During many years of writing, I have found the arts both a refuge and an inspiration. I threw away a pile of stories and plays a few decades ago, but the first writing I saved was the story of an enlisted man in the American army named Carl Norberg, serving in a village in a made-up Asian country called Kulon. He spends his spare time drawing pictures of Kulonese people and their country.
Years ago, an editor suggested that the novella I wrote was incomplete, so after some thought, I had Norberg move to Botolph after he left the army, where he drives a cab and develops his work, so the story then becomes also about the contrast between urban civilian life and the military ways that influenced Carl.
Here’s a paragraph in which he writes about his days in Kulon.
It was my day off – a Wednesday or Thursday, I forget which – and the middle of the afternoon. The sun behind me cast a bright light over my shoulder onto a large sketch pad balanced on my knees. Unook, our houseboy, sat under a coconut palm a few feet away from me beside one of the motor pool drivers whom I had learned only the week before was his father. Despite the noise around us – laughter from the swimming pool, the voices of several sergeants talking irreverently about the events of the day, a radio that blared away in the echoing caverns of the supply room, the occasional sound of artillery fire from the training field a mile away – I was able to concentrate on what I was doing. The lines of experience in the older man’s face, Unook’s laughing, considerate eyes that didn’t show much strength, a few jagged curves to suggest the distant Hills of the Tigers, haunting, unreachable,¬ very likely dangerous – all fell smoothly onto the paper seemingly without any help from me. Although we knew little of each other, we felt at ease, like old friends. I was reminded – for some reason – of a quiet Sunday afternoon at home.
This is a few sentences about his time in Botolph. Millicent is a gallery owner who has taken an interest in his work.
His storage room had a window that faced north. The sun shone brightly that morning and the light that illuminated dust-motes also allowed Millicent to his canvases. The colors were vivid, she thought, the designs harmonious, and the details true – all expressing movement, vitality, the flow of action, and nature’s changes. She liked that he’d gone out of his way to learn his subject matter and wrestle with his craft. He was more serious than she thought.
“What happened to this village?” she asked. “I suppose it’s much different now.”
“It was bombed,” Norberg said without elaborating and showed her another sequence of paintings – of trucks, refugees, and dusty highways. “You’ll find some violence in my work. I can’t avoid it. War is a dreadful thing. I partly want to create an antidote – to celebrate the rhythms of everyday life – to heal, you see, myself and others. We aren’t kids, fond of wonder, who lack the power to fix bad situations. When things seem to be at their worst, some good is likely to break through. We need to be on the lookout for it.”
The story also concerns other members of the arts community in Botolph. Here’s a paragraph that Carl’s lady friend writes. She sculpts birds in clay.
And a comment by one of Carl’s detractors, after a gallery Norberg set up to show some of his pictures of Botolph burned in a fire.
Rodney Buffum made a public appearance about a new commercial development in South Cove near the site of the fire, about which the reporters kept asking him. “I don’t know anything about it; an agent handles my rentals. The wiring in the building was sound at the last inspection and I hired the best security outfit in the city. I resent allegations that I caused damage to my own property, even indirectly. The tenant must have contributed somehow.” Buffum didn’t stop there. “Norberg’s paintings are subversive. They damage the city’s reputation when we’re struggling for renewal. What will visitors say about a place that scorns itself?”
The novel is about how Carl endures and grows as an artist and as a man and communities that have shaped him and that he wishes to make bette