When Opportunity Knocks: A Book (Falconer), A Movie (Leave No Trace), And Me

Last month I read a good novel (Falconer, by John Cheever), and two weeks ago I saw a very good movie (Leave No Trace) at a local theater. Wanting to write about both I racked my brains for themes common to them. No doubt there are any number waiting to be discovered, but in the end I realized that I’d be better off limiting my focus, so as not to enter rooms that I wouldn’t explore properly and likely would never find my way out of. Therefore I’ll take a look at just one key point made in the book and in the flick: Some folks have the ability to recognize when a meaningful opportunity is at hand, and they act upon that knowledge.

And while I’m at it, I’ll work myself into the discussion. As I noted once before on these pages: If I don’t write about myself, who the hell will? Hey, the answer is a six-letter word that begins with n and ends with y. And the middle letters are obod. Shit, I’m ordinary as hell, but that’s never stopped me from throwing a few details about my life into cyberspace!

In his day, John Cheever (1912-1982) was a celebrated and popular writer of fiction, an examiner of the American scene and psyche. Not sure how well-known he is anymore. Falconer, which hit bookstore shelves in 1977, was the fifth of his six novels. I’ve come across articles online that proclaim it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, as I found it to be a little too loose at some of the seams, but I enjoyed the heck out of the book.

Set in the 1970s, Falconer tells the tale of one Ezekiel Farragut, an upper middle-classer who, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother and, as a result, found himself deposited in New York State’s (imaginary) Falconer State Prison. Cheever plays flexibly with time in his book. It’s possible that I missed it, but I didn’t notice any mention of the length of Ezekiel’s sentence nor of how many months/years went by on the novel’s pages. This open-endedness clothes Falconer in gauzy mystery. You never can be sure what’s coming next, an approach that pulled me in.

Falconer struck me as an extended dream, a workaday one at times, transcendent at others. It contains many beautifully written, near-hallucinatory sequences. Cheever’s words often drift and float, meant I think to represent how difficult it is for constricted individuals — prisoners — to keep their heads on straight, what with their activities being limited and each day being not much different than any other for them. And even when his passages are direct, they sometimes are dreamy nonetheless. And often heartbreaking too, such as these lines from an inmate who opens his soul to Ezekiel.

In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? Anywhere in this country and in some parts of Europe where I’ve been. The Chung Fu Dynasty. The One Hung Low. Paper lanterns with teakwood frames all over the place. Sometimes they keep the Christmas lights up all year round. Paper flowers, many paper flowers. Large family groups. Also oddballs. Fat women. Square pegs. Jews. Sometimes lovers and always this lonely man. Me.

Yes, Cheever could write.

Okay, then. What about answering opportunity’s call? Farragut is good at that, without even trying in most instances. His prison mates feel comfortable around him, due to his unthreatening demeanor, and unburden themselves to him, as the excerpt above shows. Farragut is open to the opportunity to allow his peers to find a bit of peace of mind.

And in the book’s ending pages, Farragut takes a plunge that he hadn’t been consciously contemplating. A window of opportunity, heavily camouflaged, opens for a few seconds. Farragut sees it, seizes it, and takes the steps that might lead to a better life for himself. We’ll never know how his actions ultimately pan out, as the book concludes only hours after Farragut’s entrance into the unknown. But, as they say, he did what he had to do. And that’s important.

Taking the plunge is a major component of Leave No Trace, one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2018. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, it is a quiet, contemplative work.

The story begins in a heavily forested state park in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moves to even denser forest lands in Washington state. As far as I could tell, it’s a present-era tale. The movie’s main characters, war-veteran father Will (portrayed by Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have been off the grid, societally and electronically-speaking, for years. Will, wanting no part of regular life, has chosen to live by his wits in the woods, and Tom is just happy to be with her dad. The film provides very little back story. That’s not a problem. What matters are Will and Tom’s present circumstances.


In the film’s opening scenes, they cautiously are going about their business, doing their damndest to not be seen or heard in the state park. Theirs is a life of basics. Foraging, chopping wood, cooking, eating, sleeping in a small tent, playing chess and reading. They are content to different degrees, Tom much more so than Will, who is inflicted with emotional demons from his stint(s) in an unspecified war. Probably he served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Will and Tom are incredibly close, dependent and reliant on each other.

But their way of life always is in peril, what with park rangers and hikers and joggers rarely too far away. Eventually they are discovered and gently brought into the social service system. Life opens up, potentially anyway, when Will and Tom are relocated to normal housing. The second half of Leave No Trace depicts how they handle the possibilities, opportunities some would say, that subsequently present themselves. Is it better to be among people rather than not? To learn a trade and earn money rather than perpetually scrounging for food in the woods? To become more than what one has been?

Leave No Trace faces those questions. The answers might not surprise you, but the telling ways in which they are revealed will.

Now, getting back to me, let me say this: I wouldn’t be pecking out this essay at my writing perch, in a wood-paneled den on the ground floor of a cozy and comfortable suburban house, if I hadn’t grabbed an opportunity available to me back in 1977. Can’t imagine where I’d be if I’d let the chance pass. Very likely nowhere particularly good.

I’d been floundering for much of the 1970s, a big-time non-success story following my college graduation in 1969. After a series of going-nowhere jobs, I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to work as a caseworker for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Idiotically, I quit the job after little more than one year. My hormones must have been totally out of whack for me to do that, along with my mind.

Anyway, during the aforementioned 1977, unhappily spinning my wheels, I applied for reinstatement with DPW, an option that I’d been resisting. They hauled me back aboard. Hallelujah! Mama Mia! Things began to work out swimmingly. My income improved dramatically, I made friends and in 1990 met my wife-to-be. And I stuck around DPW for 33 years . . . damn right I’d learned my lesson. All of which proved that it’s never too late to answer the door when opportunity is trying to get your attention. Do I hear an Amen?

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.)

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The Book Within Me

Some people think big. Big hopes, big dreams and big efforts to make those hopes and dreams come true. Me, not so much. I think modest at best, small more often than not. It’s just my basic nature, and always has been.

dulcolax-imagesMy great pal Alan, though, has a different opinion about my abilities. For example, he has urged me a few times to write a book. He, one of the handful of faithful who to my amazement truly seem to enjoy at least some of the stories I’ve been lobbing into cyberspace via this blog, believes I have it in me to design and bring forth a thriller. He has suggested that the plot be set on Cape Cod, a region I know well. Alan is a dreamer. Does he have any idea how I often strain and sweat like the King Of Constipation to squeeze out a blog entry of a mere 1,000 or so words? Alan, if you’re reading this, believe me when I say that daily doses of Dulcolax wouldn’t make those articles emerge any easier. So, a book, you say? Hey, man, are you joking? My inner strength and energies would have to quadruple before I’d be able even to begin entertaining the notion. Basically, fuhgeddaboudit.

Hmmm, on the other hand maybe I speaketh too hastily. I often do. No doubt writing a book is an alluring idea. Could it be that Alan is on to something? Has he peered deep into my core, à la Superman, and spotted an alternative me? As in the bestselling me. The me whose tightly wrought and pulsating fictional offering projects me into television and radio studios presided over by the likes of Charlie Rose, Terry Gross and Jimmy Fallon. Yeah man, I can dig it! Who wouldn’t? I mean, the royalty checks will be pouring in. The invitations to swank A-list parties will arrive by the dozens. Gorgeous girls will mob me on the streets. Yeah, I definitely can dig it.

OK, Alan, you’ve convinced me. The book is within me. Somewhere. I think. All I have to do is birth it. What should the first step be? Oh right, there needs to be a plot. Well, in that regard I’ll try not to think about what another of my great pals Dave once said. He and I went to high school with Arthur Agatston, who years later became famous as the author of The South Beach Diet books. Dave was wowed by Arthur’s success. “Neil, I’d write a book too,” Dave said to me back then, “except for one thing: I’ve got nothing to say.”

img_0370Ouch! Like I mentioned I’ll try not to think about Dave’s insightful comments. I’ve got plenty to say, don’t I? And placing the action on Cape Cod, a 70-mile-long spit of land filled with villages, sands, marshes and trees, surrounded on three sides by majestic, endless waters, is certain to inspire my writing. Think, Neil, think. What’s the most unusual and intriguing aspect of The Cape you’ve come upon over the years? I know — the dune shacks, those 20 or so primitive structures scattered among the ridiculously huge dunes of The Cape’s outer regions. Folks like Eugene O’Neill and Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock used to squirrel away in the shacks, seeking their Muses and churning out product. These days the shacks are in governmental hands, and are rented to modern-day hardy and artistic types (click here to read about the dune shacks). The shacks are isolated, not easy to find. The perfect scene of a crime.

Ah, the crime. What shall the crime be? Who will be the perpetrator, and who the victim? And what will be the reason that the crime occurred? You know, I believe it’s all coming together for me. Suddenly I’ve been zapped with a giant squirt of inspiration. Here goes:

img_0383I’m going to model the narrator/possible victim upon myself. Why not? I’ve gotten up close and pretty personal with several of the dune shacks over the years, walking around them, peering inside through their windows and admiring their no-facilities ambience. And for years I’ve been dreaming of the day when I’ll be spending substantial time in one of the shacks and its surrounding desert-like wilderness. Oh, the joy of peeing and dumping in sand pits or in the Atlantic Ocean! My life needs a major dose of that kind of back-to-nature reality.

Anyway, getting back to the plot. The time is autumn 2016, a Monday at 9 PM. The narrator, who goes by the nickname Cod Man, has been living for seven weeks in a shack located close to where the dunes peter out and meadows of beach grasses take over. A hop, skip and a jump beyond the grasses is the roiling Atlantic. Cod Man’s stay, per the rental agreement, is slated to end in one week. That situation is making Cod Man very nervous, because he had been confident that his shack experience would result in the creation of the book he’d put on the back burner for the past 10 years. Instead, the book, a novel about a Pennsylvania man whose world falls apart when his dog abandons him to take a job as chief mascot in Moscow’s Grand Hotel Trump, simply isn’t coming together. The reams of paper upon which Cod Man has been writing are, he fully knows, filled with dreck. “Holy crap!” Cod Man yells from his wobbly writing desk. “I’ve been out here for two months and have zilch to show for it. I’m bummed. Totally bummed.”

Moments later comes a pounding on the shack’s door. Standing outside in the moonlit night, a loaded pistol in his right hand, is Dick Hedd, Cod Man’s next door neighbor in Pennsylvania. Dick has tracked down Cod Man and is out for revenge. You see, three years earlier a friendly two-man game of Scrabble at Cod Man’s house had gone highly sour when Cod Man, upon throwing down two seven-letter words (halfwit and jackass) in the course of the evening, began to gloat. His gloating grew louder and wilder, reaching insane heights. Dick Hedd, certain that the seven-letter words were meant as commentaries on his personality, fumed. He stormed out the door before game’s end. And he never forgot or forgave Cod Man’s arrogance. The gents hadn’t talked since then. All the while, Dick waited patiently for his moment to avenge the foul deed. Among Cape Cod’s dunes that moment had arrived.

Little more need I say at this point. I have the book’s remaining plot lines worked out quite well. Everything fits. Everything is meaningful and believable.

Now all I have to do is write the entire story. Soon I shall begin.

 

(Don’t be shy about sharing this article or about adding your comments. Thanks.)

(Cape Cod photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin)