Friday, May 12, 2017

Joan Didion goes South

Portions of this were previously published at AL.com.

There is a conversation in Joan Didion's newest book that shows much of how Alabama has changed over the last half century.

Didion, famous for her non-fiction observations on California in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album," spent the summer nearly 47 years ago in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In July 1970, she was in Guin, Ala., eating at a diner, when she asked for iced coffee. 

"The waitress asked me how to make it," she writes. '"Same way as iced tea,' I said. She looked at me without expression. 'In a cup?' she asked."

I laughed at how one can now buy iced coffee at gas stations in the most rural parts of the state. Several scenes in Didion's "South and West" play out like this, and to read it is like taking a trip back in a time machine. Didion and her husband made a swing through Alabama that year looking for something, and her observations are recorded in the book.

Didion made notes for a piece that was never published. She didn't come South because of desegregation or murder trials, but because she had "only some dim and unformed sense... that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center."

Her trip begins in New Orleans, continues into Mississippi and through Alabama. She visits the Mississippi Gulf Coast just after the devastation of Hurricane Camille, long before casinos, when the only gambling is illegal and in the pinewoods. She buys a Rebel flag beach towel in Biloxi. As she crosses over into Alabama, she is greeted with a sign: "782,000 Alabama Baptists Welcome You!"
Instead of movie sets and the halls of power, Didion roams the Demopolis Library, the Eutaw City Hall, and has dinner at The Club in Birmingham. Her bikini draws attention at a motel, she surveys a Walker County cemetery's tombstones and she sweats talking with women in a laundromat in Winfield.

It's hot. Air conditioners whir in the background everywhere they are found. She is stymied by blue laws that close everything on Sunday and restaurants that rarely stay open past 8 p.m. Ice is hard to come by. The food is fried, everywhere. The Jackson Five and Neil Diamond play in the background at roadside stops. Men brag about hunting. Women chat about housework and soap operas. The white southerners, especially in Mississippi, are reflexively defensive about their state's image in the media. There is a constant squeamishness among the locals about alcohol that would amuse our present craft beer connoisseurs.

In Tuscaloosa, she sees several different bumper stickers - "Red Tide, Crimson Tide, Go Tide, Roll Tide." In all the small towns, she writes, the most "resplendent" part of the high school is the gymnasium, which seems to carry the hopes of the community.

 "Athletes who were signing 'letters of intent' were a theme in the local news," she observes, long before signing day press conferences.

I am old enough to dimly remember some of this, when it was nothing to drive through a small town and see most of the older men in overalls. When white people tossed around bloodcurdling racial slurs in the presence of blacks they worked with and everyone laughed - for vastly different reasons. All of the book's moments fit in with the traditional view of the South -where hardbitten manhood is celebrated in sports and recreational activities, genteel womanhood venerated even in the drudgery of washing clothes, where clear borders of class and race survive, and lurking behind every corner are the specters of the Lost Cause and how the rest of the nation views this defeated, backward section.

But something else is going on, beyond the pages. At the same time Didion came South, most of the region's public schools were finally undergoing a largely peaceful segregation after a decade and a half of adamant and occasionally bloody opposition. Only two years before, Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered in Memphis. Five years before, marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Fifteen years before, Emmett Till's body was found floating in the Tallahatchee River. The South was still in a throes of an absolute transformation.

There is also an interesting theme that runs through Didion's encounters, of a South straining to overcome its rural character and redefine itself. During an extended conversation with a Mississippi businessman, he talks about the unexploited territory for the big chain stores and restaurants, saying McDonald's isn't even in Meridian, a city of nearly 50,000. He calls the South "the greatest business opportunity in the country," pointing to the climate, low levels of union activity and the willingness of government to give tax breaks to attract business.

In his words, one can immediately see auto plants and parts assemblies decades down the road, and Dollar Generals and Walmarts yet unbuilt. One can see the tide of regional and national businesses that will choke off downtowns and populate strip shopping centers and malls. But Didion senses something in the ambition when she asks if not wanting industry is a death wish, or is wanting it? What is striking is how the South in these pages, where the Civil War still seems like yesterday, was disappearing just as she got it down on the page.

Didion isn't celebrating this South as much as marveling at how impervious it seems to what is happening in the rest of the nation. That insularity will not last though. An extended introduction by Nathaniel Rich laments that the Southern culture Didion writes about in 1970 has migrated out into the nation, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump. It's not the first time I've heard that thesis, but I sense that is too pat an answer, as if battalions of ham-fisted Buford T. Justice clones seized power in voting booths throughout the nation. 

Much of the surface culture of what Didion wrote about doesn't exist anymore, and anyone who thinks the South has resisted new technology hasn't visited its major cities. To say so also ignores the cultural and societal shifts caused by the migration of professionals here from around the nation, and from the rest of the world. Big cities and rural areas have been transformed by mass migration from Latin America. Go to the major cities of the South and you will find as modern and as liberal a culture as in any other part of the country. Because of the ubiquity of popular music, films, television, streaming entertainment and other outlets, you can find Southerners in rural areas with barely a trace of a regional accent.

But the terrain of this small book nudges us with the idea that even as we form an image of the unchanging South in our minds, we are in the same moment walking through it, disturbing the air and the picture, rewriting its story with every step.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.



Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Alchemy of "The Alchemist': The Treasure Beneath Our Feet

"The Alchemist," Paulo Coelho's synthetic myth of treasures, happenstance, destiny and endurance, is one of the bestselling books of the last century. It spread largely through word-of-mouth, affecting nations and tongues through its somewhat familiar tales and motifs regarding the high and the low, the meek and the mighty. I enjoyed reading it, but I read it more or less out of curiosity about why this book has been embraced by so many.

It is a familiar story, in more ways than one, which is one reason for its success. The tale is told in very short, simple sentences. It could happen any time, though it sounds both old and current, perhaps from a few decades ago. It mixes Jewish, Christian, Islamic and Eastern mystical images and ideas in one convenient package, so it gives the illusion of antiquity while at the same time sounding fresh. By doing so, it feeds into the popular idea that all religions, despite their internal discrepancies and contradictory aims, are all saying basically the same thing. It speaks of innocence and experience. Its characters spout lines that sound simple, easily memorable, and strike us as profound. Its big ideas come with repeatable phrases that are helpfully turned into proper names - Personal Legend, the Soul of the World, the Language of the World. We think we know what these concepts mean, and it would spoil the spell of the book to have them made concrete. In writing about it, I am not so much interested in an evangelical refutation of the ideas within as much as examining why they were chosen and what ramifications they have beyond the story.

The basic plot: A poor shepherd boy - an image that would affect the Jew, the Christian and even the ancient Greek - makes a journey from Spain to Egypt to see the pyramids, in search of a fading dream of treasure. Along the journey, through a series of chance meetings, the boy Santiago encounters the mystical and the scientific, only to find that the treasure he sought was back at his home. Along the way, he discovers true love, which will presumably never ask a person to sacrifice his or her Personal Legend.

Along the way, the shepherd boy, who prays to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, encounters several Biblical motifs - dreams, a woman at a well, Joseph of Egypt, the story of Jesus and the Centurion, Melchizedek, and the Urim and Thummim. Take Melchizedek, a very old man who identifies himself as the King of Salem and introduces Santiago to the idea of the Personal Legend. The book states that this is something different from destiny, which is presumably chosen for someone, perhaps by an impersonal will. Instead, the Personal Legend is what the person wants for himself, or perceives is attainable. Melchizedek, of course, was identified in the book of Genesis as Priest of God Most High, to whom Abraham gave 10 percent of his riches. Having no identification of where he came from, Melchizedek is later identified, in the Psalms and in Hebrews, as a precursor for the Messiah, Jesus. The Urim and Thummim were, according to Exodus, stones kept in the breastplate of the High Priest that were used to ask questions of God. So we are introduced to the idea that Santiago has been visited by something profound, and something grand awaits him out on the road.

But what does Santiago learn of God? The God that is portrayed in "The Alchemist" has a little more presence than The Force of Star Wars. Though He seems aloof at times, He is much more active than would seem at first glance. In fact, the story seems to be telling us, He is on the side of people who pursue their own Personal Legend. By incorporating these Biblical characters and devices into the story, Coelho gives his tale the authority of Scripture and legend to illustrate one facet of his story - life is sometimes a question of coincidences that are not coincidences. If we learn to read omens that are always around us, we will know what God wants us to do. And what does God want?

One facet of books like "The Alchemist" is that they feed into our suspicion that there is a secret to life that we have not yet discovered, a hidden rhythm to events that, if we could only discover it, would make our lives that much simpler. We sense that the answer might be found in ancient wisdom, if we had the patience for archaic texts. It might be in the Bible, but we never can manage to read past all those dietary laws in the Old Testament. It might be in philosophers, but their words are even harder than the King James English. It might be in politics, but the sought after ends are never completely arrived at, and there are the examples of the politicians themselves. It might be in pop songs, but look at what happened to all the singers? We are unable to shake the sense that life is comprehensible, but perhaps it has not yet been comprehended. Along comes a thin book with presumed profundities, and we nod when we hear something like, "When you possess great treasures within you, and try to tell others of them, seldom are you believed." Ministers for the last 20 centuries would agree, as would writers of would-be self-help bestsellers.

Alchemy was a largely-medieval belief that base metals could, by manipulation, be transformed into gold, and that immortality could be attained through certain chemical practices. In our age, it's one of those crank ideas we laugh about - sounds mystical, sounds fascinating even, but we have grown past that. "The Alchemist," though tells us, "Wait a second. You and I both know there's nothing to this, but what if that's not the whole story? Maybe there are little bits of wisdom in there. Wouldn't it be cool if there were?" It serves the same purpose as radioactivity in the origin stories of countless superheroes, just as magic used to in legends - we can't explain totally how such a thing would happen, but it helps us get to the action in the story. It also helps us add another layer beyond just the trappings of religion.

The Alchemist takes these familiar words of Jesus:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Matthew 6:19-21

And in its place, we get "Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure." The difference? Jesus is talking about focusing our attention on the things that God is interested in - prayer, for example, the poor, showing love for others, forgiveness, the Gospel. It involves actively seeking the will of God - a little more complicated than simply the will to be a nicer person. But Santiago is on a journey toward a treasure. Of course, Coelho's indeterminate treasure is that the boy will accumulate experience, wisdom, love and meaning, things of infinite value. God is presumably part of that. But Jesus' equation puts God at the center, not at the margins. "The Alchemist" is, at its base, about a journey of self. One can believe that God tames Santiago's nature along the way, but that is done through the normal trials of a journey - the theft of money, for example, or the tortures of distance. But it is still, at its base, a journey of self. When Santiago encounters his love, Fatima, her presence only serves for his happiness. What are her dreams? What does she want, beyond Santiago?

One might also laugh at the idea that the world wants us to succeed, or that the Will of the World is bounded up in our happiness. We would think God would be behind this, but there is little in daily life for the majority of the human race to support the idea that a benign force wants us all to be happy. Instead, humans tend to find happiness where they can in the ways that they can, world be damned, and most of those avenues for happiness do not involve others as much as their own narrow concerns. Luck and endurance for those people usually pays off in other, darker ways. As for the mass of humanity - those who can't or don't have time to read books - they survive on faith in a benevolent force that perhaps has their best interests at heart but it doesn't serve much purpose to question. Faith teaches us that the outward trappings of suffering should not be confused with the ultimate aim of existence - not our dreams, but God's will. "The Alchemist" echoes this, but through the self.

"The Alchemist" also incorporates the story of Jesus and the Centurion in a novel, brilliant way. The title character of the novel tells the story of an anonymous Roman man who receives an angelic visitation, revealing that one of his two sons will be remembered for all time for his words. The father assumes it is his son the poet. But when he dies, he discovers it is the soldier son stationed in an obscure military post, who impressed Jesus with his faith. All the Centurion asks is that Jesus give the word that his servant is healed. The lesson: Every person's life plays a central role in the history of the world, and most are unaware of it. This is also a Gospel-sounding lesson, but it is only the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that proves its veracity.

Like other books with this kind of mystical, self-help aim, "The Alchemist" also talks of the illusion of time - the idea that we are too concerned with becoming instead of merely being. This chokes off the present possibilities of happiness with our own pressing expectations, which are inevitably frustrated, leaving us unsatisfied. We pass by people every day who live in the wreckage of their lives because they pursued dreams, in spite of all reason, and slowly watch themselves age bitterly. 

Even Santiago has a hard time learning this lesson about time, though he arrives at the pyramids to learn the secret - the treasure he sought was all the time buried beneath his feet back in Spain - the gold of a New World, buried beneath a ruined church. I have to confess this was a wonderful touch, a human comment on one of the oldest story tropes - the thing you seek is always right besides you, or even back where you started. You hardly had to leave home. But think of the treasure - some conquistador who forgot to tell his family of the gold he took from a distant land, following his own omens and dreams. That gold was forged by the slaves of a nation with its own omens and dreams and its own Personal Legend - a nation that no longer exists. Assume what you will about the Will of the World from their fate.

We read books like "The Alchemist" because we want to believe in something. It tells us, against our better judgment, that we can believe in ourselves. That the answer lies within us, if we can only find it. Through patience, persistent listening to our own dreams, we may yet reach our destination and our treasures. For some people, this is unmistakably true. But those people usually pay some price for what they seek, for hidden treasures rarely reveal themselves easily. And for the rest, they read books whispering fables that inspires a smile. Then the next day arrives, and they struggle to remember what it was they read that made them happy, staring into the morning coffee. 

It isn't the Gospel, but it gets us to the next thing, whatever that may be, for however long. The suspicion that there is more to life still persists, irritates and agonizes us, whether we read or not.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"The Screwtape Letters": In Search of Wasted Time



Search for the word “sin” in news stories on Google, and it occasionally has a political connotation. Politicians who have admitted some religious affiliation are asked in Western democracies whether they think abortion or homosexuality is a sin, or whether certain vices may be considerable eligible for “sin taxes.” Racism is often referred to as a sin in language that sounds almost evangelical. Each party has its own sins, and can make a sin of the other party’s virtues.

Sin is not necessarily the same thing as breaking a society’s law. Murder is a moral outrage, but a sin may be something less obvious and more sinister, because it testifies to a bent soul. Even someone who does not believe in a higher power uses the word as though a kind of supernatural bulwark has been breached. The Hebrew word has the same meaning as an archer who fails to hit the target – missing the mark. We presume that we know sin when we see it, but we are also aware that we do not always want to recognize it. While we apprehend what it might be within ourselves, we at the same moment justify it as necessary, or even, laudatory. 

 How then to account for the enduring popularity of “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis’ novel about the proposed corruption of a new Christian? Written in 1942, it was Lewis’ most popular novel before the Narnia series. No less a figure than David Foster Wallace called it one of the best novels ever written; not presumably, for the cleverness of its construction but because of its presumed truth. He is not alone.  I was amused to learn from one commentary on the book that “Screwtape” offers “a reassurance that there is something in us that is naturally resistant to corruption - and that by being true to ourselves we can succeed in increasing that resistance.”

I was curious about what book this person read thinking it was “The Screwtape Letters.” I don’t think any reading of “Screwtape” bears this particular verdict out. Screwtape’s dialogue with Wormwood suggests endless ways the heart can be willingly corrupted - can even cooperate in its own corruption -and being true to ourselves is one way to allow that corruption. Our truest reflection is a diabolical one.

I think the narrative rules of “Screwtape” are suggested by the Parable of the Sower – one of Jesus’ signature stories and one recounted in all three Synoptic Gospels. (In fact, it is used to illustrate why Jesus taught in parables) In it, Jesus describes a sower whose seeds fall along a path, on rocky ground, among thorns and on good soil. When he explains it later to the disciples, he reveals that the seeds represent people who hear “the word of the kingdom.” Some will not understand it, some believe but fall away at the first sign of trouble, and some hear but do not act on it due to “the cares of this world” or “the deceitfulness of riches.”

The story suggests that the condition of a person’s heart has much to do with whether the Gospel can work on them. The point of the parable is that some people will hear, and “bear fruit,” as that is the point of a seed – it grows into a fruit producing tree. God is interested in fruit - good fruit, and as Jesus later says, a tree is known by the fruit it produces. 

 But what of the novel’s form? “The Screwtape Letters” is, of course, epistolary in nature. The demon Screwtape is writing letters of advice to his nephew Wormwood on the corruption of his charge, the newly converted Christian referred to only as “the Patient.” We do not find out much about Screwtape or Wormwood, or the Patient, other than that he is an Englishman who has a mother he cares for, he becomes involved with a woman, and that the action takes place during a conflict we might recognize as World War II. The Patient’s anonymity is to be expected, as he is simply another victim. Later, the Patient is killed in an air raid and goes to Heaven, despite the best efforts of Wormwood, who proves a comically inept fiend. Satan is “Our Father Below.” When God is referred to, it is as “the Enemy.”

The novel sketches out a design of Hell as a stark, humorless bureaucracy, full of human beings seemingly hoodwinked into an eternity of enslavement through a litany of devices which Screwtape knows well through practiced experience. They are tormented, in life and death, by a cringing bevy of lesser demons devouring each other in a totalitarian maze of deceits, flatteries and lies. There aren’t conventional scenes or dialogue as much as situations and humorous turns of phrase, ironic sentiments that project a negative image. Lewis flirts with having created an elaborate, one-note joke, but he has the good sense to keep moving the pieces and eschews long sermons in favor of short asides. By the time the reader senses his patience waning, the story draws to its hopeful close – hopeful, except for Screwtape and Wormwood.

There is an amusing conflict between what the reader supposes a demon would be interested in accomplishing, and the reality as Screwtape identifies it. Some of this might also be inspired by Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives several examples from the Law of Moses well known to His listeners, but goes a step further in showing that God isn’t just interested in outward shows of virtue. Happy that you don’t commit adultery? Lust is just as bad. Satisfied you haven’t killed anyone? Calling your brother a fool will still get you in danger of Hell.

So many temptations are based not on introducing ideas into the Patient’s mind, but keeping them out. Other temptations have to do with enticing the believer into appropriating ideas that are not his, in hopes of adopting popular attitudes that undermine his authentic spiritual growth. On still other occasions, substitute ideas are switched out with admirable ones in order to give the human second-hand and unsatisfying satisfactions.

The superficial must triumph over the everlasting. Humor is useful so long as it is scornful. The demon is sometimes admonished not to push his charge into threatening behavior as much as keep them frozen in place. Vanity, as the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, is often the stuff of life. The demon enjoys it when we pile up waste upon waste, killing ourselves an hour at a time as we kill hours. The trick is to keep us a slave to our appetites, cutting ourselves off in our own conceits and delicacies, foreclosing our interest in the souls around us. And all the time, we congratulate ourselves on the tiny kingdoms we create of our own deficiencies, smug that we believe they are much smaller than anyone else’s.

Perhaps the book remains popular because we sense its truth, and the humor allows us to laugh at the same time we recognize ourselves. The sins it documents are hardly “spectacular.” (This makes for good writing. Norman Mailer’s last novel documents the demon in charge of corrupting Hitler. It’s the kind of book that defies one to read it for pleasure.) For example, time wasting. In Screwtape’s twelfth letter, he diagnoses the uneasiness of the modern man and his avoidance of considering God as “intensifying a whole vague cloud of half-conscious guilt.” The point is not to edge the man toward murder and violence, Screwtape announces, but out into nothing, gradually, a little at a time.

“They hate every idea that suggests Him, just as men in financial embarrassment hate the very sight of a bankbook. In this state your patient will not omit, but he will increasingly dislike, his religious duties. He will think about them as little as he feels he decently can beforehand, and forget them as soon as possible when they are over.”

The best thing is moving the contact with the Almighty toward the abstract realm and away from the personal. When God is fashioned into an impersonal force with little care for the individual, when His unending love is unrecognized and unengaged by us, then our actions mean nothing. Thoughts can be focused inward and twisted to the point of exhaustion, until one arrives at the gates of Hell saying, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.” And to think – Lewis didn’t have an iPhone or social media or video games or Netflix.

Other sins – substituting causes for faith, suffering annoyances, hopelessness, vanity, chasing after the future at the expense of the now. One might be tempted to think calling these sins a bit priggish. After all, aren’t this just foibles? Don’t we all have rough places in our dispositions? The novel does its own business trying to head this criticism off. We might also be tempted to chalk the novel’s sensibilities up to shifting mores. I wondered how Screwtape’s temptations might have played out to someone in another time or another part of the world. As might be expected, the novel’s demons sound very much like a highly educated professor teaching in an English university in the 1940s.

But Lewis’ Screwtape isn’t interested in inspiring the kind of evil that slaughters other human beings on a grand scale, as useful as that might be. (Remember, that very thing was going on at the moment the book was written, just as it is now.) This is a different kind of “banality of evil” altogether – because it seeks merely to deny God a victory in the life of one man. Hell is as much about misdirection as malevolence. Where one life passes without glorifying God, that means others will be inspired to the same end. Screwtape wants a kind of universal moral paralysis which conforms and infects, cheats and devours, even as it congratulates itself. Hell is filled, like Heaven, one soul at a time. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.


Monday, May 1, 2017

The Many Rooms of Slaughterhouse-Five

One of the mental games I play sometimes with great books is to ask how the story might have played out if it had been written by someone else.

Consider the actual plot of "Slaughterhouse-Five" if it had been rendered by an author schooled in dramatic realism - Billy Pilgrim, a native of Illium, N.Y., survives the firebombing of Dresden during the Second World War after being taken prisoner by the Germans. Following the war, he returns to America and is treated for the psychological trauma he experienced (which included the accidental shooting death of his father while Billy was on manuevers). He undergoes shock treatments and is released.

He then begins a successful and somewhat conventional career as an optometrist, gets married and becomes a father of two. He is prone to fits of weeping (for no apparent reason) as he ages, and begins to undergo the inevitable outlines of a midlife crisis when, in 1968, he sustains a head injury during an airline crash in Vermont. He is the sole survivor. His wife Valencia, en route to his hospital, dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Billy recovers, but after this series of mind-numbing tragedies, he begins to exhibit signs of severe madness, telling anyone who will listen (including the listeners of a radio program) that he was kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore the previous year and held in a zoo with film ingenue Montana Wildhack. He says he is no longer is conscious of time, experiencing past, present and future simultaneously. He says he knows the exact date and circumstances of his death. His daughter concludes she must institutionalize him for his own good.

But in recounting his weird story, Billy dwells on the tragic wartime death of Edgar Derby, a high school teacher whose character caused him to be elected leader of the POWs during the war. Derby was killed in Dresden, though not by the incendiary bombs. He was executed after a trial for stealing a teapot from the ruins of the burned city. In the greatest conflict in human history, Derby didn't even get a hero's death - instead perishing for a bit of larceny in the midst of the Holocaust. 

Imagine if John Updike, James Jones, Philip Roth or Norman Mailer had written "Slaughterhouse-Five." Imagine the scene where Billy Pilgrim witnessed the execution, or perhaps just the arrest, of Edgar Derby. Imagine the scenes where Billy Pilgrim's children struggle against his madness, and wonder why he seems obsessed with the Serenity Prayer and the obscure science fiction novels of Kilgore Trout. Imagine the black scene when Billy's daughter has to tell her father in the hospital that his wife is dead, only to hear him say, inexplicably, that he already knew she was.


But "Slaughterhouse-Five" was written by Kurt Vonnegut, an actual survivor of Dresden, who puzzled for decades over how to render what he had seen in prose. The magnitude of even mundane experience is sometimes daunting to translate into words. "I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time," Vonnegut announces in the first chapter, which serves as a prologue to the story. So his strategy was not to write a book about Dresden, but a book about experience - living a life bordered by time and tragedy, coming to terms with age and the certain knowledge that life is probably half over, and the uncertain feeling that it might mean something but, as yet, has not disclosed that meaning.

Much is made of the novel's "postmodern" feel. Vonnegut breaks so many basic rules of novel writing in this slim book. Often he does not "show" so much as "tell." The characters are names and situations, with the reader left to figure out motivations, thoughts, etc. The action is fractured because we simultaneously live inside and outside Billy Pilgrim's consciousness, so that past, present and future are happening (supposedly) at the same time. This renders the experiences on Tralfamadore as real as those in Dresden. The entertainment value is often burlesque - Vonnegut is not above fart jokes, sex jokes and dirty limericks just to break up the talk of war, tragedy and madness. The refrain whenever a character dies - "So it goes" - is used for the death of Christ (three times) and a champagne bottle going flat. There is little attempt at dramatic tension - as Vonnegut tells you what will happen to Derby and then renders his death in one paragraph in the final chapter. More than 60 million people were killed in World War II - why should you dwell on this one?

Any writer, whether rendering reality or the invented, benefits from the manipulation of time and perspective. The writer calls attention to the detail, speeds up or slows down the action, freezes it for comment, or obliterates it to draw attention to something else. "This is what you need to see," the author says. "This will tell you what you need to know." Sometimes, the writer may even be lying. The writer may only want you to turn the page. That is what makes reading Vonnegut so rewarding. He wants you to keep reading. He'll do practically anything to keep you reading. He gives you the last line of the book, the sound of a bird tweeting, at the end of the first chapter, in hopes you'll stick around to see why it matters. He even announces the strategy when describing the typical Tralfamadorian book, which is a "brief, urgent message":

"There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."

He is no hack. When he describes the German reserves who guard the POWs as "violent, windburned, bristly men" with "teeth like piano keys" who take "wolfish bites from sausages," the grime that coats the casual evil of men at war sticks to your fingers from the page. One of the most incandescent passages in "Slaughterhouse-Five" comes when the 44-year-old Billy, unable to sleep on the evening of his daughter's wedding, finds a war movie on TV showing American bombers in action. But Billy is "unstuck in time," so he sees the entire cycle of war and life playing backwards. Bombers do not drop incendiary bombs on German cities - they suck up the flames into canisters which are then transported to America, disassembled, and their parts put back into the earth. War is rendered harmless, and even Hitler is transformed into an innocent baby, and all of humanity taken back to Adam and Eve.

This is another part of Vonnegut's strategy. As he is writing this novel, as a survivor of war in his forties, America is again at war in Vietnam and the tide of opinion is beginning to turn against the nation's war leaders. A country that views itself, rightly or wrongly, as historically isolationist has been in some kind of conflict for nearly 50 years, now on its fourth "shooting war" and its second as part of a larger Cold War with the threat of global annihilation added. Vonnegut, and his surrogate Billy Pilgrim, have nothing more than the power of the witness at their disposals to tell the story: "I was there. (something Vonnegut will occasionally stop to point out.)  This is what war does to a human being, even a war engaged against genocidal fascists. It causes young men to drop bombs on a city, largely made up of civilians, just to burn them up."

The book is called "Slaughterhouse-Five" because that is where Billy was when the bombs dropped - a German slaughterhouse. A killing floor becomes a place of refuge. This may be why Vonnegut returns several times to the image of Christ - specifically, the death of the crucified Christ. Deep within, not mentioned, is the idea of Christ's death as salvation. But Vonnegut's burlesque is more humanistic, because there is no resurrection. In fact, an extended riff from a Kilgore Trout novel, "The Gospel from Outer Space," speculates that the real message of the Gospels is not to be merciful as God is, but not to kill anyone "well connected." Is Vonnegut saying that Christianity is somehow responsible for the firebombing of Dresden?

Perhaps, but human beings were killing each other long before the advent of monotheism, much less the Crucifixion. I suspect what Vonnegut is really against is meaning, of any kind. Within the pages of "Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut creates an experience that is unlike the conception that many of his readers would have had in 1968 as inheritors of a western Judeo-Christian worldview as citizens of the United States of America. For them, time is moving forward, with progress perhaps not inevitable but hoped for. The good will be ultimately rewarded. The unrighteous will be judged and punished by a merciful, righteous God. All of this will happen at the end of history. Until then, we are the sum total of the choices we make in reacting to the seeming chaos of the world. We must have faith that good will endure until that day. What we do here matters in time and eternity. God is watching.

No, says the novel, though its jokes, nervous tics, absurd caricatures, stock images and haunting memories of men dying in filth, forced to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on Christmas, locked inside a boxcar headed into a genocidal, dying empire. Time is meaningless and absurd. We live at the nonexistent mercy of largely impersonal historical forces. We have no free will. If there is a God, He is unconcerned with us, as the corpses of Dresden and plane crashes prove. Instead, all events play out at the same time. We are largely witnesses to the spectacle around us. Your life will ebb out much faster than you realize and eventually, you're going to die. Try to do it with dignity and cheerful acceptance. That's the best you can hope for. This is what I did. "There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."

"Slaughterhouse-Five" is sometimes referred to as an anti-war novel. That has much to do with the starkness of its vision, and when it first burst into view. But it's more accurately described as an anti-meaning novel - as giving meaning to existence is often what brings on war in the first place. But even that meaning is an illusion, as evidenced by the doomed Edgar Derby, going off to his slaughter "mournfully pregnant with patriotism and middle age and imaginary wisdom." Perhaps the most postmodern thing about the novel is that it gives meaning to a meaningless story to illustrate the meaninglessness of life.

But that figure of Jesus, ever recurring in the book, hanging on the wall before a man named Pilgrim, the Savior's lifeless corpse being pulled down from the cross to the lyrical mourning of his family and followers, taunts that vision with endless, endless meaning.

I previously wrote about Kurt Vonnegut here. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.