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Serpent Blog

Serpent Blog

Treasure Island: A Pilgrimage to Portsmouth Square 
"It is not much for its beauty that makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit."

Robert Louis Stevenson


To be honest, to be kind,
To earn a little, to spend a little less,
To make upon the whole a family happier
for his presence,
To renounce when that shall be necessary
and not be embittered,
To keep a few friends, but those without
capitulation,
above all on some grim condition
to keep friends with himself,
Here is a task for all that man has of fortitude and delicacy.



My pilgrimage to Portsmouth Square began on a whim. It is close to my office and I walked to it with one of my small Moleskine notebooks and a pen. I had been to Portsmouth Square before, but had mot lingered, and had not known about the monument, which is hidden off in the northwest corner. The park at 1:30 in the afternoon was filled with Chinese men clustered into groups of five, seven, all playing some sort of raucous card game I had never seen before. There were hundreds of men, and some women, playing this card game, on benches, on tables, on the ground, on low walls and each on a flattened piece of cardboard. There was much laughter and shouting and endless conversation, all in Chinese, and the air was filled with these human vocalizations, these guttural sing-song sounds, mostly elderly, retired, happy, excited, living mouths, the very air a cacophony of voices, voices wavering in pitch and in tone, a chorus of the living, so close to dying, but in this moment full of their youth. I could see their joking and jibing, their inner personal, and inter-personal, knowledge of each other. Friendships, long held, playful rivalries, mock taunts, the Chinatown elders engaged in play, smiling their big-toothed smiles, smoking their long cigarettes, seated upon boxes and crates, their hands waving away the flies and the smoke, waving off bluffs, waving stretched hands with their stretched speckled skin.

And I was almost one of them. I sat cross-legged, my back against the Robert Louis Stevenson monument, and I watched them play and shout. I listened to their speech, I tried to recognized words, I tried to hear in them what I hear in all voices Ė song, a living music, hearts and minds rendered true in breath and throats and teeth and tongue. People speaking. Speech. A certain variety of speech, that is unaware of itself, unafraid, unguarded, free-flowing, unchecked. It was the easy cross-talk of a community of friends, and that it was in another language, a language wholly indecipherable to me, that allowed me to hear it as a whole body, like listening to the sound of a river moving fast over rocks of many different shapes and sizes.

I ooked around, to see them talking and to sometimes isolate the sound of one voice, to find the source of one particular laugh or shout, so that the soundscape shifted, and when I turned my head a little, changed in pitch. I would hear that voice, and see the old leather face where it came from, the laughing eyes and then another, not far away, another voice from some other man or woman, exclaiming some truth, some recollection, some expression of what they knew in that moment, without being aware that it would not be remembered years from now, for none here had years left. They were all unaware and unconcerned that what they voiced only lived for a few sputtering moments, like some sulfurous particle aglow on its fading arc, falling from a fireworks display.

And I was happy to be among them, and I was happy to be alive, and human, for this was not babble. We need not know the meaning of the sounds that come from us if we are aware of us, if we are watching us. We are endowed with a much greater gift than that of voice, or articulation. Long before words passed through our lips we could read faces like a dog reads faces. We could read the language of bodies, like any enduring species of beast. We could see. We are creatures of sight. We are observers. Long before we could write, speak, or communicate clear thought formed as words and birthed as strings of words, we would watch for other signs, cruder, but perhaps truer symbols for what we wanted or what we felt.

And it struck me that language is not necessary. I sat there among the ethnic Chinese and understood that sound transcends speech, as music does, which is why a great symphony can convey more than a great novel, why a river can speak louder than a missalette. Sound. Voices. The ambiance of Portsmouth Square on a pleasant Thursday afternoon. This place. This moment. This place in history. I imagined it the day the United States claimed Alta California as its own with the booming sound of the USS Portsmouthís guns. I imagined it the day the cry of gold was first heard from the lips of Sam Brannan. I imagine Robert Louis Stevenson sitting here on this very spot. What did he hear here? I donít know. I donít even know why I came. What drew me to this place is not what I expected, or what I discovered. And that is what adventure is all about. This is the meaning of the word journey, of the concept of embarkation. The destination unknown. The mystery of the never-before-seen and the impossible to foresee. You go to be gone. You leave to be left. You visit to be visited. On a true journey you surrender all your expectations but never your hope, that you will find that which you never even knew you were looking for but always wanted. That ineffable connection to all things living, to all life, to all men, from which we draw life. For it is through close proximity to living, loving, laughing others that we rediscover ourselves.

All roads lead back home. The heroís quest is circular. Wherever I go, there I am. And how fitting, that through Robert Louis Stevenson the adventure writer, I discover again the treasure of myself.








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Come and See, a gift from Sean Penn 
Last night, without warning or intention, I was transformed by a film. I mean utterly changed. I am still, 12 hours later, stunned. And itís been so long since this has happened that I have forgotten that film is the most powerful medium of expression thus far invented by man. My body is affected. My mind is reeling with images, emotions. How do I even process such a thing? I write about it.

I was invited by a friend, film producer and musician Mitch Stein, to attend a screening at the Rafael Film Center of a Russian movie called Come and See. Last night the Rafael kicked off its Films of My Life series with Sean Penn, who presented the movie and led a discussion at the end. I did not attend this event to see this film. I had never heard of it. I came to see Sean Penn, and to hopefully shove a small envelope into his hand that contained a DVD with a video of my book trailer and a personal pitch in which I speak directly to him, asking him to consider directing the screen adaptation of my novel, Serpent Box.

Selfish motives do not go unpunished (or unrewarded). For what transpired on that movie screen last night was, unequivocally, the most intense cinematic experience of my life; and I studied film and film theory in college. I have seen Kenneth Anger, and Luis Bunuel, and Maya Duren, David Lynch, Eisenstein, Fellini Ė I have seen some very powerful films. But Come and See, my God friends, this movie pulled my guts out from my rear end and stuffed them back in through my mouth.

Come and See is the story of a young Belorussian boy, maybe 14 years old, who idealistically leaves his rural village to fight the Nazis during WW II. But Red Badge of Courage this is not. Come and See is a stark visage of what war, and what evil, truly is, and it presents this truth, the transformative power that war and hatred has over an individual, as well as a population, in the most striking way I have ever witnessed on film.

Come and See is a sensory overload. Light, darkness, shadow, muted color. Sound, music, ambient noises, ear-splitting tones, dull islands of pure silence. You see and feel this film more viscerally than a great novel. In fact, in the hands of a filmmaker Elem Klimov, a film is more powerful and more present than a novel. The filmmakers here show an absolute mastery over every cinematic tool at their disposal. The acting (especially this little boy) is sublime. The editing is brilliant. The story itself, timeless, horrible, necessary. There is one riveting and unforgettable scene after another. It is a tour de force of sight, sound, smell, tactile sensations, tastes Ė ALL your senses are engaged. Come and See is a bleak heroís quest told through the eyes of a child who literally ages before your eyes. I will never forget this kidís face. I will never forget this film. As a complete film Ė story, acting, visuals, technique and emotional impact -it is the greatest movie I have ever seen.

Sean Penn gave this gift to me and I am now passing it on to you. I urge all film lovers to rent Come and See. But be warned. It is VERY hard to watch. Several people in the crowded San Rafael theatre could not. They simply got up and left. What a shame. To turn your head from this movie is to turn your head from truth. While the film is not particularly gory, it is violent and gritty and dirty and permeated with a pathos that bludgeons. There are scenes of shocking cruelty, but if youíve seen Schindlerís List or Saving Private Ryan, youíve seen worse and you owe yourself this. Bear in mind that sound is very important in this movie, so turn the volume up and persevere, I urge you, persevere through this movie. It will leave you breathless.



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Shackleton, Jacob Flint, and Me 
When you're writing you first novel, or really when you're writing anything that comes from your heart, you're in uncharted territory. But you must struggle, for anything real and true. You must take those risks. In such endeavors, doubt, is your ally my friends, and certainty is a sure sign you've taken a wrong turn.




Monday, February 25, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco


I was anxious to get started today and even anxious to write to you. Thoughts have been bubbling through my head all morning and not all of them bad. Since I am so ready to go, I may not write a long letter. But I promise you that it will be scattered and lively. On the whole, I am very pleased with my writing Ė I mean the words and sentences and paragraphs of the book. But I still have the nagging feeling that I am not digging deep enough, that I am not tapping into the essence of the work. I have been good about describing the external landscapes of my characterís worlds and I have been good about describing action and building momentum but perhaps I have been ignoring the most important landscape of all and that is the mind of Jacob Flint. Do I even know what he is thinking? Am I, as the writer, over-thinking this? Does one need to think of this? Do I really need scenes and or descriptions of his thoughts? Or are actions sufficient to explain them? Does he have great fear? Great doubt? Great bouts of self-deprecation and if so how do those feelings manifest themselves? So far, he is doing. He is being. He is acting. It is almost as if he is on auto-pilot and perhaps this makes sense, to a point, but what is that point and how will I know when I get to it?

Last week I wrote most of chapter thirty-two in long-hand in my notebook and I suppose it will take me most of this week to type it up and turn it into something that makes sense (to me I mean). It is about fifteen hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages with exposition, scene and dialog all mixed in. This chapter is the preparation for Jacobís first solo revival and in it someone very close to him will die but I wonít say who (though you can probably guess). The only two people close to him who are not here are his mother and the old woman (but the old woman is already dead). Now I think Iíve got to cut his legs out from under him and I have to tell you Iím scared as Hell. More scared than he is I think. This next scene is crucial, and a turning point, and I think all my conceptions may be wrong, but I wonít know until itís done. I wish I could write faster and increase my word count. But I have to have faith that this is how it is meant to be done. I donít mean that I should not push myself, because I think I should, but I just feel Iím worrying too much. I wish I could show you what I have written and I wish you could reassure me but I know that that would only be a crutch. I canít rely on help or good weather to get me through this expedition. Like Ernest Shackleton, I must merely persevere. I only hope I donít wind up eating my dog. Spring is here soon, and thus the thaw, and when these ice-floes break apart maybe a ship will come. Stay well, and rest assured that I am giving this my whole heart and soul because I want you to be proud..

VLC




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The Green Hills of Africa 
More Serpent Box letters. 7 years ago I was in the thick of it and all I had to keep me going was Andrew Wilson and Hemingway..."I am all flourish and pomp. Iím a green-horned kid, all pistols and flash. If writers were gun fighters, I would be decked out in silver and black with tassels hanging from my gloves and Hemingway would be Wyatt Earp, all calm and cool and dark and subdued."

Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco

Andrew,

I had a good run yesterday. I felt like shit but I managed six hand-written pages in the notebook and none of it even in real time. It was all exposition. No dialog. Not real action. I love that kind of writing. Iím afraid of it, but I love it. Weíll see what happens today. I am getting a late start (itís already 10:20) and it is raining. Sometimes I am surprised at how prolific I can be off-routine.

Today I will also finally finish Green Hills of Africa, a book which at first surprised me at how boring it was but has since, in the second half, become almost astounding. There is one part, covered by perhaps three chapters, in which EH is in pursuit of Kudu. He has one day left in country and no Kudu. His luck is running out and he fears not getting one. But after much effort he manages a huge, beautiful bull, the taking of which may be the best passage of descriptive dialog I have read in a long time. It is on pages 230-231 in the Simon & Schuster Touchstone paperback. Pay particular attention to the description of the fallen bull. It sends shivers up my spine and draw tears from me. He is so damn good that it kills me. Itís going to take me years and years to better him. How in Godís name does he show such restraint? I am all flourish and pomp. Iím a green-horned kid, all pistols and flash. If writers were gun fighters, I would be decked out in silver and black with tassels hanging from my gloves and Hemingway would be Wyatt Earp, all calm and cool and dark and subdued. You would be Doc Holiday sans TB.

Okay, so today I get back into it. And I discovered something important yesterday. Itís funny how you make little connections and little discoveries that shed light on your own characters. But this is big. This is potentially huge. You see, a sign-follower must invoke the Holy Spirit before engaging in dangerous acts of faith. It is the spirit who protects him. This is called the anointment of the spirit, and is accomplished through the combination of living a true, clean life, and by prayer. A sign follower must attain and maintain a state of mind conducive to the coming of the spirit. I imagine that this is much like meditation. It requires work, great effort and it is not full proof. It can fail. The spirit can not come. But Jacob you see was born with the spirit in him Ė like John the Baptist (see Luke1:15). He need not invoke the spirit, the spirit is already there. He can tap into it anytime. But he does not know this yet. And the question is: what does this mean? And this is a huge question Andrew, huge. Too big.

You can tell David Plante that I am following his advice in spades, I am writing about what is much, much greater than myself. I have the naivete of a child, and my ignorance is my strength. This is what I have in common with Jacob.

VC





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Another Guest Blog from Don Williams: It could've been all different, Jack... 
'It could've been all different, Jack... You got to believe that'
By Don Williams

By way of explaining a first-person scene he'd written in which a mother drowns her baby girl in a bathtub, the late great John Updike told me once in an interview, "In a novel of any length you should be able to enter some other character's mind. The genius of the novel is to demonstrate different points of view."

It's not a notion favored by those who demonize enemies in order to make short work of them. Anyone who's tried to publicly analyze motives and psychology of terrorists knows how quickly such missionary work draws down the wrath of inflamed citizens.

That attitude extends not only to those who would understand terrorists, political foes and culture warriors, but especially those who express any empathy for the crooks, liars and greed mongers who perpetrated our current economic fiasco.

But those who would try and take the measure of their humanity as we march our Bernie Madoffs to guillotine or country club prison could do worse than read Inman Majors' novel, The Millionaires (W. W. Norton, 2009, $24.95.).

It's a book I loved reading two or three weeks ago, and one that I've thought about almost daily since.

The novel's more than loosely based on what's known as the Butcher banking empire of East Tennessee. It's a sort of true-life tale of would-be kings who lose their Midas touch or---to mix my myths a bit---fly too close to the sun, like Icarus. Flying ever higher, they find themselves out of their element, borrowing outrageously and moving funds around in a desperate, possibly well-intended effort to leave a mark on the landscape.

And leave one they do. Like Jake and C.H. Butcher, who were seminal in bringing the 1982 World's Fair to Knoxville, as well as a pair of gleaming towers still pointing to the heavens above that ever-fairer city, Roland and J. T. Cole bring a world-class exhibition to the fictive town of Glennville where they build their own towers.

If asked to describe the towers in one word, you might be tempted to say phallic. A truer word might be crystalline, for the real life towers not only mirror the skies and mountains of Tennessee, they're like crystals in which an astute observer might've caught glimmerings of the future---a future of greed and corruption we're experiencing still.

A quarter-century after the real life Butcher banking scandals, their crimes have been rendered almost quaint by a litany of scandal and mismanagement on an international scale, including the Savings & Loan fiasco, Enron, Madoff, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, AIG, bank after bank, and a fistful of Bush Administration political scandals.

One could look at the Butchers as canaries in the mines of an nation that thought it was building towers to the heavens when, in fact, it was digging itself ever deeper into a pit of moral and financial despair that brought multitudes of investors, pensioners and others down with them.

And yet. Inman Majors has managed to render his similarly bereft brothers sympathetic, even lovable. He shows us their hard-scrabble past, the banal beginnings of their banking deals, their brotherly chemistry and competitiveness that got out of hand. Some critics have misunderstood what Majors is up to here, and write his book off as humor or satire. But what Majors is really up to in this 475 page book---which does contain formidable humor in the Tom Wolfe tradition---is tragedy.

In that way he resembles the great social realism novelists of the twentieth century. His protagonist brothers could be seen as hill country versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark in All the King's Men or Rabbit Angstrom in Updike's Rabbit is Rich. Yet the Coles are richly defined by their own quirks, visions, vices and manners, and so rise above stock comparisons. We meet their lovable children, wives, lovers, advisers, bartenders, friends, foes, employees and townspeople who knew them when.

There's something humbling yet bracing about watching such rich and powerful men get their comeuppance, because most of us at one time or another have envied such people. I'm reminded of pithy words from commentator William Safire, who once wrote, "Nixon looked down on the Kennedys with utmost envy."

So true. And yet, J.T. and Roland Cole are rendered more real than even the Kennedys because they're like us--especially those of us who hail from south of the Mason Dixon line and west of the Appalachian Trail.

Underneath their wool-blend suits they're scruffy and country, rooted in a community that's in turn rooted in the earth. They're the pride of an outlying community still based in large part on cattle and corn and hay and tobacco.

Yet somehow they've managed to fly to the sun, as symbolized by an architectural bauble that defines Glennville much as the Sunsphere has come to symbolize Knoxville.

There's a scene in The Millionaires that, purposely or not, invokes Gatsby reaching with arms stretched to embrace the light at the end of Daisy's pier. It comes toward the end of the book, at night, at a lavish party on a lighted lawn brimming with food, drink, laughter, an orchestra and beautiful people.

Standing on the fringe of the party talking to Mike Teague, the true protagonist of this book, Roland stretches out his arms as if to embrace the whole estate, the very stars in the sky and asks, "I mean, am I really standing here? Tell me. Am I?" And you feel the wonder of just how far he's come and just how bitter his fall will be.

Like the best of books, The Millionaires grants its subjects their humanity, and leaves you pondering the imponderable, not only about the Coles, but about real life counterparts. What if they'd been able to stave off inspectors for six more months until some of their investments came to fruition? What if Roland had won the governorship? What if the fictive counterpart to the real-life President Carter, a close friend of close friends, had won re-election in 1980? What if they'd gained acceptance from old money in Glennville?

Many novels resonate in mind thanks to a a line or two, like those quoted above. In All the King's Men, the lines that live on for me are, "It could've been all different, Jack. You got to believe that."

Like Fitzgerald, Warren, Wolfe and Updike before him, Majors makes you believe it.

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