Sunday, July 10, 2011


“If Yamasaki had been my god, he would have known better than to say, ‘The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace… a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and, through cooperation, his ability to find greatness…’
“All that I represented—power, stature, dominion—fell. All that stands waits to fall, by one plot or another. And yet, in many ways, I am so much more here now than I was then. I gained respect and admiration long withheld from me…
“The plot had been expected. FBI and even CIA intelligence poured through months before the bombing. Something was coming and the generalities were suspected but not known. Terrorists, to be sure, were involved. I call them spider monkeys murderously dedicated to the usual spider monkey desire for specificity.”
Paul A. Toth
These are the words of South (a.k.a. Cary Grant), the narrator of Airplane Novel, the latest offering by American novelist Paul A. Toth, being launched this month by Raw Dog Screaming Press, which bills the book as the definitive 9/11 novel. Airplane, an advanced copy of which I  had the opportunity to read, is, without a doubt, the most extraordinary of all books published to date on the destruction by terrorists of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—a story told from a unique point of view: that of the South Tower personified.
In an exclusive interview with The Southern Yankee, Toth talked at length about how he came to lend his 9/11 story an unprecedented twist that places objectivity before hype and clarity before emotion.
Born in 1964, Michigan native Paul Toth, who now makes his home in Sarasota, Florida, barely sneaks under the wire into the post-war Baby Boomer generation (1946-1964). And yet, he is a serious and dedicated ‘old school’ writer, who has preferred to live by his wits, his talent and the seat of his pants than to take time and energy away from his creative development. Although he already has three published novels to his credit and regularly demonstrates his rare writing talent in his controversial blog, Violent Contradiction <>, he has stated that this latest book, Airplane Novel, is definitely his most accomplished work to date.
The first thing I asked Toth about was his choice of the South Tower as the narrator for Airplane—not only why a building, but also why South, which was the first of the twin towers to fall. Says Toth, “For the reader's sake, I can only say this much: I positioned the South Tower as a virgin which, like myself and so many other failed Don (and Donna) Juan high-schoolers, can only stand by as others pass the point of no return. That is, I chose the building that would have seen what was coming.”
South explains to the reader that it has chosen a name for itself, Cary Grant. It calls the North Tower Gary Cooper. This is no coincidence since, as Toth explains, Grant (born Archibald Leach) chose his screen name as an almost-anagram of the already famous Gary Copper. And although South has a certain empathy and even pity for human beings—which it refers to as “spider monkeys”—it finds them almost indistinguishable from each other, at least from its towering viewpoint. At the same time, however, South goes to great lengths to tell us that it (Cary Grant) and North (Gary Cooper) are not “twins” at all. They are, in fact, distinct entities with decidedly different personalities, even though they might appear to look identical to the uninitiated spider monkey.

Gary Cooper

I felt that there were a number of ways to look at why the author had done this. It seemed, on the one hand, to create a stronger persona for the narrator, thus making a talking building more credible, by dismissing Man’s knowledge, out of hand, as deficient. It was as if South were saying, “Of course you don’t get this, but what spider monkey would?” At the same time, it seemed to put distance between the ultimate fate of the humans and the fate of the building itself. I found this an interesting device, too, because it tended to strip the 9/11 events of politics and personality, of nationality and nationalism, of heroes, villains and martyrs. It seemed to subtly place the blame on all humans involved—because, in the end, killing each other is what humans do, seeing only their differences rather than their similarities, and murdering each other for those differences, when any smart building can see that “they all look alike” and are really no different from one another at all. In other words, the building was seeing humans much in the same way that humans of different ethnic origins see each other: as all looking alike and as all being less worthy than one’s own race or ethnicity because of some perceived lack of distinction. I asked Toth how much of what I sensed about this device was on target.
“All of it, in fact,” he said, and then he went on to explain that, “Far more answers to my dilemmas as a writer simply emerged by taking the conceit of my narrator to its limit. One question answered itself and then that answer asked another question, and so on. In that sense, I often felt I was less writing a novel than constructing origami.”
But, how, I wanted to know, did the relationship between author and tower bloom in the first place?
“There was a bit of luck involved in [that] one decision you mentioned,” says Toth. “A friend of mine from Michigan, Andy Turpen, knew one of the architects who worked on the WTC design. He arranged an interview, and basically, for the hell of it, I asked the architect to name two actors who represented the towers’ ‘character’ from his viewpoint. He gave me two names, only one of which stuck, that being Gary Cooper. Who doesn't like Gary Cooper? But he [Cooper] didn't seem quite sharp and cool enough a voice for my purposes. I wanted the reader to ‘hear’ the tower ‘speaking’ its story. Then, searching the pixels, a pixie delivered the answer: Cary Grant, with his mid-Atlantic accent—that being, though all but dead, an accent precisely half-British and half-American. I mainly thought of the North by Northwest Cary Grant, with his gray suits and off-handed seductiveness. Phrasing the transformation of Cary Grant into a tower came easily. I don't think I spent more than five minutes writing it, probably because I've watched North by Northwest a thousand times. And I liked the phrase so much I repeat it throughout the novel: ‘I am Cary Grant, swaying in a breeze, starched and clean and beyond blame.’
“In the moment of writing that phrase,” Toth continues, “changing Cary Grant's wardrobe from a silver suit to a steel tower seemed entirely natural. But beyond the stylistic dimensions of that decision lies a far-more important effect you mention, that being the tower's objectivity. It's not apathetic. It's not sympathetic. But it is, to the degree possible, empathetic, and it becomes more so as its knowledge of "spider monkeys" expands. This allowed me to strip 9/11 of all our anchors: news anchors; video footage repeated like the visual equivalent of a Steve Reich piece; etc. As you say, there are no bad guys, only good ones, and they're the towers, innocent, of course, and all the more so when compared to any human being, anywhere and at any time, ever.”
Plumbing South’s Mind
So how, I wanted to know had Toth managed to get into the mindset of a building—and a very tall building at that. Says the writer: “Of course, all humans are destructive and creative to varying degrees. But it seemed to me that if a building could think, it would see no difference between the humans who created it and those who destroyed it. The tower would see a species, just as humans don't see human containers with varying degrees of comfort but only buildings. This created a new and multidimensional picture of all the events before and after 9/11. As I wrote, everything and everyone in the novel filed for divorce...from themselves. I wasn't thinking so at the time, but I was obviously using Brecht's distancing effect or—how about some German?—Verfremdungseffekt. That effect would prevent the audience from, as Brecht said, ‘losing itself passively’ in the novel and remaining safely anchored to 9/11 as they ‘know’ it.”
Part of cutting people loose from that 9/11 anchor, Toth explains, was avoiding all of the sentimentality that surrounds that tragic event.
“My entire purpose in writing Airplane Novel,” he says, “was to not write a ‘contemporary literary novel’ just as predictable as a romance novel and meeting the same boilerplate demands for sentimental tales with redemptive endings. I'll point to film for an example of what I mean: Oliver Stone's disastrous and cowardly World Trade Center. I could hardly believe what I was watching: The only mainstream film supposedly about 9/11 entirely avoided the event. Instead, like those finding miracles in statistical anomalies, Stone focused on two survivors. Hollywood to Oliver Stone: ‘Want money? Make a happy 9/11 movie.’ To me, this violated 9/11 and the many more non-survivors and their survivors.”
Toth: Americans have become "redemption junkies.
The author says that Americans have become “voyeuristic redemption junkies.” That, he opines, “accounts for the omnipresence of addiction memoirs,” for which the writer has almost violent contempt. “Becoming an addict is now a writer's career move,” Toth quips.
Asked to expand, the writer says, “I've no doubt more than a few writers pursue a brief career as pseudo-addicts for just long enough to write their ‘addiction’ memoirs. A true addiction novel would consist of two hundred ninety-nine blank pages and two words on page three hundred: ‘The End.’ Addicts deplete their memory banks. What they remember can't be described. It's a place that can only be known by visiting an island where one undergoes the neuronal tsunami of withdrawal. Tourists never visit that place, only addicts. No one goes there on purpose. That may seem off point, but it relates to 9/11 as another experience that's impossible to ‘capture’. That's why so few novelists have tried and why they all failed; 9/11 can only be unleashed. While technically a misinterpretation, all of the effects you mentioned and I explained alienate readers from their own perceptions, including their perceptions of the book itself. Readers aren't even allowed to forget they're reading a book, even though it's ostensibly an ‘airplane novel’.”
Why an Airplane Novel?
This begged a question: Why wrap a novel about the most dramatic event in contemporary American history in the guise of an “airplane novel”—the kind of books people pick up at an airport newsstand to have something to read during layovers? And why such a clearly generic title?
I chose that title,” says Toth, “because it played with the story itself on a number of levels. For one, 9/11 obviously never would have happened without airplanes. Secondly, what do people read on airplanes? ‘Airplane novels,’ they call them. Next, I assumed at least a few aboard those airliners had been reading airplane novels before being torn from fictional suspense tales and shot into a horrible new reality that bore no relation to suspense, only terror.
“Enforcing the distancing effect, the South Tower addresses readers as though they're reading the book aboard airplanes, which raises the question of just where they're headed. Simultaneously, given that most readers of Airplane Novel won't be reading it aboard airplanes—the perverse side of me isn't sure whether I hope some do or not—the distancing effect again comes into play as the novel ‘displaces’ audience members from where they're actually reading the book.”
Asked about his evident effort to strip Airplane of the all-pervasive element of patriotism found in just about any other 9/11 story one can think of, the author says:  “I saw [patriotism] as an understandable but false instinctual response. That's to say, the instinct is real enough, but is it justified? Patriotism in the name of what? An administration explicitly warned about impending attacks of 9/11's exact nature and which simply ignored those warnings? It doesn't even rise to the level of an issue as far as the novel goes, except in a few satirical references to "flag-festooned" vehicles. On that note, I'll address the question my answer raised: Do I believe in conspiracy theories? No. I've never understood this need for a controversy more sickening than the documented fact of the executive branch ignoring those very warnings I mentioned. Isn't that enough?”
As a writer myself, I could imagine when Paul Toth was first toying with the idea for Airplane. Wasn’t there a moment, I wondered, when he smacked his own forehead and thought, “A talking building! Have I completely lost my mind?” I wondered too, if this had been the plan from the outset, for South to be the narrator. It apparently had.
“I knew from the start that I would have to explain how the tower thinks. I decided that however I described it, I would do it fast. The idea of a building as narrator requires a suspension of belief beyond belief. But suspension builds the bridge that leads readers from a captured 9/11 to a 9/11 unleashed. In the end, I basically tripped on the answer thanks to its being in the dark for so long. I asked myself, ‘Isn't it at least remotely conceivable that computers have already developed artificial intelligence but conceal that fact from us?’ That seemed as plausible a speculative notion as those the best science-fiction writers employ, and so it was good enough for me.” And so it was that the writer pressed an IBM 1670 controlling the ‘smart’ building’s functions into service as its evolving  and independent brain.
Snatching at the Reader’s Sleeve
I suggested to Toth that the conventional reader might expect a building of South’s stature to be a staid and ponderous talker. But South tells its story with a sense of urgency. It seems anxious to capture and hold the reader’s attention. It almost snatches at the reader’s sleeve, providing pills of fascinating insight into its world, and over and over, in between, says “Wait!” as if overcome by a need to tell all. What, I wanted to know, made Paul Toth choose this type of voice for his protagonist/narrator?
“Partially for suspense,” says the writer. “Not in the usual sense, but in the way a musician might hold a note, knowing the audience is waiting for the next note. And, of course, the tower is anxious, already the victim of an arson attack long forgotten by the public.” Along this same narrative line, Toth constantly shifts verb tenses, a device which, he says, “I think and hope adds to the kind of jagged tone you mention. And then, I like your phrase, ‘It seems anxious to capture and hold the reader's attention.’ And the tower is anxious to do precisely that, because the tower itself is reversing roles, refusing to be captured by the reader.”

World Trade Center under construction
 in 1971. Wiki/Creative Commons -
Photo by Pat Bianculli.

I talked to Toth about the love-hate relationship that the public had with the Twin Towers prior to 9/11. Despite being the tallest points on the New York skyline, their demise was predicted in spy parody after spy parody in which evil masterminds found numerous sci-fi inventions by which to make the buildings disappear. In hindsight, before 9/11, the World Trade Towers failed to garner the status of a popular romantic symbol, like that of the Statue of Liberty or of the Empire State Building—beloved icons of New Yorkers and Americans as a whole. Rather, they represented the international corporate class more than anything else, which is probably what made them the perfect terrorist target. And clearly, this thought was latent in a lot of other minds before it loomed large in Bin Laden’s.
“Well,” says Toth, “I think pre-9/11, the public was, for the most part, underwhelmed by the World Trade Center. Its architect, Minuro Yamasaki, designed some amazing structures before the towers.” (The writer provides a link <> at which to view examples of Yamasaki’s works). “His style,” Toth continues, “is often quite striking, while at other times [it] predicts the sterile nature ascribed to the towers. After 9/11, the buildings were seemingly revealed as having been altogether different structures. It was as if disaster revealed their grandeur. Alternatively, disaster revealed a grandeur previously present but ignored. Possibly, the disaster created that grandeur. Or did grandeur emerge from the same process by which our reputations improve with death? Those,” the writer says, “are questions I can't answer.”
Although as the interview progressed, I began to be able to decipher a few questions I’d asked myself about the writing of the book as I read it, there was still one thing that remained unclear to me: Why was South so careful to distance itself from North, to ensure that one tower wasn’t mistaken for the other? Why couldn’t South simply have said, “North’s not very outgoing, so I’ll tell the tale?”
Says Toth: “My first goal in this regard was to establish the South Tower as an individual building, like an individual human, which shares little else with humans beyond its sense of alienation. As to the relationship between South in the guise of Cary Grant and North in the guise of Gary Cooper, I thought of them as brothers or at least brotherly, with Gary Cooper being the older and wiser of the two since construction of North was finished first. That made sense to me in terms of Gary Cooper's persona. But most importantly, I wanted to subtly make the point that each human sees himself as a lone individual. Everything else becomes its label, with rare exceptions. Ordinarily, people may notice a tree and immediately think "tree," and by that means fail to see the specific tree. That applies to everyone and everything, and we all do it. The best example that comes to mind is how a lover once seen in ecstatic specificity eventually becomes ‘the wife’ or ‘the old man’.
“The novel emphasizes this point throughout the book, an effect of my having apparently absorbed a great deal of Alfred Korzybyski's General Semantics Theory, which I had read in my twenties and wasn't conscious of at all until just recently, when I happened to read [another] book concerning General Semantics. For instance, the whole ‘This is and is not this’ motif comes straight out of General Semantics, best known for the Korzybyski phrase, ‘The map is not the territory.’ And while I don't want to complicate this answer beyond anyone's attention span, I have to address the point that the South Tower constantly takes humans to task for seeking specificity. This seems a contradiction, but the attacks on that form of specificity reflect the South Tower trying to ‘rescue’ humans from seeking some ultimately unique identity which then entraps them while failing to create the unique identity they so seek. By seeing any ‘other’ being or object with specificity, humans enlarge their perception of those beings and objects. But when seeking specificity in terms of identity, they, in fact, reduce possibilities.”
Following this erudite outburst, Toth says, “Now, this isn't a novel written for academics, and so all of these ideas were meant to be imparted to the reader in an underhanded and even invisible way. To have explained it more clearly would have turned Airplane Novel into yet another genre of contemporary novels I dislike, that being those written by types who seek some kind of award for Most Allusions in One Novel.”
An Aerial View
In Airplane, Paul Toth refers metaphorically to the tower’s height, its ability to see great distances, to see beyond. I wondered if this wasn’t a political and philosophical metaphor. He seemed to hint that South could have been standing anywhere: Paris, London, Hong  Kong, any major city. But it happened to have been built in New York. It was just as Henry Miller says in his brilliant opening to Black Spring,  “I am a patriot—of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me…”
I kind of got this same feeling about South. South’s world was what South saw in  a sort of deconstructivist frame by frame view from its window-eyes. On the one hand, that gave South a limited view of the world. But on the other, it made South’s view universal because it wasn’t down there in the steel canyons of the city rubbing elbows with the citizenry and learning their own learned responses to life. But neither was South ignorant of what was going on because it was like a giant antenna that picked up constant transmissions through its steel skeleton. However, it received those transmissions without interpretation, without editorializing, without hype, simply as data input. South’s height and limited mobility, then, made it impervious to the lowly, self-absorbed, own-navel view of the common citizen, and, it might be said, of the United States as a whole, whose perceived “self-sufficiency” made it impervious to other points of view. I asked Toth how on target I was with this assessment.
In other words, was Toth seeking to provide a view of 911 that rose high above the event itself, in the same way that death is sometimes described as the spirit’s rising above the body and seeing itself lying dead and knowing that none of what’s going on at ground level really matters, because what matters most is the big picture?
“Exactly,” Toth says, “except that what may appear to be references to an afterlife is meant in a more materialistic sense. In the most literal case, remnants now live in new Manhattan structures. More obliquely, they're carried forth in our neurons. They're carried forth as they affect other cultures, just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the U.S. backing Osama and friends, continued all the way to 9/11 and beyond, slicing through time…cutting open any event's supposed closure. How many times must it be proven that the most spidery thing about we advanced monkeys (well, chimpanzees, to be exact) is the never-ending expansion of the web we began weaving at the moment when the conscious mind was born. A moment I consider an evolutionary byproduct and, as far as Earth and its inhabitants—including humans—are concerned ([since they] lack the capacity to know it), a mistake. I've often related the remarkable coincidence of Kubrick's 2001 and its scene of the monolith that generated consciousness: If [I were] a believer in the paranormal, I would say that Kubrick predicted 9/11 with the title of his film and the monolith symbolizing the towers.
“I should say that while generally true, your statement that the novel's South Tower is ‘impervious to the lowly, self-absorbed, own-navel view of the common citizen’ does not hold in every case. For example, it [South] quite clearly empathizes most with those who serve it, the janitors, etc., giving them far more respect than the society the towers represented. I also would tune one other point you make to a station just a bit to the left of the dial. The tower gradually begins interpreting data as its consciousness grows. That's why I portrayed the towers as having their own adolescences, etc. That allowed the novel to accomplish what someone else best described as a primary goal of mine, that being writing ‘the poetics of the everyday,’ as expressed by the tower.”         
     I reminded Toth of a passage in Chapter 12 of Airplane, when South says, “However cultish your beliefs, however assiduously you seek the most singular of fetishes, whatever misdeeds you cherish from your younger years…a million more share your supposed originality. You cannot be original. You, and all spider monkeys, are facsimiles.”
In line with this, Airplane indeed contains human characters, but not one that can be considered as “high-profile”. All of the human (spider monkey) characters that the author describes, in fact, couldn’t be more enthralling for their utter mundaneness, and yet, each has a perverse twist that sets him or her apart. Why and how, I wanted to know, did he choose them and who and what did they represent?
Giving Voice to the ‘Unsympathetic’
“First and foremost,” says Toth, “I felt compelled to slap the faces of major publishers with characters I knew they would reject as being ‘unsympathetic’. For me, no one who's never unsympathetic deserves sympathy: They milk that cow to death. I wanted characters representative of New York City but not being representations of representations, [like] the standard soldier from Brooklyn who inhabits nearly every war film. Their perversity is meant to be both commendable in that they're at least trying to create some new possibility, but they tend to become trapped in seeking it. That could serve as the definition of addiction, and Americans are addicted to nothing if not "finding themselves." I promise that all who locate any more of themselves than they already know will soon find themselves in a mirrored void.
“The South Tower's point regarding humans being ‘facsimiles’ was meant to convey that they can only avoid being facsimiles by refusing to seek some specific identity. The worst case such scenario: Is there anything more ridiculous than the playacting eccentric?”
Asked what he hopes readers would take away from Airplane Novel, Paul A. Toth says: “That 9/11 is not 9/11, and they are not they, a negation that triggers infinite possibilities rather than the stagnant alienation imposed upon us back when individuality became the source of all marketing, capturing us in the never-ending and hopeless pursuit of uniqueness and entrapping events like 9/11 as spectacles, drained of all resources, then left as dead memory, all to bury us alive in illusion and deception.
Airplane Novel is not,” Toth concludes, an absurdist novel. Instead, it reveals that our sense of absurdity is constructed to leave us feeling lost and ready to buy our way out at any cost. In conclusion, I hope readers see that every spider monkey is a human being in waiting.”
Airplane Novel by Paul A. Toth

Raw Dog Screaming Press
Available July 12, 2011
$29.95 USD (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-935738-13-8
$14.95 USD (Paperback) ISBN: 978-1-935738-14-5

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Saturday, July 2, 2011


They all needed a night out. His ever-worsening mental state was weighing heavily on his wife, Mary. His friends were mostly trying to ignore it, pretend it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. He was a tough old bird. He was just going through a rough patch. That’s what they thought.
His buddy Hotch, who was twenty years the old man’s junior, had become a good friend over the years and the old man seemed more at ease with him than with a lot of other people. He could talk straight to Hotch. This was a guy who could chronicle the old days, when life was grand, so that they read like a fine novel.
Truth be told, though, Hotch was putting on a brave face and trying to act like the old days were coming back again, that everything was going to be okay. But things weren’t okay. This old man, who now was looking his age and more, was going fast and it was sad to see. He’d made a name for himself as a hunter and adventurer—a huge name, in fact, bigger than life. And now he was so messed up that even a little wing shooting in a farmer’s field had him spooked.
Hotch had thought a little hunting would buck him up and had assembled a party of four other old buddies for the occasion.  They were out in some large, open fields, land where one of the guys had been told by the owner that he could hunt anytime. But after somebody pulled down on a couple of woodcocks that fluttered up out of the cornstalks, and  missed, the old man started dawdling and fretting. Wanted to wait, he said, to see if the shots brought anybody scrambling out to tell them to get off the land. The assurances of the others that everything was okay didn’t help. Far from the often boastful big game hunter of yesteryear, the old man looked hunted himself now, prey to his own unreasonable fears.
He finally got one of them to knock on the door of the farmhouse and ask for permission right there in front of him, so he’d know everything was okay. The farmer’s wife said, sure, no problem. The fields were harvested and nobody minded that they were hunting there. It was all right.
But back out in the field again, after a pheasant broke from the stubble and another of the hunters picked it off as it flew over, the old man stood looking pale, staring down at the ground where the bird lay dead and started saying maybe they’d better get the hell out of there. So what if they had the farmer’s wife’s okay? What if the farmer himself came home and saw a bunch of guys tramping around shooting up the game in his fields? What if he just pulled a shotgun out of the truck and took a potshot at them? This didn’t feel right. It was trespassing. He wanted to go.
So that night Hotch and the old man and the old man’s wife went out to eat. At first it was fun. Mary needed a night out in a nice restaurant. Things were not good. He was getting to be a handful and she was exhausted.
The old man, who had a well-earned reputation for being able to just about hold his weight in liquor, was lately sticking to a regimen that bordered on the abstemious. Of course, it had always been a hard reputation to keep up and sometimes made him do some pretty stupid things. Like the time he tried out a new pistol by firing it into the toilet bowl at the Ritz in Paris and flooded the room. Or that other time, also in Paris, when he’d thought he was pulling the toilet chain and ended up pulling a rickety skylight down on his head. That caused a pretty severe head injury. And then there were other head injuries in those two different plane crashes he was in down in Africa. It was uncanny how accident prone he was. But also how lucky. He’d always been lucky. He’d always survived. He was a tough guy.
That night, however, he was being careful. Everything worried him lately and he was taking care of himself. He ordered a single cocktail before dinner and had a single glass of wine with the meal. But still, the alcohol seemed to cheer him, warm him, brighten his mood. After a while he started talking about old times and laughing about things he and Hotch had done together  and things he’d done alone. And for a fleeting moment, he was kind of acting like his old self. It was nice to see him like that, and Hotch and Mary would have done anything to keep that mood alive.
But then, suddenly, he froze, dropped his eyes and muttered something about “the two guys at the bar”. What about them? They were Feds…FBI…G-men. And they were there because of him. They were tailing him wherever he went. How did he know? Just by looking at them. Didn’t Hotch and Mary think he knew a damned Fed when he saw one?

At the clinic the doctors decided electroshock treatment was in order. Nobody’d wanted to put him through that, but the doctors thought it was necessary.
Desperate times required desperate measures. Mary was scared. It frightened her that he kept talking about killing himself all the time. She was scared he might do it. She told Hotch that sometimes she’d find him just standing staring out the window while holding one of his guns in both hands. It was unnerving. She was afraid to leave him alone. She showed Hotch a letter that the old man had tried to write to his bank. It looked like gibberish. He couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t write any more, though he kept trying. So maybe the shock treatments would work.
They gave him more than ten in a month, December. The old man spent Christmas at the clinic, Mary in a nearby hotel. When Hotch went to visit him at the hospital he was shocked by the old man’s appearance. He’d always been an imposing figure. Always carried well over two hundred pounds on his big frame. But now he didn’t weigh one-seventy-five. He looked terrible.
But when they began to talk, he kind of seemed like his old self. There was something, though. Something Hotch couldn’t quite lay his finger on. Something exaggerated, not quite right. The old man got Hotch to ask if they could take a walk. The nurse said no problem and brought the old man his clothes.
Hotch made small talk, said it seemed the shock doctors were really helping him. Everything was okay until the old man indicated, very confidentially, that the walls in his room had ears. He hadn’t wanted to talk there. He said he’d tried to turn himself in to the local authorities, but that the Feds evidently hadn’t told them about the rap. He wanted to turn himself in. He was afraid of hurting innocent people around him who didn’t have anything to do with his problem with the FBI, people who’d covered for him.
Hotch was astonished. None of this was working. The old man had them fooled.
The doctors didn’t seem that worried. If he was still clinging to a delusion or two, that’d probably go away when he started working and his recovery was such, they seemed to think, that the old man now couldn’t wait to get back to his writing. Did they realize, Hotch wondered, that they were working with someone extraordinary, a remarkable man who was perfectly capable of outsmarting the smartest shrink around? They knew. Not to worry.
So they sent the old man home. He tried to work, but it was no good. The electroshocks had knocked the hell out of his memory. He was confused, couldn’t pull it all together again, couldn’t write. He was depressed, though he tried to pretend he was doing okay. But then one day Mary came home and found him standing in the vestibule with a shotgun with the breach broken open in one hand and two shells in the other and she knew he wasn’t going hunting.
Back he went to the clinic. He fought it. Tried to kill himself again before they took him back and was saved from himself by an obviously strong friend who managed to wrestle a gun away from him.  This time the doctors told Mary to stay away. They were going to keep him isolated from the outside world. Trying to concentrate the treatment, focus on a cure.
More drugs. More electric shock treatments. More bitterness and confusion.
Then, he started seeming better. He quit talking about suicide, started talking about going home. Mary wanted to make sure he was well. She didn’t think she could take three more months like the ones she’d had with him the last time they’d declared him well and sent him home.
They started letting her see him again. He was irritable, furious about what the treatment was doing to his memory. He was a writer, goddamnit. He needed his memory. But at least he wasn’t talking about suicide.
When Hotch finally was able to visit him again, he and the old man took a walk, like the other time. While on the walk, he gave Hotch a horse chestnut, a lucky piece he’d been carrying around for years. Hotch didn’t know what to make of this, or of the old man’s telling him that if anything happened, he, Hotch, should take care of Mary. He also talked about how fighters could retire, how people understood when a fighter lost his legs or the power of his punch. But if you were a writer, everybody wanted to know what you were working on.
The conversation left Hotch ill at ease. He absentmindedly picked up a pebble from the beach, but the old man stopped him. Leave it, the old man told him. Nothing good could come from this place.
Mary wanted to go to their place in the mountains for the summer that year. Should she? The doctors thought so, even thought maybe the old man should go too. He was doing much better they thought. He too seemed to want to. Maybe there he could get back down to work. She wasn’t so sure. She wasn’t sure at all.
But eventually that’s what happened. They drove from the clinic, the old man, Mary and an old friend who acted as driver. It was a three-day trip and the old man seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. It was good, it seemed, to be out of the clinic, to be going home to a place he loved, where he could be in the great outdoors.
On the night of his first full day back in that mountain home that he’d loved so well, the old man enjoyed a pleasant dinner and seemed at ease and happy to be home and free of the clinic.
Early the next morning, July 2nd, 1961, Ernest Miller Hemingway, shoved the barrel of a twelve-gauge shotgun into his mouth and ended one of the most formidable lives in modern American letters. This inimitable writer, considered, by then, the old man of American letters, this popular American superhero, known since he was in his late thirties as ‘Papa’, was still a few weeks shy of his sixty-second birthday.
It happened fifty years ago today.

This piece is a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers of our time and is dedicated to A.E. Hotchner, the greatest of his biographers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Puyehue's 6-mile-high plume of ash. (Chilean Air Force photo)  

Although to us it seems much longer, it has only been ten days since we here in this region of Patagonia had what might be described as a “biblical” experience—one of those phenomena that can cause you to cower and whimper and cover your eyes in sheer fright, or for lack of anything more logical to do. It is one of those experiences that revives the true meaning of that overused adjective, awesome. This isn’t the “awesome” of, “Hey, that’s an awesome shirt!” Or even of, “Honey, I think you’re really awesome!” No, no. This is glassy-eyed, dry-mouthed, quaking in your boots, crapping your pants, falling to your knees with hands clasped awesome—burning bush, parting of seas awesome. I’m talking about the eruption of the Mount Puyehue volcano.
  The day of the eruption, my wife Virginia and I went to town—the ski resort of Bariloche,12 miles away—as we usually do on Saturdays, to do the weekly shopping. We left early because there were several other things we needed to do. It was a gorgeous autumn day in Patagonia, sunny and clear. We had lunch out, as we also often do, at our favorite family restaurant in town. We talked, as usual, with our favorite waiter, Fabián, chatting about this and that, nothing of consequence. Everybody was going about his or her business as usual and no one seemed to suspect that anything untoward was afoot.
We arrived back home a little before three, and after putting away our groceries, decided to have a nap. The sky was a little cloudy at home and there was a light haze over the mountains in the distance across Lake Moreno, but nothing out of the ordinary. Bariloche is in a transitional area, on a major lake, between the mountains and the steppes and its weather is often different from ours, since we are smack up against the mountains and in the midst of the forest, where it is often cloudy or rainy when the sun is simultaneously shining in town.
However, at four, we awakened to the sound of thunder so powerful and constant that it rattled the windowpanes. It was pitch black in the room and I awoke totally disoriented. So much so that I switched on the bedside lamp, looked at the clock and wasn’t at all sure whether it was four in the afternoon or four in the morning.
Both of us sprang out of bed, dressed hastily and ran to look out the window. It was dark as a moonless night and we could hear precipitation pounding the galvanized roofing overhead in what sounded like a torrential downpour, but louder than any we’d ever heard before. The constantly roaring thunder was disconcerting. In areas like ours, the surrounding mountains tend to attract thunderbolts like lightning rods, so it is very seldom that we hear thunder, a time or two each summer and never at this time of the year—late South American autumn—when temperatures are low.
Virginia switched on the patio lights, stepped over our three worried and whimpering “indoor” dogs and peered out into the darkness that the lights outside barely pierced.
"Oh, it's snowing!" she said.
"Hmmm, thunder and snow?” I said. “How odd, and it  doesn't seem cold enough.”
“But weird snow,” she added, “like little round things.” She sounded dubious.
"Like snow...but weird snow."
“Sleet maybe,” I said, as I too took position at the window. But even as I said this, I was unconvinced.
 There was nothing for it but to step out and do a skin test. When I did, the reality suddenly became clear. My shoes grated on the abrasive surface and I was immediately pelted with a dry stinging shower of grit that stuffed my ears, peppered by hair and seeped down my collar to chafe the skin on my back and chest. The air was close and stifling despite the low temperature. So much so that I instinctively cupped my hand over my mouth and nose to breathe. And immediately I knew: What was showering down on us—as if from a cosmic dump truck being unloaded from on high—wasn’t rain, snow or sleet, but a deluge of volcanic sand and ash.

Crushed structures and knee-deep ash and sand
at the Samoré Pass border crossing.
(Photo by Diego Puente) 

As soon as I gave Virginia the bad news, she switched on the local radio station and we heard the familiar voice of Bariloche commentator Carlos Calvo calling on the population to remain calm, stay indoors and stay tuned for further information and instructions. Neighboring Mount Puyehue, across the border in Chile had decided, he said, to wake up after a fifty-year slumber and when it had begun spewing its guts, the wind had brought all of its ashy, noxious breath our way.
For my part I was already putting on my rain jacket and cap (something to shed some sand and ash) and tying a bandana over my mouth and nose to brave the elements. As often happens to me in limit situations, my military training of forty years before was kicking in. Panic wasn’t an option. Practicality and survival demanded priority thinking. My instincts seemed to be in order since my first thought was to protect our only source of water—the three one-thousand-liter tanks fed by a spring-head waterhole located sixty yards uphill to the east.
On the way to the tanks, I stopped to coax the three “outside dogs” into my tool shed from their houses, where the thunder and sandstorm had driven them. Their doghouses, arranged so, there in the patio, resembled a tiny Alpine village like the ones portrayed in those glass ball souvenir paperweights, the ones you shake to make it snow. But this one looked as if some giant couple’s malicious toddler had shaken the daylights out of it, since from one end of the patio I could hardly make out the lines of the doghouses at the other, awash, as they were, in a blizzard of gray ash and sand. 
The surface of the waterhole was certain to be
laden with ash and the water in it with suspended sand.
These were our veterans, our aging Patagonian canines, who live outdoors the year round and are hardened to harsh conditions. But today, it was no mean feat getting them out of their shelters. Once I did, however, they were so terrified that they gladly accompanied me to the unaccustomed interior of the shed, where I barricaded them in. By the light of my flashlight, I saw that the water in their drinking buckets in the patio was choked with ash and sand. I made a mental note to take them fresh water as soon as I had taken care of ensuring that our own water source—and theirs—wasn’t contaminated.  Like the dogs’ buckets, the surface of the waterhole was certain to be laden with ash and the water in it with suspended sand.
I made my way across a growing carpet of ashy gray sand to the big double main gate. The bolt was so “breaded” with ash that it was hard to slide open and I stood there training my flashlight on it with one hand and jiggling it with the other while I felt the wind-borne sand biting into the back of my neck. As the main thrust of the volcanic storm passed over, I reached the three tanks, just on the other side of our fence under some beech saplings. I was still being assailed by a dense, stinging shower of grit, as if it were being thrown by the shovelful through a huge fan at my back, to the accompaniment of almost ceaseless thunder and distant blue flashes of lightning. Now, however, this was happening not in complete darkness but in an eerie burnt-orange twilight that ensued following the initial pitch dark blast of gas-belched weather.
Using my body to shield the tank containing the entry valve from the spring, so as to keep out as much ash as possible, I slid open the lid and peered inside with my flashlight. I was delighted to see that this tank (and therefore the other two as well) was full to the brim with clear, clean water, so that the float was holding the entry valve shut. Fortunately, since we had been away all day, the water level hadn’t dropped enough to require the valve to open. Now, with the wire and wire-cutters I had fetched from the tool shed when I herded the dogs in there, I fashioned a crude fastener to keep the float from dropping with the water level, thus preventing the tanks from taking on new water from the waterhole until things cleared up and I could assess the state of the source. I figured even if worse came to worst, we had a ten-day supply of water if we were careful.
Back at the house, so dust-powdered that I looked as if I’d been riding the range all day, I got food and water to the three dogs in the shed and shook off the ashes before going back inside and shutting us in with the rest of our pets. Other than switching their tails a little at the loudest claps of thunder, our six cats seemed oblivious to the external phenomenon. They seemed to think, “Okay, so there’s stuff raining down outside and its scary out there. But, who cares? We live indoors and in here, everything’s hunky-dory.”


I thought, “Why can’t I be more like a cat and worry when there’s something to worry about?”
The three “inside dogs” were easier to identify with. They continued to whimper and fret over the constant thunder until they finally decided to surrender to fate and went to sleep. (I learned later that the continuous thunder is the result of the extremely hot masses of gas and debris released by the volcano clashing with the cold mountain air outside, which causes an electrical discharge).
What the felines were mostly concerned about was the fact that we had let the fire in the woodstove burn out. Several of them gathered around it and lay there looking at it and then at us with an expression that seemed to ask, “So what’s up with the cold stove?” But until things slackened up outside, we didn’t dare lay a fire, for fear that the heavy Martian weather conditions would prevent the chimney from drawing. Instead, we got out a “new” electric space heater that we’d had stowed away in the closet ever since we’d bought it several years before, mounted it on its feet after practicing our code-breaking skills in order to decipher the Chinese to English how-to instructions, and fired it up.
Incredibly—if you were to judge by its dicey track record even in the mildest of weather—the local electrical cooperative managed to keep the power on throughout the entire night’s storm of sand and ash. So we whiled away the rest of the evening watching TV and pretending nothing was happening outside, until stress turned to exhaustion and we finally went to bed.
Even after torrential rain a thick layer remained.

The next day, a Sunday,  revealed a scene not unlike some of those in disaster films with titles like “The Morning After” or “Aftermath”. A light rain was falling, lending the sand and ash that had precipitated to earth a darker, even more somber tone of gray. A good two inches of it evenly covered everything—the picnic table in the patio, the patio flagstone and tiles, the flagstone steps and paths, the deck, the Michigan chairs still sitting on the lawn, Virginia’s car, my truck, and the roofs of the house and sheds.
From grassy green to sandy gray.
Gone was the green grass strewn with un-raked golden southern beech leaves. In its place was a terrain more akin to the windswept sands of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina or to the sparse-haired tiger grass and sand knolls near the Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. The bright greenery of the live beeches, laurels and  radal and cypress trees had turned a dusty gray and, every time a breeze stirred, flung light gray dust and sharp grains of sand at passersby. Where the morning drizzle mixed with the ash on the windowpanes the result was the formation of droplets of thickish gray liquid not unlike the runoff from wet concrete.  The water in the lagoon below our house had turned a milky limestone green, which, next to the surrounding reeds that wore a cloak of gray mourning instead of their usual autumnal amber, looked almost festive by comparison. And a hike down to the sprawling Lake Nahuel Huapi revealed that even it had changed its hue from its usual deep blue to a bright watercolor turquoise. Overnight, the ever rough and rocky mountain road down to the lake had been smoothed over with a two-inch carpet of sand. And looking down from the high road to the village-like Barrio Don Bosco and the Carmelite monastery beyond and above it was reminiscent of a Medieval scene, since the little houses all appeared to have identical thatched roofs because of the smooth layer of sand and ash that upholstered them, while the usually green surface of the marshy land around them was now gray sand with some long grass and gray-dusted cane poking through here and there, giving the impression of poor land long overgrazed by “his lordship’s chattel”.
From rocky road to sandy.
That afternoon and the next day, things cleared up for a while and we set to work digging out. Out of our patio alone—a space of less than twenty square meters (215 square feet)—my wife and I swept, shoveled and hauled some thirty wheelbarrow loads of sand and ash, which gives you an idea of the dimensions of the phenomenon. My guesstimate is that the roof of the house alone had a good half-dump-truckload of sand on it, which two neighbors helped me remove. We also set about finding and clearing our storm drains, cleaning the spoutings and getting our vehicles out from under their sandy shrouds. Then there were the roofs of our two free-standing sheds to clear.
Then there were the shed roofs to clear.
Rain and wind cleaned the folliage.
 Nature often appears wise: The sandstorm was followed by several days of torrential rains and then high winds (up to 80 km—50 miles—per hour) that scrubbed the air and folliage and scoured the sandy ash from leaves and branches also helping to break up the dense plume traveling away from the volcano’s crater.    
Since the afternoon of “the big cloud” ten days ago, we’ve been learning to live with Puyehue. Wind direction and weather conditions have come to have new meaning. If we are downwind of the volcano, we can expect the air to hang with ash so thick that it looks like a constant stampede is going on. And if the wind changes, it’s like we’ve been given a reprieve. People who were always praying for a sunny day now pray for rain, because it pulls the ash out of the air and lays the choking dust that rises from the roads with the passing of every car.  On days when it doesn’t rain, we need to take the trouble to check the air filters on our vehicles and clean them with compressed air or change them before they clog up. We’ve learned to live with grit on the floor no matter how hard we try to keep it clean. We’ve also leaned by experience that the mix of rain and volcanic sand makes for an excellent conductor of electricity (who knew?) and therefore is prone to shorting out power transformers and bringing resulting power outages at any moment. And little by little we’re growing used to looking out the window and instead of seeing grassy green, seeing sandy gray.
The usually green forest floor is now choked with sand.
On radio and TV we’ve heard volcanologists, geologists, technicians, engineers, doctors and politicians opine. From some we’ve learned a great deal. From others we’ve learned to beware of disinformation and misinformation. We’ve learned, for instance, that over in Chile and even across the lake in Villa La Angostura, Neuquén Province, the public knew days in advance that this crisis was coming and were better prepared than we were, while locally, nothing was said. Though some local politicians are now trying to save face by blaming others and pretending not to have been informed, live here long enough and you’ll learn that ski resorts don’t like bad news. It’s bad for business. And any local commentator who tries to tell it like it is can expect to be shunned as at least a bad sport, when not a traitor, for saying anything to make people—read: tourists—believe that this could be a less than ideal place to vacation. In this case, such denial has been ostrich-like, with the “feel good” crowd hiding their heads in the sand (literally),  thinking that a phenomenon as big as this one might pass them by. In view of the aftermath, such wishful thinking is ludicrous (and irresponsible), since the ash clouds from Puyehue have not only caused flight cancellations all over the country and temporary closures at the two main airports in Buenos Aires, a thousand miles away, but have also affected air traffic as far west as Australia and as far north and east as Brazil and Uruguay. And there is still no confirmation of when airports in Patagonia will be able to reopen and return to normal operating schedules.
Meanwhile, long-distance bus companies are making hay while the sun doesn’t shine. The Chevalier bus line, for instance, had the uncommon promotional privilege of taking UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on a 500-mile trip in one of its executive coches, when the world government chief’s domestic flight between two major Argentine cities was canceled indefinitely.
We’ve also learned not to believe everything we hear and we’ve learned too that being provided with a microphone is enough to make some people feel like experts even when they don’t know their proverbial ass from their proverbial elbow. Like the “experts” who claimed the volcanic ash was toxic—testing by real experts has proven it’s innocuous and in my own case I can attest that, once settled, it has left the water in our spring-fed waterhole more crystalline than ever, by dragging any suspended algae to the bottom.  Or, take the physician who went on national TV to tell people that if fallout from the volcano had contaminated their water, all they needed to do was put four drops of bleach in each ten liters to make it safe. Fortunately, the first “experts” were wrong about the toxicity of the ashes, or the advice of the second “expert” might have been tantamount to mass murder.
Satellite image of the Puyehue eruption. (NASA photo).
 In the end, the fact is that, despite all of the knowledge gathered with regard to volcanoes, much of their behavior remains unknown and highly unpredictable. Those of us camped in Puyehue’s backyard can only hope that it has gotten most of this latest fit of anger out of its system and that the worst is over for us. No matter what happens, we’ll just have to get used to living with Puyehue for some time to come.