Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Salamander Illusions

Richard Brautigan was a counterculture novelist and poet in the early seventies. His avante-garde novels still sell exceptionally well today at brick and mortar stores. My first novel, Salamander Illusions, used his short chapter format (though not his esoteric style). Agents liked it but thought it too quirky. An agent at Brandt & Hochman, however, suggested I try a small press, and Word Wrangler Publishing in Montana (where Brautigan had spent much time) picked it up. Here are the first two chapters. Like Brautigan's, they are very similar to flash fiction.

1. The Humming of a Refrigerator

And so I was sitting in the kitchen at eleven p.m. on a Wednesday night, and it was July and the window was open and the refrigerator was humming. I was drinking a bottle of beer, and the humming was the background radiation of the universe, the universal om, or so it seemed. It so happened that I was humming and buzzing as well, perhaps from the beer, perhaps from cosmic radiation, or perhaps because the ghost of Richard Brautigan sat in the chair on the other side of the Formica table and said “hi.” In the sixties and seventies, Brautigan had been a novelist, a counterculture icon before he entered permanent retirement by offing himself. He was humming a song, and somehow I knew that the song was about trout and watermelon sugar and the Springhill mining disaster and sombreros falling out of the sky and other things he had written about. I’d read Brautigan for many years and had come to this conclusion: He was weird and wrote offbeat prose, but he knew something the rest of us didn’t, something about the strange little cracks in reality which, if examined, can be found to be repositories of that most precious commodity—truth. Odd to find truth inside the San Andreas fault of the modern mind, but Brautigan managed to do just that. I smiled at him, and he smiled back.

“Welcome, Richard Brautigan," I said. "What brings you back here?”

“I think it was the humming of your refrigerator,” he answered. “I can’t be sure.”

We sat in silence for a few minutes until Latino music flared into existence from across the alley like a solar prominence and then died out.

“I’ve been writing stories,” I told him.

“That’s good,” he said. “Your next one should be about a refrigerator humming and a woman sitting here at this table, naked, drinking a beer.”

He smiled, and his moustache spread out like the wings of a condor awakening from a long slumber.

“Is that enough for a story?” I asked him.

“Of course. I can’t think of anything more interesting than a naked woman sitting in the kitchen late at night drinking a beer.”

“But the story doesn’t go anywhere,” I said.

“It has already arrived,” he replied. “Do you want a naked woman to leave your kitchen, a naked woman who is starting to buzz a bit from the beer?”

He had a point.

2. The Story of a Naked Woman

As Brautigan had suggested, Jaguar was sitting at my kitchen table. It was eleven p.m. on a Tuesday night, and she was naked and drinking a beer. The window was open, and Latino music from across the alley mixed with spicy molecules of night air. The refrigerator, of course, was humming.

Jaguar lifted the beer bottle to her lips and then raised it high in the air. She tilted her head back to get the last ounce of Budweiser, and as she did, her long black hair, hanging over the back of a kitchen chair, touched the linoleum floor. If there’s a more beautiful sight than hair going down while a beer bottle goes up, I don’t know what it is. Her bare legs, which seemed to stretch for half a mile or so, were propped up on another kitchen chair. That was, and is, also a beautiful sight to behold. Jaguar, mostly because of her legs, was a long woman—a long cool woman without a black dress or any kind of dress at all—as she sat, naked, listening to the hum of the refrigerator. We were sitting side by side, facing the open window.

“That music,” she said, “—it’s like a hot chili pepper. Or maybe a red neon sign in the darkness. I like it.”

“I do, too,” I said, taking a sip of beer.

We listened to the music for a while, not speaking to each other—just the both of us sitting naked and drinking beer.

“What do you intend to do?” I asked.

“Paint the hum of the refrigerator.”

This was not nearly as esoteric as it sounded. Jaguar was an artist, and I knew what she meant: She wanted to capture on canvas the purity and the eternity contained in the hum of the refrigerator. It was an unwavering sound, although totally unobtrusive, much like cosmic background radiation or a one-note melody.

A warm utterance of air, almost imperceptible, stirred the curtains bunched on either side of the window. Jaguar and I didn’t say anything else to each other for the rest of the night.

The refrigerator was saying everything that needed to be said.

Copyright, William Hammett, 2000.


Bernita said...

One word. Excellent.

Billy said...

Thanks, Bernita!!!

Scott from Oregon said...

Nahhh. bernita got the word wrong.


I would only change one thing. The budweiser for something better...

Billy said...

Thanks, Scott! Book's out of print now, but I do have an expanded version, retitled, that I'd like to shop around more. If I ever do anything with it, I'll let you pick the name of the beer! Agents have balked at the word count of 52K. Seems like 65K is the minumum for fiction according to most agents I've contacted in the last few years. And novellas don't get much representation from what I can see. A pity. Kind of arbitrary, if you ask me. Hey, if a publisher likes something, it'll change the print format and expand the number of pages. Money rules.

Suzan Abrams said...

Hello Billy,
It was so nice of you to have dropped by when I wrote that bit about book-crossing in Dublin.
I'll be back to read this post and and the others too.

Scott from Oregon said...

I am a big fan of the shorter works. Shawshank comes to mind...

Some Vonnegut, and Trout, of course.

I never seem to want to take the time to commit to longer books. I think "I don't want to start this, because I don't want to have to finish it."

In this day and age, one would think shorter works would have more appeal because of our shorter attention spans? We have many choices and interests now. We are flitting in and out of things more.

Maybe we'll see a trend develope?

Billy said...

Thanks, Susan. I look forward to you dropping by.

Scott, Yeah I love novellas, and I would think that shorter would sell better in some markets. As far as Vonnegut, the man is the finest we've had, as far as I'm concerned. I've read his entire canon. If anyone can tell us about the human soul, it is KV. A modern-day Twain in my book.

writtenwyrdd said...

Reminds me of prose poetry. Very lovely stuff.

Tina Trivett said...

This is amazing. Much enjoyed. :)