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.
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.
Look for this Book Cover. Pick up a copy…
Artist and Editor
The Almagre Review