Book Chat: Live From Medicine Park

A novel by Constance Squires, Issue 4 contributor.

Boundaries are there for the rest of us; understanding when to cross them, when not to cross them—we grow up and learn where they inform our decisions. We gain awareness of how boundaries and lines keep us from hurting others… and ourselves.

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Constance Squire’s novel Live from Medicine Park reminds me of the eyeglasses on the billboard in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In Fitzgerald’s classic, we are invited to feast upon the calculus of destruction through those inanimate lenses of T.J. Eckleburg. There is something to be said for this voyeuristic narrative machine… the impersonal lens through which we watch a fatalistic crushing. Even though the characters themselves are vessels for human frailties, vices, and compulsions, it feels as if they are being strung along by invisible rope into their wreckage. The path is inevitable and they almost aren’t to blame. The author is become the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, split between decadent grape-sucking and idle puppeteering with their human playthings. That seems to be the bargain with Fitzgerald’s eyeglasses… he is telling us that looking away will not save Gatsby and friends. Everything is in motion.

Which is why I spent the first half of Live From Medicine Park wondering why the central characters of Ms. Squire’s novel keep doing things to sabotage themselves, or others, despite their better natures. Ray Wheeler, through whom the story is told, is a documentary filmmaker barely hanging onto his career. He’s messed up bad enough with previous jobs that taking him on is a liability. Ray has also wrecked other things in life; he’s divorced, living in a dark moldy house in Austin with a nasty lawsuit hanging over his head. The only reason he ends up in Medicine Park working on a Rock and Roll documentary is that a former student has set the project up. This former student hired Ray out of admiration and pity, indicating that not only is Ray down on his luck, but he is a credible artist. His other films have been successful, won recognition, and former students still understand this talent.

This novel is about artists, there’s a lot of them in the book. We get into the mirror within the mirror thing, as the novel shows a filmmaker creating a movie about a rock legend relaunching a music career that got derailed by drugs and alcohol in the late 70s, early 80s. The subject of Ray’s documentary, Lena Wells, is a petite, dark-haired beauty whose youthfully supernova Rock and Roll career came crashing down during an embarrassing live performance on the Tonight Show twenty-some years ago. Now, she is planning her comeback tour, and part of the publicity launch includes a documentary, a sanitized bio sort of thing. But herein lies the problem: Lena and Ray are both artists, and the purpose of the documentary is bound to their separate and non-overlapping motives. This is where Live From Medicine Park reminds me of T.J. Eckleburg’s glasses. The movie camera is the “machine” in the story which keeps the characters relentlessly unspooling their privacy, revealing their deceit. Ordinary folks tend to lie by omission or concealment—a thing different than bald-faced lying—and the artists in Live from Medicine Park are no different. They are like us. The camera does not have to be “on” for them to start opening up, it only has to be there. And why is that?

It would be easier if Ray Wheeler was simply a professional. Remember the bit about boundaries? He understands they are there, he just has no ability to see and respond to them. It might make him an unsavory type if it weren’t that Lena, who is outwardly a much better, nobler, drug-and-alcohol-free version of herself, is also stricken with her own capacity for manipulation and neediness. She is not guiltless in the way this family mystery unravels under pressure from the panoptic lens. It might be that despite her attempts to control Ray’s documentary, to turn it into fluff and promotional treacle, is not commensurate with her own deeper, darker needs for confessing family secrets. She has spent the last couple of decades rather quietly in Medicine Park raising her son, Gram, and maintaining a deep friendship with Cy, the tall, lean and leathered guitarist of the band. At first appearance, the last fifteen years has the veneer of rural Oklahoma tranquility (albeit of a slightly unusual kind), complete with orange bowling-ball river rocks upon quonset-like buildings, their pillars and arches, along with sun-baked bluffs and mountains in a tornado-riven country. The locals deal with the wicked green and yellow skies preceding bad weather quite casually… but those skies keep Ray Wheeler on edge while he chums about with Lena and her family, trying to figure out how to tell their story.

Ray has taught his students in the past that they must love their subject, but in the spirit of Captain Kirk, not violate or get involved with their subject (The Prime Directive). This might sound contradictory on its surface, but that’s only because on a deeper level it is. If Ray could follow his own advice, we wouldn’t have this novel. Ray is torn by two things; he is a coldly automatic passenger to his craft, getting footage and narrative regardless of consequence. He is also warm-blooded and male, which serves us a fairly predictable pillow and linen destination. Few things in the universe are more reliably forecast than a single man fueled by mid-life insecurity. Ray is so helpless, he falls—if not in love—certainly in bed with someone who’ll have him. That is to say, our filmmaker is no Captain Kirk. These two competing motives play separately along parallel lines, but one always has the sense that the end is a single dot where the trains will collide. Ray Wheeler never performs the violence, he just triggers the action… against his better judgment: “He had been trying to live by a code, to do what was right, and instead had backed into mistake after mistake, like Oedipus setting out to avoid the prophecy that he’d kill his father and marry his mother and doing those very things along what he thought was the road away from them.” (pg.201)

I run the risk of flattening the complexity of this novel’s cast of characters because there is so much in it, and Ms. Squires has done an excellent job of giving us quite a menu. I’m afraid that if I went into it all, it would take too long. But for those who seek that, this novel is for you. The plot is driven by the mechanics of all these characters’ relationships, Lena’s family and friends, and the reader is presented with the pleasure of unraveling a mystery along the way. The cosmic force to disassemble family secrets, personified by Ray’s camera, needs an obvious place to go, a wall to push that will cave. And of course, as I have marveled before, few writers are as effective with metaphor as Constance Squires; “[he] took a turn around the Great Room, passing through conversations like a plane through weather patterns”—“Regret batted around in him like a startled bird as he realized he had crossed a line somewhere and left a choice behind.”

I will confess, that the plot-mystery of a story is often less interesting to me than the author’s exploration of “big” themes or deep ideas along the way. The publishing house and market must get their customary product… and that means reliable techniques such as a mystery that dissolves under the gears and ratchets of plotting. But I feel that the author is saying other things with this story. Ms. Squires is telling us about artists, and about people. I want to get back to the previous question: Why do Lena and her circle keep Ray around when they want different things? Ray, socially, is all elbows and knees knocking people around. Throughout the novel, Ray keeps stepping on his subjects, using them, asking inappropriate questions, slipping from journalistic filmmaker working on behalf of a “deserving audience” to a strangely ingratiated family-member of the Rock and Roll clan. Ray does, he “loves” his subject and yet will sacrifice them to the cold functional need for drama and pain that has to appear in a documentary of his artistic making. If Lena wanted the documentary to be a tool-piece in her publicity package helping the relaunch of her career, it’s very obvious that she decides against those sensibilities. She allows Ray, in his competence for damage, to continue this project. She too, along with her son, Gram, Cy the guitarist, and daughter-in-law, Jettie, are not being honest with themselves. Something about these people want (need) the disassembling lens in their life.

Which leads us to the next question. Why? Why do they want that lens—T.J. Eckleburg’s fatal glasses—why invite that in and allow it to unravel the mystery? My hunch is to do with one of our essential urges, the voyeur’s urge. We live in an interesting age and the evolution of social media illuminates something very important in our nature. We’ve long acknowledged our reptilian desire to peek into other people’s private lives. The internet illustrates this daily. But social media has taught us that perhaps the desire—or hope—that other people want to look into our private lives is equally, if not, more important. There is something perversely nourishing to the ego that our inner mysteries are worthy of outside observation. And here, I see the wall to Lena and her friends’ privacy wanting to give way in similar fashion. It’s not even important whether the camera is rolling—one of Ray’s continual frustrations is missing “prime” footage as interviewees confess little secrets like breadcrumbs. But, it’s the threat of the project, the film’s lurking presence, that animates their willingness to confess in bits and pieces. It’s as if they need to do this more than Ray needs to get his career back in order.

So my understanding of the characters’ motives began to shift into place. No wonder the Lena Wells Rock and Roll clan keeps this half-cocked, muck-fooleried docu-auteur around. Without the conviction or strength to clean up their own secrets, they find in Ray Wheeler, the first click or domino in a long Rube Goldberg machine that will unravel their secrets for them. In this manner, Lena and her friends merely have to “flip that first switch,” setting in motion the artist who is slave to his craft and mammalian instincts. They become complicit in the mess that follows. This “tornado” is something they end up inviting to dinner.

Ironically, Ray sees the weakness and manipulation in his subjects’ decisions which are in fact his own to the point they determine his behavior. This is a classic case of projection. Until someone’s life is on the line—consequent of his actions—there can be no hope for self-examination. And this is perhaps where Ms. Squire’s panoptic machine departs (halfway, at least) from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s deep message about fate and doing our best despite the watery breakers beating our face. Ray Wheeler abandons T.J. Eckleburg’s gaze through one of the few effective means available to thwart fate. Accountability. Ray has two routes ahead of him, one that guarantees the trains collide at the dot of inevitability, or he can shift their schedule so the two may pass in a narrow miss. Basically, the artist can surrender to fate by riding his compulsions and unquestioned instincts, or… he might stop for a moment of honest self-reflection and appraise his actions. Internal awakenings occur in different ways, and in this story’s Oklahoma setting, of hard land and aboriginal mythology mixed with colonial kitsch, we get to have a white man (Ray) go on a vision quest. Befogged by fevered dreams and the consequences of his investigative cudgeling, he is provided clarity for the way forward. Perhaps there really is medicine in the water.

I won’t say which path at the fork our artist takes, right or left, because as a wise man once said, if you see a fork in the road… “take it.” Ms. Squires is a savvy writer, and savvy writers know that perhaps the most interesting outcome is not a total collision, nor is it a near but miraculous miss, but one where the trains clip and some of the cars are lost. For me, it’s interesting in this particular story that another choice observation is the measure in which a person undertakes the process of honest self-examination. Ray had to initiate, then perform this process on his own. The Lena Wells Rock and Roll clan needed the outside contraption… that Rube Goldberg machine I mentioned. And, they both bear different results. But it happens to be the journey that the characters need to make. To be trite, they must follow their own path. The message in Live From Medicine Park might simply be that the best way forward is a combination of the two, the artist must make decisions along the way, understand his or her limits, acknowledge boundaries, while surrendering—to a degree—to fate.

The ending serves up this harmony perfectly, and in an ironically gentle way. I like stories that show people’s capacity for growth. We never got that in The Great Gatsby. In that novel, the women and men were resigned to their motives and impulses, and it all disintegrates in a bad car wreck underneath the eyeglasses. Fate is impersonal, and those decadent Olympian gods are rather flip about our individual outcomes. But if we can find a tale about artists untying a bit from those puppet masters, we see two things: reality and hope. I enjoyed Constance Squires novel very much because we get to spend a week behind the scenes of a former Rock and Roll legend, and we get to feel how very much they are like us, in need of showers, easy to bruise, and hasty to react. In fact, they might be a little too much like us. But, in the end, we get the sense of those two things in Live From Medicine Park—Hope and Reality. We also get to see Ray Wheeler’s ego gently massaged by the very thing the documentary camera represents… Other people thinking about us, and thinking about us highly.

Live From Medicine Park bookcover

Look for this Book Cover. Pick up a copy…
AMAZON

 

John Lewis
Artist and Editor
The Almagre Review

Lucy Bell’s new Novel

Lucy Bell’s new book is now available at the Pioneer’s Museum.  It will also soon be available at other local sites and Amazon. Her first book signing is October 27, 1-3 PM at the downtown Hooked on Books (12 E. Bijou Street).

Coming Up (Lucy_Bell)Cover

Coming Up is the true account of Oliver Bell who was born in Colorado Springs in 1933. The five chapters take place from 1941 – 1945, and offer an authentic look at what life was like in the black community during that time. Full of humor and adventure, each story includes a related history segment along with historic photographs.

 

Conversation with Constance Squires

Here at our journal, we’d like to take a minute and say thank you to local hero, Keith Simon, whose tireless work and support for fellow Creatives is truly a gift to Colorado Springs and the Front Range. Keith is the host of the Culture Zone, a weekly radio show where he chats with local makers of art, music, literature, and more.

Culture Zone (Constance Squires)

John Lewis: Why Moby Dick?

Because, not to cheek my reader, it’s Great!

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Melville did perhaps the one thing most harmful to a writer, even more so than failing to achieve publication. His first novel was a huge commercial success, followed by several other successes. This set a high bar, but also the wrong one, which Melville through natural talent and vision, veered away from. It wasn’t the success that troubled him, it was the simplicity of storytelling which provided this success. In the long run, he was bound to follow his artistic sensibilities, which proved incompatible to prosperity.

Along came “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” as it was titled in England. Melville had just passed thirty years of age, and whereas the first several novels were adventurous, lushly exotic, and did not place too great a demand on the reader, Moby Dick fell flat. By tackling such an immensely heady and symbolic work, he broke trust with his readers. Following publication, Moby Dick sold poorly and was largely misunderstood or neglected by readers.

But what a story it turned out to be! Melville died much less a literary figure than he had been in his young adulthood — Moby Dick a failure, waiting full rediscovery in the 1920s, thirty years after the author’s passing.

For me, this is the great American novel. It reads almost biblically, in that the story is long, but broken into 150 mostly short chapters. Each chapter is a self-contained masterpiece, and can be read on its own. Like the bible, one can pick it up, randomly open the book, and enjoy these micro-universes on their own merit, tilling the prose for a chance elevation from the daily routine.

The prose drips with metaphor and symbolism. Each sentence is a miracle of craftsmanship; the cadence and rhythm a near breathless prescription of fluidity. And one can extract deep personal meaning from her reading… declaring, “This! This is what the story is about.”

An old trick is to hotbox characters within a trap setting. An ex-boyfriend and girlfriend get stuck on an elevator. The ship’s councillor and her unwilling patient get stuck on a small spacecraft. A competent but motley whaling crew is buttoned up with an insane, vengeance-minded captain with a partial body!

It’s the captain’s body which is important. Moby Dick is a story about many things; a startling avant-garde depiction of racial harmony, an adventure tale, revenge plot, religious commentary, eco-thriller (after all, it is the pursuit of oil), class screed, or even a story suggestive of homoerotic romance.

I find in it the deepest of spiritual matters; it speaks of blasphemy and illustrates the peril of abandoning free-will. Captain Ahab is a mono-maniac, whose sole purpose is to destroy the thing which destroyed him years ago. Ahab was almost killed by the white whale years prior to the telling of Moby Dick. Unbeknownst to the crew, the chartering company, and family back ashore, Ahab has a secret plan to hunt the beast which took his leg. This is a man who has relinquished the gift of free-will, and if the western religious tradition is to be believed, free-will is given him by God.

Ahab, a man of God, has rejected this. He blasphemes his maker by renouncing the most important of all divine bestowals. In his previous encounter with the white whale, Ahab loses his leg. He is made incomplete by the ocean’s carnage. And the ocean is a metaphor so pregnant it will yield itself forever to the service of large literary tales. But, the other physical scar, though often overlooked, is important. Years before the novel takes place, the whale’s daggered tooth cut Ahab along his entire body, producing a scar that twists up his abdomen and chest, and finishes above his face along the eye and forehead. Melville has done us a treat here, symbolically cutting Ahab in half. This is a man who is no longer a man. We all know about the missing leg, the madness in his cabin, the nailing of the doubloon to the mast, but it’s this scar which has rent the captain asunder. In that, he is no longer human according to the author. The looming byproduct is a monster who has forfeited the power of choice. Ahab becomes the supreme animal, transformed into a beast, for he will imperil his crew, his company, to the annihilating goal of vengeance. This is what it looks like for us to surrender the power of choice.

Or so I believe.

I love this story, because at each opportunity to discuss it with a fellow traveler, I find that it means something else entirely. We have the same list of ingredients, the same simple plot — captain leads crew to destruction in pursuit of vengeance — that it continues to astound me, and contemporary audiences, with the diverse fruit of meaningful experience.

John Lewis
Artist/Editor
The Almagre Review

Book Chat: Along The WatchTower

In our next Issue, “Language & Music,” coming out December 26, we’re proud to feature an interview with award-winning Oklahoma author, Constance Squires, whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, Bayou, Eclectica, Identity Theory, New Delta Review, and many more.

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Along the WatchTower (2012) is Ms. Squires first novel. Set in the 1980s, on an American army base in Germany and then in an Oklahoma small town, the novel chronicles the growing up of young Lucinda Collins, following her from adolescence on into young adulthood. We get to experience the growth of this eager-to-please, yet strong-minded woman through the world of a military family — overseas and Stateside.

The setting is something we don’t really see in fiction, that of the military family. And it would take someone with Ms. Squires’ particular talent to truly color and people an environment that is often institutional and drab. But there is no doubt, this novel is vigorous and alive.

The book gives us a wishbone with young Lucinda at the vertex and her mom on one side of the V, her father on the other. What makes the story wonderful to read is the author’s ability to deftly and clearly portray the characters’ cosmic arcs, and from the start we sense the tension bending on the bone where we find young Lucinda.

Faye Collins, Lucinda’s mother, obviously has the artist’s soul, the Creative’s gravitas; her’s is a mighty intellect harnessed into the world of being an army wife. She is always the volcano under the bulk of crust…waiting for release. The manner in which she has arrived in this marriage, as illustrated by Ms. Squires, makes complete sense. The fact that she appears unfit for the life it provides is obvious, yet her world is bruised by the desperate and inescapable need for her husband and kids — by the things they can and can’t provide.

Jack Collins, Lucinda’s father, is a relentless contradiction; the consummate military personality who is lovable and impossible to love, both devoted to the family and completely remote. Every awful action or comment for Jack is followed by a moment of redemption, which is then followed by a cold indifference, which is then followed by utter selflessness, which is then followed by callous bravado, which is then followed by incredible warmth and so on. He can piss us off. But…he also has our sympathy. One thing Ms. Squires clearly conveys is a permeant awareness, as seen by the children, the damage to men and women in the military…before caring about that sort of thing had any public traction.

This wishbone creaks from the start. It is Lucinda, our young protagonist who has to figure things out inside this arrangement. To be in the military, to grow up in that kind of family inevitably means the lowering of expectations in our friends. It’s not that we need them less, or that they’re worse…we just have to replace them all the time. So, standards might be a bit more flexible.

Throw in Rock and Roll — Punk — booze — a touch of fascistic background radiation — devastating metaphors — and we have a wonderful, coming-of-age tale spread across the Atlantic, in a setting that is too little represented in literature.

We need this author, and we need her to tell us her stories. Regardless of topic, Ms. Squires has the gift for flesh and blood. It’s impossible to think of Along The WatchTower without the people in it coming alive. For instance, Jack Collins has one of the clearest voices I’ve ever read. His dialogue crackles in the head with the clarity of a Holden Caulfield. And Ms. Squires’ energies are not wasted there; the minor characters pop as much as any.

As part of the Almagre community, we encourage you to support creative thinking, Great Storytelling, and find your way to a copy of Along The WatchTower. It is a pleasure from start to finish.

John Lewis,
Artist/Editor
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Book Chat: Blood on the Tracks

Colorado author, Barbara Nickless, delivers the audience intensity and literary satisfaction in her debut novel, Blood on the Tracks. Intensity: applied deftly, like a clock set to screws tightening meticulously and relentlessly. Literary: with the designer’s eye for beautiful language to animate the hearts and motives of characters.

I must make a confession before jumping into Ms. Nickless’ novel. Crime-Thriller fiction is something I typically avoid. I believe novels ought to draw a reader through on the quality of its prose. To marry prose with “whodunnit” incentive and the Rube-goldbergian trickeration of opening three new questions for every one answered, strikes me as relying on clever tricks as opposed to quality writing. But, perhaps that’s a little too stuffy and self-righteous. Better I get over myself.

Good news: with Blood on the Tracks, we take pleasure in both. Denver railroad police officer, Agent Sydney Parnell, is an Iraq war veteran who is thrown into solving a sadistic murder. Ms. Nickless does not care for a squeamish audience, and…she makes everything personal.

It’s easy to forget that the whole novel takes place over a few days. The fact that it does, argues eloquently on behalf of Ms. Nickless’ handling of prose. She is a brilliant storyteller. And her main character, Sydney Parnell, is fiercely interesting and refreshing.

The murdered victim is family, and through family, Agent Parnell is pulled inevitably into her past, both to her childhood and her Iraq combat experience. It is the kind of story that must invite ghosts…and a self-medication of alcohol and drugs.

For me, this is a bright take on the female hero, where quite often, we are given a main character who despite the blows of combat, always seems to be a bit impervious or never fully imperiled. Something extraordinary and invisible, magical, seems to be granted by the author that will remove the female hero from danger. But that is not the case with Blood on the Tracks. Our character is quite broken…and quite strong. She feels the hammer of her pain swing from the inside and the outside.

Agent Parnell doesn’t have that authorial Deus ex machina excuse. I’m so impressed by Ms. Nickless’ handling of her. Our hero meets the “boys,” (good and bad), on their level—exchanging bullets, fists, kicks, quips, barbs—and gets her ass-kicking in while also taking a few. Her body, throughout the novel, is a chronicle of every encounter, and the author remembers this as she tells her tale. We feel the bruises as they add up. And we root—Hard!—for Agent Parnell. Especially so, as the gruesome murder invites the prospect of neo-Nazis.

But, it’s not that simple. It would be nice, and clean, to stick it to the Nazis…and we do get the satisfaction of killing a few! Ms. Nickless, however, keeps her story screwed to the mud and snow through Agent Parnell’s family ties and the haunting damage from Iraq. It really turns out, that a crime of this nature, involves all three.

The book ends where it should; Agent Parnell catches up to her killer, but we’re left with those three big questions the author can’t answer until the following novel. Which leads me to my next point.

The second book in the series, Dead Stop, comes out October 3rd. That’s next Tuesday for those, like me, who can’t count. Now is the perfect time to catch up and read Blood on the Tracks. It won’t take long…I promise. Go on, pick it up. After three pages, put it down! I dare you.

Almagre Artist/Editor,
John Lewis

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Book Chat: The GAIAD

On the brink of The Almagre Review’s publication of Issue 3 Environment, this is a perfect time to reflect on our Issue 2 contributor, Will Burcher, and his recent book, The GAIAD.

Mr. Burcher’s novel surprises! It also makes big promises. The author possesses an intelligent, cunning, almost slickly in-between, ability for prose and idea. The idea—well, it is large. How large? Immense. And the prose—it combines grit and realism with an unapologetic use of literary language. I confess to learning new words in this book (for me, a pleasure).

The protagonist, Fleur Romano, a competent twenty-something-year-old Denver cop, is in obvious need of a big adventure. Don’t we all? Something of a loner, she manages to get to a concert, sans friend or partner or date. This is where it begins. The adventure! And the author kickstarts it with a mysterioso of haze, trance music, performance art, and a shock-pool of blood.

We’re soon thrusted into a pan-historical epic that is an international-action-thriller/illuminati-esque/spiritually-ecstatic tale delivered in Mr. Burcher’s competent handling of prose. For instance, when the heroine, Fleur, is shown a video by her abductors, the reader is made to feel as if the video is actually being watched. Not an easy task.

As the narrative peels into the driving premise of the novel, the story surges through time, back into the deep past where humanity is shattered. What kind of story takes 30,000 years to tell? Why do stone-age animal hunts and cave paintings figure into the book? How does this necessitate the appearance of elegantly thin spaceships calibrated to a cosmic music? Did I mention that Mr. Burcher makes big promises? The answer lies hidden in the title.

The GAIAD, the first installment in the Logos series, lives up to that promise. Perhaps as interesting a question as this grand adventure is, is whether the author can deliver the goods in the following books. This story is a joy to discover, and I fell completely in line with Mr. Burcher’s narrative voice. We luxuriate in the sensuousness of the language—in many ways, this is a story of the flesh. Not vulgarly. But the grand secret that drives it all, begs the author and the audience to experience this tale as one expressed deeply inside the skin.

There are many things the author has done well in his telling. The close proximity of high and low, grit and eloquence, provide a constant strength to the text. This is Mr. Burcher’s debut novel, and as a Coloradoan, we are lucky to have him. I feel optimistic that the following books will carry this epic tale to its right and thrilling conclusion.

For those interested, please support local art, local artists, and visit Will Burcher’s site @ https://williamburcher.com/# to find your way to a copy.

John Lewis