one) and just observing. He didn’t let one face simply pass by. He tried to read the emotions in most of them as he kept talking non-stop. He concluded that most of the people passing by were feeling either one of two things.
Some of them were smug like the cowboy. Whether they were American or German or Japanese, they felt themselves to be superior to the French. “Look at us, we’re rich and powerful. Why should we convert our marks and dollars into French francs?” At the same time, they rehearsed how they would brag about their trip when they got back home so they could feel the same superiority over their friends.
“The other half are just confused. They don’t understand the differences they see here or even why they came. They’ll make up memories when they go back home or remember the cities as a string of pictures and postcards.”
“And how do you feel?” Robin decided to show his annoyance again. It was hard to take John’s endless criticisms of others when it seemed obvious that he had emotional problems of his own.
“Uh?” John didn’t understand the question at first.
“I was only wondering. If you can pick out other people’s emotions so well… I was wondering how well you could do with your own.”
“I’d like to think I’m here to have a good time. I keep my eyes and ears open too and maybe I’ll learn something in the process. I don’t know. Maybe I’m overconfident and maybe I am confused. Either one of those things is possible. But y’know, I came here to have a good time and I’m extremely happy.”
“Yep, and I’d be happy too if I had eight or nine beers before one o’clock in the afternoon.” Robin couldn’t see how anyone could be sober and enjoy a day like this. They hadn’t done or seen anything to speak of and the day was dragging for him.
“No, it’s more than that. If I wasn’t happy to begin with all that beer would’ve simply depressed me. No, it’s more than the beer.” He felt as though there was something in the hot Parisian air that was lifting his spirits. There was something – something he hadn’t yet recognized.
Back in 2017
Yes, I know that lions do hunt in packs, but I’m not doing any after-the-fact fact checking of this manuscript as I retype it here. For some things, access to the internet would have helped in 1975, but the web also would have been enough of a distraction that a bored 19-year-old might not have begun the process of writing this novel at all.
More annoying and embarrassing than the missed facts and grammatical infelicities are the stereotypes. The Japanese tourists defined by their omnipresent cameras, the middle-aged American woman who ‘squealed’ rather than spoke, and the two main characters who still seem more like vehicles for conflicting ideas than actual people. Also, although the word ‘mansplaining’ didn’t exist in 1975, if it did there are points at which both Robin and John seem to be having a contest to see which one of them would be a better poster boy for the future term. I’m more a little annoyed by both of them at this point in the manuscript.
Now that we know the action is taking place in August 1975, and that John has downed a large quantity of beer in this chapter, this semi-famous video from that summer’s heatwave confirms that some people in northern France prescribe liberal consumption of that beverage as a preferred method for dealing with the canicule. At least I got that detail right about that hot summer in France.