Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas

Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas

by Robert M Detman

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Overview

"An ambitious novel [...] told in sharp prose [...] layering various methods of storytelling to create a fresh and intriguing work."

-PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

< >Documentary filmmaker Harry Ogletree lives in the shadow of his friend Basher Thomas, who gained fame as an internationally renowned photojournalist. Two decades on from Basher's disappearance in the jungles of Guatemala, Harry sifts through an archive of Basher's documents, crafting a narrative about his friend's life. Reconstructing Basher's dangerous assignations, from obscure African kraals to Middle East war zones, Harry investigates their shared past as he uncovers keys to Basher's motivations. Making a pilgrimage to the site of Basher's death, Harry will ultimately confront the malleability of memory and the inescapable desires of his past.

Capturing the enigmatic mystery of Roberto Bolaño, the cold war intrigue of Denis Johnson, and the harsh and revelatory landscapes of William T. Vollmann, IMPOSSIBLE LIVES OF BASHER THOMAS is a masterful and evocative exploration into the American psyche.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780692243497
Publisher: Figureground Press
Publication date: 11/11/2014
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt

Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas

A Novel


By Robert Detman

Figureground Press

Copyright © 2014 Robert M. Detman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-692-24349-7


CHAPTER 1

ARTIFACT


Film slowed to one sixteenth speed. He moves his mouth as if to speak or take a breath. Eyebrows rise up in query. Hands turn palm up to display acquiescence. Head rises with eyebrows rise and drops again. Head making nodding motion, easy, almost unconcerned. Nodding increasing, with mild emphasis, a flicker of concern. Hand goes to forehead and brushes hair to side. Hand scratches temple. Look more concerned. Mouth forms words with teeth showing. Lips moving balletic through enunciation. Eyes squint and head turns at angle to see more clearly. Hands go up at sides and palms now face forward as if the desire to catch oneself in a fall. Distorted sound on tape like a pucker or a wave landing on a beach. Five more in succession. Arm that scratched temple now thrust forward to meet object. Object streaks into figure as figure jolts back on heels to meet object. Object flutters into shirt of figure and figure falls out of frame. Camera moves to follow figure now on ground gripping the ground. Camera shudders as dropped to low angle and moved in to meet figure.


December, 1981

Over rolled cigarettes, two tents loft imperceptibly, illusorily, in the winter dawn. Their talks have a quality where Basher tries to educate Harry in the ways of the sophisticated world he runs around in. Directed as the lessons probably are at Harry's recent anxiety and intending, Harry knew, to provide comfort. Much of it was simply calling up their incidental past.

"Harry, you know that stuff meant a lot to me, right? We were kind of freaked out then, weren't we?"

Harry thinks he understands what Basher means, because it is what he wants it to mean. Rather, that Basher doesn't say, you were freaked out, which is what Harry thinks he might say, (and what Harry knows), and instead says we, makes a big difference.

The Baja highway is partially paved—and in those stretches it is a narrow two lane barely wide enough for a single vehicle, let alone the trucks that barrel down it all night long. With its sinkholes, craters and chassis wracking vados and deep V dips, the only warning is when the roadway drops from the headlights. Driving Ensenada to San Vicente to Camalu to Colonet to San Quintin to El Rosario to Mulege, and onward, Basher's goal is to cross the Tropic of Cancer for the new year. So that they can spend their precious break on the beach, they drive at night when caravans of semi-trucks carelessly take over the roads. There are numerous cattle, also. Harry closes his eyes in the bright lights that sweep over them.

The winter sky over Baja: Orion stretches wide, spanning what looks like a third of the sky, in mid-cartwheel from the slumbering horizon to the canopy of midnight blue above.

Basher stands up and looks at the sky. He stretches his arms out wide in a kind of selfconscious yogi pose. Pointing, says, "That there, you can almost make them out, are the nebulas: Barnard's loop. A couple million years it's been there, Harry. Maybe billions. You believe that?" Basher reaches down and takes a pinch of the earth between his fingers and snaps it into the air.

"Us? We're dust. Insignificant. But you know what? I don't feel it. Look at that out there. We're part of it, man. We're connected to it. I wanna touch those stars."

Harry wonders at these moments about Basher's sincerity, and tries to see it. Orion. Basher's doppelgänger. Alone. Nothing is in the dark that is not there in the day. Whatever happens to you, happens to me.

Basher's self-certainty overwhelms as much as it fascinates him.

If none of it matters anyway, just like Basher always says, why let anything stop you? Why not go for it? Basher will understand. The troubles he wrestled with—that's what is insignificant. The word repeated in Harry's head until nothing made sense anymore.

Insignificant, insignificant, insignificant.


Document: State Department Report. July, 2002

Status, declassified.

Name: Nathaniel Lion Thomas {alias "Basher" Thomas.}

Age: 23 years.

D.O.D.: August 17, 1982

Professional Affiliation(s): International Assoc. Press Bureau (Paris)

Action: Decease by Firearm Discharge. See [text blacked out]


Subject: non-military American civilian {photo-journalist} providing documentation of [text blacked out] and involvement in ongoing military operations. At time of action, subject observed on video [text blacked out] confiscated from [text blacked out] camera operator, also civilian, non-military, under employ of [text blacked out] and engaged under non-affiliated documentation of subject [text blacked out].

Video footage aired on satellite news feed with [text blacked out] and in news excerpt broadcasts within a twenty-four hour period ([text blacked out] 18 August, 1982). At request of Subject's family, recycles of footage were stopped by [text blacked out] and its agents, after threats of legal action by same [text blacked out]. Subsequent actions on behalf of Central Intelligence included internal investigation and memoranda supporting the closure of case file. (Items 37.9 sec. C, and, inclusive, sec. E.)

Subject reported to be in proximity of counterinsurgency [text blacked out] of which delayed by several days pending critical [text blacked out] reconnaissance and intervention. However subject witnessed in regular and protracted contact with [text blacked out] and individuals deemed "subversive" by the Guatemalan government. Subject having purported fluency or sufficient knowledge of local dialect, subject also known to associate with [text blacked out] counter to local commission curfews as instigated by Guatemalan military and jurisdictional authorities. Such claims cannot be corroborated and/or are deemed beyond the scope of this report.

Aforementioned video footage evidence indicated the perpetrator to be a youth of [text blacked out] indigenous Guatemalan nationality, age indeterminate. Weapon: modified Automatic Kalashnikov (AK-47) with 9 millimeter caliber ammunition. Weapon is typical of guerilla ("civilian") groups. Youth suspected to be agent of one Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and/or Local Irregular Forces (FIL), whose encampments at [text blacked out]. Such groups are funded in part by [text blacked out]. Investigation lies outside of the auspices of current report and neither EGP nor FIL claimed credit or knowledge of action. [See doc. 12.6 file, classified]

Firearm discharge range of thirty yards. Ballistic and autopsy determination to be verified [remaining paragraph of text blacked out].

Expert testimony corroborates high likelihood that subject was unaware of the danger presented to his person by youth (perpetrator). [Text blacked out] subject appears to speak with perpetrator prior to arms discharge. Sound footage of poor quality determined inconclusive.

Subject survived for an indeterminate amount of time after trauma, however, [text blacked out] and lack of proper medical facilities, expertise and or action have been deemed sufficient if not conclusive for rapid acceleration of decease. Subject transported by [text blacked out] under the auspices of [text blacked out].

Firearm discharge by perpetrator determined accidental [text blacked out].


Harry sits in the kitchen of the former Mrs. Parker Thomas, amid breakfast disarray, overcooked coffee, and stale morning air.

He drove most of that Saturday morning from Los Angeles to get to Aptos, and dreaded reintroducing himself. Standing at the door of her home, holding the letter crumpled in his left fist while he pressed the hot doorbell button was to recall what it was to be a child, to want to disappear.

Of the mothers from his youth, Mrs. Thomas was all the irreducible qualities in the word woman that would remain with him indelibly. She had informed his first ideas of women, when a halo of shimmering light seemed to surround her form. That her manner spoke volumes to his pre-adolescent fantasies, this he senses she knows.

One afternoon when he was twelve she had spirited him away in her car to pick up the family dinner at the local Ponderosa steak house. Harry's mother went ballistic when he returned home too late for his own dinner. The babysitter was supposed to be looking after you! To Harry, Mrs. Thomas had rescued him from boredom. How important he felt when they drove past his house and in fact he saw Basher sitting on the porch waiting for him.

The screenplay on Basher's life would come to light soon enough. He might yet barter with Crown Thy Good. To Mrs. Parker Thomas slash Dolores Burden, Harry's project might be a re-opening of a wound of the past, nothing less than Harry co-opting Basher, riding on the several years-old success of his first documentary.

He came for her blessing—and the box. But he came for her blessing primarily, good lapsed Catholic that he was.


Twenty-five years earlier Mrs. Thomas had made dramatic phone calls to him. He listened to her breakdown while trying to make sense of his friend's death, unable to get off the phone, politely waiting for her to finish, her huffing sobs, implicating. You should have been there for him, she had said, just short of laying blame on him for Nathan's wanderings into Guatemala.

She became fixated on a personal relief effort for orphaned children in Guatemala, casualties of the civil war. She had apparently corresponded with notable political figures including Rigoberta Menchú, trying to discern her group from dozens of others in that era of the Sandinistas and Iran-Contra. Asking everyone for a donation in her son's name. Harry kept his distance, uncertain about her organization, Central America Youth Relief. He thought her efforts, however well intended, misguided. He was reluctant to support any organization possibly complicit in Basher's death.

For years she sent him letters regularly. He never wrote back. He meant to.

When Harry moved to California in the early nineties, Mrs. Thomas sent him a letter. She had received a box of Nathan's personal effects that she insisted he should have. She didn't know what to do with it. It cluttered the shelf of a closet, collecting dust. Lately, she had turned a corner. She was ready to dump it in the incinerator. Knowing he lived practically next door, this might be an opportunity to visit. Reminisce. A pleasant drive. One doesn't trust the mail these days. Please just come and take it away.

Harry glanced at the letter, dismissive. He didn't want to be the guardian of Basher's high school yearbooks. He'd read the end page signatures and well wishes of all the girls he'd lusted after but to whom he hadn't existed. Basher had been practically his only friend in high school. He'd just as soon forget.

Harry tossed the letter without a second thought. For months, years, not a word from Mrs. Parker Thomas. He eventually learned of her new marriage from his father who more or less admitted an affair with Mrs. Parker Thomas when he had fallen for her at the Dry Cleaning Convention in Fresno. He imagined them getting it on and blushed at the thought, repelled by the image of his father's bald pate doing a bob over Mrs. Parker Thomas.

His mother was dying and his father was cavorting with his best friend's mother.

It almost broke up his parents.

Then, a month ago a manila envelope arrived from Dolores Burden (former Mrs. Parker Thomas), postmarked Aptos, which Harry opened while he watched the endless loop of the Rasmussen footage. In that letter the State Department report was folded primly into a hand written letter.

"You wouldn't happen to have any pictures I could borrow, would you—" Harry asks, "of Nathan?"

"Come look," she says.

He had almost forgotten visiting her in Michigan in the autumn of 1982 a few months after Basher's death when walking through her house was to be cast into the oceanic waves of her grief. He'd spent some time there before when he and Basher were kids hanging out. Harry saw then how his friend's bedroom had been turned into an airless shrine to Basher's short life and shorter career.

She leads Harry to a wall of Basher. Basher as a child, Basher at work in Lebanon, The Falkland Islands, Burkina Faso, Panama and Guatemala. Basher posing with long forgotten world dignitaries.

Daily Mrs. Thomas faced this tableau arranged for a visitor's edification. She must have taken solace in them.

Harry points to a picture of a child bundled immobile into winter wool, before Harry met him, the twilight of Nathan's innocence, before he became Basher. "Is that him?"

Mrs. Parker Thomas manages a smile that indicates her peace in the post-Nathan.

Harry scans to pictures of the two of them. Basher with Harry pulling the aluminum boat from the barn at Harry's house. One of them in the yard near Harry's family's cabin, beyond the empty space where the Kensington house ruins lay smoking.

"May I—?" he asks, reaching.

"By all means."

He lifts the photo off the wall to get a closer look. A picture from Basher's one and only semester at Michigan, standing with Harry outside of the journalism building in twenty below wind chill.

There are no photos of Parker Thomas, Basher's father. Basher had never been close to him. After Parker Thomas left them, his mother contrived a life for her son that was, by any account, pure survival. Still, Basher rebelled and ran away as soon as he could.

Harry is again distracted: an elegant woman with a red beehive suggestively wielding a vacuum hose. The glorious Ketcham Kleen Kween, Mrs. Parker Thomas, circa 1973, in a faded color advertisement for Ketcham Dry Cleaning Solvents.

Harry is almost the same age now as his father had been in '73.

"Come into the kitchen," she says, waving a coffee cup. "Tell me what's on your mind."

"Have you spoken to my father?"

"Not recently," she says.

She moves in for his cup. "Let me get you another," she says.

"That's quite all right, Mrs. Thomas."

"Mrs. Burden, really. Dolores, Harry, please. You know I've been divorced from Nathan's father for a long time. He's passed on." She nods this off with a smile and places her hand on his arm.

"As you were saying?"

He wants to ask about that village where Basher died.

Mrs. Parker Thomas had arranged a memorial ceremony all those years ago in that village somewhere in Guatemala. Harry should have attended. He agonized with guilt about staying away. Finding out later—with much relief—that the location was difficult to access. Harry's excuse was that it was too far away.

"Have you ever gone back?"

"No," she says. "It wasn't safe. The times have changed. But everyone from there that I know of is gone."

Harry gets up to carry his cup to the sink but she blocks him, moves in close. "I'm guessing you have unfinished business with Nathan," she says, gently pushing him back down in his seat. "Go ahead, darling."

Darling rings in his ears. He had couched Deconstructing Nathan Thomas to the studio people in elevating tones. He places his palms on the sticky table. A mistake. Maple syrup.

"I've always wondered," Harry says, "what did you do after the relief work ended?"

"It didn't stop. I set up the foundation," she says."They're much more efficient with the needs of the community."

He slips his thumb into a pooled crescent of coffee.

"I should be getting out of your way here today, Mrs.—"

"I saw Crown the Good," she says.

"I'm sorry, it's 'Crown Thy Good'."

"You know, Harry, I've always felt that you two were like brothers," she says. "I always suspected you might make a film about Nathan."

She couldn't know what he is planning with Deconstructing Nathan Thomas. That he's practically ill from having watched the videotape so much by then, the shots, his friend falling like a sack, the camera cracking beside him in the dirt, the blood, the shots, his friend, the blood.

Harry vows to give away any money he makes from the venture, to charity—rather than appearing to profit from his friend's death. By that time the shape of his ambivalent documentary would be so obvious he'd have no choice. There could be awards.

"Before I forget," she says, holding up a hand. "The reason you're here."

Mrs. Parker Thomas pulls from the counter a banker's box that is so large and heavy it slips from her hands and lands with a thud on the kitchen table, sending the remainder of his coffee sloshing, rattling the cup.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas by Robert Detman. Copyright © 2014 Robert M. Detman. Excerpted by permission of Figureground Press.
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