Tuesday, November 2, 2010

An Uncommon Hero


People always ask, what other, famous book is your novel like? There’s no answer to that question, so when I’m asked it, I try to be funny. Once I said, “My book is like Huck Finn flees the Great Santini in Seventh Heaven.”

Nobody laughed except me.

Of course I'd never seriously compare my writing to Samuel Clemens, who is my own literary hero down to his terrific pen name, Mark Twain, which means twelve fathoms deep--a cry used to announce 'safe passage' for steam boats navigating the river (which my students know stands for freedom).

But now I’ll confide that one of the things that makes my book different is the hero.

He’s uncommon and unusual.

Some days his back hurts so much and his legs stiffen so that he can barely walk and on those days he has to manage coaching his basketball team from his wheelchair.

The idea for Tom MacBride came to me in words.

I wanted to write a novel where somebody said, “Hey, Coach,” in a certain tone of voice that I could hear echo in my mind. Who knows where this came from? The tone of voice was friendly, hopeful, seeking, a bit testy all at once. That voice belonged to Ben, the high school basketball player who transfers to Tom MacBride’s school and whose presence forces Tom to revisit the memories of the injuries that broke his strength. If the book were a musical, calling, “Hey, Coach,” would be Ben's theme.

Some time ago, I read a line in one of Pat Conroy’s books that called coaches “unspoiled fathers.” I liked that idea, I thought it had to do with the “Hey, Coach” resounding in my imagination. So I thought about what it could mean, about how certain teachers or coaches stand in the place of ruined or tarnished parents so that the kid—hungry to figure things out—has somebody against whom he or she could test and measure ideas and principles. And testing would have to reveal if the coach was worthy—somebody a kid could trust, somebody a kid could model himself or herself after, somebody who might be allowed to provide a little instruction and care to that hopeful, defensive kid. That idea stayed with me for a long time, whispering its complexities and importance.

It’s an idea cloaked in sadness, as lonely and shadowed as  the sound of the drum at the end of the Tenebrae service. After all if one is looking for an “unspoiled father,” it’s because the one he has is no good.

“Hey Coach”—Ben seems to be asking in all he says and does, have you kept yourself from deceit and self-gratification? will you control yourself if provoked? do you stand for anything? believe in anything?—“are you an unspoiled father?”

…Or are you just as lost as me?

These thoughts, shadows and murmurs themselves, inspired my teaching, I’m sure, and they helped create Tom MacBride. And in fact, this dilemma is the central idea of Solomon's Puzzle. What ruins a parent? What can be done when the kid realizes his or her parent is ruined? Why does God, who is presumed to be loving, place innocent children in the hands of angry men and women? 

When you meet Tom, you’ll see that he is a straight arrow. Idealistic, he lives by principles that are just beyond his reach, but that inspire him. He hates lying and winces when people swear. He’s an innovative leader, daring and hopeful, He’s tough, too. He runs laps backwards when his legs are working well, can fix anything, never uses a Band-Aid or an umbrella. He works tirelessly and serves others with a creative and surprising generosity. He finds the strength inside himself to be polite to manipulative people and to his mean mother. Even when he’s afraid—and he has reason to be afraid—he’s looks for a way to do the right thing.

When I began writing about Tom MacBride, the words, “he had to resort to using his wheelchair,” came to me again and again. I peered into the forming story and realized that Tom has a bad back.

The narrative reveals his history— efforts to reach out to others in his community have damaged him to the point that some days he cannot move his leg. The story behind his injuries are key to the mystery in the book.

But Tom’s efforts to connect to the angry ones around him, “the poor in spirit” as he calls them, his determination to live up to his principles have also crippled him inside. His self doubt is palpable: he seems to be hiding something—or keeping something back. It’s hard to decide if he’s holding back some awful truth or if he’s holding back the gifts he could give to set things right in Ben’s life. He doubts the very instincts—his generosity, his passion for helping, his tendency to reach out, shelter and protect—that make him great. And this seeming guilty reluctance troubles the boy, Ben, whose call, “Hey Coach,” is really an effort to sound the depths of Tom’s character.



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