Last night I was talking to my wife Caroline about the experience of having written a pre-word-processing novel in my late twenties. I told her how the idea of the story had come to me and how the narrative had almost effortlessly unspooled from my imagination.
It was 1980, and I had managed to get an agent, who shopped it around, but to no avail. Eventually the agent mailed the manuscript back with a letter from Viking claiming I had talent, but the book was a downer. Perhaps to show me she was no slacker, the agent mentioned that she had received other, less-charitable rejections.
I casually mentioned to Caroline that I still had the manuscript somewhere in my study, which surprised her, and she asked me to go upstairs to see if I could find it. I eventually located it in the back of a file cabinet.
I hadn’t looked at it in thirty-five years and expected to be totally embarrassed, but as I started reading, I thought to myself, “Some of this ain’t half bad.”
For example, I think the excerpt below captures fairly well that awful feeling when something you’ve done has seemingly ruined your life forever.
In the wee hours, the narrator, fifteen-year-old Kenny Stevenson, has been deposited home by the police after his girlfriend nearly drowned in a hot tub during an unsupervised party. He has awakened in his room the next afternoon. His hectoring mother, a difficult woman even on a good day, has just burst in and denigrated him in raw angry hurtful language. Overwhelmed, broken, in considerable physical pain, he screams an obscenity back at her.
I couldn’t believe I had said it, but I had — had hollered the words at pointblank range, — and as soon as the they hit her, she started screaming and crying and punching me all over my face with her fists. I was getting ready to start crying, too, not because the punches hurt any more than my body already hurt, but because there was nothing left to do. Finally, she quit and ran out of the room sobbing, slamming the door real hard.
I could hear the sobbing disappearing down the hall, so I scrunched a pillow over my head so I couldn’t hear or see. It felt like my body was getting ready to out-sob hers, and I was gonna let it. I was looking forward to letting it out. I moved the pillow out of the way, opened my mouth, ready to gush tears all over the place, but the only thing that came out was a sort of foghorn honk. It sounded horrible, like a rhinoceros call or something, like an eighty-year-old Tarzan’s pathetic holler. I honked it four times, and with each honk, I felt the rhinos stampeding in my head, trampling down everything that used to be. It was like everything that used to be had been washed away in vomit. Now I was actually trying to cry like a baby, but my body wouldn’t let me. All I could do is let out a jungle honk, and then there was silence, except for the sound of my panting.
Even though the air-conditioner was on, I must have left the window open to throw up sometime during the night. Eventually, my panting slackened, which turned into silence, and silence gave way to cars swishing in the street. Or was that the wind rustling through the trees? I made myself get up. It wasn’t easy, but I did it and went over to the window and squatted down beside it. I pulled the shade back, and the light stabbed my eyes. For a second or two, yellow blobs floated right in front of me, but as my eyes gradually got used to the light, the blobs faded away, and I could see the world outside tending to business as usual – people in cars going somewhere, Mrs. Ayers walking down to her mailbox, Hambone in the shade shooing flies with his tail.
I would’ve traded places with any of them – even Mrs. Ayers. At least their lives, no matter how boring, were the same as they had been yesterday. Mine had changed, changed for good, and all of a sudden, I knew what I had to do.
I had to split.