James Curtis and McKenzie Morton on River Run
CHAPTER 2: SAN FRANCISCO
I know it’s late. But I wanted to reply to your last email.
Perfectly understand your feelings about “women’s writing” and a desire to see things from a “different perspective.” Worry though that you are unnecessarily handicapping yourself. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great stuff, mostly. But over the long haul, not always sustained at the same high level. Maybe it’s just me. Or, God forbid, my manhood. Which has been at a low ebb lately. Men get called out—and deservedly—for much that is wrong with the world. But it does bother some of us. Despite what those paternalistic chauvinists who composed Genesis said, men are the dispensible sex, required to do just one thing, and after that, more of a hindrance than a help. Lauren is right. There are sins on both sides, but mine is Original.
In general I don’t think it’s a huge deal. I know you insist on examples, so here’s one: the Billie Holiday scene with Justine—maybe ramp up the male ardor a bit. I know it’s a familiar complaint! On the other hand, okay, maybe you’re suggesting he already knows about her and is therefore somewhat conflicted. Hard to imagine in that city, among her circle of friends, her sexual orientation would not be known. If that’s the case, and he knows, then that’s legitimate, but maybe it’s too subtle. Just food for thought.
Hope this is coherent. It’s late. Huge fight with Lauren. Your classic domestic cage fight. Unconscionable insults hurled back and forth. Couple of Yahoos going at it. Tears. Denunciations. Accusations. She storms out, he pours the first of three bourbons. She still hasn’t returned.
Thinking of calling 911. Not for her. For me.
Sorry for the delay. Suddenly my marital sturm und drang took a decisive turn. It’s like having an illness and you try this doc, that doc, this med, that med, and nothing works, no one seems to know what’s wrong until one day—there it is! Clear as day. It has a cause and it has a name. In my case, the name is infidelity. It finally came out. Lauren said she was tired of our life together, tired of arguing, tired of pretending. Clueless me. I had no idea. She even made fun of that—yet another example of how little I knew her, how little I cared. All true.
How weird. For months, perhaps years, I thought it was me. That I was the source of the rot, the infection, the malignant, metastasizing cell. Apparently not, although I’m sure from her point of view, it is me. The first domino that results in all the others coming down.
I asked for details, of course. She was reluctant, of course, to give them. Said, of course, it didn’t matter. There was “someone else.” That’s all. She was in love. That’s all. That was all that mattered. It was none of my business. Deal with it.
Funny how I’d always thought that if it ever happened to me—our marriage imploding over an affair—I’d be devastated. I wasn’t. I was relieved. At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself.
All right. Sorry to drop all that on you. You asked how I was doing. So there it is.
About the book: I like what’s happening. With Darren in SF, you settle in and focus on character and location. Love Jojo. Jumps off the page. Ha! Then there’s Billy, even better. A bundle of contradictions just barely held together. Like those hot, zizzing, irrepressible plutonium atoms just on the knife edge of going ka-boom. The story of the lady bug: a story about a story that doesn’t make sense!
There’s a shadow of doom that hangs over poor Billy. One knows it cannot last.
The connection/bond with Banjo is well done as far as you’ve gone, but there needs to be more of it. It’s the one un-fraught relationship that Billy has. Emphasize that.
Also this: You go deep into what it’s like to live on the streets, and all of a sudden we get lots of description, the pace slows down, the narrative takes a little nap. Not a very long one, I agree, but you might want to take a look at what’s non-essential and do some shaving, keep the vivid stuff, interspersing with action and/or dialogue. What you’ve done—necessarily, I think—is dial back the plot for a time. I understand why this has to happen in terms of what’s coming up next. You know me—always worrying about the impatient reader, about what other people might think.
Like the man who can’t keep a wife, who has her stolen right out from under his nose.
. . . for your kind words, Katheryn. I’m fine. I will be fine. I know I sometimes I don’t sound fine, but, trust me, I am. Fine. I’m like your protagonist—on the verge of a new life, in a shifting, querulous state of trepidation and excitement.
I must say, the scenes at the de Young are terrific—a frothy mix of high drama and satire. We haven’t seen that before. This bodes well. The death of Billy was sensitively handled, powerful without being maudlin. I know how hard you worked on it. Using the first-person narrative of a witness (vaguely familiar, no?) was a neat solution. There has always been an unstated obligation to keep the novel as a compressed, fine-grained refinement of reality. Your approach has been in the opposite direction—to the point of incorporating material only accessible on a website. More on this later: pros and cons.
Justine. I’ve mentioned this before. Things seem to go well and then they don’t. I get it why you’re holding back. There’s an unspoken problem in the relationship somewhere. And when it’s revealed, everything suddenly changes. I love the audacity of that conjunction of intense emotion and location. Lots of resonances. It’s powerful, dramatically staged, and marks the thematic/plot shift from SF to Houston on a note of thwarted romance, thwarted dreams, of a life suddenly cut short.
Some readers will likely believe that Darren's relationship will be picked up later, since you have invested so much into it—only to be disappointed to discover it never happens, and it's never explained why the two never managed to make it work. One's guess would be that Justine's being a transgendered woman had something to do with it. You said this would be answered on the website in a detailed and frank way, so maybe that solves the problem.
Finally: There’s a foreboding sense that Darren is about to discover he’s not who he thinks he is. All his unconscious fears about being discovered are about to come true.Just a vague feeling I have that this might have been better prepared for—recurring instances of that fear bubbling up, perhaps with bloddy bits and pieces of memories. I know it’s a long book and you can only do so much, but you might think of what can easily be taken away to make room for it. Simplify, simplify, as what's his name said.
But what do I know? I’m just an editor, earning a barely living wage, who couldn’t provide his wife with all the things wives have come to expect in this country—a nice house in a nice neighborhood, a couple of cars, fashionable clothes, and the reputation of a man who has accomplished something in the world, who everyone admires and envies, who is worthy of her love.
Re: San Francisco
So now the P is on his own. It’s kind of a slog. I guess we’re made to feel his pain. Like moving through Jello. My advice: hack this stuff back. It’s more than anyone wants to know about homeless people. Billy got on my nerves, which I guess is the point. He doesn’t deserve his dog. You got readers desperate for someone to hang their interest on. The P is finally taking charge. I took a shine to Jojo and the gay scene, but like everything else here, it just over-stays its welcome.
The scene when the P takes on the bullies in the Park arrived just in time to revive my flagging interest. Of course Billy has to spoil it with ingratitude. Then you go and kill off the dog. Jeez!
The P is coming up in the world—finally—but what you really need here is a series of ever-increasing accomplishments. There’s a reason Horatio Alger stories are so popular. I know it’s a formula, but it always works! It’s narrative crack cocaine, especially when you connect it with romance. Then you’re talking to what most human beings are deeply interested in: success and sex. It’s why most people go to movies and read novels. There are a million variations but it all comes down to a single simple idea: A sympathetic character overcomes great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal.
I have to admit the scene at the museum with Billy pissed off that his art was so expensive was quite amusing. But again, all this seems like a detour. The reader, this reader, is still waiting for something to happen. You said the book was a mystery story, so maybe this is what you’re talking about.
My hopes rose when Justine entered the story and sparks began to fly between her and the P. But then it peters out, following the trajectory of the fling the P had with the truck driver. I could tell that the Billy storyline was not going to end well, and that hunch turned out to be true. The scene was effectively and efficiently handled. Something along the same lines might have been done with the funeral, but the sense of the P’s life entering a major transition does come through with that climatic scene with Justine in the shadow of the famous bridge. J’s speech never names what the problem was between her and the P, but that was at a time when not many people understood exactly what “transgender” was, so it makes sense. However, in retrospect, I wish you had their relationship actually take off and given it the full treatment, sparing no details. It would have hammered home just how much the P had been shaped by his San Francisco experience.