Each Hero’s Journey

“My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows…”-Ernest Hemingway (about In Our Time).

Well, I know I ain’t no Hemingway. Nor Joyce or Greene or Lawrence or Woolf or any of those giants. No delusions of grandeur here. But I believe l accomplished what I intended with House of Large Sizes. On my last editorial read-through I found that I liked it; it was a book I wanted to read. That was the first time I had felt that way about it, and I grew more confident that most literary readers will praise it, and that readers of popular fiction will find it a page-turner. Of course, I hope that graduate students will study it at some point; it is after all meant for them.

Why is it meant for them? Because it’s loaded with a lifetime of study about the form and content of the novel, and the form and content which underlies an author’s expression of the culture that produced him. It’s loaded with Lord Raglan, Robert Graves, Percy Lubbock, E.M. Forster, Eric Auerbach, Carl Jung, Northrup Frye, Joseph Campbell, Rolande Barthes; a perpetual orgy of influences from the dead white males who as yet have not been surpassed. None of them will emerge in the reading; they are intended to turn to milk in the flow of the exposition.

In my previous blog about Dunkirk I mentioned the hero’s journey, an age-old, seminal structure popularized by Joseph Campbell, which reflects most of our stories in an attempt to mirror our sometimes humdrum lives. I mentioned “Piggybank” (a story in my short story collection The Wounded), which was constructed in an episodic circle, self-contained, and able to be consumed in one sitting; the diametric opposite, let’s say, of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

House of Large Sizes was a challenge because I wanted to write a big novel about the hero’s journey that ordinary readers could lose themselves within, but that would also be recognized for its ambitions by specialists in mythic structure. I loved the hard work it took to outwit the opposing forces in my own psyche, which pull me on the one side toward intellectualism and on the other toward popularism. I hope I have successfully unified all my bits here and that you will enjoy my House of Large Sizes.



Dunkirk and all That

This is the ‘Endeavour’–the last of the cockle boats that made the rescue run to Dunkirk early in World War 2–one of the reasons I always make a pilgrimage to the Peterboat Inn, in Leigh-on-sea, Essex, where I spent part of my youth.

The gentleman in the picture is my old schoolmate Simon Osborne, the son of a very lucky cockle fisherman. Leigh is the center of the cockle industry in the UK. The pub is mentioned in my story “Piggybank” which is collected in The Wounded and other stories about sons and fathers. If you’ve read that story and wondered what’s true in it, I really did pull a blind boy out of the sea. It was nothing really, but for about an hour I was hailed as a hero. It’s weirdly connected in my mind to the heroes of the cockle boats, all mixed up with sadness, pride and loss.

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of those ‘finest hours’ wherein all the small boats of southern England risked the treacherous English Channel to rescue the soldiers trapped on the beach as the Nazis advanced. It was both a British defeat and British victory. As William Manchester says it, “…English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s bleeding sons…”

There are only a few people left in the world who remember this ‘glorious’ defeat at Dunkirk. My friend’s father banged his head as the cockle boats from Leigh-on-sea prepared to leave to bring back their share of ‘pongos’. The military wouldn’t let him go because he had a concussion. The cockle boat he would have sailed in, Renown LO88, hit a mine on the way back and all were killed. His son, my pal Simon Osborne, wouldn’t be here if not for that bumped head. And if so many of those men had not been rescued from that beach, maybe none of us would be here.

The lost crew, Lukie Osborne , Frank Osborne, Harry Noakes and Harold Porter are all memorialized in the graveyard of St. Clements Church, a lovely Elizabethan building which overlooks the estuary. As a kid I would sit on the tombs, look out to the great river in the distance and the rising land of Kent beyond, and dream of being a hero. Such is the fate of little boys who become men. You’ll find that proverbial hero’s journey in nearly all my work, including the recently published House of Large Sizes.


How HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES finally found print

In the late Nineties my writing students, not content that I had written and published The Wounded and other stories about sons and fathers, in part at least, to demonstrate a wide range of “point of view” for them, insisted that I write a novel. The trouble was I had little kids and had always suffered a debilitating fear of destitution–the result of a wobbly upbring (another story)–and I struggled to justify applying the necessary time.

I worked long hours teaching writing classes and coaching one-on-one to make sure my kids wouldn’t suffer the same fate I had. I grew used to the role of teaching artist rather than that of a full-time writer. After I managed to create some semblance of economic security I turned my attention to an idea that had been hovering in my consciousness for a long time. This would become House of Large Sizes.

The Wounded drew largely from my own life and the lives of those close to me. It was inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners and Hemingway’s In Our Time and the connected modernist stories could collectively be categorized as a fragmented roman a clef. Despite the pleasure that book gave me to write, I didn’t want to repeat the technique. I wanted to write a novel that was completely drawn from my imagination, and my training in archetypal structures, which has fascinated me since being introduced in college to that seminal structuralist work by Northrup Frye, An Anatomy of Criticism. Hence, my book would somehow echo the first extant Occidental story: ‘Gilgamesh’.

I visited New Orleans, which has always seemed to me like a good analogy for the underworld, and began looking for elements to support the story of a younger brother who follows his older brother to Hades to stop him undergoing unsanctioned gender reassignment. I had no idea what I was in for! After barely sleeping for a week, and having extraordinary dreams, I got myself back to Minneapolis, and, during an intense period of marital upheaval, marathon running and teaching, I banged out a draft. It was always titled House of Large Sizes.

I wasn’t particularly pleased with the draft so set it aside to cool off. Then Hurricane Katrina devastated the town I had grown to love, and either killed or dispersed most of my Voodoo sources. Not wanting to exploit that disaster I set the book aside and then fretted about it for a decade. Then, in 2014, after starting Calumet Editions–a very new kind of publishing house–my wise partner Gary Lindberg asked me how long I thought it was since Katrina, and I realized that time enough had passed and that I felt comfortable working on the book again.

Luckily House of Large Sizes was in pretty good shape, but the work to bring it up to the highest editorial standard was intense. I’m pleased with the result and feel like an anvil has been lifted from my shoulders, allowing new work to start roaring out of me. Writing makes me happy; I’m happy again, and I hope you enjoy reading House of Large Sizes.