‘From Up River, and One Night Only’ (novel excerpt)

The working title of The Age of Cities, my first novel, was The J.H. Manuscript. My publisher asked for an alternate, convinced that The J.H. Manuscript wouldn’t evoke much for a curious would-be reader, browser, or buyer.

While I’ve been digging From Up River, and One Night Only as the title for the novel I’m currently polishing (having finished the bulk of the writing over the summer), its permanence is hardly guaranteed. Who knows what it might become.

Like The Age of Cities, this newest novel project is set in River Bend City, a jerkwater mill town in the Fraser Valley. Capturing a moment in the lives of four friends (and two sibling sets: Gordyn and Dee; Jay and Em) who are senior high school students in 1980-81, it describes their hit-and-miss efforts to become a New Wave cover band and compete in a Battle of the Bands contest at a town downriver. It sounds like a comedy, but don’t be fooled by my lighthearted description…

Below is just one short chapter from what turned out to be a 115,000 word manuscript. The actual book, according to plans, will be coming out in April 2016.

 

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Déviation: Harmony

Even though once upon a time he’d caved to pressure and agreed to make an effort, Gordyn could admit that his opinions about the Barbershop Harmony Society had lurched drunkenly from the get-go. The weekend gatherings organized under the Society’s firm if benevolent rules (which under certain light looked fascist, Gordyn thought, a benevolent dictatorship) felt constricting enough already. Worse, the endless quest for “Let’s track down that darned overtone, gentlemen. From the top, 1 and 2 and 3—,” that holiest of grails, edged him toward insanity.

He reported these facts to Dee. Her dull parallel experiences with their mother meandered from a placid stream of easy listening radio tunes before and after torturous Canadian TV to pulverizing crackers with a rolling pin for next week’s casserole while listening to reminiscences about girlhood crushes and huge family picnics in Quebec. Moping, Dee stared out from shut windows and wished for a pet—something high-strung and requiring long walks, preferably.

Intellectually, Gordyn saw the sound reasoning of events reserved for fathers and sons. He admitted too, the choice could have been worse. Like Jay’s dad, his might assume thrilled, bellowing attendance at the rank air—BO, popcorn, and snuck booze, reportedly—of pro-wrestling matches. Or, debate-worthy and fierce dedication to idiotic ring heroes named Mr. X and André the Giant. Or, Edmund could similarly expect eternal low-wattage bouts spent in greasy striped coveralls while stuck beneath a grimy car on jacks in the unheated garage. And see his face register signs of deep caring about the manly art of eyeballing spark plug corrosion and oil viscosity.

Selling the surefire barbershop quartet idea, Edmund had tousled Gordyn’s hair (prompting corrective mirror time shortly after). He lured him with the inevitability of trips to fancy hotel banquet rooms in historic Philadelphia and sun-dappled Sacramento. He’d repeated “We’ll have a blast, just you wait and see” with an air crash prayer’s desperation. That last promise proved exactly halfway correct. The former anchor baritone of an army barracks quartet, Edmund returned to the stage with unabashed gusto, eating up attention, Gordyn’s mother commented, like an elephant with peanuts.

Two years and seven months later, the upcoming events—definite anti-blasts now—loomed greyly, ominous as mushroom clouds. Blind to his son’s heels-dug body language, or simply ignoring it, Edmund charged headlong into literally harmonious crowds, visibly eager for trial runs of fresh jokes he’d scooped up at the office and revved to propose catchier arrangements for standards.

They made it as far away as a plum-curtained stage in a high school gymnasium on the outskirts of exotic Spokane, Washington, Gordyn noted sourly, the Versailles of eastern Washington.

Earlier, Gordyn had predicted that Edmund’s enthusiasm would turn out to be a phase. Over and again, he felt annoyed by his paltry, flawed intuition. Instead of a showdown he continued to go along, never not straggling. Sooner or later his father would grow weary of his captive son’s clearly signalled acts of going through the motions and giving not one breath more.

Permanent authentic smiles cemented on, gleeful Evergreen District fathers, visiting from as south as Oregon, strutted and yukked in escalation, saying “Right as rain,” “Smooth as silk,” and “Fine as frog’s hair” as they adjusted velvet bow or string ties, twisting waxed moustaches (real and imaginary varieties). They threw in “23 skidoo” alongside hearty backslaps whenever possible, as though they breathed in the Edenic air that had circulated before the invention of mustard gas and trench warfare, when everyone exclaimed, “Golly gee whiz, what a humdinger!” whenever one of those bicycles with an enormous spoked wheel wobbled by.

Surveying the rooms coldly, Gordyn thought that bygone became bygone for a reason. Each and every one of them took strides away from the past each and every day, so why pretend otherwise? “Knucklehead,” he’d hear, sure that none of the men used that one at home. “‘Rapscallion’?” he’d hiss. “Yeah, right, dipshits.” He yearned to spray “Wake Up, You Fuckers” on walls using black paint.

The sons, meanwhile—of two unequal-sized camps: dutiful but sullen and watchful for cigarette-sneaking opportunities, or chirpy chips off the ol’ block—milled around perimeters until boomed instructions arrived from one of the handful of regional bigwigs. The Big Cheese would whip out a brass kazoo and declare they ought to all clear their throats and warm up with “Wait ‘til the Sun Shines, Nellie” before the actual competitive harmonizing hummed into buzzing life. “Gentlemen, start your engines,” and another round of yuks echoed.

Alone on washroom breaks, Gordyn would sense his father’s need for a renewed display of mooing enthusiasm. He’d stub out the hour’s one pleasure and blow smoke out any window he could crack open. “Fiddlesticks,” he’d mutter, on a roll, and dawdle a few extra minutes. “I’ll skedaddle a while, crocodile.” Activity in rooms with toilets was sacrosanct to Edmund. He’d never ask.

Even ad libitum, the true love of barbershopping that had once sparked Gordyn’s sense of wonder, gradually tarnished due to continued exposure. Returning on Saturday nights, and sometimes Sundays, he crumpled the Delphine-sewn green and white striped vest at the bottom of his closet. But like a magical fairy tale object its reconstituted form—laundered, ironed, folded into a perfect square—appeared in a T-shirt drawer at the dawn of every barbershop weekend.

His mother made no secret that she appreciated the father-son hobby slot. More to the point, Gordyn suspected, she relished the serene, joke-free household of their occasional days away.

Everyone grumbled about The Chords of Damocles, a weak, nonsensical pun of a quartet name, but since a previous generation had voted it in an abrupt change seemed tantamount to an insult, a back rudely turned on glorious history. And if nothing else, barbershoppers bowed deeply at tradition, or one wholesome strand of it at least.

On nights before the other classic warm-up number, “Hello, My Baby,” launched in wolfish croons that bounced around the hall, the painfully distended “rag time doll” in an otherwise unremembered dream woke Gordyn before sunrise. At the twice-yearly meet-and-greets with perfumed clusters of Sweet Adelines in billowy translucent pastels and churchy white stockings, childhood complaints about a sudden fever or catching a bug sprouted on Gordyn’s tongue.

Oblivious, his father pushed him toward girls, pointing right at one or another he’d deem “a beaut.” And as Gordyn got older Edmund added “Old enough to bleed, old enough to butcher” in a husky, hopeful whisper.

Gordyn always said “Cute outfit” in a clipped voice that implied the spite-full opposite. “Did your grandmother sew that at home?” He absorbed details with Mr. Blackwell precision—constellations of white cotton eyelet, a bubble bath froth of lace trim, satin ribboning from the More is More School. He regretted the girls’ dismay, but couldn’t resist; any shame evaporated quickly.

By mid-Grade 11 Gordyn felt certain that if he spotted one more copy of the Norman Rockwell poster of men harmonizing with sharply parted oil slick hair and comically high-waisted pants, he’d heave. He embraced the dramatic scenario of going postal or transforming into a mad, crashing china shop bull, foreseeing his father’s embarrassed expression and beet-faced vows to never return. As an idea, raving lunacy had its uses.

Edmund, now on the Evergreen executive, hoped to leave his mark and bring the group’s name up to date. West Coast Express, he offered (with sincere if tentative alternates: Vest, Left, Best), but everyone thought it reminded them of a passenger train.

Beyond tuned Society ears, Gordyn recommended The Dapper Hams, and said as much whenever the topic arose. His father wondered aloud how someone so young could get so cynical. The hurt expression guilted Gordyn into screwing on a smile and tilting his neck and aligning with the lonesome, moon-worshipping wails of the rest.

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