Stranger Than Fiction – The Anatomy of a Novel

Jurassic Forest
Jurassic Forest (Photo credit: pixelens photography)

“Genuine polemics approach a book as lovingly as a cannibal spices a baby”. Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) 

After years of penning what I considered to be Pulitzer Prize winning memos at work, crafting short stories that nobody read and submitting exaggerated youth sport write ups that lost my reader’s faster than a blind crossing guard, I decided to try my hand at writing a book.

I have to admit that being an aspiring writer in today’s digital age is the like being a portrait artist at a hyperactivity convention.  I have so many pearls to string on an endless necklace of insights but my end customer has the attention span of a flea and reads a maximum of 800 words a day – all of them tweets from Kim Kardashian. Yet, the dream to write burns inside of me like an underground coal fire or perhaps, severe indigestion. For an ex-college jock that took literature and played baseball because both involved the least amount of effort, the dream of publishing a tome is the equivalent of hitting a home run in Dodger Stadium. Most of us lead lives of quiet suburban desperation and do not want our ultimate legacy to be that we were really good at picking up dog poop.  The French, by the way, never pick it up. This gives them more time to drink espresso and write books.

I knew I was facing some headwinds as an aspiring author but was self-aware enough to recognize that I lacked several critical prerequisites – brevity, humility and a good editor. Yet, the voices inside my head continued to offer unsolicited ideas, strange characters and challenges to put pen to paper. My doctor explained to me that I could take medication to make all these feelings go away but it seemed cheaper to write a book since his drugs were not available in generic form and my company had just implemented a high deductible plan.

I began to record in earnest humorous stories about life as a middle child in a four-boy family ruled by a neoconservative alpha male and a new age, psychic mother.  My primary purpose was to use humor to reassure any reader that our lives are trains that run along parallel tracks.  The only normal people we know, they say, are those we do not know very well.  I also wanted to use the book as a warning to anyone under eighteen to not try to outrun the police in your Mom’s Ford Granada.

My photographic memory carefully sorted through the thousand sepia photos which were lovingly cut and pasted into a picture album documenting suburban life in the 1970s – the final days of Jurassic parenting – where T-Rex fathers roamed the hardware store aisles and She-Rex mothers moved in the shadows tenderizing everything before it was fed to their clueless progeny.

In considering the daunting challenge of penning a book, it seemed logical to string together a series of vignettes already written about my family.  I had written some articles for local papers and had penned a few “tattle tales” for family events. Yet, this would not be a “kiss and tell” autobiographical account.  I would be creating a new genre that recalled the days before child protective services felt the need to stick their noses into suburban life. I christened it “swear and yell” fiction.

Just as Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose and others insisted on chronicling the Greatest Generation, I felt compelled to raise a glass to The Silent Generation.  They are slowly disappearing and with them we are losing a piece of our own mythology. Today’s “think, but don’t say” society has slowly forced them into hiding and with each sunset,  a generation that found its thrills on Blueberry Hill, is slowly relinquishing their colorful profanity and creative punishments — watching them beaten into plowshares fashioned out of “I messages” and “timeouts”.  The T-Rex father is disappearing into a tar pit of political correctness – and with his passing, we are losing a valuable link to our past and to certain values that used to serve us as important social and moral guardrails.

Yet, to pen a tribute that both serenades and teases the age of Jurassic parenting presents challenges for a writer who often sacrifices tact for the sake of a cheap joke.  The best stories in every family are best served like rich, blue cheese. They require time spent curing and fermenting out of the eye of the public – at least until the statute of limitations is expired. Comedy is tragedy plus time and those who do choose to tattle on their parents and/or siblings do so at their own risk. They may also find a sprig of arsenic in their iced tea at the next Fourth of July picnic.

If one wants to freely write about life and borrow from the past, they must turn to fiction where one can play Mr. Potato Head with each character – mixing vices, virtues and vicissitudes into people that resemble everyone and no one.  Any first work of fiction borrows liberally from an author’s experiences that are disguised behind a primer of odd events, improbable situations and plausibly deniable moments. The problem is that the truth is always trying to wiggle out into the light of day.

The challenge is everyone wants to know which part is true and which  is fiction.  Upon receiving my draft novel, friends and family scrutinized the freshly created fiction like Egyptian hieroglyphics attempting to decipher the story and its characters for hidden messages and personal judgment.  It was particularly justifiable in my case as I had crafted a novel about a family of four boys from Southern California with a conservative father and a liberal, intuitive mother.  Given that art so often imitates life, it is a love story that takes place at a train wreck.

My next problem was getting every family member to read the entire book.  Eventually, everyone came around – asking for a copy of the manuscript and then disappearing into weeks of radio silence as they digested the story and their perceived Doppelgängers.

“Why did you have me saying this?” asked one brother.

“It’s not you.” I emailed back.

“Oh yeah. Why can’t my character have said that?”

“It’s not you.”

“Oh yeah.”

Gratefully, each brother loved and approved of the manuscript but concluded with the same question, “ Have you shown it to Dad yet?” The answer was always the same – “not yet”. I was rationalizing that I wanted all of their feedback before proceeding to the Supreme Court for a final review. The future of my nascent manuscript which now had the working title, “T-Rex by the Tail”, hung in the balance.

“Dad, it’s an anthem to your generation and your unfiltered lens to the world.  You are the last great land mammals in a time of profound social change.”

He listened and said nothing – a long, pregnant pause across three thousand miles of fiber optic phone line.

“Look, just as long as the book does not end with Obama in the White House or taxes being raised on the middle class, I can handle a few lampoons.  We managed to raise you knuckleheads.  My generation can take it.“

He paused and then added. “I’m not sure your generation will be able to take it when its your turn.  But, hey, that book is for your kids to write. And one more thing, just be sure to make the father in the story a Republican – a Reagan Republican.”

Dad, no problem.

Family Paleontology 101: The Decline of The T-Rex Parent

Tyrannosaurus rex, Palais de la Découverte, Paris
Image via Wikipedia

The Mesozoic era was an epoch of magnificent and marvelous social and industrial evolution.  It could be divided in to three principal periods: Triassic, Jurassic and the Cretaceous period.

The 1950’s and early 1960’s were the zenith of our modern society’s Jurassic age.  T-Rex fathers roamed the landscape bringing order, power tools and Old Testament justice to a post WWII primal world in desperate need of control and benevolent, unilateral authority.  The T-Rex possessed an abnormally large mouth from which he would chew out loud, belch, curse and devour any weaker form of life.  He possessed a great sweeping tail that could strike with unusual dexterity – hitting anything, including his own children for the slightest infraction.  His arms were unusually short which precluded him from helping with chores or changing diapers.  He was like a biblical God – – always angry and with lots of rules.  He was the perfect working machine – an eating, sleeping, and laboring automaton that was preprogrammed to improve every aspect of his white picket world. 

As in nature, his progeny were highly vulnerable.  It was a time of great civil upheaval. The ground was rocked by the volcanic violence in the inner cities. There were wars glowing on the distant edges of night fought in the far-off jungles of Southeast Asia.  In every valley, long-haired, social parasites advocated sex, drugs and rock and roll – – all vying to corrupt the hearts and minds of the T-Rex’s children.  He furiously scanned his horizon lines for signs of sedition and malevolent movement.  Threats must be dealt with swiftly and decisively.  It was a fight between good and evil and the largest, most fearsome creature to ever roam the earth was not about to yield to any living thing – a Russian, a hippie or even a Russian hippie.

The female, or She-Rex, gently drafted behind the T-Rex.  This was a time where social conformity and home economic classes promoted feckless obedience and quiet, efficient martyrdom. She would exist to protect his progeny, cleaning up after T-Rex and moving stealthily in the shadows subordinating her identity to the greater purpose of ensuring the perpetuation of her own species.  She made and cleaned the nest. She tenderized everything and she ensured that no one’s lateral incisors went more than six months without being cleaned by a dentist. 

Later in her life, She-Rex would realize that the notion of the nest and the myth of marriage were propaganda promulgated by T-Rex traditionalists who did not understand a balanced, more egalitarian world.  Her world would also soon change.  She discovered she had choices and that her instincts and ideas mattered.  She suddenly understood that she was as essential to the family’s survival as her T-Rex partner.  In fact, she was pretty sure that if she decided to stop doing the laundry, the T-Rex would be forced to go to work in dirty underwear.  This epiphany marked the beginning of the Cretaceous Period. 

The Cretaceous Period of the 80’s and 90’s ushered in an era of permanent cooling from the days of hot, humid chauvinism.  Some trace the decline of the T-Rex to this very time.  A handful of revolutionary historians claim that liberal activists or specifically, Jimmy Carter, killed off T-Rex.  Other more insightful paleontologists speculate that the T-Rex did not die but went into hiding.  In an Ice Age of emasculated political correctness, replete with its time outs, “I” messages and liberated females, the T-Rex headed for the proverbial hills.  The T-Rex father – the provider, the king, master and commander would soon find himself an anachronism – – barely recognizing the wilderness of his youth and lamenting his own inevitable exile.

He still rises each morning as he has for eight decades, stretching weary bones and putting his nose into the salt air that hangs in a marine layer of fog over his seaside home.  He faithfully scans society’s horizon lines in the form of newspapers, the Internet and television – – and does not like what he sees.  He exerts his right to free speech by sending poison pen letters to feckless politicians rebuking them for their fiscal recklessness and their ignorance to the irrefutable fact that free market capitalism and personal responsibility are the cornerstones to any great Democracy.  He is offended by Washington’s patronizing indifference and lack of experience – many of those who “represent” him have never run a company, managed a payroll or had to make difficult decisions involving their own money.

 As he looks across the blue infinity of his beloved Pacific Ocean, his back is turned to an America that once rewarded ability and persistence – – only now choosing to alter the definition of success out of some horribly misguided sense of social equity.  Charlatans, social engineers and unqualified liberal public servants are slowly mortgaging his final days and the future of his children.  Society now considers his unflinching values of self-sufficiency, corporal punishment, personal responsibility and meritocracy to be quaint, nostalgic echoes of a simpler and less sophisticated time. 

 Apparently, he muses, politicians have decided people can no longer think for themselves.   He wonders if there is not some undercurrent of truth in the notion that the next generation lacks the stamina to stay informed enough on the issues to deserve to vote. Perhaps we could make people take a test….

 To those who might question his steel-trap logic, impugn his well-reasoned opinions, attack his seeming lack of empathy or try to leverage this great nation’s future with expanded entitlements and reckless foreign policies, he has just two words, “Piss off!”

 His numbers are clearly dwindling.  Yet, he remains faithful to his creed and to his She-Rex, for everyone knows that a real T-Rex mates for life.  Their heritage is another place and time.  They are bonded by their simple act of survival in a turbulent and treacherous period and in having weathered the tempests together, they share a mutual respect that runs deeper than any sediment of the past.  They have integrity and grit.  They are the last of an extraordinary breed whose over-sized footprints and well-worn paths are disappearing – swept by winds of change and overgrown in a world so deafened by the din of self-interest that one can barely hear them as they share their stories of living and raising children in an epoch as wild and unrestrained as any time in history.