I was never one for the story arc. While well-structured rising action, climax and denouement are certainly to be admired, the essence of story has little to do with craft.
The problem with much of story-telling is a blind adherence to the clever raconteur. In other words, it isn’t what the story is about as much as how it is told. “Stories” on social media have brought that to the fore, demonstrating that immediate gratification isn’t that gratifying in the end.
It’s the characters and dialogue, the little glimpses of what’s what, a truth of sorts, that makes a story worth anything. So what if the start is all wrong, the sequence of memories of the dead father askew, there is no flow and Davis is a jerk?
The general premise of the book is obvious: living through the pandemic and watching the routines of everyday life dissolve away. Our main character, Davis, considers the lack of achievement in his life and then approaching death.
Davis sits on his fire escape every night and listens to the sounds of the city. One specific sound emerges: the communal humming of the buildings. He realizes that his mind has been cluttered and starts to dig into the more essential question of the meaning of this sound. He listens to it intently.
The sound is constant, but Davis realizes that he is not, that the sound swells and fades as does his interest. His mind drifts to other things. He tries to devote himself to the sound. He begins to understand that the sound asks that we do nothing but listen to it. The only thing needed is to listen to the note. His confidence in his understanding of this grows and grows until he realizes that he is now thinking about that – his confidence – and not the sound.
He then understands that he doesn’t understand. He cannot understand. He understands that to listen to that sound, to understand that sound is an impossibility.
Anyway, that’s the general premise. The book needs more of an arc and a whole bunch of interesting characters. And the real trick is to keep the tale sharp and witty! Lots of existential jokes and sex bits too.
Davis and Baz bag up in the pre-dawn light; the horizon is purple and green. They both ingest mushrooms and take a long drink of water before going up to plant the burned ground together. Clouds of ash rise up as they begin to work. A montage series offers close-ups of the shovel blades going into the ground, the trees gripped in their hands, boots tramping over the burned-out ground, interspersed with helicopter shots of them, tiny figures in the massive dominating landscape of mountains and valleys.
DAVIS (Not stopping): Feeling it?
BAZ: Feeling it.
DAVIS: It’s good.
Montage of close-ups continues, including extreme close-up of the bright blue tape tied off on a branch, beetles scampering along the edge of a burn-out twisted stump, an abandoned chainsaw blade twisted among the weeds, a woodpecker perched on a tree at the edge of the block, sweat dripping off the nose and chin of Davis, a mosquito landing and stinging Baz on the shoulder, ending with a hard slap. They stop, look at each other, drink water, move their trees from the back bag to the side, and continue planting.
Davis and Baz continue to plant. The sound of their heavy breathing, scuffing boots and cicadas are the only sounds. They reach the back edge of the block and a band of shade, planting the very edge of the road like experts, the trees rapidly dropped in. They pause in the shadows, each eating nuts and dried fruit, drinking in heavy gulps that spill down their necks.
DAVIS: I almost like this.
DAVIS: There’s something….
BAZ: Being an animal.
DAVIS: A burrowing creature, like a…badger.
BAZ: At 11 cents a tree.
They both laugh stupidly,
looking at each other, and then go back to planting.
BAZ: I could never work at a desk.
DAVIS: Why would anyone do that? Insane.
BAZ: Look at my arm.
DAVIS (Looking at his dirty, ash-stained arm): I see it.
BAZ: Why is that part of me?
DAVIS: It’s crooked.
BAZ (Examining it): No, it isn’t.
DAVIS: I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.
BAZ: It isn’t crooked.
DAVIS (Holding his arm out): Mine is too!
BAZ: You’re right. Your arm’s fucked up.
DAVIS: It isn’t fucked up.
BAZ (Taking a tree, rubbing the needles gently through his hand): My point is that this arm is mine. It’s
a part of who I am supposed to be.
BAZ: My brain commands, the electric impulses obey.
DAVIS: You’re just in your head? The master commander.
BAZ: Not even that. It’s a tiny point in the back. Or just outside, floating in the darkness.
DAVIS: That’s you?
BAZ (Planting again): Yes.
DAVIS (Following him, planting too): What about your nose?
BAZ: I don’t have a problem with my nose.
BAZ (Throwing his shovel in hard): That makes sense to me.
DAVIS: Your nipples.
BAZ: Nipples. Yeah.
DAVIS: What the fuck are you doing with nipples?
BAZ: I like nipples.
DAVIS: Your nipples?
DAVIS: You find that erotic.
BAZ: And my throat.
DAVIS: I don’t like that word.
BAZ: Throat. Man, I love a chick’s throat.
DAVIS: You mean her neck.
BAZ: No. Throat. That’s erotic.
They plant in silence, the sound of their shovels pronounced against the stillness of the day.
DAVIS (Reciting Hamlet, II, II, 228-331):What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in… Something or other. I forget… in apprehension how like a god… and yet to me, this quintessence of dust.
There is a long pause, the
shovels once again the only sound.
BAZ (Reciting lines from Ginsberg’s Howl in a deep and booming voice):Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch in whom I dream angels!Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! Invincible mad houses! Granite cocks!
There is another long pause.
DAVIS (Unwrapping packets of trees): Granite cocks?
Davis starts planting again
and joins in the chant, done in chorus with their boot steps, the shovels in
the ground, the tree dropped in. They suddenly hear another noise, almost the
same grunting, but deeper and louder. They look up together and see a Grizzly Bear
standing right in front of them, massive, only 30 feet away. The giant creature
considers them, chewing on something methodically. Baz and Davis notice a bear
cub on the other side of her. They waver and then, in unison, continue to plant,
Baz makes a grunting noise that almost sounds like he is continuing the chant. They
plant a number of trees in succession and look up again. The bear and cub have both
DAVIS: Jesus. We just had a fucking vision.
BAZ: Both of us? At the same time?
DAVIS: What did you see?
The Grizzly and cub come out
from behind the slash, walking away, and crashing into the forest.
BAZ: I saw that.
Davis goes back to planting.
DAVIS (Looking back up): What?
BAZ: I think I just saw your cat. (Pause) Riding the cub’s back, guiding it by the ears.
DAVIS: What was that noise you were making?
BAZ: What noise?
DAVIS: You were grunting or something.
BAZ: I was asserting my presence.
DAVIS: You sounded like you were having a seizure.
BAZ: It’s what the mountain gorillas do.
DAVIS: When’s the last time you think this bear ran into a fucking mountain gorilla?
BAZ: That stuff’s universal.
DAVIS (Laughing to himself): Joint. (Pause) Universal joint, remember? The van?
They continue to plant toward
DAVIS (Planting his last tree): Last one. How many you got?
BAZ (Looking in his bag): Same, man. The exact same.
Baz plants his last tree and
they walk slowly, languidly down.
DAVIS: What are your numbers?
They walk for a few moments in
BAZ: I don’t know.
DAVIS: Me either.
BAZ: Oh, shit. One more. (Pulling a tree out and planting it)
Just Weird: Expelled from boarding school, Davis must move in with his father and step-family. His step-brother, a world-class swimmer, is indifferent to his presence while his step-mother and step-sister treat him with outright disdain. His new school, a strict all-boys institution, is another source of misery, but for a beautiful young teacher, Ms. Geisner. Davis gets a job delivering newspapers as he struggles with the drudgery of school and home-life until he stumbles upon a party at Ms. Geisner’s house and, as he watches her dance drunkenly to Rock Lobster, confesses his love to her. Humiliated and hungover, Davis must make a speech the following day to the assembly and, at the last minute, recites the lyrics of Rock Lobster, almost causing another expulsion, until his father steps in. Paint: Davis is distressed: he hates his work as a painter, he can’t talk to the girl he loves, and his father has just died. His college friends are no help, always getting stoned and hyping up for the next frat party. Memories of his father dominate Davis’ thoughts as he gets through the day, until he is confronted by his step-brother and told that he is not welcome at their father’s funeral the next day. High on mushrooms, Davis becomes a mess, blacking out and then wandering off, until he runs into his crush, Ellen. He confesses his love for her and finally unburdens his thoughts of his father late into the night, falling asleep on her couch. He gets to the funeral late, dozes off, images of his father floating through his head, and then watches his step-family walk out past, before going back to work and finding Ellen there.Baller: Out in the wilderness of British Columbia to plant trees, Davis discovers that the learning curve is painful; the mosquitoes and black flies are a constant plague, the weather is by turns baking hot and miserably wet, and the specter of snakes, bears and cougars lurk at every turn. Davis toils on, the repetitive routine of planting trees putting him into a meditative state where he can consider his place in the world. Things take a number of turns for the worse – Davis loses his van, cat and girlfriend – and yet Davis continues to rise to the challenge by relentlessly planting. And finally, when a forest fire appears on the horizon, Davis and his friends defy the foreman and escape by driving directly into the smoke, finding their way through and on to a music festival on the west coast.