Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Novel Excerpt

Back in my 20s, fresh from a successful two-year collegiate stint as a weekly newspaper columnist, I had it in my head that I was going to sit down and write a novel. At that point in your life, everyone's behind you. All your friends are still voracious readers. Professors are certain you'll be the one, your talents so shining and obvious. The wind's in your sails.

The problem was I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground in terms of novel writing. I still don't. If I ever do write one, think of the fractured, all-over-the-place Kurt Vonnegut template. Which could make for a pretty good read -- the thing is, the guy got very good at that style, took him a long time, too. It's not as easy as he makes it look. Besides which ... the concept of a "successful" novelist has changed drastically, so much that you could have a book that's considered a success and still be very much in need of a solid day job to get by.

On top of all this, look at attention spans these days. One of the big reasons I unwind on this website is to keep in the habit of writing longer pieces. If I were getting regular newspaper or magazine work, this would never happen. Most writing now, especially on the web, is being geared to sound bites, individual paragraphs and one liners underneath goofy photos that communicate glibness and lack of depth. Our attention spans are shot. I can't even fathom Myspace and the idiot-speak so many people employ on it. I feel like I'm reading another language with that gibberish -- and am embarrassed for the people writing it. Are they really that stupid? It's as though our exposure to incredible new forms of media, which should allow us to branch out and develop our cognitive abilities, has had the reverse effect, like a berserk science project gone horribly wrong, and it's turning us all into a bunch of fucking idiots who can't concentrate for more than a few minutes at a shot and are encouraged to see the world in absolutes and extremes.

Personally, I had a hard time reading novels after 9/11 -- still do. That event somehow blew out my capacity for long-term imagination. I've gotten some of it back since then, but for a very long time, I didn't have any urge to put myself in a novelist's invented world. It may have something to do with 24-7 news channels, which I watched religiously for months after that event. These things have a way of stripping us of our sanity and imaginations. I've since gone back to my old way of life: read one newspaper a day (The New York Daily News) and watch the local news channel for 15 minutes every morning. Maybe the 6:00 news if I get home early enough ... and mainly because the anchorwoman on the New York ABC affiliate, Liz Cho, is such an incredible piece of ass. But that's it. I have no urge to read political blogs or columnists of any stripe. And I'm recognizing that it's helping me see my world more clearly.

But enough on that. Below is an excerpt from that first aborted novel, which was called Memory Motel. The concept was to have these bite-sized chapters of a grow man remembering his childhood in the 1970s, each chapter being a song title or famous line from a 70s song that pertained to the chapter's topic. As with any first timer, I was mixing way too much autobiographical stuff with composites and imagined scenes. It felt clunky and disjointed as hell. Like I said, I didn't know what I was doing, but some parts of it still read all right.

This was loosely based on our neighbor Frank H., who loved lawn mowing above all else. I probably wrote it after I heard about his passing, which did not go down like this, but I guess was me imagining a perfect ending for someone with that love of lawn. Frank and his wife Gertie were great neighbors -- no mind games, no bullshit, just friendly people who minded their own business. Enjoy!


... Wanna' go to the place that's the best

Winter means death to me in more ways than one. The first dead person I saw was in winter snow.

Our neighbor, Walter Domanski, was a lawn-mowing fiend. Actually, every man over the age of thirty in the neighborhood was a lawn-mowing fiend, but Walter was their king. Arnold Palmer could have practiced putting on his lawn. There were never any dandelions or weeds, which I still think add great warmth and character to a lawn. Walter mowed his lawn twice a week in the summer. He'd water his lawn every day and scatter fertilizer on it three times a week. He had a big John Deere riding mower with a black bag on the back to catch the clippings. Walter was a lawn-care visionary. Most of the other men in the neighborhood had push mowers -- some quite elegant, still, push mowers -- and had to rake after each mowing session. If they had riding mowers, they were like VW vans compared to Walter's Cadillac of a John Deere. It had rear-view mirrors and turn signals. Had he taken the blade off, I'm sure the Kiwanis Club would have let him drive it with the mini-convertibles in parades.

All men have their one great obsession. Had Walter been a writer, he would have been dedicated and crazed enough to write the great American novel, and then accept the Nobel Prize for Literature stone drunk and wearing no pants. But he mowed lawns instead, and that pure patch of green grass was his salvation. It was his. No one else staked any claim over his domain. I understood the man implicitly, but that didn't mean I liked him. His mowing sessions on Saturdays started at seven in the morning, and on Sundays, he'd turn the mower on again at the same time to fine tune the engine.

The man was misunderstood. I didn't like him purely because he woke me up on weekends. But the men in the neighborhood were intensely jealous. And he was too proud to have hedges -- they would have blocked out his life's work. Walter was living on an army pension, so he didn't have to work. His wife Arlene kept to herself, a quiet mouse of a woman. They had no children. And they were friendly. I can still see Walter driving the John Deere in perfectly-defined squares on his immaculate lawn, smiling broadly and waving to me like a politician. He'd wave at total strangers driving through town, and they'd wave back.

One winter morning when I was seventeen, I saw Walter standing on his snow-covered lawn. Six inches had fallen that morning, and I was enjoying a morning cup of tea while listening to school cancellations on the radio. My school had canceled, so I was in a great mood. It wasn't unusual to see Walter standing on his lawn. In summer, he would stand there for hours, admiring his work and taking enormous pleasure in what he had done. In winter, he would still be out there, but not as long. It was almost as if he were planning his next year's campaign, waiting for that first warm day of spring. He looked more thoughtful on those winter mornings, maybe even a little morose.

Walter put his gloved hand up and started pulling himself along the clothes line cutting through the center of his lawn. His feet disappeared under the fresh snow as he trudged a few yards forward. He stopped. I remember his hat, one of those black leather jobs with a buttoned-up bill and ear flaps that connected by a strap under his chin. He took a good look around, as if he were enjoying the scenery, and then fell face down in the snow. His arms were around his face, and I saw them furiously jerking.

Still in my pajamas, I threw on a pair of boots and ran over to Walter's yard. Arlene had bolted out of their house, and we reached him together. She called out his name. No movement. No answer. I bent down and shook his shoulder. Nothing. Arlene started wailing, an ugly, frightening sound that made my hair stand up. I rolled Walter over, and his eyes were open. His face was empty. And his hands, now near his chest, were frozen in place. Arlene began moaning his name and ran back in the house. By this time, my father had seen what was happening and yelled out our door that he had called for an ambulance.

Before he ran over, I took a last good look at Walter. He died with a Mona Lisa smile on his face that reminded me of George's stoned, mellow grin. At first, I had thought the motion of his arms jerking represented some kind of seizure. Then I saw that where his face had fallen, the snow was pushed away so that the grass of his lawn had shown through. Walter's fingernails had wisps of pale winter grass and dirt underneath them.

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