Recently--last Friday, actually--I completed several months' work editing and rewriting a novel I first began sometime in the summer of 1962 when I was a 24-year-old cub reporter for The Greensboro Record, a now long-defunct afternoon daily. It is perhaps a measure of my obsession with the writing life, even so early, that I was spending after-deadline time on my very first paying job hammering out--on sheets of the same copy paper I was supposed to be using to report current events--a novel which, even then, at such a tender age, I conceived as the work of my life. I still have, in my files, some of those very same sheets, yellowed now and crumbling around the edges, bearing the lines I pounded out in my halting hunt-and-peck style on my manual Remington typewriter fifty-two years ago.
I can still conjure up a clear mental image of that city room, with its dark oiled wood flooring, its tall frosted windows reinforced with what looked like chicken wire, its rows of metal desks and, at the front, the desks of the city editor and the wire editors, each with its steel spike on which were impaled sheets of our edited reportage waiting to be sent by vacuum tube to the composing room. In back was the glass-enclosed office of the managing editor, a lofty presence who seldom deigned to speak to any of us. On deadline the roar of our dozen or so typewriters, punctuated by the occasional ringing of someone's phone, filled the room. But now, at midafternoon, the day's edition had been put to bed and the noise was more sporadic, less intense. Still, though the worst of the day's anxiety was over, a cloud of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the room; all of us were four-pack-a-day smokers, on deadline or not. And some of us--I shan't say who, even now--kept fifths of bourbon in our desk drawers whose purpose was to soothe our nerves or fuel our creativity. Yes, we were a dissolute bunch, and I've never enjoyed a job--or my co-workers--as much in all the years since.
I was convinced that my novel would be the sensation of the twentieth century. I knew it was my destiny to achieve the heights of fame where dwelt my literary idols Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe, Hemingway, Agee and Mailer. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't realize this dream; all I had to do, I thought, was perfect my craft, hone my skills to make them equal to the task I'd set myself. I believed this as fervently as I believed anything. Why? Because the novel I had conceived was going to be, in my mind, entirely unique. I was going to take a subject that had been done to death in the popular media over the previous decade--that had been reduced to formulaic triviality--and transform it into high literature. What the popular media had treated as a simplistic clash between good and evil in the Old West--the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers in their conflict with the Clantons and McLaurys in the Tombstone, Arizona of the early 1880's--I saw instead as a tragedy of almost Shakespearean dimensions, bringing into confrontation different family dynamics, economic forces, political beliefs, philosophical concepts, historical forces and personal traits which, if clearly enough delineated, might rival Oakley Hall's magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Warlock or Faulkner's own Absalom, Absalom in its grand complexity. No writer, filmmaker, TV producer, or artist of any sort had dared take such a topic to such an ambitious level; yet it seemed to me obvious that this story deserved just such a treatment.
Excessively ambitious? Certainly. Foolhardy? No question. But then, I asked myself, what great art, at its inception, did not seem excessively ambitious and even foolhardy? Did Faulkner balk before the staggering scope of his Yoknapatawpha County novels? Was MacInlay Kantor dissuaded from Andersonville because of its weighty theme and multitude of characters? Did Mailer turn his back on The Naked and the Dead? Wolfe on Look Homeward, Angel? No, the very size and challenge of these works were what called forth the genius needed to create them. One thinks that way when young; and so thought I. It didn't occur to me then--and doesn't now that I am old and jaded--that a tale many would dismiss as a Wild West adventure would encounter difficulty being taken seriously as a work of literature. Or that the Earp-Cowboy feud was hardly as elevated a theme as Faulkner's explorations of Southern Gothic or Kantor's meditation on the Civil War or Mailer's on World War II or Wolfe's anthem on provincial Southern Appalachia and the call of the artist's life. I believed I could transform this unlikely subject into worthwhile art. So what I saw then, and still see, as the Tombstone tragedy became the work of my life. I'm seventy-five now, and have only just completed that work after more than a half-century of on-again, off-again effort. Was it worth that effort? I can't know yet. I do know that the odds are against its acceptance. I haven't been a writer since 1995 without learning that much.
Some of you who periodically visit this blog may know that I posted here, a couple of years ago, some excerpts from my Tombstone novel, which I now call Riding the Hearse. Those postings drew no comments. Of course I can't tell whether this is because the excepts were considered unworthy of remark or because no one visited the blog to read them. I, of course, remain convinced that the work is an acceptable one and measures up fairly well to the goal I set for it all those years ago. But much stands in the way of its acceptance for publication. There is the question of whether the treatment is worthy of the elevated theme I imagined for it. There is the question of its size--550-odd typewritten pages, far too large, perhaps, for its subject. As always there is the question of the quality of the writing. But the work is done at last. Toward the end, over the past few weeks, I began to wonder whether I would be able to complete the editing and the rewrite. As I've mentioned on this blog before, I now struggle with cognitive impairments, vertigo and several other complaints of aging; and as I approached the end of my work on the novel I began to think of the effort as perhaps the last of my writing life--and thus as the actual work of my life, since I have been at it for so long. One would very much like to have offered up a last work which might be considered a worthy summation of one's lifelong strivings.