Wednesday, January 31, 2018 was a long day. It was so long that it has extended over into February. As wound up as I was, I never settled down enough to sleep, so tomorrow began with me thinking it is still today: unusual for me. It is not unusual for me to go to sleep and it still be today when I wake up, with me thinking tomorrow has already come and I am already late in it. i have driven fifty miles into a deepening twligh while expecting the sun to rise, such was my sleep-deprived distortion of time. I have written about this before. It is the nature of the sleepless, to get confused about which day it is, or whether it is the twilight of the morning or the evening I am seeing. No, I am not losing my mind, I just sometimes get disoriented as to what actual time it is, since time has mostly lost its meaning for me, having yielded to periods of simply awake or asleep.
Tomight, it’s awake. So I thought I’d write. Though I am awake, it does not mean that I am not tired, for a bone-weariness assails me, as though my bones were of plumbum, and the bone marrow I have that has run amok yields quicksilver, which is not so quick, but heavy, massive, and a burden to tote. Writing is hard work, but something calls me to put words down in an arranged form to tell something that needs telling, even though the thinking is wearying in itself. It is wearying, yet the result is always rewarding.
Social Media has many caveats. We’ve all seen them, and perhaps been the cause of them from time to time. It also has its treasures, such as developing a friendship on social media with someone that one previously did not know existed, watching that virtual friendship grow, and then seeing it born of the flesh as real people, once virtually personified, meet face to face, shake hands, and find the real person as genuine as we had experienced their virtual selves to be.
This happened to me on Friday, January 25, 2018, when fellow Mississippian, novelist, musician, college professor, and virtual friend Steve Yarbrough became a flesh and blood manifestation at my home, having made it the first stop on his book tour for the release of his new novel, The Unmade World. His visit was everything we’d both hoped it to be and more, but not a bit more than we really expected. We expected to be pleased and have a good time. Some say expectations lead to disappointment, but in this case, our expectations were reasonable, fulfillable, and received with thanksgiving. I’m taking the liberty to speak for Steve, but he told me what a good time he had, and I take him at his word. Besides, I could see the smile on his face.
Steve and I share a lot. We both are a product of Mississippi. We both share things that only persons intimate with a specific place can understand, sharing the similar thoughts about the misconceptions of those who do not share our birthplace can reveal in themselves. We both love our native Mississippi, and we know that it is not perfect; but we saw the place from whence it started versus where it is now. Though no one would say that Mississippi has arrived at any envious stopping point among its sibling states, it has come a long, long way. It took a loss in a civil war, a post-war period of reconstruction that lasted until the late 1960’s, the abolition of Jim Crow laws, and many Federal interventions, but eventually, one can learn, particularly if the lesson is delivered harshly and repeatedly. Things are seldom what they seem. The outsider often claims a clearer view. There are things, though, that the outsider can never see. It takes both to succeed.
Steve and I are both musicians, liking the same kind of acoustic music. We share a love for fine guitars, mandolin family instruments, and fiddles. Some men lust after whiskey, women, sex, money, and power. We lust after rich woody tones from instruments that give you everything you ask for, and more.
Steve and I are both writers. He is a widely published novelist, perhaps Mississippi’s premier novelist these days, excluding, perhaps, John Grisham, if one gauges those things by the number of books sold, but certainly at the apex of those producing great literature in the vein of influential Mississippi authors…which is heady company.
Me? A writer? Yes. I am a songwriter and a faithful blogger. I’ve even had a few pieces published, never because I wanted to publish them for profit, though I can’t say I dislike getting a check. The things I have that were published were things other people noticed and asked permission to use. I have no doubt I could get more writing published, but then I would have topics selected for me, and deadlines and editors, and I write for none of those things. I write because I want to write, for the catharsis it furnishes, to relieve the nagging that pesters me until I write about it; and writing requires thinking, and thinking can be hard work. I prefer it at my own pace, in my poo an time, in my own direction. I am thankful for that luxury.
Thinking something through enough to write about it is hard, though. If thinking were easy, more people would spend quality time doing it. Based on the output of many, I expect they find thinkng a greater chore than me. I am an essayist, a blogger, a regurgitator of the chewed-up refuse of a mental garbage disposal. I like to write without a plan, in a stream of consciousness mode. Stream of consciousness art in any form is worthy of observation if the conscience producing it has something worthy to observe. That others have found my writing worth their time is both rewarding and humbling. I may not possess the worthiness, but I do possess the drive to put it out there, which is all any artist, visual, musical, theatrical, or literary can do. After it’s out there, the chips fall where they may.
Having said that, I confess that I lack the discipline or attention span to write novels. I am only capable of sporadic bits of disjointed writings spewed out at irregular intervals. The intervals between writings are far shorter than the intervals of publication, which I promise you is a good thing.
I salute Steve Yarbrough in his ability to write cogent novels that strike harmonious chords, that can sometimes be discordant by design, that move us readers: sometimes grieving us, but ultimately rewarding us all by grabbing us and demanding our attention, perhaps showing us something about ourselves along the way. Any good novel that will stand the test of time teaches us something about ourselves since we see ourselves in its protagonists, and see ourselves, though darkly recognizable, in its antagonists, which dismays us but strengthens us if we are capable of being critical of ourselves. Good novels leave us no option to see only others. Good novels are like mirrors.
I have read four novels written by Steve. The enjoyable The End of California, the more enjoyable The Realm of Last Chances, and his latest, The Unmade World. I read those three novels after establishing a virtual friendship with Steve on Facebook. After Steve’s visit, I read The Oxygen Man.
The Unmade World is a complex book, Faulknerian in my estimation, as sometimes it was difficult for me to decide who was speaking, and to whom they were speaking. It was a novel of disconnected lives destroyed in a terrible accident in a single instant of random, unifying connectedness; but it was also about healing and restoration. All of our lives are a single, random (or not so random for you Calvinists) instant away from chaos, death, and destruction. It is something that always happens to someone else until we discover that it has latched onto us like a lamprey on a lake trout, for no discernable reason at all other than one being at a perfectly good wrong place at an awfully wrong time.
That thought went through my mind when I was in the waiting room for my first appointment with an oncologist. This was something that happened to others. It could not happen to me. But it could. It did. We are not as far from others we think unlike us as we’d like to think, and the next time you have bad thought about a friend whose politics you abhor, imagine yourself next to them in a chemo infusion room, both of you hooked up to IVs attached to bags of deadly, life-sustaining chemicals suspended on a single IV pole, and you’ll see that you’re not as far apart as you thought you were. We all have lots in common. Sometimes it’s good to focus on those things for a while before heading off into the disagreement part.
The Oxygen Man hit home like a 22 ounce framing hammer hits a small nail with its point to an dried oak plank. The nail can accelerate faster into the resistance of the wood than the structural integrity of the nail can bear. The wood in front, the unrelenting hammer behind: the nail cries, “Uncle.” It bends under the strain. I did not grow up in the Mississippi delta, but a country boy’s life in Mississippi just a few years back was remarkably similar, whether it revolved around row crops, cattle, aquaculture, or managed timberland. Rural Mississippi has a similar taste and feel. I suspect rural everywhere has a similar taste and feel. I’ve noticed that urban everywhere has a similar taste and feel, though New Orleans tastes a hell of a lot better than most other places.
The Oxygen Man was published in 1999. Many things have changed since then. The language in the book, though it was the language of the characters in the time frames of their lives as presented, may not pass muster for publication in today’s politically correct climate. If that were to be true, then, Steve, I’d like to welcome you to an exclusive club on behalf of my life-long companions Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling. Modern critics and deconstructionists have a lot to offer about the language used in their works, and the mindset that goes with them. The characters in a novel can commit unspeakable crimes, none of which have been or will ever be committed by the author. Steve, I could only wish for you that your name be eternally associated with the literary greatness that is Twain and Kipling. Oddly, I’ve never heard anyone personally attribute to Quentin Tarantino the characteristics of the characters in his movies. I wonder why Twain and Kipling, who are not here to answer for themselves, are thus cast? Perhaps their absence makes it easier, as we have only historians to rely on to tell us what they were really like. The masses of us, we are told, are not smart enough to comprehend the truth of things, but need to be instructed by our betters, those who constantly remind us that we vote against our own interests when they don’t know us, and have no rational basis to determine what our interests may be. I find them completely uninteresting. Needless to say, I did not find The Oxygen Man uninteresting. It was absorbing.
Steve and I both share in the blessings of long-term, wonderful marriages to wives we love dearly. We share wives who are our staunch supporters while being our harshest critics. It’s hard for one to fool his wife about anything. To this day, I think it remarkable that my wife knows me, yet she still loves me. Why this has not turned to contempt after 38 years in my own marriage is a wonderful mysery to me. Steve and I are lucky men to be thus married.
We played music together. He was delighted when I told him that my daughter, Piper, would be coming, and that we would sing for him. He had brought along fabulous Collings mandolin to keep him company on his book tour. When he told me he had a mandola at home, I dredged out my 1914 Gibson K-1 mando-cello which had not been out of its case in over a year.
“I’ve never played a mando-cello,” he said as he held it in his hands and strummed a few chords, struggling to grasp its uncomfortably long scale length as everyone does at first try.
“You can never say that again,” I replied.
He, Piper, and I played much music, enjoying every bit of it, bonding in only the way that music and sharing pitch, timing, tone, and timbre can, since music has its own set of rules that must be obeyed lest it become merely noise. Nope…it was music.
We then enjoyed a wonderful dinner, a light savoring of some beverages that were a minimum of 12 years old, and talked non-stop like two schoolgirls on a field trip.
I think he really liked my Martin D-18. We had expectations that he would. Neither of us was disappointed. Sometimes we start out with great expectations only to realize we had them set too low. Those are everyone’s favorite expectations: the low ones that are abundantly exceeded. There is no disappointment, only euphoria.
Yep. Facebook has its benefits.
Safe travels, Steve Yarbrough. May all the people on your book tour enjoy your company as much as we did. Much love to you and your family, my formerly virtual friend.
The real thing is infinitely better.
©2018 Mississippi Chris Sharp