For the past three years, I’ve been working on a story that won’t let me finish it. Through its first few drafts, the syntax dragged, the language waddled around the page with the grace of my 30-pound coon cat (bless his heart), and even once I got the sentences and rhythm under control, new problems emerged–not with plot or character, but with structure and point of view. It made sense for the story to be in present tense, but perhaps made more sense for the story to be retrospective. At the same time, there were parts of the story that demanded the distance of third person, others that would not work without the unwavering earnestness (and sporadic unreliability) of first.
When working on the story, I kept returning to one of my favorite published greats–”Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks. Anecdote Alert: I remember pretty vividly being locked outside a small sort of “arts” building at Indiana while waiting for a Russell Banks reading to begin. I was the first person there–I’m chronically early–and after standing outside in the cold for a few minutes, a lumbering man with white hair a sort of Teddy Roosevelt physique arrived and stood a few feet away from me.
Russell Banks! My immediate impulse whenever I meet a man named Russell is to make a joke about my last name and his first name and maybe we should get married and he can take my name so then he would be like Humbert Humbert but that is obviously completely inappropriate and not even funny and also utterly nonsensical. So I kept quiet while trying to make eye contact with the man, but he very deliberately avoided me altogether and went on to give a very nice reading and Q & A.
“Sarah Cole” is, I think, in a lot of way a good representation of what Russell Banks’ writing can do. Though it’s not a historical story, it does deal rather deftly with class–an issue all too often ignored by Banks’ American contemporaries (and non-contemporaries, let’s be honest). And though it’s a short story, it carries the emotional weight of a novel and offers a complete world into which the reader can peer and wonder and kick at a few unturned stones. I think much of the story’s texture and depth comes from its point of view, or points of view–it is “ultimately” a first-person, past tense story, though in its most difficult scenes, the p.o.v. switches over to third, as though to suggest that the narrator is still too ashamed of his past behavior to look at it head on and take ownership of it. It’s all still too fresh for him, and in turn it becomes a bit raw for us, too.
I’m still plugging away at my story. It’s on deck to be revised one more time (it’s always just “one more time” with revisions), and I’m planning to follow through with what I’ve deemed the Sarah Cole Technique of mercurial narrative. My own narrator is guilt-ridden as hell, and wistful and ashamed of what he’s done but somehow proud, too, of the pain he caused virtually everyone around him, and I think it’s safe to say that only one narrative technique is not going to shoulder the burden of this guy’s emotional muck. So, wish me good luck and have a read of the opening passage of Russell Banks’ “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.” A link to the full text of the story is below as well.
TO BEGIN, then, here is a scene in which I am the man and my friend Sarah Cole is the woman. I don’t mind describing it now, because I’m a decade older and don’t look the same now as I did then, and Sarah is dead. That is to say, on hearing this story you might think me vain if I looked the same now as I did then, because I must tell you that I was extremely handsome then. And if Sarah were not dead, you’d think I were cruel, for I must tell you that Sarah was very homely. In fact, she was the homeliest woman I have ever known. Personally, I mean. I’veseen a few women who were more unattractive than Sarah, but they were clearly freaks of nature or had been badly injured or had been victimized by some grotesque, disfiguring disease. Sarah, however, was quite normal, and I knew her well, because for three and a half months we were lovers.
Here is the scene. You can put it in the present, even though it took place ten years ago, because nothing that matters to the story depends on when it took place, and you can put it in Concord, New Hampshire, even though that is indeed where it took place, because it doesn’t matter where it took place, so it might as well be Concord, New Hampshire, a place I happen to know well and can therefore describe with sufficient detail to make the story believable. Around six o’ clock on a Wednesday evening in late May a man enters a bar. The place, a cocktail lounge at street level with a restaurant upstairs, is decorated with hanging plants and unfinished wood paneling, butcherblock tables and captain’s chairs, with a half dozen darkened, thickly upholstered booths along one wall. Three or four men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-five are drinking at the bar, and they, like the man who has just entered, wear three piece suits and loosened neckties. They are probably lawyers, young, unmarried lawyers gossiping with their brethren over martinis so as to postpone arriving home alone at their whitewashed townhouse apartments, where they will fix their evening meals in radar ranges and, afterwards, while their tv’s chuckle quietly in front of them, sit on their couches and do a little extra work for tomorrow. They are, for the most part, honorable, educated, hard-working, shallow, and moderately unhappy young men. Our man, call him Ronald, Ron, in most ways is like these men, except that he is unusually good-looking, and that makes him a little less unhappy than they. Ron is effortlessly attractive, a genetic wonder, tall, slender, symmetrical, and clean. His flaws, a small mole on the left corner of his square but not-too-prominent chin, a slight excess of blond hair on the tops of his tanned hands, and somewhat underdeveloped buttocks, insofar as they keep him from resembling too closely a men’s store mannequin, only contribute to his beauty, for he is beautiful, the way we usually think of a woman as being beautiful. And he is nice, too, the consequence, perhaps, of his seeming not to know how beautiful he is, to men as well as women, to young people, even children, as well as old, to attractive people, who realize immediately that he is so much more attractive than they as not to be competitive with them, as well as unattractive people, who see him and gain thereby a comforting perspective on those they have heretofore envied for their good looks.