Saturday, December 1, 2007

Over the Falls

I came to Voltaire through Leonard Bernstein's Candide, a failed operetta that has since become a cult opera. What fascinated me about the work was its movement. It didn't matter to me that it was a treatise on pessimism. What caught me was it moved from place to place (real places) and juxtaposed characters improbably like a jig-saw puzzle. I was also moved by the wonderful promise the end of the work gave, when Candide and Cunegonde settle down to make their garden grow. Of course a work like this would appeal to a writer who sang like me. I was seventeen, had sung the lead roles in many Gilbert & Sullivan operas—solos in High School chorus. I had even sang as back-up to Robert Preston at the NAACP convention. My success as a singer was assured. There was no reason why my typewriter couldn't click out one last liberetto—the one that would finally be produced with me in the lead role.

Thus came Adrift in Eternity. As a libretto, it sucked . . . but as a play, it suited better. Here's how it flowed. A teenager (of course) looses his way in Prospect Park after being chased by some bullies. He comes to the bear pit, jumps over the rail and hides in the cave. When he comes out, the world has changed. (Sort of a wildlife Wardrobe a la Narnia). He wanders from town to town in this strange world that is vaguely familiar. It was a bit like Candide Meets the Wizard of Oz somewhere East of Wonderland. There were Amazons and half-men Half-cows, there were two headed gypsies and a slave caravan. He manages to free the slaves and escapes across an ocean with the lovely Roxamunda. (His name is Clint). He falls in love and saves her again, this time from blood sucking eels, before they find themselves on a river (the Mississippi, mayhap—hells bells Jim). In the end, they both go over a waterfall and are reborn in Gardena, IL, and in due time meet each other and fall in love for real (sigh)—and make babies.

Now I have learned since that such extrapolations are more important in the execution than the synopsis. Many of the world's masterpieces are silly when boiled to syllogistic form, but shine under the author's quill. Unfortunately, those skills were not in my quiver at the time and this Peer Gyntish play became a novel, the most exciting novel never finished. Still, I think of Adrift In Eternity as a milestone in my thinking, because it was so ambitious and never completed, it did put me off novel writing for some time. The world may have rejoiced. I turned to poetry for a long stretch, and the world still rejoices in that. But in the sinews of this fantasy lay deep truth and vision. The fact that I couldn't express them then, didn't mean they were absent from my mind (Absent-mindedness?). Certain themes recurred. Bullies. Well, Gay kids know about bullies. Water symbolism for redemption. Incarceration. Freedom. This strand still serves me well in such current works as The Third Peregrination and American Gulag; and most especially, the combination of the journey with the fantastical. How different are men with cow-heads from singing Redstarts? Or from such future creations, such as the multi-armed destroyer, Po-huai in The Third Peregrination and irradiated velociraptors in The Dragon's Pool. And then there is Belmundus (work in progress), a place where protean beings rule an underclass of the conquered. That world is accessed by a young actor, who gets there through a house in a Jewish cemetary—a house that shifts like a ship into the fabled Belmundus. How is that different? Well, I'm different now, and (modesty prevents me from saying it rocks, but it ain't chopped liver).

Adrift was never short on the bizarre. It was just short on the appropriate craft to deliver the goods. It made me aware of my short-comings, but never afraid to press the envelope of my imagination. BTW, I finally read Candide—last year. I wasn't impressed. I wonder what Voltaire would think of me (in a solid translation, of course).

Next up is my love affair with my home town, on the eve of being drafted into Uncle Sam's service.

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