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Seven years separate Buddy from his big brother, Lee, but the boys have always been close, comforting and protecting each other as their father-defeated by poor land and hostile weather-sank deeper into alcohol and rage. When a drink-fueled accident takes not only his life but that of the mother who tried so hard to shield her sons, the boys sell off what little remains of their daddy's tenant farm and leave Oklahoma. It is 1957, and work is still to be had in the logging camps of northern Idaho. But just outside...
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Seven years separate Buddy from his big brother, Lee, but the boys have always been close, comforting and protecting each other as their father-defeated by poor land and hostile weather-sank deeper into alcohol and rage. When a drink-fueled accident takes not only his life but that of the mother who tried so hard to shield her sons, the boys sell off what little remains of their daddy's tenant farm and leave Oklahoma. It is 1957, and work is still to be had in the logging camps of northern Idaho. But just outside Snake Junction, they stop at a roadhouse; and there, Lee's country-and-western talents get him a job. The two settle in, Lee to his music-and women and drink-and seventeen-year-old Buddy to roaming the landscape, at loose ends until a woman nearly twice his age turns up. Irene Sullivan is a smoky beauty, and Lee makes a play for her. But it is Buddy she wants.
By turns darkly violent and heartbreakingly tender, Finding Caruso is a work of extraordinary emotional power from an astonishingly original writer.
"It's bad this time," Lee says.
I have come to join him at the fence, where we stand and watch our father trying to saddle the pinto mare.
We are brothers, Lee and I. Will always be. I am ten. He is seventeen. It is 1950, and our father is three days dry and angry. With the mare, who will not stand for the cinching. With our mother, who has turned him from her bed until he promises sobriety; with the two boys who have witnessed each new failure of strength and will.
His hands fist and tremble. The mare remembers punishment, cannot stop her nervous shying away, the flinching each time he elbows her gut.
I should go now, I think. Now is the time before it's too late. But like Lee, I cannot turn away. As though it is not the mare but we who are tethered to the man by bit and bridle. As though we know that it is different this time, that there will be a final telling of this story.
Behind us, the churg-churg of the wringer washer, the distant smell of bleach and bluing. The corn stands hollow, stick-brown. Our father bites the butt of his cigarette, lashes the mare with the reins-across her shoulders, her soft pied face.
Lee feels what I mean to do. He grabs my arm, says, "Don't."
Our father pulls her nose-to-neck, grabs the horn, has one foot in the stirrup when she bolts. He hops once, twice, then goes down, caught and dragging. His arms flail out, his body bounces across the rough pasture. They will not go far-it is a small farm, sufficiently fenced-but on the second round his foot comes loose of its boot. The mare finds the farthest corner, stands white-eyed and blowing.
Bastard Creek slews red and thick along the field's north margin. It has rained, but no one knows just where. I think I can smell it, silty and fresh, mixed with peachleaf, soapberry, nightsoil. I smell Lee's sweat and my own, the mare's sharp odor of fear.
Our father rises, limps his way to the barn. We hear the cough of the Ford pickup, see him coax it out in an oily fog. He's given up, I think, he'll drink now, and some part of me is glad. He revs the engine smooth, slips the clutch, but instead of turning for the road, he steers for the pasture. The truck jerks forward across hummocks and rock pockets, our father jouncing behind the wheel, head knocking the roof.
I am curious, wondering what he brings, what he means to take away, realize as the Ford picks up speed that he's gunning straight for the mare. He hits her hard, knocks her through the fence, rails splintering, raking the fenders.
"Hold," Lee says, and I do because I cannot imagine what else.
The mare is on her side, legs churning. Our father pulls rope from behind the seat, lashes her hind hooves, throws the other end over a fat limb of hickory, ties it to the bumper, backs the truck until she hangs suspended.
We watch him step out with the tire iron, hear the crack of ribs, the horse's screams. Her joints tear, lungs collapse beneath the visceral weight.
Our father exhausts himself, drops the iron, uses his fists, and I think I can hear this, too, although by now I am humming along with Lee, our voices growing together, louder and louder. No words, just the vibration at the back of my throat, deep in my chest. We are singing with our mouths closed, wildwood flower, wildwood flower, over and over as our father weakens, until he cannot lift his arms, unties the rope, backs away from the black-and-white body still heaving in its bright pool of blood. We hum a little quieter as we watch the Ford disappear toward town, quieter still as we kneel by her head, all the long while it takes her to die.
There will be no burial, except, perhaps, in memory. What can be done with so much flesh and bone? Consider the tractor repossessed, the single good shovel, the ground dry and packed to stone.
The gut rumbles, begins its bloating. We stand, look toward the small shack where our mother knows or does not know. We remove the saddle and blanket, the bridle and bit, smooth the mane. We leave the horse to crows and foxes, knowing what we do of the world's justice.
By the next day, the moist breeze comes sweet with rot, settles in with us at breakfast, stays through lunch and dinner. We clear our plates, lick our bowls clean. We sleep with our windows open, the death of the mare a dream we cannot wake from.
When our father returns three days later, sick on corn whiskey, we watch him once again rope the mare's hind legs, see him turn away long enough to vomit yellow bile. He puts the Ford in first gear, meaning to drag her to the bone pile, but the hocks pop and separate. He takes her in pieces-hind legs, forelegs, head-until all that is left is the body, swollen and grim. But now there is nothing to tie on to. He circles once, twice, kicks the belly hard.
"Move away from the window," our mother says. Some things are better not seen. But we stay. We are rooting for the mare. Obstinate. Impossible.
"Deadlock," Lee says. "Dogfall."
Our father disappears into the barn, comes out lugging kerosene. He douses what remains, soaks it good, stands back as the flames jump high and clean then recede to a deeper burn. He looks toward the window, lights another cigarette, moves to the trough, splashes his face, the back of his neck.
"Best not be standing there when he comes in," our mother says. "Dinner's about on."
Lee looks at me, tips his head toward the door. "Let's go," he says. He means a walk, a long loop around the fields, maybe a turn into town for a soda. Away from our father, the greasy smoke.
But how can I leave our mother alone with what comes next? I tell Lee to go ahead, and he does, because he can. We sit at the table, my mother and I, hands in our laps, waiting. She keeps her eyes closed, as though in prayer. Through the window behind her, I watch the sky darken, the fire's slow licking.
That night, I will rise to a new moon, leave Lee sleeping on the floor, make my way to the smoldering mound, feel the ground warm beneath my bare feet. I will imagine for the first time a wild ride away, the mare young and alive beneath me. But when I awake, stiff and shivering, to the rough nudge of my father's boot, the dream is forgotten, the fire dead.
I will turn from the charred cage of ribs to my chores, see in the distance the black scavengers at the bone pile, know they have already taken the eyes, preened the teeth for tongue. And this is what I will not forget: their raucous delight at such plenty, how they feed and feed, skull and femur fallen into strange symmetry-a stick horse running, honed and glistening, somehow new. Like the bones of an old song remembered. Like this story, whittled back to its beginnings, and at its heart the emptiness, the loss, that might tell you the whole of who I am.
Who I am: Buddy Hope, once that child, now this man. The drunkard's son. Young brother of Lee. Nothing more or less until that summer of 1958, when Irene walked into my life, planted desire deep in my marrow, vines even now twining so that I rise each morning rooted in memory, unfolding to sun or snow but always to the absence of her.
I abide in the whisper of wind through an old mare's bones. I exist in this place Irene made for me, surrounded by those she meant to love and shelter. I try each day to be more of the man she dreamed I might be. I dream, and still she is here with me, making me new again, giving me this story to tell, and the voice to tell it. Every word is her name.
We sharecropped a small farm west of Tulsa, broomcorn and cotton, enough to make the landowner some money and buy what we could not raise or grow. Of those times, this is what pleasures me most to remember: summer, the chickens and hogs gone quiet, the tractor in the barn; my father taking his fiddle to the porch, leaning his chair against the clapboard, starting slow-a few slips across the strings, then a pause to look out over the fields and creek gully, as though for a sign. My mother, flour-sack apron tucked in her dress belt, would stand in the doorway, start the little hum in her throat. Lee brought his guitar, took his place beside me on the wooden steps. When the right time had come, my father let the bow stay its glide, my mother began in her high, lovely soprano, and Lee and I joined in, the song pulling our voices together. We sang loud and clear through the jigs, my father banging his boot against the porch boards. The ballads were my mother's favorite, and we let her lead, our boys' voices blending in a harmony that had been in us since the moment our parents came together and planted the music in our bones.
Through spring tornadoes and winters blighted with frost, it was music that sustained us, kept us believing that the next year's crop would bring with it promise of better times, the means to leave the little house with its tilted porch and head for Oklahoma City, where men made more wages in a week than my father made in a season. Never so poor that we couldn't make music, my mother said, believing in her good Baptist way that the truest riches lay somewhere just beyond the horizon.
But nothing got better. The clay-ridden soil my father tilled caked beneath the gentle rain, then cracked in the next hour's sun. We watched him rise each morning, drink his coffee at the window, saw the way his face, deeply creased, had come to mirror the land. The corn sprouted, wilted, and died. And then, when its needed time had passed, the rain arrived, pooling atop the hard-pack, swamping the potatoes. Or the hail came down, beating the bolls from their stems.
By the time I was in school, my father had quit singing. Instead of relaxing on the porch, he spent his nights at Mackey's Crossing, hunched over whiskey with other men, the only thing that mattered the drink in front of him, and the next.
My mother pleaded, prayed. She banished my father from her bed, and when he shrugged and slept like a dog curled tight on the porch, she begged him back in. She sent Lee to the bar, scolded when he returned alone, but what could he do? Our father was a tall man, more length than Lee could willfully shoulder, and it was not in Lee to command him to the pickup like a child. "He'll come home when he's ready," Lee would tell our mother, then pull her into a two-step, joshing her out of her sadness with a lighthearted rendition of "Jig Along Home."
I'd stay at the table, or lean against the wall, delighted and alarmed by the vision of my mother and brother twirling and dipping around the room, my mother's dark hair released from its pins, falling into ringlets as she protested, then laughed, and finally, fell into a chair and cried. And then Lee's tone would change, he'd rub her shoulder, say, "Here now," sing a lullaby until she wiped her eyes, gave a brave smile, and found her way back to the kitchen, where the just-baked bread remained uncut, the butter cooled in its crock. Other times, Lee could offer no more solace and headed out the door himself, bound for a tavern farther down the road, or the house of a girl who might hum him a song of her own.
Those nights with both Lee and my father gone, my mother became someone else to me, perhaps believing that she was all that was left standing between her younger child and the bitter world outside. She'd straighten, smooth her apron, say there was nothing that a little sweetness wouldn't help. She'd butter a slice of warm bread, sprinkle it with sugar, hold it toward me with a ceremonial nod, as though proffering a potent remedy.
When he turned eighteen, Lee joined the Air Force, trained as a flight mechanic, came home wearing blue, his cap at an angle, taller now than most men. So handsome, my mother said, in that uniform, the way it set off his eyes, and all that dark hair. I'd peer into the bathroom mirror, see my own hair so white Lee called it cotton-and my eyes, brown instead of blue. It had been generations since a Hope child's eyes had not lightened, and I began early on to make my way through the world with my gaze cast downward.
Though he never saw combat, I heard him tell of wondrous things-the ocean below the belly of his plane, the bashful girls of Seoul, the lights that lit up the sky above L.A. But none of it made any difference in Lee. He'd shrug, say that it seemed to him people were just about the same all over, and that nothing was as pretty as a cotton field in spring, no girl more fun than the one just down the road, who milked her father's cows in her nightgown.
Lee brought me coins with strange markings, silver wings that he pinned to the gallus of my overalls. He brought my mother tiny vials of perfume that she arranged unopened on the sill of the kitchen window. He handed my father miniature bottles of Jack Daniel's and Smirnoff, perfect in their detail. Later, I'd find the empties scattered about the barn, or left in a tidy pile in a corner of the outhouse. I gathered them carefully, ranked them like soldiers along the fence's top rail, shot them one by one with my .22.
When Lee returned for good, we'd lost our lease, though the owner didn't have the heart to evict a woman and her young son when the man on whom they depended-the man who had once felled a stubborn steer with a single fisted blow-could no longer raise his hand against the flies that settled on his eyes and lips those mornings we found him laid out on the porch, bottle snugged against his chest.
The more my father drank, the more my mother cried, the more animated Lee became, as though he believed his loud singing and quick dance might drown out the shrill grief and fear that filled our days. My father stumbled through his morning's work, the bucket rattling in his hand, the match he struck to light the lantern trembling above the wick. He had once been a patient man, but now my smallest error warranted his wrath. A tool left outside its box brought him striding from the barn, his belt already stripped.
Excerpted from Finding Caruso by Kim Barnes Copyright © 2004 by Kim Barnes. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 3, 2004
i cant tell you how wonderful this book truly is. i instenly fell in love with the charectors of buddy and irene. i can relate to buddy so much. this is a coming of age story, through and through. the ending was to weak for this book. this is a book almost every one can relate to, even the most sour puss person on earth. this is a book that needs time to become good. but in the end, its well worth it. again, i cant even discribe how wonder full this book is. great job, Mrs. Burnes. truly magnifisent.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 11, 2003
This was a truly lousy book. I was attracted to it by the fact that Barnes was a Pulitzer finalist for her memoir, which I've not read, but the Pulitzer board wouldn't use this novel to line their birdcages. I grant that Barnes is a very good descriptive writer -- very attentive to physical detail -- but the plot was a cross between a bodice ripper and a spaghetti western, with stock characters and totally implausible plot devices. Wolfchild would never have been arrested for murder without a shred of physical or witness testimony against him; one dinner at a local Italian restaurant with Caruso playing in the background would never have been sufficient to turn Buddy on to a life of culture; and the idea that Irene would fall for Buddy is totally preposterous. No point in going on. Don't waste your time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 1, 2003
FINDING CARUSO is a Barnes' first novel, but you'd never know. It's basically a retelling of the SHANE story (remember the great Jack Schaefer novel, the mediocre movie with Alan Ladd?)--a scapegoat tale. (Shane wants to get away from his past as a gunslinger, but finally it's his guns that will free the people he comes to love; those same guns mean he has to move on too.) Well, in FINDING CARUSO, Shane's no gunfighter on a white horse, but a beautiful redhead driving a black Lincoln. The story's narrator, Buddy Hope, is man, maybe even an old man, looking back and remembering his life, and the way Irene not only brought stability back to the life of Snake Junction, Idaho, but made it possible for Buddy to find the larger world, the more beautiful world, even Caruso. The novel is beautifully written and perfectly cadenced. It's the sort of book you will think about long after you've put it down. And if you're not in love with either Irene or Buddy by the end, you're dead. Don't miss this one!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.