Faraway places, p.1
Copyright © 2007 Tom Spanbauer
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Spanbauer, Tom. Faraway places : a novel / Tom Spanbauer. – 1st Hawthorne ed.
p. cm. (Hawthorne rediscovery)
1. Nineteen fifties—Fiction.
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
1221 SW 10th Avenue
Portland, OR 97205
Pinch, Portland, OR
Set in Paperback
Edition, Winter 2007
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Clyde Hall: Un son baisch
MY THANKS to J.D. Dolan, Stacy Creamer, and Eric Ashworth; also, to Ellie Covan and the Dixon Placemats.
ALSO BY TOM SPANBAUER:
Now is the Hour
In the City of Shy Hunters
The Man Who Fell In Love With the Moon
THE THING ABOUT TOM SPANBAUER IS—HE’S THE REAL deal. There are others who think they are—but they’re not. Tom is, but he’s not going to be the one to tell you about it. Unlike those who announce themselves—all too prematurely—as genius and saviors, Tom says nothing; he has the warrior’s way of waiting, the proud patience. He sees the posing and fakery and it doesn’t make him pissed, it doesn’t make him think all the world’s a fool; it confirms what he already knows about the irony of our time in this world. He doesn’t begrudge others their ego or their insanity; he’s kind and generous and he is the real deal because he simply is—he lives and he writes and he survives.
I saw Tom before I knew him—it was 1985 in New York City. We were in Gordon Lish’s class at Columbia University. Tom was sexy and sagacious and different from 99 percent of the other students. First off, he had a job. Secondly, it was a real job, not a trust fund-subsidized publishing gig. Tom was the superintendent of a building downtown. He was a grown-up while most of the rest of us were still kids. He had already had many lives—as a married man with a wife, as a Peace Corps worker in Kenya, as someone embracing and exploring Native American influences, and as a gay man living in New York. By his example— his impressive physical presence, his profundity—he prompted everyone around him to work hard, to work harder. He had a cowboy’s roughness and an old-fashioned kind of decency—you could tell he was a good man, a just man, a man who would do the right thing, even if it cost him. And then—just as I was on the cusp of getting to know him—he was moving, heading to Portland, Oregon, and taking some of the class with him. He was putting together his own workshops, outside the borders of Lish’s template, encouraging risk taking, danger—but in a more compassionate, more openhearted setting. Dangerous Writing is not writing without fear—but writing facing fear, feeling it, writing from within ambivalence. It is writing that acknowledges the complexity and range of human emotion—writing that embraces what was, what is, what might be, and where one goes from there.
Tom Spanbauer is a very rare, very unusual human being—almost like a holy man. He is a kind of knowing wizard, an old soul that has done and seen it all, and lives with a smile, knowing but not judging. A big-hearted soul, there is also something childlike about him—a perpetual innocence, an optimism in the face of all that we comprehend. His writing talent comes from a kind of truth telling, an ancient way of spinning stories. He has a deft, elegant, light touch with words. His language is lyrical, like the best of poetry; it is clear, chosen—not happenstance—and entirely his own. He writes about being on the outside—about the position from which he experiences life, always “other”—racially, sexually, familially, emotionally. He writes and thinks like no one else.
Faraway Places, Tom’s first novel, is not enormously long, but it is a big book. And it is masterly—a near-perfect story. Built upon keen observations of human behavior—ranging from God, to farming, the scent of one’s father, the magic of sex, and the exact number of steps from here to there—there is enormous originality, drama, and spirit to this tale. It is a family drama with a pitch-perfect crescendo. The story is hypnotic, mesmerizing, delicately brilliant—and so well made. While you are lulled by the language and the characters, the story line builds and then like a well-timed firework explodes—surprising, enthralling, captivating.
After I finished reading the book I went back and counted the pages, wondering how he did it. All of Tom’s writing is about nature, man’s nature, Mother Nature—even God’s nature if you believe in such a thing. Tom is spirited and spiritual, like a wild horse and like an ancient who holds within the secrets of hundreds—those who came before and those who will follow. He has a tremendous gift to make magic the elements of life and love and war. And he is a man who understands and accepts himself—and us.
When I asked Tom a few questions about what Faraway Places means to him he sent me the following letter—I thought anyone reading this book should have a chance to read it:
Tom Spanbauer, in correspondence with A.M. Homes
… FARAWAY PLACES MEANS A LOT TO ME. IT WAS THE first time that I gathered myself up to complete a large work. I know it is only one hundred and four pages, but at the time, it seemed a real stretch. I don’t know how I can talk about it without talking about Gordon Lish. I was straight out of his class and Gordon was still over my shoulder. With each new sentence I trembled with fear, thinking that Captain Fiction would not approve.
I don’t know if you know the story of how Faraway Places was published. It ain’t pretty but it’s the truth.
Gordon read it and called me up while he was in the bathtub, making a big fuss that he was in the bathtub while he was talking to me. He told me he was going to publish “this fucker.” I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy. A couple days later, Gordon asked me to come to his office. What a trip, going to midtown and into those halls of power. I put on my best duds, which for me at that time was a vintage suit and a pair of black high-topped grandpa shoes. Gordon and I talked about some changes on the book, and then he proposed that I take his private class. This was impossible for me because I had just graduated from Columbia and I owed Citibank $25,000. At that time, I was working as a super. I got my apartment free and $400 a month. There was no way I could afford Gordon’s private class. Then after our meeting, he sent me a note. In the note he asked me where I had bought the shoes I had been wearing. He wanted to know where he could get a pair in brown instead of black. I didn’t think much about the note, and then a couple days later, I got another note that read: Tom, don’t forget about those shoes. I’d bought my shoes at a secondhand store on Second Avenue. I didn’t know what else to do so I set out to find Gordon some brown shoes, never thinking there was anything unusual about his request. I finally found a pair of shoes at a saddlery store on Twenty-third. Then I bought a postcard—a cute postcard with shoes on the card—and sent the postcard to Gordon with all the information on where to buy the shoes, their price, etc. That same week I received my manuscript back. In it was a note from Gordon saying that I was copying the rhetoric and style of his novel Peru, and if I was any kind of moral human being—which he was sure
That fucked me up good. I went in the bathroom and stood under the shower until the water got cold. And that’s saying something because I was the super of that building. Finally I decided that I needed to get out and do something. Which in those days meant get drunk. I checked my funds and I had fifteen dollars. I was headed across Third Avenue and I was at Astor Liquors when I ran into a guy selling his wares on the sidewalk. I looked down and there for all the world to see was a pair of brown shoes like Gordon wanted. I thought, “Oh, there’s Gordon’s shoes!” Then after a moment, I thought, “No, there are my shoes.” The guy was asking fifteen dollars for them. I didn’t even haggle with him. Right there I put the shoes on. They were a little big, but I figured I’d grow into them.
That next week, I gave Faraway Places to JD Dolan to read, just to see if for some weird reason I had unconsciously copied Gordon. JD told me the only thing similar between the two books was that the fathers both drove Buicks. So I changed the Buick into an Oldsmobile. Then Stacey Creamer got wind of what had happened between me and Gordon and she thought she’d give me a sympathy read. On my fortieth birthday Stacey called and offered me a contract.
Now that was a happy day.
Then the stars were in the right place, or whatever has to happen to get reviewed in the New York Times. And it was a good review. Then Gallimard in France bought it. I think that was the day I began to believe that maybe I really was a writer.
So I’d say that Faraway Places was my coming out, not as a queer man yet but, even more important, as a writer.
I’ve reread it recently and it’s an amazingly dark little piece of my heart. The combination of the innocence of the narrator with Idaho’s underbelly really is quite shocking to me. Shocking in a way that a child can be shocking. Saying the obvious at an inappropriate time. But what’s appropriate? I thought it was fitting that the Los Angeles Times review said something like Spanbauer is trying to write a southern novel.
I guess the way I’d like the book talked about is that it was my first step into one of the themes that goes through all my work: racism. Then, too, there’s the dark, unrepentant father and the wacky Catholic mother. When you read on through my next novels, these two characters always pop up in some form or another. Then there’s the Catholic Church. As Rose, a character in In the City of Shy Hunters, says, “With Catholicism, you don’t recover—you reupholster.” From Catholicism, the theme branches out to all dogmas. The Mormons take it pretty hard in The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon.
As far as a shift in how the book has been perceived over time, I sometimes think it’s even more daring now with its use of racial epithets. There have been many times reading Faraway Places aloud when I’ve thought: My God, what was I thinking! But if I go back to my childhood and to the language I heard in my household and in my community, I have to say, the language in the book is unfortunately right on.
Something else about Faraway Places. I was just teetering on the edge of sexuality. If nothing else, I think my writing is known for its explicit sex. Someone recently asked me why I write so much about sex. My reply was nobody really talks about sex. Sex is either something that’s forbidden and nasty, (and now of course with AIDS, sex can kill), then there’s the other side, pornography. With the Internet all you have to do is type in a few chosen words and you’re right there. What I’m trying to say is that sex may have its extremes of celibacy and overindulgence, but essentially sex is something very particular that happens within the bodies of the people who are involved, and in their minds and spirits. Like racism, sex is something we need to talk about. In many cases, we don’t even have the words to have a real conversation. Just saying the words can cause people to get up and walk out.
Your question of how I like myself characterized is the hardest question.
I want people to see my love of language. The voices I’ve created in my books are something for me like a painting by Francis Bacon. I’m constantly trying to push at the representational image. Character lies in the destruction of the sentence. Or as Bacon says, “I want to pour the representational image over my nervous system … and in what comes out I hopes the portrait is there.”
Along with my love of language, I want people to see that the voices of my novels aren’t just language-driven tap dances. I love language because it investigates the lovely mess that is the human heart.
Amy, I hope my answers can help you. If not, ask some more. After all I am my favorite subject.
THE MOON WAS FULL AND IT WAS THE FEBRUARY THAT it didn’t snow. I had my flannel pajamas on and my loafer socks, and I was in the bathroom looking into the mirror watching myself brush my teeth after One Man’s Family on the radio but before the rosary, when my mother walked through the hallway with the wallpaper that had the butterflies and the dice on it. She went past the bathroom door in her green kimono with that look on her face, her left eye cockeyed. I spit—the white toothpaste turned pink with my blood—then rinsed my mouth and the sink. By the time I got to the kitchen I could feel it too.
The kitchen door was open and so was the screen. The screen door’s spring had been disconnected for winter and without that spring to snug it back into home, the door drifted between open and closed, lost on its hinges. My mother was standing out by the gate by the time I got to the kitchen. That gate was unlatched and drifting too, like the screen door. My mother’s hair blew back off her face. She’d stood herself into the wind—wind that was blowing from a direction it had never blown from before. And the wind was warm, which was something new—something it had never been. Not in February.
“Chinook,” my mother said softly, almost so soft I couldn’t hear, and then she crossed herself. “Chinook,” she said again, this time loud enough for the sky and moon. She said the word this second time as if calling out to some long-lost friend whose name she had forgotten, then suddenly remembered. But the chinook was no friend; it was the name for the strange wind blowing. And by November, everything that had been stirred up and blown around by that chinook since February was all settled back down again. And all was finished up.
But nothing was ever the same.
That woman Sugar Babe was dead, and Harold P. Endicott was dead next, and then the nigger was dead. Always in threes, death, my mother would say, then cross herself. Between the drought and that year of the chinook, by November we were all finished up too—let go of, unlatched. The house got burned down, and the barn too, along with the toolshed and most of our stuff, and we lost the farm for good.
The chinook lasted all the next day and night until the morning after. When I got up that third day, my mother looked like her old self again. The whole time that the chinook blew on us my mother was a mess. That’s what my father said to her, You’re a mess, he said, because she couldn’t cook normal. My father’s eggs were hard and his mush was burnt and we had tuna casserole for supper when it wasn’t even Friday. That whole chinook time my mother didn’t put her hair up in the day and comb it out for my father at suppertime or put lipstick on or wear her clean apron over her red housedress when it came time to get things done. Besides the cooking, my father said my mother was a mess because she had just let herself go. Mom, my father said to her, just take a good look at yourself. You’re just letting yourself go.
Hawks blew in the second morning of the Chinook and perched in the poplars in front of our house. My mother watched them from the front window—crossing herself and watching them the whole day. That night we prayed the rosary, her mixing up the sorrowful mysteries with the glorious ones, eyes still on the poplars, though you couldn’t make out a single bird or branch past dark.
The following morning the hawks were gone, my mother was back, normal, getting the eggs right and roast beef for supper. But those hawks showed up again, not in the poplars in front of the house, but in the stand of cottonwood trees up the river—not that I
THE RED FLAGS that hung on the fence were made out of old flour sacks cut into triangle shapes and dyed in Rit by my mother. My father hung the red flags from the barbed wire, one every mile for the four miles that our road traveled to the main road to town. My mother and my father did that with the red flags long before the chinook. In fact, those red flags hung there on that fence maybe even before I was around. I never asked, but I don’t ever remember the red flags not hanging there marking the distance.
At the second flag you came to, there were three miles left before you got to the house, and right there, at the second red flag, the ground went down. On that slope you could see on both sides of you for just about forever. It was a plateau caused by the river going down slowly over the centuries to the place where it is now, the Portneuf River—a river, at its widest, no wider than double the width of the main road to town.
Standing there at the second flag and looking down onto the valley, you felt like you were standing on the world and the world was in endless space, which is the case—I know—but standing there you really got the sense that you were standing on a round ball. You had to lean back to keep your balance, to keep from falling forward and off. Either that or you got the feeling that the world was as flat as a cookie sheet with a ripple in it and the sky was just a big dome. At night God punched holes in the dome with a needle that were stars. But in either case, whether you were leaning back so as not to fall off the ball, or if you were lying flat on the cookie sheet with the ripple in it under the big dome, whatever, the sky was the thing; the unstoppable sky was the thing.
There was sky everywhere: outside the windows, under the beds, between the ceiling and the floor there was sky. There was sky between your fingers when you spread them, and sky under your arms when you lifted them up. Sky around your neck and ears and head, and sky pressing against your eyeballs. When you took a breath you were breathing sky. Sky was in your lungs. My mother hung up wash across the sky. I swung in my swing through the sky. There was no escaping it. The sky was as everywhere as the nuns at the St. Joseph’s School said God was. Only the ground stopped it, and even then it didn’t stop there. It was all an illusion, like Mr. Energy, that magician at the Blackfoot State Fair, said. Everything was an illusion according to him. I used to get scared at night just thinking about it: what if everything—everything that was familiar to me, everything I knew—was an illusion and what I was really doing was hanging in thin air, like the earth was hanging in thin air, like I could see the moon hanging up there in the sky, a round ball just out there with nothing solid to hold it in place.