An Interview with Becky Mandelbaum
Lexi Wilkinson: The story is in ways a revenge story; Jackie, the protagonist, ultimately gets the better of her ex-boyfriend, Ellison, and even his dead wife, Gloria. Was there a relationship of yours that inspired the story?
Becky Mandelbaum: Not really, or at least not one relationship specifically. I’ve had my share of heartbreaks, and this story is, for me, an exploration of who and what we become when we’re alone and let our heartbreaks obsess us. The thing I find fascinating about Jackie is that despite how much she beats up on herself, she’s actually pretty good on her own—she finds ways to have fun, to entertain herself. But as soon as you insert anyone else into the situation, she starts to turn on herself. She becomes jealous and malicious, vengeful, self-deprecating. She’s still a touch strange on her own, but she’s kinder to herself. In this way, Jackie and I are similar. I think I’m at my moral highest when I’m alone—maybe this is true for everyone.
LW: The mountain-ranch setting of the piece is very well described: the mountains, the horses, the three-hour trek to Costco. Why did you choose this as the location for your story?
BM: I started writing this story while I was house-sitting for the writer Pam Houston, a close friend and mentor whom I met in grad school at UC Davis. Pam lives on a ranch in Creede, Colorado, which is essentially where I set this story. The ranch is one of the most dreamy, beautiful places I’ve ever been, but I spent a lot of time alone there and had ample time to explore the peculiarities of solitude. Some of Jackie’s behaviors are my own. I didn’t snoop through wedding cards or sleep with the farrier, but I did talk to inanimate objects and find myself ping-ponging between bursts of euphoria and restlessness. When the snow was thigh-high and I had no way to get my wiggles out, I too explored the world of online workout videos.
LW: There is a line where Jackie says, “You might be thinking I was lonely, but this is not the case.” What about this idea of isolation that isn’t loneliness? Is there truly a difference?
BM: There is a huge difference between isolation and loneliness. If isolation is a river then loneliness is a glacier—they’re made of the same element but possess entirely different forms. Loneliness can be a product of isolation (to go back to the water metaphor, it is what happens when we let isolation paralyze us), but it doesn’t have to be. Anyone who has spent extended time alone knows that isolation can induce a range of other emotions, many of them positive: serenity, clarity, joy, bravery, humor, playfulness, curiosity, gratitude, kindness.
I think, as a species, we’ve become afraid of solitude—afraid of the discomfort, the boredom, the task of keeping ourselves company. Social media plays a big part in this. We’re spending less and less time with the discomfort of solitude, a discomfort that can grow into something productive if we let it. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced my fair share of loneliness, but it’s usually sharpest when I’m not actually by myself. That’s part of what I wanted to express with this story. We often feel lonely because we have given others permission to make us feel that way. When we avoid solitude altogether, we sacrifice opportunities for personal growth.
LW: In the story, you play with the idea of identity. Can you say more about why and how that became a primary theme of the story?
BM: In many ways, this story is an exploration of the relationship between identity and solitude. A lot of us grow up thinking our identity depends on the perceptions and judgements of others, that other people make us who we are. When you’re alone, you realize you have an identity that’s completely separate from other people. You learn things about yourself: how you like to spend your time, what you like to think about, what brings you joy or makes you uneasy or restless or sad. You learn how to entertain yourself and enjoy your own company. You can hear yourself better. Jackie’s on her way to understanding who she is, but she’s not quite there. The ranch is trying to teach her, but she’s not listening. She still has one ear pressed to the door of a world in which she finds her value from men. One day she’ll walk away, but not yet.
LW: Finally, what are you working on now?
BM: I’m working on a novel that takes place on an animal sanctuary in western Kansas.
Becky Mandelbaum: “The First to Leave is the Winner”
Becky Mandelbaum’s pitch-perfect story “The First to Leave is the Winner” features a jilted fiancee who, in the very long run, gets her revenge. The story appeared in our winter 2017 issue. Mandelbaum also talked with the TMR staff about writing fiction and about her story. You can read that interview here.
The First to Leave is the Winner
For a brief period in my late twenties, I lived alone on a horse ranch at 9,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains. The closest human heartbeat was thirteen miles away, the nearest airport two hundred. The altitude gave me vertigo and headaches and months of spectacular, disturbing dreams, but it was worth it for the sky, which was grandiose and constantly changing, a lava lamp let loose of its goblet. Never had I seen a sky like that, and I haven’t seen one since. Granted, I haven’t been looking.
The ranch belonged to an ex-boyfriend of mine who was spending the year in Asia to find himself. From his itinerary, I concluded that finding oneself was best achieved in boutique hotels, five-star resorts, and spas named after rare tropical plants. To be fair, his beautiful young wife had just died from a brain bleed. One moment she was chopping a sweet onion, saying she felt funny, and the next she was dead. Just like that, an opening in the earth.
“I’m so sorry, Ellison,” was what I told him when I got there. I was in a mild state of shock at the beauty of the place. Not only had he left me for another woman, but he’d been out here, living with her in paradise. There were mountains and fields of desert lupine and, just across the gravel road, the Rio Grande, which shone in the sun like a great diamond necklace cast down by a jilted lover. This was autumn, the aspens dripping with pompous starlight. Not to mention the house, which was something from a page of Country Living. The kitchen was all blond wood and chrome, multicolored vases filled with dried baby’s breath and sage. My own kitchen, in the little apartment I’d left behind in Denver, had stacks of bills and boxes of Grape Nuts from 2004. The only decoration was a plaque above the stove that read live, love, laugh, a mantra that made me genuinely gag if I read it after having a bad day, which, at this particular juncture in my life, could be any day. Once, I smashed a pregnant spider on the plaque and the babies went everywhere; instead of trying to kill all one thousand of them, I went out for a cheeseburger.
I was surprised and a little annoyed to find that, despite his dead wife, Ellison looked as handsome as ever. He had always been like a human cinnamon roll, bronzed and sweet. Standing in the ranch kitchen, he wore his grief like a glaze that made you want to put your tongue against his neck and keep it there. I thought of the time, early in our relationship, when I was trying to decide what to eat for dinner and the thought legitimately crossed my mind that I was hungry for him, Ellison—that I wanted to put him in a bowl and eat him like soup. I made the mistake of telling him about it. “That’s the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said and refused to kiss me for a week. It had disappointed me that he mistook my romance for cannibalism and also made me wonder if there was something wrong with the way I loved.
“You don’t have to pretend to be sad,” he said. “I know you never liked Gloria.”
“To be fair, I never knew her—you never gave us the chance.” As far as I knew, nobody from our old life had met her. Their wedding was a small, Pinterest-inspired affair that took place primarily on Instagram.
“Maybe you would have liked her then. Everybody liked her. She was one of those people.”
“Well,” I said, astounded that there was still a part of my heart he could break, “it’s possible she wouldn’t have liked me. But I guess we’ll never know now, will we?”
Once he was gone, without a hug or even a good-luck-living-on-your-own-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-for-ten-months squeeze on the shoulder, I found traces of Gloria all over the house. A tub of buttercream hand lotion here, a leather sandal there. In the shower, her eucalyptus shampoo sat on the metal caddy and her hair clung to the drain like a sea urchin. I figured the least Ellison could have done was remove these artifacts before my arrival, but perhaps he was hoping I would do this for him, before he returned in July.
The problem was that Gloria had been more beautiful than I was and probably kinder, which did not make it easier when she stole from me my favorite person in the world. She had long black curls, and there was a time when, if you Googled the word chignon, you’d find an image of her on her wedding day. For a living, she taught children with disabilities how to ride horses—the same horses that now stood dumbly in the pasture, eating the carrots I fed them each morning, their eyes registering my presence as a sign that their lives would never again be the same. Their beautiful human was gone, never to return, and the soft, weightless children who rode them were never coming back either. Poor horses. Part of why Ellison had gone to Asia was to determine what to do with them. The ranch belonged to Gloria, whose dream it had been, ever since she was a little girl, to own land in the mountains and fill it with ponies. Ellison had never exactly shared this dream, but he did like to ski and mountain bike, so he happily left Denver for a quiet life on the ranch.
Ellison asked me to take care of the place not because I knew anything about horses but because I was unemployed and was, as far as I kept telling other people, at work on a novel. What Ellison did not know was that, ever since he’d left me, I had been trying to find ways to win him back: by earning an online degree in marketing, by running a half marathon, by entering a contest where, if I kept my hand on a Lexus for long enough, I would get to drive it home. In the end, I failed out of my first semester of school, twisted my ankle in the tenth mile (which, anyone will tell you, is much worse than twisting it in the first), and forfeited the Lexus when I wet my pants during hour six (the other contestants, I later discovered, were wearing adult diapers—stupid me). The book idea was more recent. Before I wrote a single word, I posted about it on Facebook. The way to write a novel, went the post, is one word at a time. Included was a picture of my laptop and a latte with a leaf etched into the foam. I spent the next few hours checking to see if Ellison liked the post; he never did, but he must have seen it because it was, as I mentioned, the main reason he proposed my staying at the ranch. “You can finish your book,” he wrote in the initial email, which I took to mean: I want you to be the first person I see when I get back from my travels. I imagined him returning home, weary with jetlag, his grief having sloughed off him like a layer of dead skin. He would see me in his kitchen, preparing something warm and fragrant—green chili stew or mashed potatoes with truffle oil—and understand, all at once, that he had never needed Gloria. “Look at you,” he would say, and I would only nod, understanding everything. After we made love, I would read to him from my novel, which by then would be all the talk among the major players of the literary world. Publishers would be throwing bricks through one another’s windows, attached notes reading: Jackie’s novel is mine! Back off! The novel, by the way, was about a colony of asexual aliens who came to Earth to learn about love and capitalism. As far as I could tell, it was either absolutely terrible or absolutely brilliant. How does anyone know whether something is good or bad? Somebody else has to tell you, that’s how.
The day after Ellison left, I drove three hours to the nearest Costco so I could stock up on everything I would need for the months to come: a 500-count box of tampons, a ten-pound bag of rice, olive oil and toothpaste and soap. I liked the idea of hunkering down, of having everything I needed. I would write my novel and generally reverse all the reasons Ellison gave for leaving me: that I was lazy, unfocused, without direction. Jealous. That I did not have a solid center, an accusation that made me view myself as a Cadbury egg, my tummy filled with liquid caramel. I would use my time at the ranch to become a superior version of myself, one Ellison would have no choice but to love. My greatest dream was to one day leave him as abruptly and coldly as he had left me and then, having punished him, take him back.
When I returned to the ranch, my car loaded with provisions, I found a note on the front door. I’m very sad to have missed you, the note read. But I will see you in the spring. xoxo. ☺
I thought about calling Ellison to ask who could have written the note, but he had told me not to call unless it was an emergency, so I decided I’d simply wait until the spring to find out. In the meantime, I would get to work on the novel, or whatever it was I was supposed to be doing out there in the middle of Ellison’s life.
And then, as if stepping off of a mountain, I was alone. The days, then weeks, then months began to blur together, a watercolor of time. Every other day was so similar to the one prior and the one following that at some point I stopped thinking of the year in terms of the calendar, with its tidy honeycombs of bounded time, but rather as a great empty wardrobe box filled with stale air and dying moths.
Of all the days, only the holidays stood out. The New Year arrived like a grand piano from the sky, bringing with it snow so deep the horses could hardly walk to their trough. I had a plan to spend the holiday reading the dictionary, searching for all the most beautiful words to use in my book. In reality, I spent the day watching video footage from Ellison and Gloria’s wedding and crying so hard I burst a blood vessel in my right eye. The truth was that working on the novel felt like trying to cut a lawn with tweezers. The only feeling worse than the guilt of not writing was the terrifying discomfort of actually sitting down to do it.
On Valentine’s Day, I woke up to the sound of icicles crashing onto the porch outside my window. I said to the empty room, “What have I done? Where am I?” When I imagined the hollow months still ahead of me, I wanted to get in my car and return to Denver, leave the horses to starve or cannibalize each other. But then I thought of Ellison, of how disappointed he would be that I was unable to stand my own company. And so I imagined taking all my negative thoughts and throwing them down a well so dark and deep that anything that entered would never return. The trick would be to never look inside. Sometimes I would imagine myself walking up to the well, tapping my fingers along its rustic stone lip, wanting nothing more than to peer inside. And then, my head high, I would turn and walk away.
Unless you count shoveling horse manure, the ranch was not exactly abounding with recreation, and so, for fun, I snooped. With the zeal of a mother reading her daughter’s diary for signs of a secret sex life, I probed every drawer, closet, and cabinet only to discover I’d raised a prude. The most scandalous find was a used condom, located in a junk drawer behind the usual cast of characters: playing cards, batteries, duct tape.
One day, while rummaging through Gloria and Ellison’s bedroom, I happened upon a stack of wedding cards. I sat and read each card, right there, on Ellison and Gloria’s bed—queen sized, with too many pillows and a stiff floral quilt. The cards were appropriately maudlin and congratulatory except for one, from an Aunt Brunhilde Meriwether who hailed from Soda Springs, Georgia, and whom I mentally dressed in hard leather pantaloons and hiking boots, dark braids thick as bread. A mouth like a pig’s snout. On the front of the card was a drawing of a rose, one red petal drifting to the ground.
My dear Gloria, the letter began, How incredible, that you have found love in this world. It is no easy feat. Let me share with you a secret about love, one that my mother passed down to me because her mother passed it down to her and etc. etc. all the way back, I am assuming, to the origins of women dispensing wisdom to one another on matters of love and life. My secret is this: In love, the first to leave is the winner. In whatever ways you can, leave him. Be the first to exit bed in the morning, the first to close your eyes at night. Deprive him of you, so that he might have opportunity to miss you. Return if you must, but make sure you are always the first to leave. Then her name, signed in sprawling, audacious cursive.
All day and into the next I wondered over the message, which looped in my head as I searched Gloria’s closet, where her clothes were organized according to season and then color. I tried out on outfit after outfit, disappointed to find that Gloria was two sizes smaller than I was. Standing before the mirror, her jeans squeezing my hips, I decided to begin a diet. By the time Ellison returned, I wanted to be the same size as her—or smaller, even. I wanted to wear her clothes. I wanted to wear her life.
Before happening upon “Kelly Jo’s Heart Healthy Stationary Workout,” I experimented with a handful of videos, each more aggravating than the last. They were too easy or too difficult, too long or too short, or—don’t ask me how—too bourgeois. In the case of one Pilates workout, the white-leotard-wearing instructor had a camel toe of such cataclysmic proportions that I couldn’t bear to watch for more than a minute.
And then there was Kelly Jo, a perfect bowl of porridge, blonde ponytail bobbing as she jogged in place. Pink spandex and white tennis shoes. Lime green socks over thin ankles. For as much as she seemed to despise the two pretty back-up girls who jumped and crunched and push-uped behind her—she hated Tina especially, for reasons not even I could surmise—she adored her audience unequivocally. I could have stood before my computer, strapping explosives to a puppy, and still she would have stared me down with her big blue eyes and shouted, Get those knees up, you beautiful heart-warrior! God, I love you! And then, to Tina: This is crunch time, Tina, not nap time.
With the help of Kelly Jo, a routine developed. Each morning, I would feed the horses, stare at the opening pages of my novel, and then perform my workout in the kitchen, where I set my computer on the island, next to Gloria’s fruit bowl with the painted apples and pears. Like magic, my calf muscles tightened. My pants grew loose, and my sports bra sagged. The weight disappeared quickly, as if someone had snuck up behind me and removed a ten-pound cloak from my shoulders. Come St. Patrick’s Day, I’d lost ten pounds and written about that many pages of the book.
In this way, at least, I made progress.
How does it feel, to be alone for months at a time, without company or activity? I will tell you how it feels: like pouring an ocean into a thimble, or carting a great, craggy mountain range down the corridor of a defunct hospital. Time was everywhere and nowhere at once, as ubiquitous and immaterial as the clouds that boiled and swirled and dissolved above me, sending down snow then sun then snow then rain.
Every other week I’d drive to the small town and buy exactly two weeks’ worth of carrots and some produce for myself. A salt lick block for the horses, some wire to fix a snag in the gate. Otherwise, I did not leave the property.
Many people think they know what it’s like to be isolated. They buy a one-bedroom apartment and think: here I am, by myself. They go camping in the woods and think: look at me, a pioneer of solitude. But they have not gone weeks without touching another human being or days without hearing a live human voice. They have not learned what parts of their personhood are for themselves and what parts exist solely for others. In the world, I was a rather serious, matter-of-fact person, afraid of the future, anxious about all the ways I might continue to fail, but at the ranch, a strange goofiness overtook me. For social exercise I carried on conversations with inanimate objects. “My God, Tea Kettle,” I’d say as the fat red appliance whined and howled like a hysterical stage actress. “Calm down. I’ll be there in a moment.” And then, rolling my eyes at the clock radio, “Somebody needs to see a therapist.”
You might be thinking I was lonely, but this is not the case. In my heart, things were better than ever. Some mornings I would wake up singing. There was nobody around to hurt me, and in this way I was invincible.
And then, the day after Easter, just as the snow was melting in earnest and birds the exact color of the afterlife began alighting onto the barn, I heard a knock at the door. A human knock. Aside from the UPS man and the large-chested woman who refilled the propane tank—neither of whom attempted to speak to me—I had encountered not a single visitor during my tenure at the ranch. Paralyzed by the sound of human presence, I stood dumbly in the kitchen until the door to the mudroom swung open, revealing a man so tall his Stetson brushed the doorframe. He seemed to take up the whole house, filling each room with a different body part. He was handsome in the way men who perform manual labor are always a touch handsome: big shoulders, strong jaw, thick skin.
I said, “Have you come to chop me up into little pieces?”
A look of horror washed over his face. Once upon a time, I too would have feared this kind of joke. Now, it seemed harmless. So what if he was there to chop me into little pieces? There wasn’t much either of us could do about it.
“I’m the farrier,” he said. “I came a few months ago, but nobody was home.”
When he saw that this word, farrier, did not register anything to me whatsoever, he added, “I trim the horse’s hooves. Is Gloria not here?”
“Gloria?” I asked. “The Gloria?”
The look he gave me suggested he had not heard the news. “The thing about Gloria,” I said and then explained the current state of Gloria’s existence.
I expected him to be sad in the way all humans are expected to be sad about the death of one of their kind, but he was suddenly reaching for the counter to steady himself. For a moment he gasped for air, and then the tears began—quiet, manly tears, like perfectly formed bullets. After months of solitude, I did not feel equipped to handle a crying cowboy; I simply stood there and watched him cry, admiring his belt buckle, where a small white scorpion was suspended in amber. He looked at me with great earnestness and asked, “She’s really dead?” as if I might admit it was all a big joke. Confetti and gag snakes would fall from the ceiling. Gloria would emerge from the pantry and shout, “Gotcha!”
“Yes,” I said. “She is no longer of the earth.” Why I said it this way, I can’t exactly say, except that months of solitude had altered my lexicon.
“We were lovers for seven years. I live two hours away, in Durango, but every four months, I’d be here, and she’d be here, and . . . and . . .”
“Seven years?” I asked. Ellison and Gloria had met only three years before, six months prior to Ellison dumping me.
He nodded, eyes closed, and then said he needed to sit down, or he might faint.
Taking his arm, I led him to the couch. Aside from the time at the Kentucky Bell Grocer when the cashier had accidentally touched my wrist while handing me my bag of carrots, I had not touched another human being in months.
“Were you her friend?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I said. “I knew her husband. I’m house-sitting.”
“That’s the one.”
“All these years, I never met him—Gloria always made sure he was away. Getting horse feed in Alamosa, or visiting friends in Denver.”
“He went to Denver?”
The farrier nodded. “Sometimes Gloria could get him away for a week at a time. Those were special days for us. Here, on the ranch. Right here on this couch.”
“Right,” I said, assessing the couch in a new light.
Ellison had never once told me he was in Denver. Before Gloria died, the last time I’d seen him was at a mutual friend’s wedding, where we shared an awkward dance during which he asked if I was doing okay and I told him I’d recently won fifty dollars on a lotto ticket. He thought I was being sardonic, and perhaps I was, but I was also just being honest. Not many good things had happened in my life since Ellison, but that lotto ticket was one of them. At some point, I’d come to accept that my life was unlikely to shine even momentarily the way other people’s lives shone on a continual basis. Nobody would ever adore me. Riches and success would never land at my feet. The most I could hope for were small, reliable pleasures—nice food, good movies, the occasional one-night stand with a guy who left before sunrise with some of my jewelry in his pocket. All of this was hard to learn—nobody wants to be a dud—but now that I’d learned it, I felt okay with my lot in the world. Sometimes I would think, We can’t all be kings and queens, Jackie. Somebody has to be the jester.
“You know, you look kind of like her,” the farrier was saying. I knew the rest of the thought in his head: but less pretty. I’d seen it myself, in the pictures Ellison had posted on Facebook when he and Gloria first started dating. When I brought it up to a friend once, she told me about a website where you could upload your picture and discover all of your “twin strangers” around the world—people who look exactly like you but who bear no blood relation. According to the website, everybody has at least six twin strangers. Perhaps Ellison was on the other side of the world, searching for Gloria’s.
“We both have black hair,” I said, “and are tall.”
“Your hair is very nice,” he said, and I could tell, even though my hair was greasy and dirty and in a sloppy bun, that he meant it. He was sad and lonely, and I was a woman who looked a little like his dead lover.
“Look, I was sort of in the middle of something,” I told him. When he arrived, I had been counting, not for the first time, the number of tiles on the kitchen floor.
“I understand.” Lip quivering, he said, “I’m not a weak man, but I don’t think I can be alone right now.” He then gave me a look that suggested he might, if left alone, do something dangerous to himself and that if he did, I would be to blame.
“If you need to,” I said, “you can stay here. With me.”
As if I had given him permission, he swung in like a wrecking ball and kissed me. His mouth tasted like old coffee and salt. He was a decent kisser, and I tried not to pull away, even though I wanted to. If I closed my eyes I could imagine Ellison, although Ellison had a beard and this man, the farrier, was clean-shaven. Under his shirt was a flat, hairy belly that made me a little queasy. His hands were like two separate people attached to his wrists.
Once in bed, I was glad for the company. Perhaps no woman realizes how lonely she is until a two-hundred-pound man is on top of her. I’d always liked the feeling of weight on me. When we were dating, I would make Ellison stand on my feet, or lie on me like a plank while we watched movies. I liked that the farrier—I had not learned his name and never would—was a big man and that he had been Gloria’s secret thing. Perhaps I looked more like her—was more like her—than I gave myself credit for.
During all this, a flare of fear rushed through me, that I might never love again, that the big sad farrier would be the last man I ever touched, the last man who ever touched me. That Ellison would return from his travels with another new bride, even younger and prettier and kinder than Gloria. That I would be alone for the rest of my life. I could see now that love was easily the greatest thing in the entire world, and how terribly unfair, that some people got to have two doses of it at once while others went without. Why, I wondered, was I one of the people who kept having to go without?
At some point in the night, after we had both fallen asleep and woken and fallen asleep again, I put a hand on the farrier’s neck, savoring the warmth of him. Under my palm, his heartbeat ticked off the seconds. “Will you stay?” I asked him. “Just for a couple days? I’ve been alone here—it’d be nice to have someone around.”
For a moment there was only silence, and I wondered if he was still asleep, but then he said, in a voice so small it almost wasn’t real, “We’ll see.” Then he turned from me, taking his heart with him.
Outside the window, the sky was the color of nothing, and soon we were both asleep.
He was gone before sunrise, the bed humming with his absence.
When I went to feed the horses, I discovered a series of horse fingernails in the paddock. They were gigantic and thick, exactly what you’d expect a horse’s fingernail to look like. The wind picked up, and the horses came over on their brand-new feet, slowly and with their big strong heads swinging, not wanting to rush the greatest point of pleasure in their otherwise monotonous day. I wondered whether they dreaded a wasted life the way we did, or whether they assumed they would live forever, that time, like the hay in their hay feeders, would miraculously replenish itself each morning.
Back in the house, I couldn’t stand the feeling of the empty kitchen. What was I supposed to do here, all day, by myself? What had I been doing all these months behind me? I thought of the big empty days still ahead of me: the pasture walks, the workouts, the sunsets over the mountains. Three whole months until Ellison returned, and what was I supposed to do with them, here on my own? A sense of vertigo overtook me, and I had to reach for the counter to steady myself. Suddenly, I missed my old life in Denver: the rock-hard Grape Nuts and the pregnant spiders and the sound of the woman who lived in the apartment above me. How she cried every Saturday night, after talking to someone named George on the telephone. But then I thought of Ellison, of the look that was certain to bloom on his face when he returned and found me thin and beautiful—as beautiful as Gloria, even, and twice as good, for Gloria had betrayed him and I had not.
Like this, I kept myself going.
Not a week later, I heard a car rumble up the driveway. Thinking it was the farrier, I raced for the bedroom and threw on nicer clothes, Gloria’s clothes: a low-cut red blouse with bohemian stitching along the neckline and a pair of jeans that were, by now, gloriously loose at the waist. I would often pause before the mirror, thumbs at the waistband, pulling the extra fabric so that I could peer into the void between pants and skin.
In the kitchen stood Ellison, bag in hand, a casual look on his face, as if he’d been there all these months and I simply hadn’t noticed him. “Hi,” he said, and then smiled.
When I was certain my heart wouldn’t fall out of my chest, I went to him and gave him a hug—an innocent hug, like a mother receiving her son after a bad day at school. I tried to feel sexy, but there was only the sweat, and Gloria’s clothes, and the persistent film of sadness that clung to Ellison like the powder of a butterfly’s wings. When I released him, I could feel it on my arms, my neck. Coating my fingertips. “Is everything okay?” I asked. “Did something happen?”
“Yes and no,” he said. He was wearing khaki cargo shorts and a T-shirt that said ski aspen. His hair was shorter, his skin darker. Everything about him screamed misery.
“Want to talk about it?”
He put down his bag and took a seat on the stool where, not a week before, the farrier had sat. “The problem was nothing happened,” he said. “I couldn’t feel anything. Gardens were in black and white. The food tasted like wet newspaper, the air smelled like trash. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed.”
“And now you’re home.”
“And now I’m home.”
For a moment we stood, assessing one another. Something flickered in his eyes—Regret? Jet lag? Hunger? More than ever, I wanted him back.
“I realize I should have called, but it all happened so quickly. One minute I’m in downtown Tokyo, eating a forty-dollar bowl of octopus, and then the next I’m in a taxi, headed for the airport.”
“Wow,” I said. Who was this Ellison, to eat forty-dollar cephalopods? When we were together, he subsisted on frozen pizzas and two-for-one tacos. I wondered, for the first time—how had I not considered it before?—whether he’d inherited a large sum of money from Gloria.
“Somewhere over the Pacific I realized it must be Gloria, calling me home.”
The word I managed was, “Remarkable.” It occurred to me then that his premature arrival might require my premature departure. That he had not returned to be with me. That soon I would be forced back into my old life, with the pregnant spiders and the stale cereal and the piggy-bank-shaped water stain above my bed.
“You’re wearing her clothes,” he said. His beautiful eyes were fixed on my chest, where the low-cut shirt’s bohemian design melted into a labyrinth of flowers and stars.
“I’ve been losing weight. Her clothes fit better than mine.”
He nodded in approval, his eyes still trained on the shirt. “You look good.” He was not looking me in the eyes, yet still my heart began to lighten. “Maybe you don’t want to hear this,” he said, “but she was wearing that shirt the day we met.”
I had often wondered about this day, which, from what I had gathered, took place in August of 2014, exactly six months prior to Ellison dumping me in the parking lot of a Petco. We were about to go in when he turned to me and said, “Jackie, I can’t buy a hamster with you, because I’ve met someone else and I love her deeply.” Before the tears could come, I went inside and, using a coupon I’d printed from the Internet, bought my own hamster, which I named Boyfriend and which died two weeks later from a diarrheal disease known to those in the pet-rodent trade as wet-tail.
“You never told me how you met,” I said.
“I figured it wasn’t the sort of thing you’d want to know.”
“What if I wanted to know now?”
His eyes went from my shirt to his own feet. His shoes, as always, were immaculate. Brown leather loafers, the laces tied into perfectly symmetrical bows. I could imagine him removing them at the airport, putting them back on after security. “I had gone to buy you an engagement ring,” he said, this first admission like a karate chop to the throat. “On the way to the store, I got a flat. Gloria pulled over to help—she was only in Denver for the day. She had a flight to make, in the morning, to visit her sister.” He looked up then, to meet my eyes. This second blow, like a brick to the heart. “She was only in town for the day.”
He had never mentioned the engagement ring or the flat tire. I could see it all now. Man in distress. Cars whooshing by, each driver more callous than the next. In a rush of gender reversal Gloria would appear, hair blazing, blouse damp with sweat, smelling of lavender and vanilla. Freckles on her shoulders and a mosquito bite on her neck. Purring with the heat of the outdoors. And where was I? Probably somewhere inside, savoring the air conditioning, craving a donut. I had never learned how to change a tire. Had someone lined up a series of automotive parts, I might not have been able to identify a jack. Now here we were, in dead Gloria’s kitchen, standing by the painted ceramic bowl. I had left a banana in there, and it had turned a deep, fecal brown. Each time I’d looked at it, I thought about throwing it away but hadn’t brought myself to do it.
“Can we sit on the couch?” Ellison said. “I need to lie down. I’m so tired. I took a sleeping pill on the plane but couldn’t fall asleep.”
“And you drove here?”
“I told you,” he said. “I needed to come home.”
On the same couch where, not a week before, the farrier had sat, Ellison took up more space than necessary. Although I knew it was technically his couch—his ranch, his horses, his blouse—I had come to feel that all of it was mine. I had taken care of it, and now here he was, waltzing in as if he were the one who had spent six months living deeply in these rooms, breathing deeply of this air, studying every book, utensil, and gewgaw, every iteration of the hyperactive sky.
On the couch, I wanted very much to set my entire body directly on top of his but refrained from doing so. I crossed my legs and then my arms. I watched him close his eyes and wondered what, at that moment, the farrier was up to, if he had escaped from his quagmire of grief.
“Tell me,” said Ellison. “What have you been doing here?”
For a moment, I was unsure how to answer. “Waiting, mostly,” I eventually said.
“For someone to ask me that question, I guess.”
“What about the writing?”
“Yes,” I said, “that, too.”
“The book. Tell me about it.”
“My book,” I said and then couldn’t think of anything honest that would make me sound remotely successful.
“Is it done?”
“In some ways, yes. In others, not even close.”
“Can I read it soon?”
“If you want,” I said, stupidly, thinking only that this request suggested we might still be together, in contact, in the near future.
“Could you read it to me now?” he asked. “I think I’d like that. I’m very tired, and I’ll probably fall asleep, but don’t take that as an insult.”
“You don’t want to hear it. It’s unedited—it probably makes no sense.”
“I don’t care. Read it to me. Please.”
Trying to remain calm, I went to retrieve my computer, where I found the mostly blank word document staring back at me, cursor blinking as if also in panic. The first sentence read: On the planet Septimus Nine, there were neither corporations nor coitus. Reading it rang a tiny black bell in the center of my heart, a bell that said: You’re doomed. And then, remembering a favorite story from one of my high school English classes, I quickly searched the title and was happy to find it online. Luckily, I hadn’t told Ellison, or anyone else, the premise of my nascent novel. As far as anyone knew, it could be anything. It could be the greatest book in the world. I returned to the couch and situated myself so that he couldn’t see the computer screen. Then, I began to read.
Unlike most culture encountered during adolescence, the story was even better than I remembered. It took place long ago, and involved an upper class woman whose upper class husband dies suddenly, in a hunting accident. In her grief, the woman convinces herself that the town’s pauper is actually her husband returned from the dead. She follows the pauper from street corner to street corner, petting and kissing him as he shakes a soup can filled with coins. Unsure of what else to do, the pauper plays along, returning the woman’s affection. He kisses her palms and sings to her at night—he is poor, and uneducated, but has a voice like a harp at twilight. As these stories go, the two fall in love. The pauper has never loved or been loved, and so he allows himself both luxuries, despite knowing their love is a dream and that all dreams, however sweet, must come to an end. When the dreaded day finally arrives, the woman wakes from her illusion and sees the pauper for who he truly is. She accuses him of taking advantage of her and, using the clout of her former status, has him executed via guillotine, as these kinds of stories always take place in France and always, in some way, involve a guillotine. By the end of the story—or the chapter, as I told Ellison—the beggar’s head rolls to the woman’s feet where, in his newly unmoving eyes, she finds the face of her first husband, now dead twice, never to return.
From the other end of the couch, Ellison sighed, as if in pain. “Jackie,” he said. “I had no idea you could write that way. It’s so—literary.”
It was true that over the course of our relationship he had never read my writing, at least nothing more creative than a list of groceries or a note explaining I’d gone out to get Chinese food and would he please take out the trash?
“Thank you,” I said, feeling not at all like a fraud. The story genuinely felt like my own. A part of me could even remember writing it, could anticipate the chapters to come: how the woman would leave town, in search of something, anything, to erase the image of her dead lover’s face. How she would ford rivers, climb mountains, and enter caves in search of something to ease her pain, and yet still, each night, she would fall asleep to the visage of her lost love’s face—her husband and the pauper blended into one.
Ellison closed his eyes and sat very still, as if listening for something. “You know, you’re more like her than I remember,” he said. “You even smell like her. It’s the strangest thing.”
I did not want to tell him that I’d been using all of Gloria’s toiletries: her shampoo, her lotion, her cold cream.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “to remind you of her.”
He laughed a laugh that hung in the air, a silver ornament, all sharp edges and twinkle. Then he opened his eyes—beautiful blue, beautiful Ellison—and slowly, one small movement at a time, cancelled the empty space between us, put his head in my lap, and pressed his nose to the fabric of Gloria’s pants. There, he inhaled deeply, his fingers digging greedily, painfully, blissfully into the meat of my thighs.
“Darling,” he whispered. Then he lifted himself so he could properly kiss me.
In bed, he repeated her name. Gloria. Gloria. Gloria. His style of lovemaking had changed, for the better. He was gentler than he had been when we were together, but also more aggressive, as if he were trying desperately to hammer a nail with a feather. On the floor, Gloria’s clothes lay in a colorful, mocking pile. When he’d gotten to her panties—mint cotton with a faint stain on the crotch—he’d begun to weep, and then caught himself. This was no time for sadness. He was with me, his Gloria. He was home.
I did not sleep well that night, or any of the nights after, my head crackling with fear that he might wake to find he was in bed not with Gloria, but with me. Meanwhile, in a dark cave in my heart, the farrier glowed dimly, a genie lamp waiting to be rubbed. I knew that, when the time came, I would tell Ellison everything, feeling not a trace of remorse as Gloria died for a second time in his heart, leaving that much more room for me.
Becky Mandelbaum is the author of Bad Kansas, which received the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in the Georgia Review, the Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Salt Hill, Great Jones Street, Hobart, Midwestern Gothic, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Washington and works in North Cascades National Park.
Aristotle’s Poetics was written circa 335 b.c.e. but then lost for many centuries, available only through a translation of an Arabic version. Much of its meaning has been argued over, although a few elements are generally accepted. Aristotle discusses drama and lyric and epic poetry. He also talks about the importance of form, diction, the ideal qualities of characters represented in literature, and the emotive or cathartic effect of the whole literary work. Disagreement about his meaning is due partly to the fact that Poetics was the most influential extended writing in literary analysis and theory in the West for two millennia. By the eighteenth century, writers and journalists were certainly discussing what they cared about in literature—particularly the Enlightenment values of rationalism and skepticism. Literary scholarship, or the study of texts and textual history, began with biblical scholarship, particularly in Germany at the end of the century.
However, literary criticism in Aristotle’s tradition, focusing on traits of literary texts themselves rather than their history or influences, wasn’t widespread until the twentieth century. The New Critics showed interest in the formal aspects of language and style and how they work together to comprise unity of form. Later in the century, Postmodern critics, partly in reaction to what had gone before, were intrigued by the chaotic, ungovernable nature of those elements and how they threatened coherence and meaning.
Writers have always thought less about theory or approaches to the study of literature and more about the elemental aspects of their work. Style comes naturally to one’s own voice, while plot, setting, mood, and the feel of a work—what the writer invents and puts on the page—need to be thought about and given coherence.
The world of theater offers a useful phrase to describe both the concerns of writers in fashioning their works and the concerns of critics in assessing them. Mise-en-scène, “putting on stage,” is a wonderfully loose term that refers to the setting, scenery, and mood of a play or movie as well as blocking and movement. When applied to literature, this term refers to the “feel” of a work expressed through setting, atmosphere, style, and—in fiction—the story itself.
Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” provides a fine example of mise-enscène in a short story. The story has a dramatic setting, as two middleaged rich New York widows sit and knit at a restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum while their two unmarried daughters go off with young men for dinner. Mrs. Ansley and Mrs. Slade have known each other since childhood and have been unadmitted rivals since young adulthood. The time is late afternoon, and the setting is one that literally overlooks a key place from their own pasts, since they—like their daughters—came here as young women and had romantic encounters. Wharton takes a neutral view toward both women despite the fact that one of them, Mrs. Slade, is openly emotionally needy and discontented. She was in fact married to the “star” husband, Delphin Slade, while Grace Ansley’s husband was low key and unnoteworthy, rich family or not. Yet Mrs. Slade is irritated because Grace’s daughter is the “star” daughter—brilliant, beautiful, daring—while her own daughter, Jenny, although kind and helpful, is in her view hardly a vibrant person. How can her “loser” friend have the ideal daughter? To get back at Grace, she tells her what she has long wanted to confess: that in one of their youthful visits to Rome, she wrote a fake love letter from the dashing Delphin Slade telling Grace to meet him in the Colosseum, hoping that she would go there, be disappointed by Delphin’s absence, and maybe even catch Roman fever (malaria).
As the two women knit and talk over their pasts in the quiet evening, set against the backdrop of a beautiful Roman twilight, a fact is revealed that dramatically rearranges their assumptions and all but drives a stake through the self-satisfied but greedy and discontented heart of Mrs. Slade. Grace reveals that Delphin did meet her in the Colosseum and that the young woman who would soon marry the kind, boring Mr. Ansley got not Roman fever but the “star” daughter Barbara Slade from her tryst with Delphin. The feel and subject of the story is backward looking, meditative and questioning as the old friends finally admit the truth.
The mise-en-scènes of this issue of TMR are replete with fantasy and fable; many pieces show the charm of fable and its ability to transform what seems to be melancholy into the bracingly meaningful.
In her story “The First to Leave Is the Winner,” Becky Mandelbaum writes about a young woman who has been jilted by the love of her life. When her former boyfriend’s wife suddenly dies and he goes on a healing pilgrimage, she agrees to take care of his grand but secluded gentleman’s farmhouse. In this isolated setting, she slowly transforms herself into someone radically different, eventually meeting again her former lover. Very unlike the world of Mandelbaum, Karen Tucker’s “Anklewood” is set in the heart of Lost America, where too many are just hanging on. In this impoverished hill-country town of bars, pool halls, and pawnshops, her two young women bar servers exact revenge on the scumbag town rich boy for attempted rape in a series of acts that spiral out of control yet show a giddy sense of at least partial victory.
Susan Neville and Nathan Oates both give us environments where the real melts into the surreal in oddly credible ways. Neville’s story “Hunger” is about a recently widowed mother with grown daughters, now remote from her, who feels diminished in her life. She develops a powerful and insatiable appetite that she is magically able to fill but which serves finally only to make her better able to comprehend her solitary state. Nathan Oates’s protagonist is an overworked and underappreciated professor at a small college who is losing his job. Responsible for organizing a visiting writers series, he mysteriously receives a confirmation from literary critic and author Edmund Wilson saying that he will be glad to accept an invitation to give a reading. Jonathan plays along despite the slight problem that Edmund Wilson has been dead for some years. Is he corresponding with the ghost of Edmund Wilson or some inexplicably motivated prankster? Jonathan puzzles over what it all means, drawing connections between his own unremarkable writing career and Wilson’s fall from literary prominence: “History had largely left Wilson behind, but history would make no note whatsoever of Jonathan.”
“Box of Watches” by John Fulton is a short but theatrical tale in which the mise-en-scène is a pawnshop. A drug-addled robber threatens the protagonist’s grandfather, the shop owner, at gunpoint. The tense confrontation is illuminated by what we learn about Shaun, the protagonist, and his grandfather, who is dying of cancer. Robert Garner McBrearty’s story “A Morning Swim” also depicts a character facing a mortal threat. The middle-aged protagonist takes a morning swim and, after experiencing a near-death encounter with a shark, feels an overwhelming sense of joy, which he goes home to share with his wife. In the euphoric wake of his near miss, he confesses a past transgression to her and soon discovers the terrible disconnect in their respective views about their marriage.
Dan O’Brien’s “Of Time and the Theatre” is a meditative essay that brings together mortality and the theater. Playwright O’Brien writes about his experience as a cancer patient and something that he sees as a fundamental element of theater: time. “A play is a story that happens. It’s here—this moment, this accretion of moments onstage—before it’s gone.” As his own craft has developed, O’Brien has become more conscious of this element of drama, and he seeks greater pointedness and simplicity in his own play’s uses of mise-en-scène. “I have wanted to write plays simply between you and me. Happening now, in this room. . . . No sets, or not much. No props, if you can imagine it. . . . Lights and sound still belong; as storytelling tools, but also for their associative powers. We are theatrically inside my head, after all—why pretend otherwise?”
Daniel Anderson’s meditative poems use delicate rhyme to form scenes: a teenage romantic encounter, a conversation with an old friend, a summer evening. His tranquil recollections have a tone of bitter sweetness, showing patterns of revelation and concealment: What lies do we tell other people? What truths do we choose to ignore about our friends? Danielle DeTiberus’s poems focus on Charleston’s disturbing history. Wrangling with her whiteness against a history of atrocities committed against African Americans, a speaker asks, “What lives will rot into a palimpsest of place?” With a rich use of allusion, slang, and metaphor, DeTiberus circles back to examine her own poetic devices. Nicholas Friedman, at the conclusion of one of his poems, says, “Really, there’s so much that I could tell you.” Indeed, Friedman’s yearning, quiet poems have a lot to tell. Each has a detailed setting, from an airplane cabin to a backyard or a campus. Some engage in their own mise-en-scène, as when a speaker photographs a family for a Christmas picture, arranging them just so.
James Whale, director of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein, among other films, was the master of mood, tone, and atmosphere. During his ten years of making movies in Hollywood in the ’30s, he used his background in art and theater to create memorably stylish pictures that borrowed cinematic techniques from the German Expressionists of a decade earlier. Dubbed “the Monster Man,” he created the iconic looks that we still associate with these cinematic characters, imbuing them with a depth of emotion and motivation previously unseen in horror films. Like Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler with hard-boiled crime fiction or John le Carré with spy novels, Whale opened up the opportunity for art in what had previously been mere genre tropes.
Ex Libris: From Books to Art
In the summer of 1924, while completing The Great Gatsby on the French Riviera, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that [book] jacket you’re saving for me.” Fitzgerald went on to tell him that he had already “written it” into his novel. Perkins dashed off a mollifying reply: “There isn’t the slightest risk of giving it to anyone in the world but you.” The dust-jacket art featured Spanish painter Francis Cugat’s iconic image of a woman’s face with cherry lips and kohl-rimmed eyes set against a deep blue night sky.
Some critics believe that Cugat’s dust-jacket art inspired Fitzgerald’s depiction of the billboard of Dr. Eckleburg’s bespectacled eyes peering over the valley of ashes, while others argue that Cugat’s reading of an early draft of Gatsby served as a source of inspiration for the flapper-like visage that looms over an amusement park aglow with warm yellow light. Whether accidental or intended, the collaboration yielded one of the most prominent literary symbols in American literature—an ominous figure keeping vigil over the folly of humanity.
Cugat’s haunting artwork, which fetched him a hundred-dollar fee, has become the most valuable dust jacket on any modern American novel. A first printing with the cover in mint condition sold in 2009 for $180,000. More importantly, Gatsby’s illustrious book cover provides an example of the magic that happens when art and literature are perfectly united.
There are plenty of unforgettable book covers that employ images inextricably linked to the novels—Salinger’s stylized carousel horse, Plath’s ill-omened black rose, and Woolf’s diffuse lighthouse—making it difficult to imagine a time before their existence in publishing.
The early nineteenth century was the golden era of book bindings. Buyers purchased unbound pages of a text and then selected an ornate binding of their choice. Additional outer coverings consisted of either brown paper wrapping meant to be discarded or paper boxes constructed of pasteboard kept on the book for protection. Eventually publishers began to print text on the coverings to identify the content. This typically took the form of pasting printed paper sheets onto the front and back pasteboards. The notion was to keep the books clean and unadorned until the owners chose to remove the outer coverings and display the elaborately crafted bindings on their library shelves.
By the 1870s, dust jackets meant to stay on books were in use, though they typically repeated the front cloth cover’s minimal text—title and author. The back of the book might feature a brief summary of the book’s content or a few promotional blurbs. Cover pictures were reserved for specialty gift books and children’s stories.
Early in the twentieth century, as the golden age of bookbinding ended, book coverings became more decorative and informative, while bindings were unadorned and a single color. As the book trade before World War I became increasingly competitive, American and British publishers learned that a fetching cover design hinting at the content inside helped sell the book. They also used book synopses and author biographies to target specific readerships. This once-disposable item was now becoming an essential element of advertising and marketing publishers’ products.
By the 1920s, though still in limited use, dust jackets employed a modernist look in art and typography. The cover images ranged from stark minimalism, bold patterns, and color blocks to intricate details in geometric and cubist designs, as artists sought to extend the ideas of modernity, speed, progress, and change.
As the study of salesmanship developed, branding became a mainstay of commerce; generic labels for food, clothing, medicine, and household products were replaced with text and imagery that denoted a specific company. Publishers learned from this practice. Not only could they establish a brand, but they could also make different genres of books and make their publishing houses more recognizable to the consumer.
German publishing house Albatross Books, makers of the first modern mass-market paperback, branded their imprint through standardized book size, a recognizable logo, a unique font, and color-coding books according to genre. Albatross’s innovations inspired Allen Lane of Penguin Books. Since 1935, the books in Penguin’s series of cheap paperback reprints have been immediately recognizable by the standardized typeface and charming logo, a simple black-and-white illustration of a king penguin.
With the proliferation of art schools in the ’30s and ’40s, visual artists needed to make a living. Book-cover art offered a commercial outlet for struggling and established artists trying to survive in sluggish economies, ultimately blurring the line between fine and applied art and establishing a solid link between art and book.
The artists presented here celebrate the relationship between books and art in different ways. They highlight the important role artists can play in the evolution and future of the book as they encourage us to think about the value of the physical object by dismantling, reshaping, and reassembling pages, bindings, and covers to create distinctive forms.
Bothered by the ways digital media had begun to undermine the history and future of books, Chicagoan Brian Dettmer turned to books as materials for his art. In 2001, intrigued by the visual texture, content, and meaning of books, he began carving out pages and reshaping them to make intricate sculptural forms, as well as reassembling images found in the text to create mesmerizing scenes. Set within the shelled-out frames of the books’ bindings, in Charlotte Life or Theater? and Four Fabulous Faces, he creates montages of faces and eyes. Like Joseph Cornell, he evokes the fragmentary, imagistic quality of dreams. He celebrates the book by using it as a structural framework for visions of history, cartography, and cultural artifacts. In Knowledge in Depth the fanned-out cover and pages serve as the work’s base, while in You Know What You Should Do he cuts away segments of the tooled leather binding to reveal a glimpse of what is inside. Instead of fearing the death of the book, Dettmer believes that the proliferation of media technologies frees the form “to become something completely different, whether it’s through literature or through the way I’m handling it as sculpture.”
Like Dettmer’s, Nick Georgiou’s book art is inspired by his concern that books and newspapers are becoming relics. He addresses his fear that the printed word is being left behind by challenging us to rethink this practice of over-relying on technology. At first glance, viewers are not sure what his art is made of. But close inspection reveals the inventive, skillful reshaping of books. By rolling, bending, and curling newsprint and books with varying widths and lengths, he achieves a primitive painterly quality in works. The repurposed books take on a new life as tribal masks, portraits of women and couples, animals and still lives and ask us to reconsider their previous form. In Georgiou’s world, books are everywhere, decorating and redesigning the landscape. “It is an artist’s job to break through to another reality,” he asserts. Or to remind us of an older, more useful one.
Canadian artist Cara Barer’s particular fondness for reference books led her to worry about their obsolescence. While she embraces technology, she fears we are relying less and less on physical texts. She deals with her concerns about the fragile, ephemeral nature of books by transforming them into objects of beauty. One of her techniques is to soak a book in the bathtub, dye it, and then mold, reshape and sculpt the material into an organic-looking form. Wildflowers 2 unfurls its faded, pastel-colored pages in a pinwheel of motion; the waxed pages of Hurly Burly stand straight up, while others are stacked in layers of heavy, coarse curls.
British artist Su Blackwell is known for her delicate three-dimensional dioramas of scenes from folklore and fairy tales. She scans a book’s title, sentences, and paragraphs for inspiration for her intricate book sculptures that seem to spring up naturally from their open pages. She creates enchanting paper tableaux of storybook worlds filled with stately manor houses, wildflower gardens, bird aviaries, steam trains, and snow-frosted forests.
As a child in Michigan, artist Thomas Allen loved pop-up books. In college he started cutting up paperbacks and reassembling them. His work slowly evolved into dramatic 3-D scenes that spring from the pages of old pulp novels. In his dioramas, Allen plays stage director to a cast of characters—cowboys, gangsters, detectives, and femme fatales—who act out their lurid dramas. His new narratives, portrayed with wit and high drama, are set against the backdrop of the world of crime, betrayal and other noir themes. They pay tribute to the realistic paintings of pulp-novel covers that were phased out by publishers in the 1970s in favor of more stylized, less playful images.
Danish artist Peter Callesen creates white paper-cut sculptures of delicate birds’ wings, wilted flowers, caged angels and other images of frailty that either leap from the open pages of a text, fall from the edges of a shadowbox frame, or cascade over the sides of a pedestal. In No Title, Too Many Words, handwritten sentences explode from the fanned pages of an open text. Public Library Bus, commissioned by the Danish Art Council in 2012, is Callesen’s homage to books and reading. The vehicle, decorated with the images of over 500 brightly colored, shelved books, functions as a mobile library, visiting townships too small to have one of their own. The whimsical nature of Public Library Bus and the titles visible on the books spines attract the next generation of book readers.
After a thousand years as the world’s most important form of written record, books are part of the texture of our lives, making it easy to take their existence for granted. While some bibliophiles speak of the uncertain future of physical books, others argue that nothing will replace the clean smell of paper, the cracking sound of opening a new binding, the smooth feel of fine paper, and the sight of a beautiful font—an overall sensory experience that cannot be replicated digitally. These artists ask us to pause and consider the way books and art, and, books as art, enliven our existence.
Whatever Happened to Huckleberry Finn? Four Recent Huck Finn Sequels
Huck Out West by Robert Coover. W. W. Norton & Co., 2017, 308 pp., $26.95 (hardcover).
The Boy in His Winter: an American Novel by Norman Lock. Bellevue Literary Press, 2014, 190 pp., $14.95 (paper).
The Adventures of Joe Harper by Phong Nguyen. Outpost19, 2016, 257 pp. (paper).
My Jim by Nancy Rawles. Three Rivers Press, 2005, 190 pp., $12.95 (paper).
Mark Twain published two sequels to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The first was Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894). The other was Tom Sawyer, Detective, published two years later. Previously, he’d begun a third installment, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians. He didn’t finish it.
Huck narrates both of Twain’s finished sequels. In Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom, Huck, and Jim see a hot air balloon exhibition. They climb aboard the balloon, and its inventor, a professor, takes them on an unplanned trip across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean. The professor gets unhinged, so in order to save the others, Tom murders him. The surviving trio takes the balloon to Egypt and sees the Sphinx. In Tom Sawyer, Detective, Tom and Huck solve the mystery of a lost twin and missing diamond. It is a short book.
Neither sequel brings much to the Tom and Huck franchise that wasn’t there already. Both seem to have been written more out of a sense of obligation or need for money than an interest in expanding on or altering readers’ perception of the original. They are more Die Hard 2 than Gremlins 2, more Jaws: The Revenge than The Empire Strikes Back.
Other writers since Twain have adopted his characters as their own and put them to work in new sequels to Huck Finn—and it’s no mystery why. Huck Finn is not just any novel; it is an American epic, if there ever has been one. It is a book that does not recede with time, a classic that does not meet Twain’s description of “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read,” because lots of people have read it. If they haven’t read it because they wanted to, they were probably forced to read it in school.
Still, I was taken aback, when it dawned on me at my local library that no fewer than three sequels to Huck Finn had been published in the last three years. Why, I wondered, have writers shown such interest lately in continuing a narrative that dates to 1884? We are not approaching a Huck Finn centennial.
The other hypothesis I put forward, prior to reading the new sequels, was that we are at a stage in history when people feel threatened by social upheaval. We are all more conscious than we have been at any time in recent memory of how we live at the mercy of the nation’s shortcomings, moral and otherwise. Very bad things appear to be on the horizon, as they were for Huck and Jim, rafting down the Mississippi not long before the Civil War. Like Huck aboard his raft with Jim, the good people of the here and now want to do the right thing and are doing their best, while forces beyond our direct control seem to slouch their way to ruin and drag us with them. For this reason, maybe, writers have been reviving Huck, to create new stories that will tell us about ourselves and the land we inhabit.
The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel is the first of the newest Huck Finn sequels to be published and the first installment in Norman Lock’s American Novels series. Each novel in the series addresses the work of a prominent writer in American literature: Walt Whitman in American Meteor (2015); Henry David Thoreau in A Fugitive in Walden Woods (2017). The Boy in His Winter continues the narrative of Huck and Jim by extending their trip down the Mississippi. After the events that end Huck Finn, the two get back on the raft and resume floating south.
Lock’s Huck is a well-spoken Huck; the novel does not revive Twain’s use of dialect, which Huck deplores. He rebukes Twain for getting Jim’s speech and so many other things wrong; he is, as he tells the story, all too familiar with Huck Finn the novel. “Mark Twain passed his book off as if I had written it myself,” he complains, but “it was none of my doing. Frankly, I resent the words he put in my mouth.”
Huck narrates A Boy in His Winter from the year 2077, for as Jim and Huck continue down the Mississippi, time accelerates. They pass through the Civil War, at which time Huck reunites with Tom Sawyer, who is serving on a Confederate warship. In Baton Rouge, in 1919, Jim and Huck hear jazz music for the first time. A musician climbs aboard their raft and tells them how the Civil War ended. Jim steps off the raft in Louisiana, some years later, and is lynched the same day. Huck continues alone, until he washes up in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The Boy in His Winter is inspired by H. G. Wells as much as it is by Mark Twain; it is no coincidence that on Huck’s continued journey he reads The Time Machine and sees his trip reflected in it. Lock’s novel, too, has more in common with Twain’s Tom Sawyer Abroad than it does with Huck Finn, as it puts familiar characters in the service of a story that departs dramatically from their customary context.
The Boy in His Winter is, in some ways, a corrective to Huck Finn. Throughout the novel, Huck complains that he and Jim spoke more clearly, even prettily, than Twain let on. When Huck sees Tom a second time, visiting him on his deathbed, he confesses to us his “guilt in the matter of Jim.” “I mistreated him,” Huck explains. “Not in the ordinary way of a bully or an ignorant white child lording it over a black man . . . But I wrong Jim by reconstructing him in these pages. I’ve done to him what Twain did to me because I need Jim with me once again and cannot resurrect him any other way . . . I need Jim to make me real.” In the eyes of Lock’s Huck, to represent Jim is to misrepresent him, if only slightly, and do him some measure of harm.
This sequel is a careful book; it is so careful, in fact, that its embrace of fantasy in the form of Huck and Jim’s mysterious time travel is overshadowed by Huck’s insistence on setting the record straight. The original Huck Finn, with its flawed protagonist, racist language, and buffoonery is a product of its time. Lock portrays Huck as a narrator who is all too aware of these thorny things. Self-aware and circumspect, he has been rehabilitated. He takes things seriously that deserve to be taken seriously, but he isn’t quite as much fun as he once was.
The Boy in His Winter is the story of a raft that doubles as a time machine and the famous duo who travel on it; but just as much as that, it is about a fictional character who has been given the chance to look around, see how he has been used, and make complaints.
Huck Out West is Robert Coover’s take on the fate of Huck after the events of Huck Finn. It is Coover’s first book since The Brunist Day of Wrath, a sequel to his own first novel, The Origin of the Brunists. And while it is tempting to begin addressing Huck Out West by pointing out how linear and otherwise conventional a narrative it is—which may appear remarkable, given that it comes from the author of “The Babysitter” and other formal experiments—its approachability isn’t so remarkable, really. With Huck Out West, Coover only reminds us how at home he is with conventionally structured narratives, as he adapts the voice, tone, and episodic nature of Huck Finn to his own novel seamlessly.
In Coover’s rendition, Huck and Tom follow up their prior adventures by going west to ride for the Pony Express. When that falls through, Tom returns east to marry Becky Thatcher, while Huck goes to live among the Lakota Sioux. They don’t take him seriously—“They used me for laughs,” he admits—but they accept him, more or less.
Huck falls in with a band of criminals, reuniting with Ben Rogers, a friend from the early pages of Huck Finn. He takes a bath and hears that the Civil War is over and Lincoln is dead. He spends some of his time with a paranoid, self-pitying white prospector named Deadwood and more of his time with Eeteh, a Lakota Sioux who tells stories about the trickster Coyote—which, by the time they reach the reader, are filtered through Huck’s partial misunderstanding. Looming over Huck at all times is the threat of General Hard Ass catching up with him; Huck deserted his company before the start of the novel, and the General is likely to have him executed.
Huck and the novel ramble until word gets out that Deadwood has struck gold. More white people begin to arrive, and in their way they begin to civilize the place. “Most of the new emigrants,” Huck explains, “was heading out to mine the cricks and hills, though some was setting up to mine the miners.”
Some of the newcomers move into Huck’s campsite. They put him on trial and sentence him to death. He is rescued by the most dangerous man of all: Tom Sawyer, who arrives on a white horse and sets to work colonizing the place. “Tom was back,” Huck says, “and the day was alive again, lit up and frisky. In less’n one of them, he rescued a pard from lynching, showed off his shooting and lasso tricks, got himself elected mayor-govner of Deadwood Gulch, thought up a bunch a new laws, captured gangs a thieves and murderers, tried and hung some robbers.” Tom is a federal overmarshal, he says. He claims “a legal jury’s diction over the whole Territory.”
Smart, entitled, and completely self-interested, Tom is manifest destiny in human form. When Huck asks what his problem is with Indians, Tom says, “I DON’T hate them, Huck! I ain’t got NOTHING against them. Only, we’re building something grand out here, ocean to ocean, and they’re in the way. Some day, we’ll make statues of them, like they was our own heroes. First, though, we got to kill them all.” Fully grown, he is the man Twain’s young Tom was slated to become if no one ever set him straight. Huck is not up to that task; “Tom was mountains smarter,” he admits. “I should give him all the thinking to do for me and him both.”
It does not take long for Huck’s enthusiasm at Tom’s arrival to sour, for his affection for the Lakota to collide with Tom’s interest in murdering them, and for Tom’s drive to dominate the region—while enriching himself—to lead him to conclude that Huck is of no use to him.
On the way to that inevitability, other figures from Twain’s novels appear—for instance, Jim, who is traveling with a band of missionaries to go and convert the indigenous heathen. It is a relief for Huck to see Jim; soon after the events of Huck Finn, Tom sold Jim back into slavery. Jim, Tom rationalized, is “probably happier when he has someone telling him what to do.” As Huck comes to understand, Tom was wrong about that.
Huck’s goal in Huck Out West is much like his goal in Twain’s novel. Set against a backdrop of horrors much larger than himself—slavery on one hand, westward expansion on the other—Huck wants to do what little good he can, even if what he can do is very little. He sees wrongdoing for what it is and tries to prevent it. But there is a way in which Huck Out West brings Huck down to size and shows us just how helpless he is against the machinations of the Tom Sawyers who have made the world he scrapes by in.
Phong Nguyen’s first novel, The Adventures of Joe Harper, approaches Huck Finn from a slightly different angle, in that it leaves Huck out altogether. It is also the most successfully funny of the books reviewed here. The protagonist is one of Tom and Huck’s childhood friends. Early in Huck Finn, he accompanies the two to an island, where they live momentarily as “robbers.” At the start of Joe Harper, Joe is on his way back to Missouri to live as a hermit, having spent ten years with Tom Sawyer as a real pirate, on a boat.
Soon after the novel begins, Joe meets a Chinese-American man named Lee—though it is not entirely clear whether Lee’s ancestry can be traced to China or elsewhere on the Asian continent. Joe Harper as narrator is not sensitive to these nuances; like everyone else, he is content to call Lee a “Chinaman” and leave it at that.
Soon after he meets Lee, Joe chooses to postpone living as a hermit in favor of hopping trains with Lee on a journey westward. They are joined, intermittently, by Ruth, a runaway from the Pennsylvania Dutch who has escaped her arranged marriage to the only eligible bachelor in her community.
On the road, as the title promises, the three of them have adventures. In Salina, they barely escape a one-eyed mastiff notorious for using its powerful jaws to dismember hobos. Later, they meet Brigham Young. Joe narrates the novel, but the focus shifts, again and again, to Lee. He is not easy to read—or he’s not easy for Joe to read—and for this and other reasons he is the novel’s most intriguing character. In an America that is still in the process of taking shape, and in which he was born, Lee is nevertheless an outsider. He is conspicuously absent from one important scene because it takes place in a bar that won’t allow him in. “But when the last of us walked in the door, which was Lee,” Joe explains, the owner “said with a frown, ‘who’s the yeller feller?’”
Lee’s reaction is telling. “Ruther than bark back, like I seen him do many a time,” Joe tells us, “Lee took a big step back out the door, put his hand on my shoulder—where I felt his hand a-trembling—and says, ‘I’ll catch up with you, Joe.’”
Joe tries to make sense of what’s happened, wondering why Lee would be frightened. When he sees “four Johnny Laws was playing seven-up, surrounded by empty cups,” it dawns on him that Lee’s status makes him vulnerable to the whims of the police.
In this way, we see Joe slowly come to understand Lee’s uncertain place in the country that produced him. The evolution of Joe’s grasp on this is one of the novel’s overarching narratives, and his eventual understanding is as flawed as it is hard-won. Tom Sawyer, when he finally returns, plays a pivotal role in his education.
Joe Harper, like Huck Finn, tells a story with vast moral implications through the eyes of a character who does not necessarily recognize or fully comprehend those implications. The reader is an audience to injustice that the narrator seems to be aware of but does not dwell on for long, either because it doesn’t occur to him to ponder it at length, or because he just isn’t up to the task.
This dimension of the novel comes to the fore when Joe, Ruth, and Lee are imprisoned in Kansas “‘for being rotten, no-good tramps.’” Joe is sent to work on a chain gang, but Lee is not. “‘I talked to de men,’” Ruth explains, “‘and dey agreed dat if a Chinaman vere too stay in a regular prison, dere vould be violence.’” So they have put Lee in “de lady’s prison.” Lee later negotiates for his friends’ release. The others are to be let go, if he is willing to work off his sentence for the next five years. Ruth says, “‘In de million-dollar circles, having a Chinaman as a house-servant is a zymbol of high status.’”
“‘Well, that ain’t right!’” exclaims Joe correctly and with knee-jerk simplicity. At this and other moments, he exhibits a reflexive style of moral rectitude, a willingness to stick up for those who can’t, which reminds us of what propelled Huck on his adventure with Jim in the first place. We remain with Joe long enough to see him reach the limit of this kind of instinctive righteousness.
I started this review wanting to know why all three of these Huck Finn sequels came into being in such temporal proximity to one another. Why so much, I wondered, and all at once?
But I am no closer, now, to knowing what has led so many people to write Huck Finn sequels than I was before I read any of them. As long as I am coming clean, I should confess that in the brains department I am more of a Huck Finn than a Tom Sawyer.
And reading these novels has raised another issue: the question of what it is everyone seems to have against Tom Sawyer. In The Boy in His Winter, Tom is in the Confederate navy. It’s not a completely damning place to put him, but he is on the wrong side of history. In Huck Out West, Tom is a US Marshal who executes people without due process and puts his friends in danger. In The Adventures of Joe Harper, Tom, when at last he arrives, is a US Marshal who executes people without a moment’s hesitation and has no sense of loyalty to anyone.
Yet Twain didn’t seem to have a problem with Tom. Tom is the star of his Huck Finn sequels; he solves a mystery and takes a long-distance balloon trip. The only person he kills is the balloonist professor, and the professor was asking for it. Tom is the hero, in these novels, and Huck is his chronicler. Jim is either there for comic relief or not there at all.
As Twain portrays him, Tom is a kid with a bloody imagination, but he doesn’t really do anything to hurt people. He is not a raving lunatic, just an everyday, merciless child. Sure, as everyone knows, at the end of Huck Finn, Tom catches up with Huck and Jim, at which point Jim has been recaptured. He knows Jim has been granted his freedom, but he keeps that to himself. He stages a pretend escape, which no one else knows is only pretend. If you’re like me, and you reread the novel so long after the first time you read it that you’ve forgotten the end, Tom’s shenanigans can be a genuine source of mirth. Suspense and despair build up around Jim’s nonescape, and then Tom matter-of-factly tells Huck that Jim is free. All of the misery that awaited Jim down the river is still there, but it does not wait for Jim. This gives way to relief. In my life, I don’t get enough relief. I will take it where I can get it.
Still, in the world of the novel, it sucks that Tom doesn’t tell Jim he is free in the first place. Given how he behaves, at the end of Huck Finn, it’s easy to see what people have against him. No one likes the guy who knows something he should tell other people but doesn’t; it can be hard to like the someone who uses his smarts to serve his own interests or no one’s interests at all.
Tom appears to be constantly oblivious to what other people want and expect from him. He is hell-bent on looking out for himself. It is no doubt possible to draw a direct line from Tom tricking his friends into painting a fence to Tom disregarding the value of human life and the safety of his friends. It takes not assuming that young boys with bad imaginations will be reformed. It takes assuming, wrongly, that someone will put him in his place.
As I was reading the three books I have now discussed, I could not help but project another sequel to Huck Finn, one that hasn’t been written: a Huck Finn sequel that has a larger role for Becky Thatcher, maybe one that puts her at its center.
She shows up in the three recent sequels. In The Boy in His Winter, she is an apparition Huck sees in a dream. She undoes her blouse and asks, “‘Do you want to see my titties?’” “‘You’re Tom’s girl!’” Huck protests, before he wakes up. In Huck Out West, Becky is a prostitute. Tom got her pregnant, didn’t marry her, and left her behind. Her fate suits the novel; since she was Tom’s love interest early in life and Tom is a wrecker of people and things, then it is only natural that she be—in nineteenth-century terms—wrecked.
But I found that I wanted, as I read these three books, a fourth book that would indulge the female perspective. What I wanted turned out to exist already, in the form of My Jim, the third novel by American Book Award-winning author Nancy Rawles. Published in 2005, My Jim is written from the perspective of Sadie Watson, Jim’s wife and fellow slave. While Jim mentions his family in Huck Finn, they don’t appear in the novel, nor do we learn much about them. Rawles fills this enormous blank space and returns us to Huck Finn with fresh eyes.
Sadie looks out at the world from inside a horror show that Huck and Tom live in close proximity to but never acknowledge outright. At no point are we allowed to forget that Sadie inhabits a hellscape, where those who claim her as property take everything and give nothing back. Sadie is hardened by the life she is made to lead, as her role on the plantation clarifies with time. She comes to be seen as a healer, or a sort of necessary witch; in addition to performing her share of backbreaking labor, the others turn to her for natural remedies. Even the master demands her help when his life is in danger and the doctor is far away.
Sadie grows up with Jim. They eventually marry. They have children, watch them grow and suffer, and plan their escape. “When he runs I gonna run with him,” she explains. “We leaves Lizbeth with Cora. When we gets our freedom we gonna work to buy our Lizbeth.” It doesn’t happen. “One morning,” says Sadie, “Emma wake up to tell me Jim run off.”
As the events of one of the most famous novels of all time play out on the edge of her awareness, she doesn’t know what is happening. That we know very well what Jim is doing adds an unmistakable charge to her narrative, which is already electric. Sadie’s story, up to this point, is so immersive and so utterly heartbreaking that it is easy to forget what approaches all along, the improbable trip that Jim takes with Huck.
Sadie is tortured and interrogated, but she doesn’t know where Jim is. When she hears that his beloved hat has turned up, “floating in the Mississippi,” she says, “Thats all the proof anybody need . . . Nigger never without his hat. Sooner or later his head gonna come looking for it.”
Sadie hears, later, that Jim isn’t dead, but “Traveling with a skinny white boy.” Her life goes on. She is sold; she outlives the Civil War; when slavery ends, she wanders until she remarries and finds work. She sees Jim one more time and tells him, “I been all kind of people since you seen me last. Aint wants to talk bout that now. Them days on the Watson place a long time gone but seeing you brings them back. Them days when we both young and free with ourselves.”
It is a way of phrasing their prior life together that points to the bitter irony of their situation. At a time when they were anything but free, they could make choices within the narrow confines in which they lived; now that they are free from slavery, they are bound to the past they have survived.
Jim explains where he went with Huck, and why. “I helps him run,” says Jim. “He help me run.” When Jim tells Sadie his name, she knows who he’s talking about; she recalls Huck:
I remembers. I seen that boy one day in town. I remembers him cause he aint wearing nothing but a shirt. Like all the slave children. He just a little boy then. Look like he aint belong to nobody. Miss Watson seen me looking at him. Thats Huckleberry she say. Folks call him that cause he live off the wild huckleberry bushes. And scraps people throw they dogs. A shame how some folks live she say. Child aint even got a proper name.
In a narrative that depicts people suffering under some of the most abject and harrowing conditions ever forced on human beings by other human beings, it is stunning to hear that the neglected Huck was once looked on with such sympathy. Through Sadie’s eyes, he is renewed for us.
There are more sequels to Huck Finn. In 1970, John Seelye came out with The True Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Or there’s the Australian writer Greg Matthews’s The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from 1983. And in 2003, Lee Nelson published a finished version of Mark Twain’s unfinished third sequel to Huck Finn. I suspect that if I were to do more digging, I would unearth a chain of Huck Finn sequels reaching all the way back to 1884.
And people are bound to write more Huck Finn sequels and adaptations. Someone will no doubt publish a retelling of Huck Finn in which Jim is a werewolf or the raft gets upended by the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It will be a mash-up. It will sell four million copies. There could be one every ten years, with similar clusters to the one we’ve seen recently, in which three or four come in quick succession.
This review could go on longer, but I doubt it would bring me closer to knowing why there have been so many Huck Finn sequels, and all at once. Maybe the only way to truly know would be for me to write my own.
But I am not going to do that. There are a lot of other things I need to do.
James Whale: The Monster Man
In 1917, while serving as a second lieutenant in the British Army on the Western Front, twenty-six-year-old James Whale was captured by the Germans at Aisne Farm in France. Led off at bayonet point, he felt lucky; most of his platoon had been killed. He was transported to Holzminden, a prison camp in the heart of enemy territory where six hundred officers were already imprisoned. The brutal camp commander, Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer, claimed that the camp was escape proof. Prisoners dug a hundred-yard tunnel with knives, forks, and frying pans, and twenty-nine men crawled free. Another seventy might have made it through if not for a New Zealand aviator who got himself stuck in the hole, blocking their passage.
Indifferent to the escapees’ plans, Whale stayed put. Despite a meager diet of potato rations and occasional horsemeat and the camp’s reputation as the worst in Germany, he made effective use of his time, gambling, painting, and producing amateur theatrical productions. For his plays, he designed and painted the scenery and wrote original material. On Saturday nights after dinner, the tables were pushed together, creating a solid platform for a makeshift stage at the far end of the barracks. For two hours, in the small theater space, inmates performed a James Whale production, forgetting about their harsh circumstances until the final curtain dropped. His plays became popular among both prisoners and camp officials, who would send to Cologne for special costumes and props. After fifteen months, he left Holzminden with his career path set: he would make a life in theater. He said, “I couldn’t follow anything seriously after that.”
When he left Holzminden, IOUs scribbled on paper scraps filled his pockets, winnings from the camp’s many poker and bridge games. The officers, most from wealthy British families, paid their debts, and with the sales of his prison drawings, Whale had several hundred pounds to stake a new life in London. He freelanced cartoons and illustrations for commercial magazines, but the postwar housing shortage made rents prohibitively expensive. He moved to Birmingham, six miles from where he’d grown up, and worked for the Birmingham Repertory Company and enrolled in Ryland Memorial School of Art.
The world of theater offered Whale an escape from a life of hard physical labor and poverty. He was born in 1889 in Dudley, a mining and ironworking town in the West Midlands, to working-class parents in a house crowded with siblings. Unusually thin, with intense blue eyes, red hair, and “faun-like charm,” he carried himself with a regal bearing. Family and friends thought that he was meant for a life grander than what Dudley could offer.
With a large family to help support, Whale left school in his teens to work for a cobbler, salvaging nails from shoe soles for scrap metal before burning the leather. His talent as a draftsman made him extra money lettering fancy price tags for local merchants, which he saved for tuition at the Dudley School of Arts and Crafts. In 1910, he enrolled and took classes at night while working during the day in a sheet-metal factory hammering ornamental designs into buggy fenders. Other than attending the occasional performances at the Dudley Opera House, there was no indication when he left art school in 1914 that he would seek a life in theater.
Whale understood that success and recognition, as well as money, would be hard to come by. He said, “No one should wish to become an actor or have anything to do with the theater for any other reason than an inner compulsion.” Yet he pursued his dream as soon as he was liberated, thin and frail, from Holzminden. After a stint in Stratford-upon-Avon playing small parts in the Shakespearean Festival, Whale became a member of director Nigel Playfair’s company at the Liverpool Repertory Theater and later relocated with them to London. Playfair admired Whale’s versatility; in addition to placing him in minor roles, he used him as a general assistant, set designer, and glorified stage manager, as did other directors, allowing Whale to amass substantial West-End credentials.
After nearly a decade of working in theater, Whale found himself doing more directing than acting. In addition to the fundamentals of staging, he had learned from the directors he worked with “an ambition always to make the actors appear not to be actors but real persons reacting to real situations.” This philosophy would serve him well, particularly when he finally got his first big break in 1928, directing R. C. Sherriff’s war drama Journey’s End. The play, set in the trenches of Saint-Quentin, France, over four days, captures the grim monotony of war as it portrays the disintegration of men in battle.
Aware of Whale’s war experience, producers took a chance on him, hoping he would bring an insider’s knowledge to the project. Whale took his time accepting the job: the play struck him as static and suffering from a weak plot. After a few more revisions to the script, Whale accepted the offer. Starring a twenty-one-year-old Laurence Olivier, Journey’s End opened at the Apollo and, due to its success, was transferred to the West-End Savoy Theater. Papers heralded it as London’s finest play. For the men who had survived trench warfare, it dramatized what they had experienced in detail they could not articulate to friends and family. Journey’s End made Whale a celebrity, and he followed the show to Broadway, where it ran for a year.
Although he had never given much thought to working in the movie business, Hollywood was the next logical step in his career. The English film industry was at least two years behind the United States, so when Paramount offered him a contract, he accepted with the hope of making Journey’s End as a talkie. When he arrived at the studio in 1929, his initial ambition was to make easy money and learn the technique of talking pictures. Whale had a genuine enthusiasm for film, which he called “the greatest medium of all time.”
More than 5,000 miles from England, surrounded by film lots and orange groves, Whale adapted to his new home, writing to his family that the sunshine was making him “quite brown and beautiful.” In fact, he was happy to be out of class-obsessed England, though he remained proud of his British heritage, dressing the part in bow ties and tweeds.
Work was slow, and after several false starts, two months into his contract he worried that it would not be renewed. Finally, during the last fifteen days of his contract, he took over shooting the forgettable farce The Love Doctor. It was too little too late. Paramount let his five-hundred-dollar-a-week contract lapse after three months. Yet he stayed in Hollywood, feeling that a career in film was still full of opportunity.
He was summoned to Chicago to direct Journey’s End at the Adelphi Theater. After rehearsing the company for three months, he remained with them through opening night to make sure the drama was successfully launched before returning to Hollywood at the request of Howard Hughes. The millionaire’s twin passions of aviation and movies had inspired him to produce the silent film Hell’s Angels. By the time the flying spectacle was finished in 1929, two years after filming began, Hollywood had moved on to talkies. Hughes wanted to reshoot 60 percent of the film. Having heard about his talent with war narratives, Hughes hired Whale to stage the dialogue sequences. Whale learned while directing the reshoots how to command a film set. While his work on the film was uncredited, Hughes paid him a $7,000 bonus. Whale splurged on a new Chrysler, telling friends it was a gift from Hughes.
While the young director was finishing Hell’ Angels, he was negotiating to direct the film adaptation of Journey’s End. Talks were thorny: Whale asked for the unheard-of salary of twenty thousand dollars despite being a relative novice in the industry. He rushed to wrap up Hell’s Angels, working fourteen-hour days and rewriting the Journey’s End script at night. While he hoped to film it in England with an all-British cast, studios there were still not equipped for sound, so the film was made at Tiffany Studios in Los Angeles. It premiered in 1930 in a New York City theater a mile away from where the stage version was still being performed. Audiences were stunned by the realism of Whale’s war film. It was a box-office success, and he was named one of the top-ten best directors of 1929-1930.
Signed by Universal Studio to a five-year contract, Whale moved on to his next film, Waterloo Bridge, also set in World War I, about a chorus girl who becomes a prostitute. Despite its modest premiere, it was a commercial and critical success. His growing record of accomplishment should have allowed him authority over his next project, but that was not how Universal worked. Inspired by the financial success of Dracula, studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. assigned him to direct Frankenstein. Whale thought it was a gag, but after thinking about the original novel by Mary Shelley, he became absorbed by the story’s possibilities.
The studio tried to cast Bela Lugosi as the monster, but Whale thought him wrong for the part. He wanted a cadaverous yet hulky face—a death’s-head on a frame. He also wanted an actor who could convey likeability, believing that the monster “could scare people but was also scared.” When he reread the novel, he said, “I was sorry for the Goddamn monster.” He cast Boris Karloff for the part, despite his being a relative unknown.
While designing the look of the Frankenstein monster, Whale’s art-school training served him well. Shelley had not provided many clues as to what the monster looked like. “Yellow skin that scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath” was all the physical detail Whale had to go on.
Wanting to create a tableau of death and tragedy, Whale turned to the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, using stark lighting, opposing angles, and sharp shadows to create an overwhelming sense of foreboding. He knew that he was either making a great horror flick or a bomb. The film broke box office records at theaters throughout the country and became the top hit of 1931-32, pulling in $5 million. Whale enjoyed Frankenstein’s success; he understood that in Hollywood you were only as good as your last film, but even that did not guarantee choice projects. After Frankenstein, he was assigned three mediocre pictures, which faded into the cinematic netherworld and left his reputation as a commercial director shaky. His sixth picture, based on H. G. Wells’s science fiction novel The Invisible Man (1897), temporarily saved him from obscurity.
Believing in the horror-film market, Junior, as Laemmle was called, had refused to give up on The Invisible Man, despite going through four directors, nine writers, and ten separate screenplays before handing it over to Whale. With thoughtful camera work that heightened the movie’s suspense, along with inventive special effects, the film rivaled the success of Frankenstein and earned Whale the moniker, “The Monster Man.” Proclaimed a “bright little oddity” by the New Yorker, The Invisible Man was one of the top films of 1933 and made Universal a profitable studio despite the worsening Depression.
Whale’s agent, Myron Selznick, producer David O. Selznick’s older brother, negotiated a three-year deal, ultimately earning the director $2,750 a week by the third year. Also, in the future, for every horror picture Whale filmed, he could select a mainstream picture of his choice. Yet the pressure to make a sequel to Frankenstein overshadowed this agreement. Whale resisted, saying he never wanted to work on the material again. But Junior thought Whale was the only director for Bride of Frankenstein and promised him whatever he wanted in terms of script, cast, and production.
As Whale had done with the monster, he designed the Bride, played by Elsa Lanchester, according to his own vision. After several sketches, using Queen Nefertiti as a reference, he designed the tall bird’s-nest hair with lightning streaks of gray and a face of strangely elegant stitching. He wrapped her in yards of surgical gauze and a pink, rubberized gown. With hard light, deep, rich shadows, and brilliant highlights, Whale extended his vison of a demented world that mixed comedy and horror. The reviews were the best of his career.
After four years and nine pictures for Universal, Whale was rewarded with a million-dollar budget to adapt for film the Broadway musical Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel of life on the Mississippi. His growing reputation as a director of horror made him an odd choice, but he argued that educated Englishmen had always been deeply interested in American history. To make sure the film’s elegant look was not at the expense of historical accuracy, he enlisted a team of experts to advise him on dialogue and staging. The film outsold its competition, The Great Ziegfeld, and critics agreed that he directed it as if he had been born and bred in showboat country. When he watched the film at its premiere, he had not been so thrilled by his work since watching Journey’s End at the Savoy.
Whale’s Universal contract ended with Show Boat, which marked the pinnacle of his career. He had never felt secure in Hollywood, believing that money and career were ephemeral, and he was right to mistrust the industry. As a freelancer he would never again have the autonomy and respect granted him at Universal. His last satisfying work was The Great Garrick, about the eighteenth-century British actor, which he made for Warner Brothers in 1937. His sixty-thousand-dollar salary made him one of Hollywood’s highest-paid directors, but then the costume picture flopped.
The failure of The Great Garrick precipitated a creative and artistic decline from which Whale never recovered. He made six more films—cheap, starless, B pictures with diminishing budgets. He was no longer a top director, just a freelancer with a spotty record of commercial achievement. By 1941, he had had enough. “They wanted a Michelangelo every time so I gave it up just to be free,” he said about ending his ten-year career as a movie director. He was fifty.
At his home in Santa Monica Canyon, Whale immersed himself in painting and settled into a life of lavish dinner parties for his colleagues in the industry. During World War II, he contributed generously to British relief charities and sent money and food to his family in Dudley. He also channeled his energy into a little theater group, the Brentwood Service Players. The box-office proceeds from the hundred-seat theater were donated to the war effort. But mostly he was restless and bored. He had a stroke in 1956 and another a year later that left him depressed, irritable, and overly dependent on caregivers. In 1957, he put his affairs in order, wrote a letter to friends and family assuring them that he had had a wonderful life, and then drowned himself in his backyard pool.
At the end of his career, Whale was convinced that he was totally forgotten. He did not live to see the revival of his work in the 1970s and had no sense of his place in film history. All he knew was that he had contributed to cinema a few Hollywood monsters that were not mere plot devices but fully dimensional characters invested with complex human emotions—anger, gentleness, remorse, and a longing to understand their situations. He elevated the horror-film genre to an entirely new level with the authenticity and sophistication of his craftsmanship. Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man remain vital, challenging works. He had also left his indelible stylistic mark on film, a stylishness that came from years of art-school training and a decade of work on the British stage.
Box of Watches
That Friday afternoon in AAA Guns and Jewels, Shaun’s life flashed before his eyes, just as they said it would when you faced death, though it wasn’t his death but his grandfather’s that made the events of Shaun’s twenty-two years begin to reoccur as soon as he heard the old man shout, “Go right ahead and shoot me, you little shit!”
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The First to Leave Is the Winner
For a brief period in my late twenties, I lived alone on a horse ranch at 9,500 feet in the San Juan Mountains. The closest human heartbeat was thirteen miles away, the nearest airport two hundred. The altitude gave me vertigo and headaches and months of spectacular, disturbing dreams, but it was worth it for the sky, which was grandiose and constantly changing, a lava lamp let loose of its goblet. Never had I seen a sky like that, and I haven’t seen one since. Granted, I haven’t been looking.
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Poetry Feature: Danielle DeTiberus
Featuring the poems:
- Hush Harbor
- Water Worth Crossing
Of Time and the Theatre
About eighteen months ago, six months after my wife had been diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer with metastasis to the liver. Luckily—I want to say “miraculously”—the metastasis consisted only of two small lesions located in a resectable portion of my liver. I was given a decent chance for a cure. They actually used those words, “decent” and “cure,” though medically speaking one is not cured until ten years have passed without recurrence. My liver surgeon told me that five years ago I would have been given six months to live.
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