Wide Blue Yonder

( 1 )

Overview

From National Book Award-finalist Jean Thompson comes a compelling, highly charged novel about a family ruled by the weather, the drastic changes that hit their atmosphere, and a midwestern town where chaos doesn't reign — it pours.
Something big is headed for Springfield, Illinois, a place where weather of all kinds — climatic, emotional, and even metaphysical — tends to come in extremes. It is the summer of 1999, and through the long months of blazing heat and fearsome ...

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Wide Blue Yonder

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Overview

From National Book Award-finalist Jean Thompson comes a compelling, highly charged novel about a family ruled by the weather, the drastic changes that hit their atmosphere, and a midwestern town where chaos doesn't reign — it pours.
Something big is headed for Springfield, Illinois, a place where weather of all kinds — climatic, emotional, and even metaphysical — tends to come in extremes. It is the summer of 1999, and through the long months of blazing heat and fearsome tempests, a quirky quartet of locals will try to ride out the stormy season, each in their own way.
Uncle Harvey believes he is the embodiment of the Weather Channel's "Local Forecast," even though all meteorological evidence points to the contrary. His niece, Josie, is fixed with a different predicament — she's young and pretty, with nowhere to go except into deep trouble. Her mother, Elaine, lives under a façade of cheerful efficiency, desperately masking a far more urgent quest. And all of them are caught in the path of the loner Rolando — a human cyclone from the West, fueled by a boundless rage and determined to make Springfield the focal point of his wrath.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The New York Times Book Review Lisa Zeidner Detonates a whole fireworks of happy endings — flares of hope and success so exuberant that the book almost seems to require a warning label.

Deirdre Donahue USA Today Wide Blue Yonder offers precisely the kind of beautifully crafted, intelligent, imaginative writing that serious readers crave....Each sentence deserves to be appreciated.

Andrew Roe San Francisco Chronicle Wide Blue Yonder reaffirms Thompson's stature as one of our most lucid and insightful writers.

From The Critics
It all seems simple enough on the surface, even archetypal. A divorced mother and her teenage daughter are fighting. Across town, meanwhile, in the sultry summer heat, the girl's great-uncle is going blind, his maniacal obsession with the Weather Channel threatening his already-tentative hold on reality. Exhibiting both the punch and precision of a short-story writer and the patience of a novelist, Thompson handles the book with extraordinary care, creating a story that reminds us that happiness is elusive and loneliness is the hardest thing to share, that even in the midst of ordinary hardship, evil can suddenly storm in. In this book it's the seeming "crazies" who yield the wisdom and the cataclysms that are cathartic. Thompson's over-the-shoulder third-person voices are more intimate than most first- person voices, and if at times she risks implausible coincidences and conditions, these authorial prerogatives keep the story thundering on and enable her to build toward a memorable, dramatic climax.
—Beth Kephart

Publishers Weekly
Domestic tensions deflate into screwball hijinks in this pleasant, if somewhat toothless, debut novel by the author of Who Do You Love: Stories, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction. Set over one summer in Springfield, Ill., the novel follows four characters floundering amid life's disappointments. Elaine is a wry, open-hearted divorce ("so far she had a business that worked, a marriage that didn't, and a daughter who the jury was still out on"). Her daughter, Josie, hates Springfield, hates her parents' divorce, hates her whole life. She wants to skip town, but settles for falling in love with a policeman and scheming to get herself arrested. Elaine and Josie find themselves caring for her ex-husband's doddering great uncle Harvey, a half-blind, compulsive watcher of the Weather Channel. Harvey just wants to be left alone, and he especially wants to avoid the cataract surgery that Elaine insists on. Meanwhile, in California, a violent young man named Rolando steals a car and heads east. A lifetime of abuse from his peers has plunged him into delusional rage. Like the weather systems that Harvey obsessively tracks, he rolls toward Springfield. Thompson's characters are mostly likable, especially the mordant Elaine, determined to muddle through flawed relationships and shoulder her responsibilities, however remote happiness may seem. Unfortunately, the novel loses its edge by the time it reaches its sensational climax. The fury and mute pain of Rolando and Harvey, respectively which start out lending the book its ominous tension are blunted, and the mood tips toward gentle comedy. It's a credit to Thompson that the contrived plot still holds the reader's attention, and that her tidy, optimistic ending never becomes saccharine. Beneath these cheerful shenanigans, a more truthful story seems to stir it's a pity Thompson hasn't let it come to the surface. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
It's summer 2001 in Springfield, IL, and Harvey Sloan's sole interest in life continues to be the Weather Channel. His great-niece, Josie, possessed by a hopeless teenage love, confides in Abe Lincoln. Her divorced mother, Elaine, starts to believe that a good or bad day is indicated by her car's service engine light. Meanwhile, Rolando Gottschalk, armed with a gun and an unknown agenda, seems to be headed to Springfield from Los Angeles, leaving a wake of random destruction. Add Mitch, a gorgeous cop, and Rosa, a Mexican cleaning woman, to the mix and you have a novel with characters both memorable and believable. Thompson, a 2001 National Book Award finalist for Who Do You Love: Stories, moves with precision from the first paragraph to the last in chapters that read like short stories. She transforms the familiar themes of desire for happiness, fulfillment, and redemption by using weather as a powerful emblem. This is a novel to savor. For all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/01.] Rebecca Sturm Kelm, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The unsparing realism displayed in Thompson's story collections The Gasoline Wars (1979) and Who Do You Love (1999) is blended with a new (and very welcome) warmth and humor in her bighearted third novel: it reads like a journey into Anne Tyler country, with Thomas Berger and John Irving along for the ride. The opening 50-plus pages comprise a master class in expository technique, as Thompson introduces us to four vividly imagined characters, lays out their interrelationships, and sets them on a collision course that leads inexorably to a (ever so slightly forced) melodramatic climax. Reclusive Harvey Sloan, a.k.a. "Local Forecast," lives in mentally deranged squalor in a rundown house (in Springfield, Illinois) that's a shrine to his inexplicable fixation on TV weather programs. His sister-in-law Elaine is an aging divorcee burdened by her demanding "home accessories" business and her rebellious teenager Josie-and also by her ex-husband's neglect of (his brother) hopeless Uncle Harvey (whose many problems include incipient blindness). Meanwhile, in LA, ethnic misfit Rolando Gottschalk, an unstable petty criminal, begins making his way east, graduating to increasingly dangerous misbehavior. And Josie's whirlwind affair with a handsome cop hits the skids, sending her to Uncle (actually, he's her great-uncle) Harvey's house for sanctuary, just as Harvey is refusing cataract surgery and planning to wed his non-English-speaking cleaning lady Rosa, and Rolando, "armed and crazy" and hallucinating at full throttle, descends on Springfield. The long denouement is fairly contrived. But readers won't mind, because its characters are so eccentric and engaging they all but leap off the pages. Themother-daughter warfare between Josie and Elaine is blissfully, murderously funny and touching, while Thompson performs little miracles of tact and suggestiveness with both Rolando's (really scary)dementia and Harvey's occluded, motley point of view (though the eventual explanation of what drove him crazy is awfully topical and predictable). Somebody is going to make a terrific movie out of Wide Blue Yonder. It's a pretty terrific novel.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743229586
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 12/31/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean Thompson is the author of Who Do You Love: Stories, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction, and the novels City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder, a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection. She lives in Urbana, Illinois. Visit her at www.jeanthompsononline.com.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: There Is Always Weather

Beige Woman was saying Strong Storms. She brushed her hand over the map and drew bands of color in her wake. All of Illinois was angry red. A cold front currently draped across Oklahoma, a raggedy spiderweb thing, was going to scuttle eastward and slam up against your basic Warm Moist Air From the Gulf. The whole witch's brew had been bubbling up for the last few days and now it was right on the doorstep. Beige Woman dropped her voice half an octave to indicate the serious nature of the situation, and Local Forecast nodded to show he understood.

Then he got up to see if the coffee was ready. It wasn't quite; he stood watching it drip drip drip. When he poured milk in his cup it swirled like clouds. The sky outside was milk as well, milk over thin blue. Local Forecast stood on the back porch steps and turned his nose to the southwest, where all the trouble would come from later. He sniffed and squinted and tried to tease the front out of the unhelpful sky, but it stayed as shut as any door.

Back inside it was Man In A Suit's turn. He stood, palm up, balancing Texas by its tip. Texas was green today. Florida was full of orange suns. Man In A Suit tickled the Atlantic coastline and whorls of ridged white sprang up, high pressure. Then jet stream arrows came leaping out of the northwest, blue and swift, full of icy glittering.

There was always Weather. And every minute there was a new miracle.

Coffee and cereal, then fifteen toe touches. Fat Cat rubbed at his ankles and got in the way. He couldn't reach his toes anymore. He got all purply and out of breath. He was old. Plus it was humid this morning, 93 percent, as you might expect on a Strong Storms day. He let his head hang and peered at the screen from between his legs. He had a glimpse of upside-down palm trees, which puzzled him for a moment before he straightened and collided with the couch, anxious to get turned around and watch properly.

Tropical Update. He'd almost forgotten, with all the storm news. It was June the First, official start of Hurricane Season. Now he'd missed it and would have to wait through twenty minutes of insurance commercials and such before the next Update. He settled back in the couch. Fat Cat poured into his lap and solidified there, thrumming away. The big map was on and he fixed his eyes on the exact center of Illinois, You Are Here, the place the Weather lived.

Of course, you didn't get hurricanes in Illinois. You couldn't have everything. For hurricanes there were special people to show you how bad it was. The ocean going lumpy and gray as the storm moved in. Then came the galloping wires and sideways rain and the riven treetops. The announcer all tied up in a parka hood and staggering to keep upright. Water droplets blurring the camera lens. Local Forecast felt his heart grow large, thinking of their bravery. Sometimes if it was really bad, they were only voices on the phone, a lonely scratched-up sound that left you to imagine the shriek and slam of those water-soaked winds, the darkness closing in.

The blue screen came on. The Local Forecast. Blue blue blue, deep glowing indigo, like an astronaut would see from outer space. As long as there was the blue, there would be Weather.

He had to pee. He always had to pee nowadays, nothing down there worked the way it should. He got up, spilling his lapful of insulted cat. And wouldn't you know, when he got back from flushing, the Update had started and any second now they'd show the names. Names for the new hurricane season, storms that hadn't been born yet. Ocean currents not yet warmed, wind: not yet beginning to eddy. Come on come on come on.

Arlene, Bert, Cindy, Dennis, Emily, Floyd, Gert, Harvey...

His eyes stopped right there. Harvey was his other name.

And since there were, as Man In A Suit said, an average of nine named storms every season and six hurricanes, the odds were on his side. He pitied people with names like Rita or Stan, who were pretty much out of the running. Hurricane Harvey! The mere possibility sent him bounding around the room, making hurricane noises. Hurricane Harvey, a spinning white spiral tilting now toward Florida, now toward the Bahamas, considering a jaunt up the East Coast. People boarding up windows and laying in batteries and bottled water. Waves eating beach houses bite by bite. Of course you wouldn't want anyone to die. He'd feel terrible. He hoped at least he'd be an American hurricane, where they could handle these things a little better.

Meanwhile there were Strong Storms to worry about, no more than twelve hours away. His skin prickled with energy. Godamighty. He stood in the shower and yodeled. The steam from the shower mixed with the clammy air so the shower was more or less wasted, but who cared. He hopped around the room one-legged to get his pants on, then fell back, oof, on the bed. He paddled himself upright and launched himself out the front door, but first he turned the sound down on the Weather so they'd get a break from talking while he was gone.

There was one street you walked to get to the grocery and another street you took on the way back. Local Forecast kept his feet moving smartly along in spite of the heat. Humidity was down to 84 percent, still darn high. The miserability index. The grocery doors whooshed open and the cold canned air blessed the back of his neck. Lettuce bread lightbulbs cat food hamburger hamburger hamburger. He grabbed a cart and skated down the aisle.

"Whoa there, Harvey."

Bump bump. Local Forecast looked up. The carts were all tangled together in a chrome thicket. The stranger made a tsk sound and reached down to unhook them.

"What's the big hurry? Not fixing to rain, is it?"

"Sunny, high in the mid-eighties. Becoming cloudy by mid-day. Showers and thunderstorms possible by late afternoon. Some of these storms could be severe, with heavy rains and damaging winds. Chance of rain seventy percent."

"That so," the stranger said agreeably. He had a big pink face and shiny eyeglasses. Local Forecast waited for him to go away but he turned his cart around and walked it alongside Local Forecast, like the two of them were mothers pushing baby carriages together. "Well, then I'm going to need some rainy-day groceries."

He steered them down the produce aisle. Grapefruit mooned at them. The pears had sly little puckering faces. There were apples polished like headlights. Heaps of green things, cucumbers and celery and mops of spinach. They were nothing you could imagine inside of you.

"Are you eating enough vegetables, Harve? Roughage? Antioxidants? Important stuff at our age."

Local Forecast ran his cart into a pyramid of cantaloupes and stood there, trying to remember. Lettuce bread.

"How about some oranges? Vitamin C."

Local Forecast shook his head politely and righted the cart. He fumbled with a lettuce, then decided against it. The store had too many lights and big slick puddles of shine lay all over the floor. He ended up at the meat counter, clutching the edge of the case as if it was the rail of a ship. There were trays of pink, skinned-looking things down there in the frosty air.

The voice was at his elbow again. "Lean meat and nothing fried. That's the ticket."

Local Forecast waved a hand, the way you'd brush at a fly.

"Harvey, don't you remember who I am?"

He stared up at the pink face until eyes came out from behind the glasses. Two wriggled eyebrows and an upper lip scraped as clean as the veal cutlets in front of him. Ed.

He must have said it out loud because the stranger (Ed?) pumped his face up and down. "That's right. Ed Pauley. Sure. You remember. I've known you ever since high school. Time marches on."

Time marched on. Local Forecast could hear it making gravelly sounds while he thought about School. He had it in a book somewhere at home. Mostly he remembered yawning. Luxurious, ear-splitting yawns that squeezed tears out of the corners of his eyes. There was a lot of yellow afternoon light and chalk dust hanging suspended in the slanting rays. His slumping behind polishing the softened wood of the desk. Rows of necks ahead of him. More yawning.

"The glory days," Ed said. "We were football conference champs three years running. Football wasn't your sport, was it, Harve? You were more of a track-and-field guy."

Breathing through his mouth and his lungs filling up with pain. Legs on fire. But was he running to something or away?

"Harve? Wait for me."

Ed pushed his cart double-time to catch up. "What's this, a race?"

Local Forecast was looking straight at the green cans, so he put some in his cart.

"I sure as heck hope you have a cat."

He kept talking alking alking alking, but Local Forecast wasn't listening. School came before the Weather, he was sure of it. And other things had happened in between. Were they in a book too?

He put some more things in his cart, gave the checkergirl money and she gave him money back. Brown pennies; he turned them so the Lincoln heads all faced the same direction, then he put them in his pocket. He walked down the going-home street, trying to get his mind around a thought that was like a stone in his shoe. It was about Football Ed turning into Old Ed and time marching on.

Back home. He dumped his groceries in the kitchen and turned up the sound on the Weather. Red Woman was standing in front of a map of India, a place that didn't interest him much because it was always hot and always the same flat green-blue. The only really good weather was Local. He got the book for School down from its shelf. It was sticky maroon leather with white letters on it: THE BULLDOG, 1949. There was a cartoon bulldog shouting through a megaphone. The book flopped open to one page, like it always did, and he lifted it up to his nose to see.

It was a boy in trackandfield clothes. His arm was hauled back and there was a whaddyacallit. Javelin. He was throwing a javelin on a black-and-white day in 1949. Local Forecast studied it, then rearranged the book on the coffee table so that the javelin was going west to east, the way the Weather traveled.

The boy in the picture had shiny hair and a smile that lifted up one side of his mouth. His bare arms and legs were ropey with muscle, pointing in all directions, like he was trying to scramble out of his clothes. Local Forecast rapped the top of his bald head with his knuckles. Knock knock. He unzipped his pants and regarded his legs, all fattypale and sad. Look at that. But there was the name under the picture: HARVEY SLOAN.

So the boy in the picture was the old Harvey, who was really young. And he, Local Forecast, was the new Harvey, who was really old. No wonder he got so confused. The boy in the picture was aiming the javelin at the farthest point he could see, which was 1949. Somehow it must have kept going and going, because it found him everytime he opened the book. This old-young Harvey must have wondered how everything would turn out. "It's OK, really," Local Forecast told him. "We've got a house now, and Fat Cat, and the Forecast comes on every ten minutes."

But there was more to it than that, he knew. He was leaving things out. He knew he was and it made him feel guilty. It was a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God no no no no southeast winds five to ten miles an hour barometric pressure twenty-nine point eight six and falling.

There were other people in the book too, Football Ed and pretty girls. If you made a book of them now, they would all be old. He knew what came after old.

After old, they closed the book on you. That's the story of my life, people said. Everybody had their own book. Beginning, middle, end of story. Then Uh-Oh. That's what people said. Not that anybody ever came back to tell about it, except maybe Jesus and he didn't stay very long. You probably weren't allowed to come back. It was a terrible thing.

All the storybook of his life he was afraid. He forgot why. He was just a scairdy. They'd tried to beat it out of him. It was a terrible thing to no a terrible no no.

He stood up, forgetting that he had his pants undone, had to stop and hitch them up. What if it was all just another kind of forecast, a prediction nobody checked up on?

He kept very still. The television chattered away. What if it was just them trying to boss everything? The way they had it set up, Heaven sounded like more School, and that was if you even got in. In Heaven you still had to be you. Oh, he was tired of he. Of trying to remember and trying to forget. It all weighed you down so. He hadn't led a good life. Box of snakes no no no no patches of heavy dense fog, visibility less than a quarter of a mile.

Say you could forget even about forgetting, once your poor old leaky body quit on you. He was something clear and cold, like the jet stream, his mouth full of blue roaring. Whambang! Or just a little ruffle of wind over warm Pacific water, wind that pulled the water right up into it. Then something gave it a push and it meandered toward California. Stopped to spit snow on the near side of the Sierras. Sailed right over the Rockies, really something now, a genuine System, leaving green tracks all across the map. It tore up a chunk of eastern Colorado and sent a whole plateful of lightning rattling down on Nebraska. Why, it might even end up in You Are Here, setting off sirens, then raining itself out somewhere over the Ohio valley.

He didn't see why it couldn't be that way. Everything explained in terms of wind and water and temperature. Pure and simple. He wanted to tell the young man in the picture that a great many sad things would happen but that it would turn out all right. He wanted to tell his old man self the same thing. He wanted to catch that javelin at the end of its perfect rainbow arc. All you had to do was concentrate.

But later that day, watching the southwestern sky turn the color of steel and the dogwood leaves show their pale undersides in the shrilling wind, he wasn't so sure. He was still afraid. And would there still be Weather, if he wasn't here to watch it?

Copyright © 2002 by Jean Thompson

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First Chapter

There Is Always Weather

Beige Woman was saying Strong Storms. She brushed her hand over the map and drew bands of color in her wake. All of Illinois was angry red. A cold front currently draped across Oklahoma, a raggedy spiderweb thing, was going to scuttle eastward and slam up against your basic Warm Moist Air From the Gulf. The whole witch's brew had been bubbling up for the last few days and now it was right on the doorstep. Beige Woman dropped her voice half an octave to indicate the serious nature of the situation, and Local Forecast nodded to show he understood.

Then he got up to see if the coffee was ready. It wasn't quite; he stood watching it drip drip drip. When he poured milk in his cup it swirled like clouds. The sky outside was milk as well, milk over thin blue. Local Forecast stood on the back porch steps and turned his nose to the southwest, where all the trouble would come from later. He sniffed and squinted and tried to tease the front out of the unhelpful sky, but it stayed as shut as any door.

Back inside it was Man In A Suit's turn. He stood, palm up, balancing Texas by its tip. Texas was green today. Florida was full of orange suns. Man In A Suit tickled the Atlantic coastline and whorls of ridged white sprang up, high pressure. Then jet stream arrows came leaping out of the northwest, blue and swift, full of icy glittering.

There was always Weather. And every minute there was a new miracle.

Coffee and cereal, then fifteen toe touches. Fat Cat rubbed at his ankles and got in the way. He couldn't reach his toes anymore. He got all purply and out of breath. He was old. Plus it washumid this morning, 93 percent, as you might expect on a Strong Storms day. He let his head hang and peered at the screen from between his legs. He had a glimpse of upside-down palm trees, which puzzled him for a moment before he straightened and collided with the couch, anxious to get turned around and watch properly.

Tropical Update. He'd almost forgotten, with all the storm news. It was June the First, official start of Hurricane Season. Now he'd missed it and would have to wait through twenty minutes of insurance commercials and such before the next Update. He settled back in the couch. Fat Cat poured into his lap and solidified there, thrumming away. The big map was on and he fixed his eyes on the exact center of Illinois, You Are Here, the place the Weather lived.

Of course, you didn't get hurricanes in Illinois. You couldn't have everything. For hurricanes there were special people to show you how bad it was. The ocean going lumpy and gray as the storm moved in. Then came the galloping wires and sideways rain and the riven treetops. The announcer all tied up in a parka hood and staggering to keep upright. Water droplets blurring the camera lens. Local Forecast felt his heart grow large, thinking of their bravery. Sometimes if it was really bad, they were only voices on the phone, a lonely scratched-up sound that left you to imagine the shriek and slam of those water-soaked winds, the darkness closing in.

The blue screen came on. The Local Forecast. Blue blue blue, deep glowing indigo, like an astronaut would see from outer space. As long as there was the blue, there would be Weather.

He had to pee. He always had to pee nowadays, nothing down there worked the way it should. He got up, spilling his lapful of insulted cat. And wouldn't you know, when he got back from flushing, the Update had started and any second now they'd show the names. Names for the new hurricane season, storms that hadn't been born yet. Ocean currents not yet warmed, wind: not yet beginning to eddy. Come on come on come on.

Arlene, Bert, Cindy, Dennis, Emily, Floyd, Gert, Harvey...

His eyes stopped right there. Harvey was his other name.

And since there were, as Man In A Suit said, an average of nine named storms every season and six hurricanes, the odds were on his side. He pitied people with names like Rita or Stan, who were pretty much out of the running. Hurricane Harvey! The mere possibility sent him bounding around the room, making hurricane noises. Hurricane Harvey, a spinning white spiral tilting now toward Florida, now toward the Bahamas, considering a jaunt up the East Coast. People boarding up windows and laying in batteries and bottled water. Waves eating beach houses bite by bite. Of course you wouldn't want anyone to die. He'd feel terrible. He hoped at least he'd be an American hurricane, where they could handle these things a little better.

Meanwhile there were Strong Storms to worry about, no more than twelve hours away. His skin prickled with energy. Godamighty. He stood in the shower and yodeled. The steam from the shower mixed with the clammy air so the shower was more or less wasted, but who cared. He hopped around the room one-legged to get his pants on, then fell back, oof, on the bed. He paddled himself upright and launched himself out the front door, but first he turned the sound down on the Weather so they'd get a break from talking while he was gone.

There was one street you walked to get to the grocery and another street you took on the way back. Local Forecast kept his feet moving smartly along in spite of the heat. Humidity was down to 84 percent, still darn high. The miserability index. The grocery doors whooshed open and the cold canned air blessed the back of his neck. Lettuce bread lightbulbs cat food hamburger hamburger hamburger. He grabbed a cart and skated down the aisle.

"Whoa there, Harvey."

Bump bump. Local Forecast looked up. The carts were all tangled together in a chrome thicket. The stranger made a tsk sound and reached down to unhook them.

"What's the big hurry? Not fixing to rain, is it?"

"Sunny, high in the mid-eighties. Becoming cloudy by mid-day. Showers and thunderstorms possible by late afternoon. Some of these storms could be severe, with heavy rains and damaging winds. Chance of rain seventy percent."

"That so," the stranger said agreeably. He had a big pink face and shiny eyeglasses. Local Forecast waited for him to go away but he turned his cart around and walked it alongside Local Forecast, like the two of them were mothers pushing baby carriages together. "Well, then I'm going to need some rainy-day groceries."

He steered them down the produce aisle. Grapefruit mooned at them. The pears had sly little puckering faces. There were apples polished like headlights. Heaps of green things, cucumbers and celery and mops of spinach. They were nothing you could imagine inside of you.

"Are you eating enough vegetables, Harve? Roughage? Antioxidants? Important stuff at our age."

Local Forecast ran his cart into a pyramid of cantaloupes and stood there, trying to remember. Lettuce bread.

"How about some oranges? Vitamin C."

Local Forecast shook his head politely and righted the cart. He fumbled with a lettuce, then decided against it. The store had too many lights and big slick puddles of shine lay all over the floor. He ended up at the meat counter, clutching the edge of the case as if it was the rail of a ship. There were trays of pink, skinned-looking things down there in the frosty air.

The voice was at his elbow again. "Lean meat and nothing fried. That's the ticket."

Local Forecast waved a hand, the way you'd brush at a fly.

"Harvey, don't you remember who I am?"

He stared up at the pink face until eyes came out from behind the glasses. Two wriggled eyebrows and an upper lip scraped as clean as the veal cutlets in front of him. Ed.

He must have said it out loud because the stranger (Ed?) pumped his face up and down. "That's right. Ed Pauley. Sure. You remember. I've known you ever since high school. Time marches on."

Time marched on. Local Forecast could hear it making gravelly sounds while he thought about School. He had it in a book somewhere at home. Mostly he remembered yawning. Luxurious, ear-splitting yawns that squeezed tears out of the corners of his eyes. There was a lot of yellow afternoon light and chalk dust hanging suspended in the slanting rays. His slumping behind polishing the softened wood of the desk. Rows of necks ahead of him. More yawning.

"The glory days," Ed said. "We were football conference champs three years running. Football wasn't your sport, was it, Harve? You were more of a track-and-field guy."

Breathing through his mouth and his lungs filling up with pain. Legs on fire. But was he running to something or away?

"Harve? Wait for me."

Ed pushed his cart double-time to catch up. "What's this, a race?"

Local Forecast was looking straight at the green cans, so he put some in his cart.

"I sure as heck hope you have a cat."

He kept talking alking alking alking, but Local Forecast wasn't listening. School came before the Weather, he was sure of it. And other things had happened in between. Were they in a book too?

He put some more things in his cart, gave the checkergirl money and she gave him money back. Brown pennies; he turned them so the Lincoln heads all faced the same direction, then he put them in his pocket. He walked down the going-home street, trying to get his mind around a thought that was like a stone in his shoe. It was about Football Ed turning into Old Ed and time marching on.

Back home. He dumped his groceries in the kitchen and turned up the sound on the Weather. Red Woman was standing in front of a map of India, a place that didn't interest him much because it was always hot and always the same flat green-blue. The only really good weather was Local. He got the book for School down from its shelf. It was sticky maroon leather with white letters on it: the bulldog, 1949. There was a cartoon bulldog shouting through a megaphone. The book flopped open to one page, like it always did, and he lifted it up to his nose to see.

It was a boy in trackandfield clothes. His arm was hauled back and there was a whaddyacallit. Javelin. He was throwing a javelin on a black-and-white day in 1949. Local Forecast studied it, then rearranged the book on the coffee table so that the javelin was going west to east, the way the Weather traveled.

The boy in the picture had shiny hair and a smile that lifted up one side of his mouth. His bare arms and legs were ropey with muscle, pointing in all directions, like he was trying to scramble out of his clothes. Local Forecast rapped the top of his bald head with his knuckles. Knock knock. He unzipped his pants and regarded his legs, all fattypale and sad. Look at that. But there was the name under the picture: Harvey Sloan.

So the boy in the picture was the old Harvey, who was really young. And he, Local Forecast, was the new Harvey, who was really old. No wonder he got so confused. The boy in the picture was aiming the javelin at the farthest point he could see, which was 1949. Somehow it must have kept going and going, because it found him everytime he opened the book. This old-young Harvey must have wondered how everything would turn out. "It's OK, really," Local Forecast told him. "We've got a house now, and Fat Cat, and the Forecast comes on every ten minutes."

But there was more to it than that, he knew. He was leaving things out. He knew he was and it made him feel guilty. It was a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God no no no no southeast winds five to ten miles an hour barometric pressure twenty-nine point eight six and falling.

There were other people in the book too, Football Ed and pretty girls. If you made a book of them now, they would all be old. He knew what came after old.

After old, they closed the book on you. That's the story of my life, people said. Everybody had their own book. Beginning, middle, end of story. Then Uh-Oh. That's what people said. Not that anybody ever came back to tell about it, except maybe Jesus and he didn't stay very long. You probably weren't allowed to come back. It was a terrible thing.

All the storybook of his life he was afraid. He forgot why. He was just a scairdy. They'd tried to beat it out of him. It was a terrible thing to no a terrible no no.

He stood up, forgetting that he had his pants undone, had to stop and hitch them up. What if it was all just another kind of forecast, a prediction nobody checked up on?

He kept very still. The television chattered away. What if it was just them trying to boss everything? The way they had it set up, Heaven sounded like more School, and that was if you even got in. In Heaven you still had to be you. Oh, he was tired of he. Of trying to remember and trying to forget. It all weighed you down so. He hadn't led a good life. Box of snakes no no no no patches of heavy dense fog, visibility less than a quarter of a mile.

Say you could forget even about forgetting, once your poor old leaky body quit on you. He was something clear and cold, like the jet stream, his mouth full of blue roaring. Whambang! Or just a little ruffle of wind over warm Pacific water, wind that pulled the water right up into it. Then something gave it a push and it meandered toward California. Stopped to spit snow on the near side of the Sierras. Sailed right over the Rockies, really something now, a genuine System, leaving green tracks all across the map. It tore up a chunk of eastern Colorado and sent a whole plateful of lightning rattling down on Nebraska. Why, it might even end up in You Are Here, setting off sirens, then raining itself out somewhere over the Ohio valley.

He didn't see why it couldn't be that way. Everything explained in terms of wind and water and temperature. Pure and simple. He wanted to tell the young man in the picture that a great many sad things would happen but that it would turn out all right. He wanted to tell his old man self the same thing. He wanted to catch that javelin at the end of its perfect rainbow arc. All you had to do was concentrate.

But later that day, watching the southwestern sky turn the color of steel and the dogwood leaves show their pale undersides in the shrilling wind, he wasn't so sure. He was still afraid. And would there still be Weather, if he wasn't here to watch it?

Copyright © 2002 by Jean Thompson
Read More Show Less

Introduction

A Simon & Schuster

Reading Group Guide

Wide Blue Yonder

Like all my books, Wide Blue Yonder began with something small — the idea of a man watching the Weather Channel — and grew to fill a space. Early on I knew who Uncle Harvey would be: innocent, damaged, isolated. Once I found a language for the dialogue of his inner life, many of the specifics about him seemed to follow naturally. Of course he would live in a run-down house with a spoiled cat, of course he would grow a haphazard garden, eat ice cream straight out of the carton, and so on. When I tried to imagine who else might be involved with such an unsocial character, I naturally thought of family, and then invented a health crisis that would cause the family to intervene. Josie and her mother, Elaine, and all the secondary characters that branch off from them, derive from that basic plot necessity. Rolando Gottschalk, of course, is the wild card, a force of will, personality, and nature, that disrupts the expected course of events and, I hope, expands the book's scope.

The wonderful thing about the Weather Channel, for Harvey and I suppose anyone else who watches it, is that you can sit alone in your own living room and feel like a participant in matters of global import. I wanted to make that connection between individual lives, even seemingly insignificant lives, and the metaphysical. Harvey constructs his own version of the afterlife, while Elaine ponders the requirements for happiness, Josie decides the purpose of living is love, and Rolando berates the universe for causing his rage and pain. What I like best about novels, Wide Blue Yonder or any other, is theopportunity to give such abstract ideas features and flesh, make them move and talk and surprise us.

Discussion Points

1. "There was always Weather. And every minute there was a new miracle," we learn in the opening passage of Wide Blue Yonder. What does the novel have to say about changeability of natural elements and the human condition?

2. Harvey has an unusual relationship with the Weather Channel. What sustenance does Harvey find in its programming? What purpose does it serve in his life? How do others perceive Harvey's interaction with the Weather Channel? Do these perceptions change at all? If so, how?

3. We witness characters in Wide Blue Yonder struggling with avoidance — of reality, responsibility, even mortality. What are they afraid of and how, if at all, do they come to terms with these fears over the course of the novel?

4. Spoken word and silence each figure prominently in Wide Blue Yonder. Which characters rely most heavily on verbal expression? Is this tactic successful for these individuals? Discuss the role that silence plays throughout the book. Who is silent, and what consequences follow from this state of being? How do the silent people communicate with others?

5. The novel explores the connection between communication and love, both filial and romantic. As we meet the various characters and watch their relationships evolve, how does communication function in each instance?

6. Examine how Thompson has structured the novel. How does its structure relate to its various themes? Consider the narrative point of view.

7. "You know, Frank, I don't think of Harvey as crazy. More like he's on this different plane where there aren't any good or bad people, just good or bad weather," Elaine comments. What light do the characters Harvey, Mitch, and Rolando shed on the question of morality? What other moral issues does Wide Blue Yonder address? In the world Thompson has created, what determines if someone is good or bad? Is it possible for an individual to change?

8. Discuss the significance of Josie's relationship with the Abraham Lincoln statues in Springfield, Illinois. What cultural connotations does Lincoln carry for Americans? How do these ideas intersect with the themes of the novel?

9. Talk about the varying portraits of women (Josie, Elaine, Rosa, Teeny) in Wide Blue Yonder.

10. Family is an important corollary to the discussion of women. Describe the different families that we meet throughout the novel. Would you consider them emblematic of American society? How does each of the female characters influence the nature of her family and how the unit fares as part of a larger social structure?

11. Wide Blue Yonder contrasts the role of people as individuals and as members of society. On many levels power defines our society. What power hierarchies has Thompson set up within the novel? What forms does power take? Discuss the importance of race and class to the story. What significance, if any, does Elaine's factory in India have?

12. How is intelligence defined and perceived in Wide Blue Yonder? Discuss the different forms it takes and how each of these forms is valued.

13. Discuss how Wide Blue Yonder challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about several core paradigms: sanity and insanity, happiness and discontent, love and hate.

Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

A Simon & Schuster

Reading Group Guide

Wide Blue Yonder

Like all my books, Wide Blue Yonder began with something small — the idea of a man watching the Weather Channel — and grew to fill a space. Early on I knew who Uncle Harvey would be: innocent, damaged, isolated. Once I found a language for the dialogue of his inner life, many of the specifics about him seemed to follow naturally. Of course he would live in a run-down house with a spoiled cat, of course he would grow a haphazard garden, eat ice cream straight out of the carton, and so on. When I tried to imagine who else might be involved with such an unsocial character, I naturally thought of family, and then invented a health crisis that would cause the family to intervene. Josie and her mother, Elaine, and all the secondary characters that branch off from them, derive from that basic plot necessity. Rolando Gottschalk, of course, is the wild card, a force of will, personality, and nature, that disrupts the expected course of events and, I hope, expands the book's scope.

The wonderful thing about the Weather Channel, for Harvey and I suppose anyone else who watches it, is that you can sit alone in your own living room and feel like a participant in matters of global import. I wanted to make that connection between individual lives, even seemingly insignificant lives, and the metaphysical. Harvey constructs his own version of the afterlife, while Elaine ponders the requirements for happiness, Josie decides the purpose of living is love, and Rolando berates the universe for causing his rage and pain. What I like best about novels, Wide Blue Yonder or any other, is the opportunity to give such abstract ideas features and flesh, make them move and talk and surprise us.

Discussion Points

1. "There was always Weather. And every minute there was a new miracle," we learn in the opening passage of Wide Blue Yonder. What does the novel have to say about changeability of natural elements and the human condition?

2. Harvey has an unusual relationship with the Weather Channel. What sustenance does Harvey find in its programming? What purpose does it serve in his life? How do others perceive Harvey's interaction with the Weather Channel? Do these perceptions change at all? If so, how?

3. We witness characters in Wide Blue Yonder struggling with avoidance — of reality, responsibility, even mortality. What are they afraid of and how, if at all, do they come to terms with these fears over the course of the novel?

4. Spoken word and silence each figure prominently in Wide Blue Yonder. Which characters rely most heavily on verbal expression? Is this tactic successful for these individuals? Discuss the role that silence plays throughout the book. Who is silent, and what consequences follow from this state of being? How do the silent people communicate with others?

5. The novel explores the connection between communication and love, both filial and romantic. As we meet the various characters and watch their relationships evolve, how does communication function in each instance?

6. Examine how Thompson has structured the novel. How does its structure relate to its various themes? Consider the narrative point of view.

7. "You know, Frank, I don't think of Harvey as crazy. More like he's on this different plane where there aren't any good or bad people, just good or bad weather," Elaine comments. What light do the characters Harvey, Mitch, and Rolando shed on the question of morality? What other moral issues does Wide Blue Yonder address? In the world Thompson has created, what determines if someone is good or bad? Is it possible for an individual to change?

8. Discuss the significance of Josie's relationship with the Abraham Lincoln statues in Springfield, Illinois. What cultural connotations does Lincoln carry for Americans? How do these ideas intersect with the themes of the novel?

9. Talk about the varying portraits of women (Josie, Elaine, Rosa, Teeny) in Wide Blue Yonder.

10. Family is an important corollary to the discussion of women. Describe the different families that we meet throughout the novel. Would you consider them emblematic of American society? How does each of the female characters influence the nature of her family and how the unit fares as part of a larger social structure?

11. Wide Blue Yonder contrasts the role of people as individuals and as members of society. On many levels power defines our society. What power hierarchies has Thompson set up within the novel? What forms does power take? Discuss the importance of race and class to the story. What significance, if any, does Elaine's factory in India have?

12. How is intelligence defined and perceived in Wide Blue Yonder? Discuss the different forms it takes and how each of these forms is valued.

13. Discuss how Wide Blue Yonder challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about several core paradigms: sanity and insanity, happiness and discontent, love and hate.

Read More Show Less

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2002

    almost a great piece

    thompson does a wonderful job in creating a cast of characters in this book that are both believable and have a great amount of depth. however, the novel seemed to have three separate stories that never really fit in together. thompson does a decent job of making these three disparate stories crash together in one, intense scene, but i left the novel wishing that i could have gotten the entire story behind mitch and josie, or harvey and his fascination with the weather channel, or the wanderer who stumbles into their lives. the loose ends in the novel seemed to tie themselves up a little too nicely at the end of the novel. to describe how i feel about the book as a whole, it was like chasing after the ice cream man as a little boy. i hear the music and i quickly lift myself to my feet. i grab some change and i race out the door as fast as i can. excited, full of anticipation, and loving the thrill of the chase, i feel free and alive as i chase the ice cream man down. and when the ice cream man finally stops, he tells me that all he has left is vanilla ice cream cones. i eat the vanilla ice cream, and it's good because it is so hot outside and the ice cream is cold. but it's vanilla and it's not anywhere near as exciting as a bomb pop or strawberry eclaire.

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