My People Shall Be Thy People
Were I ever called upon to describe my career as a writer of fiction, I would use by way of analogy the backyard and workshop belonging to a nice enough but rather slow-moving fellow whose avowed hobby is restoring old automobiles.
I would ask the reader to imagine a cluster of shabby buildings located on a large, semi-rural lot in a neighbourhood where no one worries about property values. Spread around the grounds would be a number of rusting vehicles, some of them clearly having been cannibalized for parts, others under protective tarpaulins with the fallen leaves of several winters stuck to the fabric, and everywhere motor parts and body sections half-hidden in the foot-high grass. A careful look would reveal that many of the vehicles are of the same make or model, albeit of different vintages, a fact from which one could perhaps deduce a thematic connection of some sort.
Inside the building that serves as workshop would be an assortment of tools and gadgets and mechanical devices of every description lying about on the floor or on the countertops or hanging on the walls. Amid this where-the-hell-is-my-socket-wrench-mess would likely be two or three vehicles in various stages of restoration, all representing several years of painstaking if somewhat desultory labour.
On one of the walls, beside a June 1958 calendar bearing a photograph of a statuesque and stunningly gorgeous nineteen-year-old girl in short-shorts and halter top (with one heartbreakingly long leg on the bumper of a gleaming blue MG soft-top convertible with the top down), one would find separate photographs of two vehicles, one a 1950 Mercury Monarch, the other a two-toned, blue and white, 1955 Ford Fairlane, with the hobbyist, hardly recognizable because he still has hair, standing proudly beside them on the day that they were, gloriously gleaming, finally street-ready.
The only misleading part of this analogy would be the ‘gloriously gleaming, finally street-ready’ phrase. Not one piece of my fiction from the period when I still had hair ever reached the stage of having wheels, much less a gloriously gleaming body. Everything else in the analogy works. From the badly-typed manuscripts dating back to a pre-computer period stashed in filing cabinets to the unfinished drafts and re-worked pieces existing precariously in the digital dungeon of my computer’s hard drive, to the novellas, short stories, and magazine pieces that never got published, everything I have written over the years could be viewed as beset with the rot and rust of neglect, and all destined for the junkyard.
But what disturbs me about my failure to create street-ready pieces of fiction is that each novella or short story I attempted was intended as a vehicle for transporting one or more of the characters who, like the children of Deucalion and Pyrrha, appeared as fully formed individuals in my imagination. What would bring about this vir stabat miracle of their existence was something I seldom fully understood, yet I knew that each character wanted only one thing of me: to create for him or her the shelter of a story. Over the years, my characters would become more real to me than loved ones or members of my family. And as I have failed to tell their stories, they burden my spirit now that I have passed my seventieth birthday and know they will have no other life except the sketchy, shadowy one I afforded them in my imagination.
The outward evidence of their brief existence, namely, the manuscripts in the filing cabinets, the delete-able digital data in which their half-written stories are encoded, will all end up in the landfill or in the fireplace. I hear them calling to me to keep them alive, to find a place for them where they can continue to exist when I am dead.
Unable to bear their cries, I am proposing now to line them up, all clutching their identity papers and shabby belongings, to load them onto the vehicle this essay represents, and to ship them off somewhere. My hope is that they will be adopted and given homes in the works of other writers more industrious than I was. By way of recommendations, I can say that I know all my characters – every one of ‘my people,’ as I call them – well enough to assure any writer who wants to take one in, that they are all modest, self-effacing individuals who will accept humble roles in any story. Not one of them is an egotist, and all are malleable and willing to assume any role to which they are assigned. Moreover, they’re not fussy about the genre in which they might find themselves.
Consequently, if you are a writer in search of an unemployed character, I would be delighted should you choose one of mine. All I ask is that you do not mistreat or otherwise abuse him or her. What follows is a list of who they are and a brief résumé of the lives I had intended for them had I possessed the talent to write their stories.
First in line would be Deirdre, whose grey eyes had the translucent quality of marble extracted from the quarries at Pentellos in ancient Greece. Deep-sunk and contrasting sharply with her dark skin, her eyes expressed a separateness, a deep sense of anomie, from the world in which she found herself. This drew me to her.
Deirdre came to me when I was twenty-two years old. I had not given much thought to becoming a writer until she appeared, silently requesting that I tell her story. I recognized that the story she wanted me to tell was, in a sense, my own. I gave her the name Deirdre because I knew its Irish origins and its association with sorrow and sadness. I also liked the name because it had belonged to a girl with whom I was in love for a short time when I was seventeen. This real-life Deirdre was not Irish, and there was nothing of sadness about her. She had green eyes, auburn hair, and the warm, olive-toned skin of her Mediterranean ancestors. She was the daughter of a diplomat or a business executive posted in Jamaica, my childhood home, and she was as happy and as cheerful as any young woman could be who had had an excellent education, had lived in several countries during her girlhood, and who had always had dozens of young men in love with her.
My fictional Deirdre was a young girl from Jamaica who had immigrated to Canada with her parents in the 1950s. Her family belonged to the large Portuguese-Jewish community that had resided in Jamaica for over two hundred years and to which my family also belonged. In Canada, as a dark-skinned young woman, Deirdre found herself contending with prejudices directed against her – prejudices that she and her ancestors had practiced in Jamaica. Her struggle to come to terms with the conflicts within herself was to have been the subject of my novel. That I never got very far with its writing still bothers me. But at twenty-two, I was a dreamer, not a writer, and Deirdre lived only in my imagination.
Thus I say to a writer in search of a character for a story about love and loss and the demoralizing nature of racial prejudice, take my Deirdre, please. And if you find it within your powers, deliver unto her a measure of happiness.
Dennis ‘Dell-Dell’ Greene came to me – and in a sense, to my rescue – some time in 1974, after I had gotten my degree at the University of Victoria and had gone back to work at the Hudson’s Bay Company. I was thirty-five years old, married, and the father of two children under the age of six, and burdened with a student loan that threatened to prevent me from ever owning a home. Nevertheless, I was planning to purchase one, having outgrown the small, four-room house whose low rent had enabled me to go to university in the first place. With few other career options available to me, I was thankful that the Hudson’s Bay had taken me back, and moreover, had given me a position that would enable me to handle both a mortgage and repayment of my student loan.
The only drawback to this job was having to work under a department manager almost everyone hated. And they had reason. His management style consisted of keeping everyone on edge – except those who would agree to spy on the others for him. On joining the department, I too was asked to ‘keep an eye’ on certain other employees and to let him know ‘what they were up to.’ I did not respond to this invitation, which no doubt told him that I would do no such thing. This also told me that I should keep an eye on him because he would be a pain in the butt.
He proved to be more than just a pain, and I found myself under a lot of stress working for him. One afternoon, he tackled me about some minor matter or other, heaping abuse upon me and charging me with all manner of offenses. He did so in a stockroom away from the sales floor and possibly out of earshot of anyone else who might have been working in the same area of the store. His tirade induced in me as deep and murderous a rage as I have ever experienced. How I managed to control the urge to bash his head open with a hammer that was readily to hand I do not know, but the incident left me so shaken that my heart went into a state of fibrillation that lasted the rest of the afternoon.
Having decided after I got married that I would never take home the frustrations and petty annoyances that occurred at work, I managed to conceal the rage still churning within me, and passed the evening with my family in my usual manner. But retiring for bed brought a sleepless night in which a thousand murderous fantasies competed with each other for brutality, swiftness of execution, or long-drawn-out infliction of pain. And crucial to each fantasy was trying to imagine how I would escape punishment when the deed was done. I was not egotistical enough to believe that I could outsmart a team of criminal investigators. I lay awake late into the night trying to imagine a fortuitous set of circumstances that would enable me to commit an unplanned murder leaving nothing to connect me to it. A chance encounter with the bastard, perhaps in the forest or a dark alley somewhere, was the only scenario I could come up with. And this was when Dell-Dell came to me.
I was drifting in and out of sleep when in my mind’s eye I saw a young black man sitting on a threadbare sofa in a shabby apartment, his arm around the shoulder of a young Caucasian woman, both watching in the darkened room a small black and white television. On the screen, being shown over and over, was the clip of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, an event that had occurred earlier that day. I saw the young man suddenly begin crying and the young woman consoling him, she doing so in the belief that the murder of President Kennedy had upset him. But I knew he was not weeping for Kennedy. No, it was Oswald’s fate that had touched him – the stupid and meaningless death of a lost and confused and possibly deranged young man. He was crying because he too was a lost, confused, and deranged young man. And, like Lee Harvey Oswald, he had recently committed a murder. I did not know whom he had killed or how he had committed the crime, but I knew, as the scene, dream-like, swam into view, that it was a senseless, un-premeditated act, and the likelihood was that he would be caught. I knew also that he was a native of Jamaica.
This dream or whatever it was doused the rage that was burning in me, and although I lay awake for a couple more hours thinking about the young man and his predicament – with memories of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment going through my mind – I fell asleep with the comforting thought that I now possessed the makings of great work of fiction. My hero would get away with his crime, would marry the girl, raise a family, have a rewarding career, and earn the respect of everyone around him. And this would all happen, as if by magic. Indeed, Dell-Dell would come to believe that magic played a part in his life. Moreover, I realized then where this story had come from. Disturbed by the incident earlier in the day, I had returned to my childhood seeking solace and had found it in that which I had rejected when still quite young: superstition and magic.
The next day, comfortable in the fantasy that I would write a novel about Dell-Dell, and thinking about his life instead of my own, I returned to work as if nothing had happened. In time I found it easier to work for this supervisor because in my heart I had already killed the son-of-a-bitch and gotten away with it. I even learned to laugh at the incident, and later on would entertain fellow employees by relating the dozens of cruel and bizarre ways in which I had dreamed of murdering the fellow. Meanwhile, Dell-Dell and his magical story developed and grew in my mind.
A couple of years later, I began writing the novel – or, more correctly, making notes for writing it – by scribbling down a number of literary allusions and references that I would use in it. Thus I chose as my hero’s surname, Greene, doing so because I intended to give to the story what I considered a Graham Greene-like tone or texture, plus it would be filled with moral ambiguities. And for a bit of private amusement, I had my hero ultimately rise to become a senior partner in a law firm named, needless to say, Graham, Greene, & Company. The tale would begin with my hero, now in his middle fifties, suddenly remembering the murder and the magical circumstances that saved him from a life in an institution for the criminally insane.
Please take my Dell-Dell. All I ask is that he remain a young man of who grew up in Jamaica and who momentarily lost his way in Canada. And let his survival be somehow magical.
A note from the writer to the reader: The above represents the initial portion of a planned work wherein I intend to offer a busload of delightful characters, all eager to do your bidding. Just don’t hold your breath while you await their arrival.