REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON
By Stephen Harrigan
352 pages. Knopf. $26.95.
In his previous two novels, Stephen Harrigan has staged the fall of The Alamo, and gone aboard the space shuttle via The Johnson Space Center. And yet THE GATES OF THE ALAMO and CHALLENGER PARK are both Texas stories. In REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON, his fifth novel, the action of Harrigan’s newest Texas characters opens amid a battlefield of the first world war. Machine gun fire and artillery and intense fear has seized and immobilized the squad of young Americans. Not so long ago, they were farm boys, students, store clerks. Now, they are pinned down in the hellish French countryside, almost frozen like statues.
“The concussive turbulence sucked away the air. The men gasped for breath in the vacuum. Shrapnel pierced the tree trunks and ploughed into the earth with a hissing force as the ground heaved like a malevolent carnival ride.”
Fittingly, the novel’s publication date nearly coincides with Memorial Day. This is hardly the stuff of a patriotic song and march. Something else compels Ben Clayton, the young man of the book’s title, to rise to his feet and make a charge. Young Ben is filled with the anger and rage that forges heroes. More often, such disregard for his own safety leads to a flag-draped coffin.
Shortly after the war, Ben’s father Lamar Clayton doesn’t want to know the details of his son’s death. His focus is a memorial to the boy’s life, in the form of a statue of Ben. He will place the sculpture on a small plateau overlooking the hardscrabble countryside of the family ranch outside of Abilene, Texas. Francis “Gil” Gilheaney takes on the job. An ambitious New York sculptor in self-exile in San Antonio, Gilheaney recognizes that the project could well be his masterpiece and redemption, even though hardly a soul will ever glimpse it. These two men, Lamar and Gil, are a clash of wills. Immersing himself in his work, Gil rides the dead boy’s horse, sleeps in his bed, handles the texture of his clothing, his saddle and boots. Lamar is baffled by all this. He’s paid his money. Where’s the damn statute?
Structurally, the novel is built around the completion of the statue. This works well as a ticking clock, building momentum and tension and conflict. Also, the rancher and sculptor are filled with secrets. When the reader is aware of something that one character doesn’t yet know, the pages build with an anticipation and a dread and surprise that an inevitable revelation will bring. And Harrigan, in gradually revealing the backgrounds of these two old coots, suggests they may be more alike than either would admit.
The period details are some of the novel’s finest touches. Harrigan doesn’t hit the reader over the head with them. But such scenes as a windy walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, looking down on the ships below, or even a 1920 stroll through a downtown San Antonio department store, bring home what a more elegant, if not more brutal, world it was, not so long ago. And whether the setting is today, or a generation ago, the characters and story of REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON reinforce the notion that great writing is timeless.
Stephen Harrigan talks about his novel REMEMBER BEN CLAYTON:
(photo by MZ)
I’ve met a few World War 1 veterans in my life. In college I took a course for liberal arts majors called physical science, where we could take our science requirements without breaking a sweat. The guy who taught that class was a veteran of the first world war. He reminisced in that class a lot - about getting gassed in the trenches. If only I’d paid attention, I could have learned so much from that experience. But like most of us when we’re young, we blow those great opportunities to connect with older generations and go deep into history. So my own direct experience with World War I is pretty scant, unfortunately.
It’s a point of honor for me, or a point of conscience, to write war scenes as real as I possibly can. I’ve never been in combat, fortunately, so these scenes are always just an attempt to get it right. You run into an interesting balancing act with war scenes. You’ve got to make them dynamic. You’ve got to make them cinematic. You’ve also got to make them true to the real experience, which is horrible. People don’t just get hit by a bullet and lie down on the ground. It’s brutal, and visceral, in the literal sense. So there’s a fine line. You don’t want to write violence pornography. But you want to be accurate and give the reader a sense that this is what it’s like. This is what these guys had to go through. The scenes I’m describing in the book are at the tail end of the war, when the momentum was starting to shift toward a victory for England and France and The United States. It wasn’t during the horrible, stalemated part of the war where people were being ground up in the trenches. So, there’s actually a little more momentum, a little more hope, during this period that I’m writing about. But it was still just terribly brutal and scary. And the kids that I write about in the book, they’re from rural Texas, and they’ve never been beyond the borders of their home county. And here they are in France, taking a train to New York, crossing the ocean, landing in Le Havre and all these strange foreign ports, and being in this alien landscape where they don’t know the language - often being taught by French instructors on how to survive. It was really a scary experience on so many different levels. There’s lots of violence in the book, unfortunately. Battles - World War 1 battles, race riots. Then there are all these personal battles among the characters, which I tried to make as intense, and with stakes as high, as the actual combat scenes.
Secrets are at the heart of this book. They are at the heart of families, in a way. There are several big secrets in this book, and it’s a process, when writing a book like this, to nurse those secrets along in the narrative to make sure they pay off in a dramatic way. I didn’t know these secrets would be elements in the book when I first started writing it. I just thought, this is about a kid who was killed in the first world war, and his father, a brokenhearted father, who is trying, in sort of a deluded way, to create a memorial to him so he can remember him, or somehow bring him back. So I just started writing it, trying to figure out a story around that. But immediately, the first secret that popped into my head that I couldn’t avoid was, who was Ben Clayton? Who was this kid who was killed? Why did he die? How did he de? Why did his father feel the need to have a statue commissioned, of all things? This old rancher out in Shackleford County - why would he need a statue of his son? And so, as I started writing the book, I realized that there were layers and layers, not necessarily of conscious deception, but a natural accretion of withheld information that happens between people, and particularly within families.
At the heart of the book, it’s a story of people finding out who they are - who they’re comfortable being. The main character is a sculptor who has a particular vision of himself as this great sculptor, this magnificent artist. And that keeps getting challenged. He has to re-order who he is, who he can be. His daughter aspires to be a sculptor, but is not sure she can pull it off. She’s not sure she can pull off being happy. And the other major character, Lamar Clayton, the brokenhearted father who has commissioned the statue, has lived through four or five identities by the time we meet him. He was captured by Comanches when he was young. He’s been a trail driver. He’s been an alcoholic, a blackout drunk. He’s been a happily married man. And he’s been a father. And all those identities, as I think is true in real life, they either mesh within you, or they are at war within you. And it’s always more interesting if they are at war, in terms of telling a story.
I’ve always been haunted by statues. It’s odd. I’m not sure that I’m as interested in sculpture as I am in statues. Those aren’t two distinct things, but in some people’s minds they are. I’m a kind of Philistine when it comes to modern art. I appreciate it, I understand it. But what really gets my heart beating is representational stuff, which has been out of fashion for quite some time. To me, there’s a tremendous amount of artistry and mystery in the ability to create a replica of somebody or something. What’s haunting to me about it is the idea that this person is captured, is somehow contained within that bronze or marble form. So, I remember, even being a kid, just being really struck and moved by statues--that frozen moment that statues represent. This kind of sculpture has been a lifelong--I wouldn’t say obsession--but a lifelong interest of mine. I know a lot now about how you make a statue - how hard it is, not just in an artistic sense, but in a physical, brutal way. All the processes that you go through, all the dangers you go through, literally. There was a famous sculptor named Luis Jiménez, who died in his studio a few years ago when one of his works fell on him. So it’s an immensely physical, challenging thing, incredibly technical in terms of the actual casting of the piece, or even the conception of the piece. And it was a bracing thing to write about. How do you pull it off? I don’t have any artistic ability, in terms of visual representation. I don’t have any sense of that whatsoever, natively. I don’t understand it. That’s why I’m so drawn to try to understand it in prose. But I do understand the process of creation, because that’s what I do every day. So I was really interested in seeing if what I knew intuitively about creating something out of thin air would transfer to me writing about somebody who does that in a completely different form. I don’t know whether I succeeded or not, but I had a great time trying to do that.
In a sense, maybe in a minor sense, this is a novel about the struggle that any artist has with feeling sidelined, or being away from the action. The main character of this book has been a big deal in New York. For various reasons, he has ended up in San Antonio, Texas, which at this time, 1919, 1920, was not exactly the home of the avant garde. And a lot of this book is about his struggle to be relevant, his struggle to be noticed again by the powers that be in New York or Europe. And I think that anybody who delves into any sort of art form has the feeling from time to time that they’ve missed the train, or are about to miss the train, that things are happening elsewhere. It’s real important, I think, for any kind of artist not to be too distracted by that sense of being in a backwater, or being in a province. But at the same time, to be sort of spurred on by it, because ambition counts for a lot. You want to be a world class figure if you do this kind of stuff. Why would you not? And so in this book there’s a guy who’s trying to reconcile his own ambitions with the reality he finds himself in. I think ambition as a theme, or as a preoccupation, is something this book is very much about. It’s ironic, because Gil is trying to get back on the map in New York – to have a big statue in Central Park, or one in Columbus Circle, somewhere like that. And, in fact, what really gets him excited is that he has this opportunity to put up a statue in the middle of nowhere in west Texas. The artistic challenge of that is something he can’t turn off. It bewitches him, the idea that even though nobody will ever see it, this statute will command the landscape. It will start the conversation. It will be a thing that really matters in this particular place. And he can’t walk away from that. He sees in this opportunity, ironically, a chance to get back in favor with the critics in distant culture capitols. Because he knows that this statue, if he does it right, will be truly great.
screenwriting influence, story sense:
Screenwriting is something I’ve done for twenty-five years. It’s very different thing from writing a novel, no question about it. A screenplay is all about action. It’s about forward momentum. It’s about character, too, but only character that can be revealed by action. Screenwriting teaches you that you can’t stay in the business if you can’t keep people in their seats, waiting to see what happens next in a movie. And I don’t think that’s bad for a book either. I find that the books I like to read are the ones that keep me curious, keep me turning the pages, make me want to know what happens next. The word “plot” has kind of an ambiguous resonance with fiction writers. Some of them feel like it’s a crutch, that it feels artificial and false. But I’ve never felt that way. The plot is the engine of the story, and the story is the first purpose of the writer. No matter what I write, I want the reader to feel that he or she is on a journey with me. So I’m very upfront about having a plot. That’s not entirely the result of screenwriting, by any means, because my novels had plots before I started to write screenplays. But writing screenplays has given me the opportunity to think so much more clearly about plot and momentum and narrative, in a very bare bones way. It almost makes sense to me to have the story in hand before I start writing the book. I like to leave surprises for myself, and I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in this book at any point. But I knew more or less exactly where I wanted to head. I would make outlines, like the way I do with a screenplay. I would fill those out with more detail as I progressed. At times I would throw the outline out, and wing it for awhile. But I kept after it in the same way as with a screenplay, trying to nail down the events so that the events not only created the action of the story, but created the meaning of the story. And kept the readers involved. I wanted this book to have an element of velocity to it, and curiosity and suspense. Because those are the kind of books I like to read.
I haven’t thought of the book as being a sweeping survey of Texas or American history, but in a way it’s a core sample of our history. I started writing the book thinking it would take place in the present moment of when the story takes place. But as it turns out, it makes this deep detour into the past, and it sort of catches up with all sorts of historical backstory - the Indian wars in Texas, even the Civil War. Part of the book takes place in the Civil War, although I don’t make a big point of it. So the characters have pretty deep roots in history. As people do. It would be odd to leave that out, in a way. Because all of us have parents, grandparents, great grandparents who reach way far back.
© Michael Zagst