Although American Dead is separated into three parts, the actual structure of the book is a good deal more ephemeral. Structural unconventionality was one of my goals for this book and, while the overall arc of the story could still be expressed in the standard three act structure format, it would be only on the most nominal level. The primary form of the novel comes from the four “Seasons” chapters, which serve to split the text into even sections, like vertebra along the spine. I’m going to talk about them now, ‘kay? Spoilers and stuff.
These very brief chapters were the most difficult part of the novel to write, by far, and were completely redone probably a good half-a-dozen times. I’ve got a great many different versions floating around inside my head, and am always surprised whenever I read these little snippets: “Oh, so that’s what ended up being there!”
Each of the four chapters, denoting the turns of the four seasons across one year, diverges significantly from the already stylistically scatter-shot approach of the rest of the novel. As such, they’re some of my favorite bits of writing in the book. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn, and see what we see.
This chapter has probably been rewritten more times than any other single piece of my prose. The original version lacked the personal point of view which it ended up with, and began with simple physical description. It begins:
“He had been dead since October.
“Down in the gorge, the winter ice was growing over his pale young face, like a lace curtain pulled over his features. The trailer park above had turned from grass to dirt, from dirt to mud, and from mud to a thick frozen sludge that clung obstinately and heavily to people’s boots as they went to and from the low and narrow doors of their homes.”
And it ends:
“The undiscovered corpse laid frozen in the gorge, points of ice gathering on his skin.”
I liked a lot of the descriptive language in that version, but couldn’t help but feel it was a touch weak. It felt too bloodless, too impersonal. There was a body, yes, and that’s something. But, really, who cares? Fiction is full of bodies, murder fiction in particular. This text feels like the beginning of a murder mystery. The body is simply an object upon which the world has imposed itself. It is only a thing waiting to be found by the detectives of the story. I didn’t realize it until just now, but I actually wrote a pretty good example of the very thing I was reacting against.
Eventually, that opening text became this:
“He had been proud to be an American. Living in the Land of Opportunity. A hopeful world. He had been hopeful. He had believed in America.
He had waited so long.
His body was in the gorge on the edge of town, out there past the shaggy old screen of the abandoned drive-in, out past the trailer park where the old homes were sunk like tombstones in the mud. They still hadn’t found him. They were not looking for him. All the children, his friends, had gone to their distant lives in the cities of America. There was no one left to search out the dead. How long until they came home again? How long until they found him?”
And ends like this:
“His corpse waited in the gorge, blue ice creeping across gray skin. He had waited so long. He waited for America to find him.
The trailer park was sleeping.”
The final version puts a far more personal twist on the same content. The body is not waiting passively, it is not a thing anymore. It is full of desire and yearning, it is an active character in the novel. Also, the story is put at once into it’s larger context. This is a story about America, no question. This version announces to the reader what they are in for. The first version announced a murder mystery. The second version, however, promises something grander and less concrete. It does not offer answers, only questions.
Before I go on to the next bit, I’d like to draw special notices to one of my favorite bits of prose in the novel, this first description of the ravine which is such a central part of the narrative and setting:
“Deeper through the pines was the trailer park’s namesake, a ravine torn in the earth like a broken seam. Gnarled roots curled lazy along its edge, furtively grinding their wizened fingers at the stone. His body was deep below, invisible in the shadow.”
This is another bit that was incredibly frustrating to get right. One of those paragraphs which confronts the writer with the intimidating knowledge that, while literally any combination of words is possible, there is only one combination which feels right. I think I got pretty close with this final version.
Once again we return to the body. This is probably the most important chapter in the whole novel, at least as far as the establishment of the narrative is concerned. This chapter gathers up all the threads which have been laid down in the preceding six vignettes, and places them in a larger context. As well as setting us on track for the narrative to come, it also offers an example of the book’s style to the reader. It is a promise, by way of example, that the narratives threads of the story, however disjointed or disconnected they may seem, will in fact be gathered into a greater whole.
The most difficult aspect of revising this novel was getting the time-line put in order. What an unbelievable headache that was! Given the novel’s scattered narrative, I figured it would be easy enough to move the individual stories around in the text however I saw fit. What I’d failed to take into account, of course, was the weather. The turn of the seasons is a fairly important underlying force in the narrative and, as such, weather get’s mentioned pretty frequently. This helps to ground the reader, and keep them aware of the setting of the story. I guess.
Anyway, after all the shifting around and nonsense, I realized that I’d completely fucked the whole time-line of the book. That was especially problematic for the “Seasons” chapters, as you’d expect. And thus we have sentences like this:
“The sun dropped noiselessly behind the low blue hills. Summer was only weeks away, yet the air still tasted of Winter, bitter on the tongue. It had been an odd Spring.”
I think it works okay for the reader, but I can’t help rolling my eyes when I see it.
In many ways American Dead is an apocalyptic novel. Pervading every exchange, every moment, every scene is the terrible sense of an ending, of impending destruction and ruin. A silent dying of things. An end.
Autumn is my favorite demonstration of this feeling, and the most effective. Humanity is relegated to the background of the story. It is an animal’s world now. Note the way the dog sniffs its way through the empty trailer park lot in these first paragraphs:
“The earth was cold on the last day of August.
“The nameless border collie came from the woods in the misty first hours. Her fur was shaggy black and white around the eyes, tangled with burrs and needles. She had bright gray eyes that mirrored the hazy morning light. No one knew if she had always been wild or if she’d once been tame and was now wild again. But she was loose now, and free.
“The bitch padded quietly into the park, nose twitching excitedly as it took in the odors of that place. She went silently from trailer to trailer, sniffing at refuse-heavy garbage cans and dead plants in plastic pots, at car tires and old sneakers left out on welcome mats, at laundry hanging on the crudely strung up lines, all the wreckage of assembled human existence.”
The dog here functions almost as an avatar of nature, invading the park which, though marked by human presence, is stained by no sign of true ownership. People are visitors in this place. They have no homes here, they are here only for a moment, and then gone. Rather than occupying this new territory, the dog moves on, fleeing the stench of death and the gathering of the cold:
“Dusk was thickening into night when the border collie reached the road. She didn’t stop, but went on, moving down the hard path away from High Gorge Park, moving relentlessly towards the great nothingness of the American world, into the summer night as the air turned cold, turned again towards Autumn.”
I don’t really want to say a lot about this last chapter. It offers, I think, the first faint glimmer of hope in the novel. A sense of healing and forgetting, a kind of renewal. Wounds heal over, but the scars never fully fade. Here is this briefest chapter in its entirety. Make of it what you will.
The school bus groaned to a stop. The doors swung open, stairs leading down to the snow-dusted ground.
Children slung their backpacks lazily over their shoulders and clambered down off the vehicle, waving to those friends of theirs who had not yet been disgorged. They split off, most returning to their own homes among the scattered trailers. Two of them wandered on past the frozen flag hanging from a frosted metal pole, past the narrow trailers sitting dark and cold in the lot, past the old movie screen standing naked and broken against the creeping forest. They walked out into the wood, leaving footprints trailing behind them imprinted in the soft wet snow.
They talked in low and urgent voices, laughing and snapping little branches off the trees, grabbing hold of larger ones and swinging themselves carelessly round as they spoke brashly of grand ambition and unrestrained hope. They went on.
They reached the edge of the gorge and they looked down and saw there the wild darkness below. They shouted into it and listened to their voices carry, distorted along the emptiness.
One of them bent low and gathered up a fistful of crusty snow in his bare hands. He squeezed it into a tight sphere; his fingers were red and trembling when he drew his arm back and hurled it across the gorge. It smacked against the hide of a limbless trunk on the other side, the impact marking the black bark with a white circle like a sightless eye. The child who had thrown it laughed and gathered another handful of snow. The other followed suite; they threw snowballs across that silent gulf until the trees beyond were spotted white.
A tattered remnant of crime scene tape fluttered noiselessly behind them, clinging still about the waist of a dying birch tree. The tape had torn in the wind, ragged pieces fallen into the gorge and been carried on by the stream, onward into an endless expanse far beyond.
Over the course of their lives the two children would forget most of what had happened that year. The facts would be hopeless distorted in their minds, the names and faces never more than half-remembered. They would recall only a few faint details about the boy who killed himself. They would remember hearing about another who was arrested, or had perhaps been killed running from the police, they couldn’t remember which. They would remember a vague sense of fear, the fear which had consumed that little trailer park in that little town in the years before it vanished, vanished as though it had never been. The remnants of the screen would be torn down, the town would die off, the people would move on, nature would reclaim the garbage heaps and the ruins until only the forest remained, and the ravine.
The two children looked down into that ravine and saw nothing there, nothing but a darkness through which the river was ceaseless moving, and an American twilight turned the gray sky to black.