Friday, December 31, 2010

The beginning of the novel

One thing I will do in 2011 is continue with my latest fiction book, which as of this writing is approaching 100 pages in length. This is the opening, inevitably to be changed, of course, as I proceed...


A passerby traveling the road that descends into the village of Stonington on Deer Isle, Maine, at eleven o’clock on that cloudless morning of Friday, June 8, would have observed a scene that could properly have been described as peaceful and pretty.

Framed by a white steepled chapel to the left and the harbor and the emerald stepping-stone islands of Merchants Row beyond to the right, the cemetery with its carefully trimmed grass and abundance of weathered tombstones presented itself as picturesque in that old-fashioned New England way. The oaks and maples shimmered with fresh young leaves in a spring that last week had turned unseasonably warm, a delightful development, all agreed, after a winter that had continued stubbornly past Easter, when four inches of snow fell, ruining the egg hunt and sunrise services. Only the irregular mound of back-hoed earth beneath an old green tarp might have brought unpleasantness into the passerby’s mind.

A new grave had been dug. And there, next to it, was its designated occupant, about to be lowered in.

Measured by the numbers, the living who had joined the deceased in her final moments above ground were an unimpressive assembly. This was the assemblage: Fr. Bertrand Lombardi, the septuagenarian pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea, the island’s only Roman Catholic church; three part-time employees, the full staff, of Bragdon-Kelley Funeral Home; and 16 mourners, all but one of whom, a tall and handsome dark-haired man in his mid 20s, were middle-aged or elderly. The oldest was a wheelchair-bound man who was in the care of an aide and encased in an Afghan, despite the smothering humidity and the heat, 82 degrees and rising.

Given the numbers, a passerby might have assumed that the recently departed had been a person of no particular import, in the larger sense: a local who had passed a quiet existence, troubling no one outwardly and likely having made a meritorious contribution to the gene pool; or a native-born returned after decades from a more tax- and climate-friendly place (Florida, if one had to guess). The sort of ordinary person who had been the subject of an ordinary obituary with an ordinary outdated black-and-white head shot in the local weekly, The Ellsworth American. An obituary rich with “dearly” and “beloved” and other such flowery but superficial adjectives composed by a funeral-home director with tearful input from a family member with no desire for candor, let alone full disclosure, at this Most Difficult Time of Greatest Need.

And that assumption would have been correct: The deceased’s obituary had indeed appeared in The Ellsworth American, in yesterday’s edition. It offered little more than an age, a birthplace, names of relatives and a request that in lieu of flowers, donations in her name be made to Haven Home Nursing and Rehabilition Center, Burnt Cove, Deer Isle, ME, 04627.

In her 89 years, the existence of Maura O’Reilly Grey had been confirmed in published form only three times before. The first marked her wedding to Bill, the man in the Afghan and wheelchair, on August 23, 1947, in a Charlestown, Massachusetts, church: a two-paragraph story without photo that ran in the Boston Sunday Advertiser together with a dozen similar accounts of the latest post-war couples who had committed to their role in bringing forth the Baby Boom. The second was a story in the Bangor Daily News in July 1963 commemorating the tenth anniversary of Joyland, a small theme park noted for its mini-golf, batting cage, petting zoo, Tilt-A-Whirl and 25-cent lobster rolls that Maura and Bill had opened and owned: Ten Happy Years at Deer Isle’s ‘Family Destination,’ the headline read. At the time this cheery representation of Joyland had been published, Maura was five months pregnant with Jack, her only son, who stood today with Dylan, Jack’s only child and her only grandchild. Her third previous appearance in the paper concerned something terrible: her inclusion in the obituary of her daughter, who occupied the grave next to that into which she herself was about to be lowered. BRENDA O’REILLY GREY, February 1, 1948 - June 29, 1970, With the Angels Now, the small granite stone read.

Sweaty in his unaccustomed suit, the middle-age Jack Grey was endeavoring for a better shot of the priest’s incantation over his mother’s coffin: a costly zinc-lined, hermetically-sealed container that state law had required the undertaker to use, given the condition of the corpse.

Jack always sought perfection in his work, but the location of the grave and his proximity to it were conspiring to foil him. His ideal shot would have been the coffin framed by the grieving assemblage, with the harbor, islands and open Atlantic in the distance. Though a critic might legitimately have dismissed it as cheesy (the final journey, bread upon the waters, yadi-yadi-ya), it still would have carried some metaphorical heft, in Jack’s estimation. But the sun reflecting off the water created an overwhelming backlight that washed out the coffin, the heart of the shot –– and his camera, a Panasonic HDC-SDX1 Ultra-Compact Full HD Camcorder, was powerless to correct it. And while he could have finagled a decent representation with the magic of Final Cut, in principle he was opposed to such manipulations, holding them to be a form of unacceptable fakery, which had no place in his personal work (his professional work was another matter). Or so he had deceived himself into believing.

An additional complication was the fact that maneuvering for a superior angle would have caused further unmissable disturbance: through his holy farewell words for the mother, poor old Fr. Lombardi was belatedly processing what was unfolding with the son and he was rather concerned by the behavior. In the priest’s view, this was no Kodak moment. It was a view evidently shared by Jack’s son, Dylan, who seemed poised to angrily snatch the camera from his father. “Dad, what the fuck,” Dylan whispered.

Jack rolled a few seconds more, slid the camera back into his jacket pocket, and bowed his head. He’d deal with the shortcomings of the footage somehow, later.

This simple philosophy -- somehow, later -- had frequently characterized decisions in his life, with frequently poor results.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Claiborne Pell bio set for Fall 2011 release!


I have reached agreement with the prestigious University Press of New England to publish my biography of the late Senator Claiborne Pell, which I finished writing earlier this year after a year of work. The book will be on the publisher's Fall 2011 list, which means we can expect lots of attention starting in about September, quite possibly with a book launch in Newport, the senator's home.
I am delighted with publisher UPNE, a consortium of the Dartmouth College, Northeastern University, University of Vermont, University of New Hampshire and Brandeis University presses with a distinguished list of titles and a powerful marketing reach in the region and beyond (and partnerships with other publishers). The editorial board and marketing and sales people at UPNE are enthusiastically behind the book, which portends good things! More details as they emerge...

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Roger L. Miller, 1913 - 2002


My father, a good and gentle man, died eight years ago today. I still miss him.
This is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral. God speed, Dad!

Friday, December 3, 2010

As I transition back into book writing...

... this is the blog where I will periodically check in, though not too frequently. Franzen is right when he disconnects from the Internet while writing