The author of the Mongo Mysteries reveals the interior life of a troubled writer in this deeply personal autobiographical novel.
At the age of fifty-eight, author Garth Fugue is adrift. For the last forty years he has poured his soul into twenty-three novels and countless short stories, all filled with murder and mayhem. By delving into the troubled minds of his characters, he has kept his own demons at bay.
Now, Garth is at a crossroads. Despite his floundering literary career, he is attempting to write his magnum opus while simultaneously teaching at a children’s psychiatric hospital. As he decides what to write about, Garth must ultimately wrestle with his own beliefs about humanity, morality, and the meaning of it all.
In this insightful novel, George C. Chesbro exposes a fictional writer’s tortured mind and, in doing so, divulges the struggles of the real, complicated man best known for penning quirky mysteries and pulpy thrillers. It is an intimate invitation not to be missed.
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Fugue at Bay
He finds the image of mad Ahab chasing his bloated, metaphoric whale appealing, even heroic; he suspects it would read well in the all-important opening sentence and that he could log a lot of knots with sailing similes, but the truth of the matter is that he feels more akin to an aging pop songwriter who, with all the catchy tunes emptied out of him, is desperately, if not hopelessly and perhaps even comically, trying to compose a classical piece.
On the day after his 58th birthday Garth Fugue will abruptly quit working on his paper symphony, unable to continue. The flow of words, for weeks only a trickle even on his best days, will finally be stopped up and soured by green-tasting memories rising and freshening like errant winds threatening to blow his ship of thought off course to founder on reefs of regret, guilt and sadness. These winds, memories summoning words summoning deeper memories, will sting his eyes and blur his vision. These winds will have sharp teeth, and he will stop writing because he will no longer be able to bear their bite. The first draft, intended only as a kind of crude map, will grow to 222 pages written in his tiny, crabbed scrawl before he turns away, his heart ambushed and squeezed, drowning in the very maelstrom of emotion he had hoped, at last, to plumb and chart after four decades of being tossed about on a tormented, neurotic sea of anxiety, pain, guilt and confusion, floating precariously on a flimsy, ephemeral raft of words that had to be painstakingly rewoven every day if he was to survive. This initial probe into discovery, joy and nightmare will end after 10 months, much too short an investment of time in the project he suspects will be the last thing he ever writes for publication and which he hopes will sustain him as an artist for the rest of his life. He had begun the journey into his past believing age had calmed the tempestuous waters he has crossed, but the passions he believed had died or atrophied over 20 years had only been lying dormant, bursting into flower when breathed on by a woman he'd known since she was a child of seven who will say to him, "When I was growing up, you seemed to shine so brightly I could hardly look at you."
Not long after beginning he will be struck by how much of his life and work has been defined by mental illness; his fascination with the chronically murderous antics and bizarrely aberrant belief systems of the general patient population living in the insane asylum of the planet, what he has observed in the behavior of the dangerous children with broken minds he has worked with when he needed money, and his own madness, kept in abeyance only by the medication of writing. He will begin with the belief that his storm passage is over and that he has finally found safe harbor behind a sea wall of 23 novels and upwards of a hundred short stories. He will believe that he no longer needs to write in order to feel whole, and can thus choose to record this account of his life in the hope that others making similar voyages might find the charts of value.
He has always wanted, but been unable, to write what he thinks of as "freeing" literature, work painted in fresh language that will make a reader, despite never having seen this particular palette of colors before, gasp with an eerie sense of familiarity and suddenly perceive new solutions to old problems, possibilities never considered before. He will believe that he is ready to do this work for he feels at peace for the first time in forty years, since the time when he was eighteen years old and his damaged spirit had imploded into a trembling ball of dark, dense matter that would form the new soul of a writer of fiction; he will believe that the war in him is over, the thunder in his heart stilled and the wounds healed. But the woman will change everything. Once more he will feel lost at sea, but the difference this time will be that the bubbling foam in the wake of his life that had once churned up the flotsam of stories and the words to tell them will serve only to choke him with tears. The turbulence that had been the fountainhead of his art will become its enemy.
He will conceive the first vague outlines of the project and envision a means to approach and shape it during his eightmonth teaching stint at Arkmount Children's Psychiatric Center, with the challenge growing increasingly compelling and the vision clearer during the summer months when he will be in charge of ASP, the Alternate School Program, a small lock-up unit within the larger lock-up facility of the hospital itself where the medical and educational staffs attempt to meet the desperate, howling needs of the most violent and unpredictable children in the institution. Here it will occur to him that this latest teaching experience, an occasion precipitated once again by a need for money, carefully recorded in a journal, could serve as a kind of prism collecting the fractured, multi-colored rays of his past and focusing them into a pure white beam of words that will illuminate the dark spaces of his heart at the same time as it examines the relationship of suffering to art and the act of writing fiction as redemption.
The concept itself will be enough to allow him to begin. But the prism will soon grow cloudy and tear-stained. The light and heat generated by the woman who had once seen him shine so brightly will mean that, unless he can find a way to forge a most unusual relationship that will comfortably fit three, another woman, his cherished friend and companion for eight years, must inevitably recede into shadow as he respects his needs and obeys the stronger of the conflicting dictates of his heart. The prospect of doing what he must will fill him with a terrible sadness and make him cry.
This woman who had seen him shine, whose suffering has most definitely been inflicted by others, will herself become a prism. In the weathered light of the late afternoon of his life he will peer into the brave heart of this younger woman and glimpse places inside himself that had always been shrouded in shadow and he will not see what he had always assumed was there. This will threaten to shatter the very foundation of his great project, for it will shake his confidence in the truth of what he plans to write. Through her he will come to understand just how much of his own pain has been self-generated. He will see that her fledgling art is an attempt to make herself whole after having had holes punched in her soul by her parents, and her mother in particular. On the other hand his work has all along been a frantic exercise intended to protect himself from himself. She had been spiritually and emotionally mauled as a child, but he suspects his damage may have been planted in his genes, growing a mind that has served as its own inquisitor and rack.
In her attempts at self-healing the woman has undergone two great metamorphoses, and when they meet she will be emerging from her second chrysalis a creature powerful enough to change him. The emotional resurrection she engenders will fill him with wonder but also threaten his art, as it will stir at his bottom a deep, thick sludge of guilt, making him even more aware of his own failings as a father.
The irregular, dangerous throb of his son's clotted, blighted life haunts him, and his work at the children's hospital will aggravate his tortured memories. As he peers into his prism and feels it failing to offer him anything but pain he will know for certain that if he had certain things to do over he would never again strike Alan or any other child, not anywhere on the body, not for any reason. Consequences, good and bad, mold behavior, but when a consequence of bad behavior is a slap, spanking, punch or kick, what is being shaped, blow-by-blow, is an aggressive, violent adolescent and adult.
The gravely wounded, drowning children who have been netted by courts, teachers or social workers and ferried to Arkmount Children's Psychiatric Center are the lucky ones. But for every one of these patients whose stunted, bruised lives have been abruptly arrested while attempts are made to heal them there are a thousand others on the streets or in brutally dysfunctional homes, children whose minds and bodies are being twisted and mauled beyond repair. The bodies of these boys and girls, some only infants, are penetrated and their souls shredded by swollen penises jammed into their delicate mouths, vaginas, and anuses. They are punched and kicked, whipped with electrical cords, their hands held on glowing stoves or thrust into pots of boiling water, or they are simply ignored, emotionally as well as physically starved. The odds are overwhelming that when these victims grow older they will do unto others what has been done unto them, or they will try to kill themselves. At the same time they will fill an important economic niche in this savage, dysfunctional nation, damaged produce bearing fruit for others, providing gainful employment for restless, hungry armies of psychotherapists, teachers, nurses, physicians, social workers, therapy aides, prison guards, executioners, and the ancillary personnel who service all these people. These children whose minds and bodies have been torn apart will in turn rend us; they will kill and terrorize us, steal our possessions, rape us or our sons and daughters, fill our welfare rolls, pack our bursting prisons.
Okay, I've survived my first day here in Shangri La at Little Ark.
Now, aside from walking up the hill to Big Ark to catch my bus in a few minutes, what am I going to do for my next trick?
I'm sitting at my desk in my classroom staring at the blank first page of my journal, and I haven't the slightest notion where to begin. I will introduce my students and describe the events of the day, yes, but there must be more if I am to have any hope of pulling this thing off. My work here in Little Ark with my junior wackadoodles is supposed to form a kind of prism through which I view the life and work of the Old Wackadoodle. That isn't going to be so easy. I could spend years working on this crazy project, and end up with nothing more than a worthless stack of paper.
Then again, it's not as if I have anything better to do.
Some people, usually not writers, are fond of saying that everyone has a novel inside her or himself, by which they mean that every person's life would form a rich and interesting literary tapestry if only the right words could be found to weave it. Yeah, right. I've published 23 novels and upwards of a hundred short stories, all filled with mystery, murder and mayhem, and not one of these works has anything whatsoever to do with my life. I have no idea how I do what I do, and am simply grateful that I can do it. My ability to imagine and to word-mine those images is a mystery itself, a gift, and in a very real sense I view it as something apart from me as a person. When I search inside my life, mostly what I find is banality, desolation and desperation.
I'm sitting here trying to organize my thoughts, but all that comes to mind is Dora and the time more than 30 years ago when she trashed my car and poured lighter fluid over her head and I brought her here to Big Ark, the adult psychiatric facility only a ten minute walk up the service road outside my classroom window. She changed after she almost shot her lover while both were in a drunken rage. Both of them stopped drinking after that, and they have been together in a stable relationship for more than twenty years. Now she is a sad woman, overweight and diabetic, spending her days cleaning houses and visiting our son in prison, crying a lot and bemoaning the fact that there isn't enough money to hire a good lawyer to file yet another appeal of Alan's horrific sentence. But when she was young and married to me she was like a brush fire burning deep underground, inextinguishable, eating the roots of the living things around her. She was responsible for one of the two times I've been in jail, innocent of her charges, but stone guilty and deserving to be shot the second time, so drunk from rage, frustration, two bottles of vodka and a half bottle of Scotch I could have died of alcohol poisoning, or killed Ven, my second wife-to-be, and anyone else on the road as I tried to drive home after we'd had dinner at the home of the film director for whom I'd been writing dirty movies.
Despite the fact that the body of my published work then consisted of only three poems and a short story in an obscure, mimeographed "little" magazine that probably had a readership of less than fifty, I'd answered an ad in The Village Voice placed by a film company called World Pictures, which was looking for a screenwriter. Samples of work were to be sent to the production company, which had an office in New York City. Hoping that a personal touch might help me land the job, I gathered up three of what I considered to be my best unpublished short stories and drove the next morning into New York.
The address given for World Pictures turned out to be a private apartment on the fourth floor of a shabby, low-rent high-rise. I knocked on the door, and a short, nervous-looking man with a sallow complexion, sunken dark eyes and an unruly shock of black hair answered. Through the open door I could see an old Moviola film-editing machine set up in what appeared to be the living room of the small apartment. Stacked against the opposite wall were boxes of what I presumed were manuscripts submitted as sample work by other aspiring screenwriters. Certain that I did not stand a chance against all the competition crammed into the boxes against the wall, I simply introduced myself, asked that I be considered for the screenwriting job, handed the man my three manuscripts, turned and walked away. Two days later I received a call from the man, who introduced himself as Tommy Land, a film director working for World Pictures. I had been awarded the screenwriting job, and was asked to come into the office the next morning at 11:00 A.M. for a special screening of World Pictures' latest feature. Since I was on vacation from teaching for the summer, I certainly could, and I went to sleep that night imagining myself as a successful Hollywood screenwriter with a beach home in Malibu.
Months later, after I had proved my usefulness to World Pictures and Tommy and I had become friends, he told me he had never read any of the manuscripts submitted in response to the ad. I had been hired solely on the basis of my "cool"— I hadn't tried to pressure or pitch him when I'd shown up to personally deliver my work.
When I arrived at the offices of World Pictures the next morning, Tommy introduced me to Leonard Katz, a former cab driver, the owner and producer of the film company, and its sole cameraman. Leonard's pleasure and specialty, I would learn, was crotch shots of women clad only in panties. World Pictures produced low budget soft porn films.
The sloppily edited, rough cut of the film I was shown was seventy minutes long. The first twenty minutes of the film showed two women walking and talking on the streets, going into shops, and otherwise going about their business, whatever that might be. Something was obviously being discussed, but it was impossible to tell what, because there was no soundtrack, and no script. Leonard did not believe in scripting his films, since writing a script took too long, and he would have had to pay too much money to anyone who actually knew how to write a script to do it.
Leonard's production schedules and procedures were simple. They would find a "location," usually a friend's house. Then he would rent cameras and other equipment on a Friday afternoon, since he was not charged over the weekend. Two or three professional porn actresses would be hired, usually at fifty dollars a day, and various male friends would be recruited to play the male roles. Over the weekend they would do a "wild shoot," meaning he and Tommy would make things up as they went along, and then dub in dialogue, music and sound effects at a later date. Prints would be made up and distributed to various porn theaters around the country.
Excerpted from "Prism"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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