Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Author, Chapter Twenty: The Next Ten Days

June 13-June 22

They fell into a routine quite quickly. At first it was by default, Jeff getting up before Stuart every morning and cleaning up. Eventually he stopped worrying about waking Stuart in the mornings and just got to work around 10. If he made too much noise, Stuart would retire to his bedroom, where he never seemed to sleep unless forced to do so. Soon Jeff was setting his alarm for 9:30 so he could continue the pattern. Sometimes Jeff would make an effort at breakfast, other times it was cereal or toaster pastries or oatmeal. Once, bored, Jeff hopped in the Rover and went to buy donuts. He was getting better at navigating the driveway.

Strangely, the more he fell into these patterns, the lazier Jeff became about everything else. Yes, he eventually mowed the lawn, but it took him two afternoons. Stuart did not seem to mind. Every night he would go to bed with the best of intentions for the next day, starting on the pile of Stuart's laundry, going for a run, getting up to watch the sun rise, and every morning he would wake up, clean up after Stuart, make breakfast, and simply ride along with the days, which quickly flowed together.

Lunches were whatever Jeff made, usually sandwiches or something equally easy, while Stuart edited what he had written the night before. Afternoons they talked until Stuart could no longer fight the impulse to return to writing, and then Jeff would start dinner. They would chat over dinner, not the deep, heavy discussions of the afternoons, but surface talks, light conversation, nothing that would remove Stuart from his precious groove.
Then, Stuart would return to work, and Jeff would have the evening to himself. Here, again, he found he had no motivation. Two of the summer's big movies had opened by this time, and he made plans twice to go see the new Spielberg picture, and it never happened. Once it slipped his mind and the other time he just decided not to go. Instead, his evenings were filled with two things: Reading the Wilcox novels and writing.

On Tuesday evening, after putting up the leftovers from the pot roast he had made (he'd called his mother to find out how), which they would likely have for lunch tomorrow, Jeff had begun to experience the itch. He remembered Stuart talking about it, and he'd had a vague recollection at the time of what it felt like, but it came back to him all at once, like a relative or friend not seen in quite some time, but who never ceases to be familiar and comfortable.

He sat at the desk in his room and played Tetris, his old trick from school for clearing his mind before a study project. He didn't realize it, but this idea was no different from Vic's drinking: getting out of his own way. He reminded himself that if he was writing, he should be working on Hard Time, but it didn't seem to matter. Instead, what came out of him for two hours on Tuesday, and most evenings after that was something new and exciting.

When he started writing, Jeff was almost convinced that whatever he would produce would be nothing but a Stuart rip off, in the grandest tradition of his writings at 15, somehow absorbing the energy of the man and his home. That was not the case. Instead, he began to tell the tail of Danny Costa, a small time con man from Chicago who comes across his one chance for a big score. In Jeff's mind, the story would somehow become the hard-boiled equivalent of The Old Man and the Sea. Danny's commitment to the Big Job (as Jeff began to think of it), would be so all-consuming that he would not realize that the money he would bring in had already all been spent, either on setting up the score or in shares to the other people involved. He would succeed, and he would be a legend, but he would end with nothing to show for it, and likely be killed by the mob for his troubles.

The story appeared out of whole cloth, without any investment on his part at all. On Wednesday, as Jeff mowed the lawn while Stuart edited, Jeff had conversations, out loud, with himself as Danny and his various cronies: Betty, the grifter who was convinced all she really needed was a bolt-on set of tits to make herself irresistible to men, Bobby Costa, Danny's useless cab driver brother who had initially found out about the score and who was now part of the deal whether Danny liked it or not, old Moses, who referred to himself as a “nigger Jew fence”, and of course Alphonse, the neighborhood cappo, who acted twice as Italian as everyone else to make up for the fact that he'd been born with blond hair.

Part of Jeff desperately wanted to tell Stuart about it, especially since the author had shared another passage from Tomb with him, but he did not. Partly it was because he feared criticism from the writer, especially as brutal as he had been about Mac's work (even though, of course, Mac sucked ass), and partly it was because he wasn't ready for the world of Danny & Co to be shared. Not even with Victor Stuart.

The more he wrote and thought about writing, the more insight he had into Stuart's books, as well. He realized that partly these insights were due to the fact that he was reading the books as an adult (or so he told himself), rather than the kid he'd been way back when he was 15. But these insights also came to him from being around Stuart, from their extensive discussions, from the writer's insight into process, inspiration, and creativity.

Jeff had finished Stuart's second Wilcox book, Faith, on Monday night. It had been widely criticized as a limp sophomore effort by Stuart, one that undid some of his initial splash. After reading it again (as a grownup, of course), Jeff had found Faith to be much more mature than he remembered.

Jeff realized now that Stuart had simply defied expectations. When you produce a second novel in a series, no one will ever be happy. If you give them the same book a second time, people will recognize it for what it is and bitch about it. If you give them something different, people will whine because you didn't give them what they expected, which was exactly the same thing again.

Stuart had thrown all those expectations away and had produced Faith, which was a rollicking adventure yarn to contrast the slow burning terror of Grave. Yes, both mined the Cthulhu mythos to some degree, but there the comparisons ended. Where Grave was a mystery, Faith was effectively a treasure hunt, filled with enough hidden chambers and conspiracies to give Dan Brown an chubby.

And of course, in Cemetery, the third Wilcox novel, Stuart had taken another random turn, creating a balls-out thriller, with Wilcox's own fate hanging in the balance as he was caught between a cult and a crime syndicate. Jeff was gaining a greater appreciation for the tightrope act Stuart had performed early in his career, defying and challenging expectations while successfully capturing more and more readers.

Now, of course, the man did not have to suffer the expectations of fools, or at least not as much, but he continued to unexpectedly change directions, visiting genres and topics such as romance, politics, history, and art, navigating new waters with every book and constantly defying expectations.

Jeff didn't like to admit that he was thinking so far ahead, he felt that it was unlucky, but he could see himself doing something like that with his new book, which was untitled, but which he was mentally thinking of as Danny's Dime. Hard Time was the work of an immature writer, still regurgitating the tropes and stories that he had seen before, but this new book was the beginning of something else, something that could expand into a psychological thriller next, pitting a still broke but plucky Danny against a mob hit man in a battle of wills and guts and guns. The potential was unlimited so long as you didn't let yourself get pinned in.

Stuart's days were less complex that Jeff's: Wake, eat, edit, talk, write, sleep. On Sundays he watched baseball. The man confessed to having more trouble now that he was a bit further into Tomb. He was happy with what he wrote, but the pace was slowing. “No second book this summer, kid, I tell you what,” he'd said. The writer still wasn't referring to Jeff by his name, but he held out hope. As it was, the way Stuart called him kid seemed to carry plenty of affection, and Jeff could not help but think of the way Han Solo referred to Luke Skywalker by the same term. It was a comparison Jeff was very happy with.

So it continued for ten warm days. Pizza dinners, cereal breakfasts, Stuart's nigh-constant Woodford Reserve consumption, writing, reading, talking. It was not exactly how Jeff had pictured his summer would be, but he had no complaints, aside from the occasional heartburn. He'd learned to make separate batches of chili when he cooked that particular dish, as Stuart insisted on so much Tabasco Sauce and red pepper flakes that Jeff's tongue almost melted.

It was not as he'd pictured it, not completely. Stuart had worn nicer clothes in his imagination, and not smelled like a homeless person. The children had already adopted him as a de facto uncle in his fantasies, looking up at him with adoring eyes. In his mind, and Jeff would have never admitted this, even under the most strenuous torture, he had also painted himself a summer romance, torrid, exciting, doomed to end with the season.
But the important expectations, spending time with the man he so admired, being privy to the man's wisdom, experience, and advice, Jeff would not have traded that for anything in the world.

Then came the events of June 23rd, when Jeff found the USB drive and became convinced Victor Stuart had murdered Reginald “Mac” McKenzie.

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