When the five hundreth person they know dies of AIDS, Colin and Justin flee New York City. They end up in Galatia, a Kansas town founded by freed slaves in the wake of the Civil War whose population is now divided, evenly but uneasily, between African Americans descended from the town’s founders and Caucasians who buy up more of the town’s land with each passing year. But within weeks of relocating, they are implicated in a harrowing crime, and discover that they can’t outrun their own tortured history, nor that of their new home. An encompassing, visionary, many-threaded work, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye is an American novel of great scope and nearly mythological intensity.
This is the third volume of Gospel Harmonies, a series of seven stand-alone books (four have been written) that follow the character of John in various guises as he attempts to navigate the uneasy relationship between the self and the postmodern world.
“[A] fascinating melodrama of sexual and racial confusion, conflict, and injustice.” —Kirkus Reviews
“[Filled] with an emotional vengeance, dramatic breadth and observant fervency that brings his every gift to fruition.” —Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review
“It is horrifying and funny and then too funny to be horrifying, or too horrifying to amuse. It is fiercely compelling and profoundly unpleasant. It is a virtuoso technical exercise that is also soul-music.” —The Boston Globe
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About the Author
Dale Peck is the author of twelve books in a variety of genres, including Martin and John, Hatchet Jobs, and Sprout. His fiction and criticism have earned him two O. Henry Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. He lives in New York City, where he teaches in the New School’s Graduate Writing Program.
Read an Excerpt
if it's after midnight it's my birthday.
I once picked up a novel that started that way, but before I could read more than a few lines something distracted me. Though I remember the bookstore, which is closed now, and the distraction — he was about six foot three — I don't remember anything else about the novel, neither title nor author nor what came next. But even so, I've never forgotten that line. I don't know why. If it's after midnight it's my birthday. Evocative maybe, but also pretty meaningless. Still, it's stayed with me, popped into my head from time to time, and shortly after I left Galatea it came to me again. During my year there I was witness to one rape, several murders, and something that, context aside, I can only call a riot, but in twelve months not one single person celebrated a birthday. No, only the town observed its birthday. Only the town, as Rosemary Krebs insisted all along, was important, and with that in mind I feel safe in saying that the story you are about to read is the story of a place, not a person. It is like a parade: though one marcher after another will step forward and claim to be the star, it is, in the end, the spectacle of stardom itself that lingers in the memory. And so I, first on, will now step aside, first off; but I leave this impression with you, a palimpsest that lingers behind the remainder of these words. If it's after midnight it's my birthday. In a way, I am striking a bargain with you: if you can make that one sentence mean something, then I promise to take care of everything else.
he opened his eyes.
The porch light's glow pulsed through rain sluicing down his bedroom window. His eyes had their pick-a things to choose from — the mirror on the wall, the stack of read and reread detective novels in the comer, the photographs of his parents and sister — but they settled finally on the painting of Jesus he had made in Bible camp when he was eight years old. The rain-soaked light caused the Savior's heaven-gazing eyes to cry-shadows of tears.
The phone rang again.
He knew before he answered what it would be. Not who. What. Wasn't no other reason for someone to call at such a ungodly hour.
He picked up the receiver, held it to his ear without speaking. A pause, and then a quiet voice came over the line.
"John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave."
Melvin bit back a sound, at once a laugh and a gasp. The laughter was for the silliness of the code, the gasp was a gasp of shock and acknowledgment. It couldn't be. But it had to be. It was.
He composed his voice as much as possible.
"His truth is marching on."
When the voice spoke again, it was in a more familiar tone, the exhortatory boom that could make a request for a glass of ice tea sound like a divine summons.
"Was down at Cora's Kitchen earlier this evening," the voice said.
"Have some-a that stew?" Melvin said.
"I did indeed."
"Had some myself," Melvin said. He paused for a moment, amazed at how easy this was, how natural it seemed, scripted.
Scripted is not a word he would have used.
Melvin cleared his throat. "Mighty good stew," he said.
"Indeed," the voice said again, and in a word ambrosial status had been conferred on beef, carrots, potatoes, pearl onions. A pause, and then: "DuWayne Hicks was down about the same time I was. Said he heard from Vera over to the new I.G.A. that Eddie Comedy's pulling up stakes."
"DuWayne shops at the new I.G.A.?" Melvin said. He was out of bed by then. He was at his bureau, pulling open a drawer. The long yellow spiral of the phone cord wagged behind him like a jump rope warming up, or maybe winding down.
"Well, that's another story," the voice chuckled, and, for a moment, things were almost normal. Then, in a voice deepened by seriousness: "Said he can't find work. Eddie Comedy said."
"Times is rough," Melvin assented. He had pants on by then, he had a shirt, he had the gun.
"That's true enough," the voice said. "Man has to go to extreme lengths to provide for his family." The voice broke the word ex-treme into pieces, held it out, emphasized extremity.
"That's true enough," Melvin repeated. The pistol's barrel tickled his balls, and he shifted it an inch or so to the right. Ex-treme.
"Yep, he had himself a round of goodbye drinks out to Sloppy Joe's. Told everyone this is it, see you later, be gone in the morning. Truck's packed and parked in the garage."
"Blazer, ain't it?" Melvin said. "Blue on bottom, silver on top?"
"Two-tone. I think they call that kind of paint job 'two-tone.'"
Melvin nodded silently. He allowed himself a look in the mirror: saw the close-cropped head of a black man, thirty-three years old going on some kind of zero. Reflected rain caused his image to cry the same fake tears as the painting of Jesus. Never liked the name Melvin. Momma called Malvernia: named after her. He suddenly wanted to ask her where she got her name, but she was dead now. Dead a whole year.
The voice filled his ear. "Well, I should be retiring."
A name he did like was Malcolm. Malcolm Cartwri — Carter. Malcolm Carter.
"Perhaps we'll be seeing you in church on Sunday?"
Melvin turned to the painting of the Son of God. Under a bright light you could see the faint shadows of numbers beneath the light brown hair, the pale pink flesh, the pure white of flowing robes — 555, 666, 777 — but in this light the face seemed almost real. As real as his, anyway, in the mirror, in the dark.
Tears coursed dryly down.
Melvin spoke slowly. "Tell the truth, sir, I been thinking-a pulling up stakes myself. Never mind a job. Man can't even find a wife in this town."
"Not at Cora's anyway," the voice said, and the two men shared a laugh again, and again, for a moment, things were almost normal.
"Been thinking bout heading west," Melvin was saying, and even as he said it he could almost believe he had been thinking about it. Never been west-a the state line after all, and that was hardly more than a hundred miles away. A man had a right to see the world. A right, if not a duty.
"West, huh?" the voice said. "'S'a' whole world out west." There was a pause. "I guess Eddie Comedy said he was heading east. Missouri, I guess he said."
Melvin nodded his head at no one. "East is nice," he said then, but the truth was he would-a preferred west. "Twenty-four heads east."
"Heads west too," the voice said, "but I guess Eddie Comedy said he's taking it east."
It was enough then, Melvin thought, it was almost too much. Anything else and he wouldn't be able to do it. Eddie Comedy had pulled a lotta shit in his life, but he'd never done nothing to Melvin — except for that, of course. And he hadn't really done that to Melvin.
Well, he thought, there wasn't no one to say he couldn't turn around when it was all over, turn around and head as far out west as he felt like it.
He looked in the mirror to check himself one last time, but as soon as he saw his face he realized he didn't know what he was checking for, and he shifted his gaze to the reflection of Jesus. He remembered then, for the first time in years, how Sawyer Johnson had deliberately ignored the numbers when he'd painted the same picture. His Jesus had brown skin and black hair, his robes were green and red and blue. Sawyer had used the pink only on the scarred palms of Jesus's hands, and he'd left the white out entirely. Reverend Abraham himself had pretended to scold Sawyer for the infraction, but twenty-five years later Sawyer's Jesus still hung in the Reverend's little office in the basement of the church.
Melvin wondered where Sawyer Johnson was now.
"I'm real sorry to hear you're leaving us too," the voice cut into Melvin's thoughts, and its veneer of sorrow was as thin as the paint on the cheeks of the Lord. "Maybe you'd like it if I sent Grady Oconnor round to help you pack up? In the morning, I mean. Not right now."
"No, not right now," Melvin said, and he thought, Grady Oconnor. He wouldn't-a thought Grady.
"Well then," the voice cut in again, as if reminding him that it wouldn't do no good to speculate, at least not now it wouldn't. "I guess that takes care-a just about everything."
There was a long pause then, and then Melvin heard the voice for the last time: "I wish you all the luck in this world, son'' is what the voice said. "This world — and the next."
Melvin started to say thank you, but he realized the connection had already been broken. He imagined it: a brown thumb depressing a white button, a wizened hand with skin the color and texture of an old-fashioned grocery bag silently placing the handset in the cradle so as not to wake the sleeping members of the household. Melvin hung up his own phone just as quietly, even though there was no longer a household to avoid awakening. Momma died last year, Daddy killed in the Kenosha fire when Melvin was still a teenager. It occurred to him then: that was the reason he'd been picked this time. No one would ask where he'd gone away to, nor why. No one would miss him. No one expected him to say goodbye.
colin says that every action is predicated on two motivations. There is the reason that is spoken aloud, and then there's the reason that lies behind the words, the reason that, if unmasked, would reveal both words and action to be unnecessary, diversionary, a false move. This is the reason Colin came up with for packing everything we own and moving somewhere, anywhere, far away from the city: when the five hundredth person that we know dies from AIDS, Colin informed everyone, including me, then we will leave New York City and not return until the epidemic is over. He couldn't take it anymore, he said, he just couldn't stand it. Then, from his files — Colin files everything — he pulled his old phone books. "Andrew," he read aloud, and next to the number one I wrote "Andrew." "Barney," "Christopher," "David," "Edward," "Franklin," "Gregory," "Henry," "Isaac," all those good unabbreviated Christian names — well, not Isaac, I guess. By the time he finished reading there were more than two hundred names, and then I combed my memory for the names of boys and girls and almost-girls I'd worked with: "Jamal" and "Kareem" and "LaRhonda," and my list nearly equaled Colin's. And then we began searching. Colin had a single criterion — one thousand miles — so we started on the West Coast and in Europe. We traveled, eventually, to Johannesburg and Sydney, to Calcutta and São Paolo, we went all over the world. We ate up a year with our searching, and somewhere in that time I realized that my own desire to escape New York was as great as Colin's, even if my reasons were different. But even so, we ended up back in the city, knowing that not one of the places we'd looked at was a place we could run to. When we got home we found that the dying had continued unabated, and almost every morning the phone or the mail or the Times gave us the name of someone else, a john, a trick, a colleague, just someone met at a party or an artist whose work Colin had bought or an old dear friend, but by then sheer volume had reduced the dead to nothing more than names, and Colin's plan had reduced the names still further, until they were just numbers, and the numbers mounted higher and higher. We had fewer than ten to go when a dealer Colin knew told us about a painter he represented, a painter named Painter, Wade Painter, who lived in this crazy little town in Kansas. Kansas! Colin laughed aloud. Kansas! I echoed, but I didn't laugh. I remembered then one more number, one more name, and I added it to our list. "Martin," I wrote. The name seemed out of place, and I wondered if first I should have written the name "John." Well. Some people choose a place to be from and other people choose a place to go to; the very lucky do both and the very wretched do neither. Colin and I chose both, but even so, I don't think you will call us lucky men.
Welcome to Galatea
in Colorful Cadavera County
Incorporated Since 1976
from a distance the enormous block of cast concrete that housed the painter named Painter looked like a cloud of solidified smoke. It seemed not to have been built but to have dropped from above, and as Colin and I approached it for the first time I could almost feel the ground vibrating from the impact. The flat edge of its roofline cut into a blue-gray sky like the blade of a knife and its walls were unrelieved by any detail or decoration save the occasional dark perforation of window or door. The whole thing looked, I thought, like a single giant cinderblock, the beginning of some superstructure that would eventually house a race of giants or the remnant of some colossal fortress. It would have stood out anywhere, but there, in that flat landscape of aluminum- sided asphalt-shingled farmhouses, every last one crowned by a dormer window and a deadened chimney, it was a monstrosity, the idea of home stripped down to its unbearable minimum: not safety but impermeability, not stability but stagnation.
"It's not exactly Little House on the Prairie, is it?"
"I think," I said then, but not to Colin, "I think I'm going to love this guy. Love him," I said, "or really, really hate him."
Before we could knock, the door sprang open. The boy who greeted us was not Wade Painter, I knew, because I had read Wade Painter's C.V. and I knew that he was forty-eight years old, and this boy was maybe eighteen. He was flushed and shiny and nearly trembling with excitement, and he was also black, which, I admit, surprised me a little, because Yonah had not mentioned a boyfriend and he had especially not mentioned a black boyfriend, and these were not the kinds of details Yonah Schimmel normally omitted, unless he omitted them purposely. "My name is Divine," the boy declaimed. "Welcome to Galatia!" He spoke as though he were welcoming us to Xanadu, and then, after the briefest glance in my direction, he gave Colin the longest once-over I've ever seen, and then he clucked his lips and shook his head and said, "My my my."
Of hustlers — as of fools, witches, and wise men — it's been said that it takes one to know one, and after that one glance Divine avoided my eyes for the rest of the evening. He was a pretty boy, maybe even a beau- tiful boy, but the scar of vanity was etched into every one of his features. His copper-colored skin had been made slick and bright by too much time in a tanning booth, his bleached hair was intricately marceled and stiff and shining with gel. He wore tight clothes deliberately chosen to accentuate his long lean limbs, and when he spoke he put on this hangin-with-the-homies thang that just didn't work, and it took me only a moment to realize that Divine was some kind of actor, an actor who wasn't quite sure what role he was supposed to be playing, nigga, snap queen, small-town boy, so he tried to play them all.
The room he led us into was enormous and empty of furniture and even the naked eye could perceive that it was a perfect cube. Its floorboards were as dark as wet earth, but the walls and ceiling were as white and barren as a midnight fog. In the exact center of each wall was a doorway, and in one of these doors a woman now appeared, hesitantly: she put one hand on the door frame and stayed there, half in, half out of the room, as if awaiting permission to enter. I'd been surprised that the first person to greet us had been black, but I was positively suspicious that the second person was too, and it suddenly occurred to me that the three or four people I'd seen in town had also been black. Ah, Yonah, I thought, where have you sent us? and then I turned to greet this new person, who was introducing herself in a quiet voice.
"I'm Webbie," she was saying, and her tone of voice made me wonder how many times she'd already said it. "Webbie Greeving," she said now, raising her voice slightly, and then, slowly, she began to walk toward me with her palms outstretched, the way one approaches a strange, possibly vicious dog. The gesture startled me: it was the first time in a long time I'd thought of myself as dangerous.
When she was close enough I took one of her hands and shook it. "My name is Justin Time," I said, and I continued to shake her hand through the awkward moment that always follows this announcement. Webbie's hand was dry and light and I could hardly feel it in my own.
"Time," I said, nodding, still shaking her hand.
Webbie's mouth hung open a moment, and then, with a start, she closed it and pulled her hand from mine. "I'm sor — I ..." She shook her head slightly, smiled nervously. "Excuse me," she said, and then, in a calmed voice, she said, "Welcome to Galatia," and I noticed that in her mouth the word had three distinct syllables; in Divine's there had barely been two.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Now It's Time to Say Goodbye"
Copyright © 2015 Dale Peck.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although there were elements of this book I really didn't like, there was so much, much more that I loved. Wonderful characterisation, raw emotion, unusual storytelling and different perspectives. There were some questions left unanswered at the end, but also some that had initially seemed important, but became irrelevent. I think that this is a book that improves even more on second and third reads.