Open with Ctrl + K | Press Esc to exit

"ALL THIS LIFE"

"ALL THIS LIFE"


All-This-Life_FINAL.jpgAll-This-Life_FINAL.jpg

 Meredith A. May is San Francisco-based writer, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Digital Journalism at Mills College in Oakland, and a third-generation beekeeper. She spent 25 years in newspaper journalism, 16 of them as an award-winning feature writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.JOSHUA MOHR is the author of four novels, including “Damascus,” which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written “Fight Song” and “Some Things that Meant the World to Me,” one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as “Termite Parade,” an Editors’ Choice on The New York Times Best Seller List. His novel “All This Life” is due out Summer 2015 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull.                                                                                                                                                                                         MM: This is your first book since becoming a dad. How has parenthood influenced your writing?JM: The best way I can answer this question is to tell you that I “wrote” a huge chunk of this book in a laundromat, dictating passages to Siri while I watched the baby’s clothes tumble. If you had told no-kid-Josh that he would write in a fucking laundromat, dusted with detergent and stinking of bleach, he wouldn’t believe a word. But art finds a way out, like water wiggling through cracks we can’t see with the naked eye.  If laundromat writing was all I could do, so be it. Our processes have to evolve otherwise we lose the privilege of making art.MM: Where the heck did you get that opening scene? And which came first, the theme or that arresting scene?JM: I am a huge fan of Colum McCann’s novel “Let The Great World Spin,” and I love how his book opens with the tight rope walker going between the Twin Towers. It is such an enigmatic and mesmerizing image, a soft and hard way to welcome his reader into the narrative. I wanted to try something similar with my fair city, San Francisco.  I carried that ambition around for a few months until I got an image in my head of a brass band playing their to the center of the Golden Gate Bridge and jumping off, one by one.  I wrote that scene in probably eight minutes and basically never revised it.  Sometimes, you get lucky like that.I never start with themes.  I’m scared of that word.  I try and concern myself with intimacy, getting to know my characters’ hearts, minds, and souls as deeply as I can.  Once I truly have access into their existential worlds, their plights and crises, they start whispering their stories and I get out of the way.  The book’s themes evolve organically from the characters, rather than any authorial superimposition.MM: I chuckled at the image of you dictating your book to Siri. The characters in your book have complicated relationships with tech. What were you exploring there as a writer, and a person living in the tech epicenter?JM: Authors who tackle history have the luxury of space, context, analyzing the work already published about a certain era. But trying to write about NOW, the present, it’s a moving target. Things are always mutating. That’s I wrote this book in the present tense, with a prose style that’s jittery and over-caffeinated.  I want this novel to seem just about to fall apart, like punk rock.Tech is usually presented as either the best-thing-ever, or our greatest The-Terminator-Fears, and I wanted to make things much more complex than that.  Yes, tech is a drug, maybe even an epidemic, hindering our ability to seek out “true” human contact, sequestering us away from our sloppy, beautiful world.  And yet tech is also a wonderful advancement, offering us opportunities to connect to people we might not otherwise meet, in countries we’ll never travel to, etc.  In the parlance of that industry, tech can’t be presented as a binary. It is a zero. It is a one. And we’re all trying to figure out a way to use it so it enriches our lives, rather than promotes the dreaded time suck, hours holed away only talking to a computer or phone.In the book, there is a detective story of sorts, a missing boy who will only communicate with his parents via social media while he’s on the lam.  That part of the novel is basically a cat and mouse chase, though it all happens inside the computer.  That seemed new and fertile territory to me.EXCERPTEverybody calls him Balloon Boy. Started calling him that once he fell from the skies. Once he went thump-splat ouch. From that moment on, his real name Rodney was retired, and Balloon Boy was born. Or that’s how he thinks of it, there being two of him: In his head, all the words compose themselves like a hip hop MC delighting audiences with a nimble tongue, wild rhyming schemes. Maybe a TV minister auctioning off salvation at mach speed. But when Rodney’s perfectly composed thoughts try to cross that threshold and make it out of his mouth, things malfunction. Reduced to speaking in monosyllables.Reduced to being Balloon Boy.Today is his eighteenth birthday, and he wakes up feeling ripe for adventure and for a few minutes it feels possible. Somebody like him can be summoned to greatness. Someone like Balloon Boy can do something extraordinary! Just because of his accident, just because he’s lost that connection between the life transpiring in his head—one crackling with consonants, one unctuous with chewy vowels—it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It doesn’t have to be poor Balloon Boy being his condition. That’s not all he is. Because if in fact he’s poised, ready to be summoned to greatness, that won’t happen if he’s feeling sorry for himself, if he’s mired in a kind of poor-me soup, swimming in it. No, this is a time to feel optimistic, to charge into his adulthood. There will always be a harsh disconnect between what people see—Balloon Boy, the name he detests—and the inner life of Rodney, the diatribes and monologues lobbed eloquently around his skull. It’s like a crowded theatre in his head and he stands alone on stage, reciting Shakespeare, getting all the accents and rhythms right. He might not be able to articulate this, might falter trying to share with someone how he’s giving a topnotch soliloquy in the amphitheatre of his consciousness, so don’t go thinking that just because his actual out loud talking is garbled, that there’s only mud thrumming in his mind.He’s eighteen now and can join the military, can go anywhere without needing any consent except his own. He is his destiny and nothing as silly as a broken mouth will stop him.He stokes these calls-to-arms, these fantasies with his eyes closed, lounging in bed, imagining distant lands filled with beautiful women who actually like listening to him speak, think it’s sexy how he takes his time delivering every sound. They don’t get frustrated with him. They don’t badger him.All these possibilities disappear when a booming knock smacks through his plywood door, these declarations and illusions that had thrived in his solitude now scatter like bugs, once Uncle Felix’s shakes the meager door with his anger and enthusiasm, saying, “Hey, it’s fish o’clock.”“No,” Balloon Boy says, and six seconds later adds, “thanks.”With open eyes and a gruff uncle making too much noise, the reality of Traurig hits him like the heat outside.Rodney sighs deeply, wipes his eyes. Each day always starts with the same action: looking at the picture on his bedside table, the shot of him and his mom on horseback, taken when he was ten years old, before the thump-splat ouch, before she ran away. The shot is taken head on: Rodney sitting in front of his mother, all of their faces lined up in a row—horse, boy, mother.The day she left for good, she tucked this picture under his pillow, and he’s come to think of it as a love letter, a last letter, an explanation, her way of saying she’s sorry and she still cares for him, even in her absence. Yes, sometimes letters don’t have words; sometimes, the image tells you everything.More ground shaking knocking from Felix, the plywood barely standing up to his knuckles.“You can’t skip, not even on your birthday,” says his uncle. “Fish wait for no man.”“Five,” says Rodney, “more, min, utes.”“No more minutes. Fish beckon us. They challenge us. There’s a fight to be had, and we will not lose.”“Oh,” Rodney says, “kay.”Balloon Boy knows it’s not worth pointing out that there aren’t any fish waiting outside, not even a body of water by their house, doesn’t feel compelled to point out that they’re just going to cast their lines in the street. But the facts won’t help him win. Nothing can. Uncle Felix will not accept any excuses, any logic, and so Rodney sighs and rises, bemoaning this beginning to his birthday. It’s not as though he was expecting anyone to deliver an ice cream cake to his room, leave him with a spoon to gulp down the whole thing in peace. It’s not as though his dad or uncle are the kinds of people to barge in his room with a pitch pipe, get that perfect starting note and regale him with a harmonized version of “Happy Birthday,” while wearing those little coned hats, blowing into kazoos as the song concluded, but did his first day as an adult have to start with fish o’clock?“Today we may catch Moby Dick,” says Felix, pounding a couple last times before walking away, calling to his nephew while marching down the hall, “Let’s snare the white whale!”Rodney gets out of bed, stumbles over to his dresser. Damn, does he wish for central air conditioning. They do have a swamp cooler, but it only pumps its chilly air into the living room. The bedrooms, mere cinderblock squares, are like jail cells.Rodney dresses, shorts and a tank top, no shoes, and starts walking toward the front yard, to watch the catch and release of the street fish.He stops in the front yard, which is only sand and dirt and scrub brush, a little dune in the middle where his dad, Larry, stands, king of his sad hill. Rodney climbs the two-step dune and says, “Hi.”Larry, clutching a whiskey bottle, says, “How are you?How am I, thinks Balloon Boy? I’m a year older. I’m ready to celebrate. Ready to break out.But what he says is, “Fine.”“You wanna cast after Felix?” asks Larry, pointing at this brother. Uncle Felix is in the middle of the street, like he’s knee deep in a stream, expecting a trout to nibble any second.“Asphalt practice is better than nothing,” says Uncle Felix, but it’s unclear who he’s talking to.“Want a plug, son?” says Rodney’s dad, shaking the whiskey bottle.“No,” he says.“Not even on your birthday?”            Oh, so he does remember.“No,” Rodney says again.“More for me,” his dad says, getting a good buzz on top of his tiny dune.“And me,” Uncle Felix says, tossing another cast. “Fishermen have an unquenchable thirst for alcohol.”A car comes speeding up the road, all vengeance and vinegar.  From where Larry and Rodney stand, it misses Uncle Felix by a few feet, skidding to a stop.It’s Sara. Balloon Boy wants to say something to her, ask if she’s okay because she looks distressed. But he thinks better of it. Seeing Sara is hard. Reminds him of all he lost after the thump-splat ouch. They used to be best friends, Sara and Rodney, kissing sweethearts from back in 8th grade. Back before the balloon went up with him as a stowaway. After his accident, Sara stopped coming around much, which makes Rodney wonder if he’s wrong—maybe there’s not two of him, his true self surrounded by a shell of Balloon Boy. No, he might simply be the one the world interacts with, might simply endure a life trapped away from all he loves.Uncle Felix storms toward Sara’s car, lifting his boot and kicking her side mirror which goes flying, and he says, “Are you crazy, driving like that?”Balloon Boy and his dad walk down the dune, across the dirt to the edge of the curb. “Your girlfriend really did it this time,” Larry says, guzzling from the whiskey bottle.“Be,” Balloon Boy calls to Uncle Felix, knowing the rest of his thought but waiting for his mouth to catch up, “nice.”“Huh?” his uncle asks.“Be. Nice.”“Stay out of this,” says Felix.The music blares from Sara’s car, a rock and roll song with the singer rapping over the electric guitars. Balloon Boy wants to hear the whole song, wants to soak up the way the rapper deflects all those quick syllables off of one another. That’s what he wants for his birthday: words coming fast and agile from his mouth.“Don’t hurt my car,” Sara says to Felix while flinging her door open and standing up like she wants to fight. Balloon Boy used to joke that she’s so small because someone shoved her in the dryer without reading the tag first.“You almost killed me,” Uncle Felix says. “Why can’t you drive like a normal person?”“What do you know about normal?” she says. “You’re fishing in the road! Hank’s going to kick your ass for busting up my car.” She hops back in the driver’s seat, tearing up the street something jugular.Uncle Felix picks up her side mirror, shaking his head and says, “She sure made some choppy waves on our calm waters, right boys?” and Larry agrees, tilting the bottle again. They go back to what these three remaining members of the Curtis clan had been doing in the first place, two enjoying some time practicing their fly fishing, while one imagines a life outside the concrete river of Traurig.Before long Sara’s car comes screeching back toward them, bolting from the cul-de-sac and barreling their way. Past a yard with an above ground pool out front, surrounded by an army of tricycles. Past the house with all the wind chimes hanging out front. Past the cactus decorated to look like the Incredible Hulk. No one else is outside their house, late morning, too hot, too stifling, and yet this is the specific time that Rodney’s dad and uncle like to road fish: they’ve told Balloon Boy many times that they thrive in extreme conditions, drawing a comparison between their noon sessions and boxers who train in the mountains, at extreme elevations, so when they go back and fight at sea level, they’re in superior cardiovascular shape. Does the analogy hold up? Not really, but Rodney would nod at them, yup, you guys are like professional boxers, uh-huh, no doubt.Once he sees the car coming, Uncle Felix steps into the middle of the road again. Pulls his arm back for another cast when the car hits the brakes and Sara’s brother Hank rockets out. He’s gowned in muscles like an old fashioned gladiator.“You kick her car, Felix?”“Ease up now, Hank.”“Did you?”“I did.”“It was me,” says Larry.“Me,” Balloon Boy says for the sake of solidarity. He doesn’t want to get involved, but that’s what the remaining members of the Curtis clan do, stick together no matter what. Unlike some other Curtises, a gone Mom who fled to California after the thump-splat ouch.Hank points a paw right at Rodney and says, “Stay out of this, Balloon Boy.” Then he snaps at Uncle Felix, “She’s only nineteen. What kind of man scares a little girl?”Felix throws his fishing pole down on the grass, saying, “The kind who almost gets made road kill.”“Give me her mirror,” Hank says.“That’s my mirror now,” says Uncle Felix.“It’s mine,” Larry says.“Mine,” Balloon Boy says, fearing the worst.The Curtis boys and their skyscraping loyalty, unlike some Curtises who need fair weather all the time. Whenever Rodney asks where his mom went, Larry says, “It never rains in California so she went there,” and Balloon Boy wants so badly to ask more questions—where in California, why in California, why not here with me? But it would take him too long to gut out those inquiries and he knows his dad won’t tell him much.Hank spots Sara’s side mirror lying snapped and jagged on the lawn and moves toward it.“Don’t touch that,” Uncle Felix says.But Hank picks it up and threatens each witness from the Curtis clan: “Don’t treat my sister like that again or else.” He goes back across the lawn and steps on and cracks in two Felix’s fishing pole.“Three of us against one of you!” Uncle Felix says, incensed.“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Hank says.Felix lunges toward Hank, who cocks his fist, the one holding Sara’s side mirror and hits Uncle Felix with it. Felix falls, bleeding from the temple. Larry tries to tackle Hank but gets fixed in some vicious headlock and tumbles down after one hit in the kidney.Hank looks at Balloon Boy. “You wanna dance, too?”He doesn’t, of course. Doesn’t even want to be outside, in this sweltering pointless situation. Doesn’t want to road fish or watch them drink whiskey anymore. Doesn’t want to be here in this disconnected head, the muscles in his mouth not responding to any cues from his brain. Rodney doesn’t want to be stuck away from all the good stuff, the real stuff, doesn’t want to feel this cruel division between himself and all the other humans, those people with their own baggage and yet just because his words are slow, he’s ostracized.He doesn’t want to watch anything bad happen to Sara, and especially doesn’t want to fight Hank, who will no doubt beat him into a coma.These are all the things he doesn’t want, things he never asked for, and yet he possesses all of them. These are his birthday gifts. These are his future.He yearns to be back in bed, where there are fantasies and possibilities that today will turn out to be the one he’s been waiting for, the one to launch him on a splendid adventure, his hopes taking flight.And that word—flight—is what lured him onto the weather balloon that day. This idea of an effortless voyage. At the time he wanted Sara to get on the balloon with him, but thankfully she refused, watched him drift up until he crashed back down, thump-splat ouch.The importance of flight has only flown higher itself, gaining more altitude over the years. Back on the day of his accident, Rodney was merely a boy showing off for his girl, being silly, with no concept of anything like consequences, injuries. But since his mom left and his talking left and Sara left, Rodney’s yearning for flight is profound. If there is a quest awaiting his arrival, it has to be soon.Yet before any grandiose adventures can crack open, there is the issue of Hank, steroided Hank, standing and frothing in front of him. The last thing Rodney wants to do is lose a fight, but unfortunately that’s what’s going to happen. He’s going to defend his stupid uncle and his liquored up dad because they are his family. They stayed. They’ve taken care of him, as best they can, and he’s going to get his ass kicked for solidarity. Joshua Mohr

Tags: culture