Serpent Blog

Come and See, a gift from Sean Penn 
Last night, without warning or intention, I was transformed by a film. I mean utterly changed. I am still, 12 hours later, stunned. And itís been so long since this has happened that I have forgotten that film is the most powerful medium of expression thus far invented by man. My body is affected. My mind is reeling with images, emotions. How do I even process such a thing? I write about it.

I was invited by a friend, film producer and musician Mitch Stein, to attend a screening at the Rafael Film Center of a Russian movie called Come and See. Last night the Rafael kicked off its Films of My Life series with Sean Penn, who presented the movie and led a discussion at the end. I did not attend this event to see this film. I had never heard of it. I came to see Sean Penn, and to hopefully shove a small envelope into his hand that contained a DVD with a video of my book trailer and a personal pitch in which I speak directly to him, asking him to consider directing the screen adaptation of my novel, Serpent Box.

Selfish motives do not go unpunished (or unrewarded). For what transpired on that movie screen last night was, unequivocally, the most intense cinematic experience of my life; and I studied film and film theory in college. I have seen Kenneth Anger, and Luis Bunuel, and Maya Duren, David Lynch, Eisenstein, Fellini Ė I have seen some very powerful films. But Come and See, my God friends, this movie pulled my guts out from my rear end and stuffed them back in through my mouth.

Come and See is the story of a young Belorussian boy, maybe 14 years old, who idealistically leaves his rural village to fight the Nazis during WW II. But Red Badge of Courage this is not. Come and See is a stark visage of what war, and what evil, truly is, and it presents this truth, the transformative power that war and hatred has over an individual, as well as a population, in the most striking way I have ever witnessed on film.

Come and See is a sensory overload. Light, darkness, shadow, muted color. Sound, music, ambient noises, ear-splitting tones, dull islands of pure silence. You see and feel this film more viscerally than a great novel. In fact, in the hands of a filmmaker Elem Klimov, a film is more powerful and more present than a novel. The filmmakers here show an absolute mastery over every cinematic tool at their disposal. The acting (especially this little boy) is sublime. The editing is brilliant. The story itself, timeless, horrible, necessary. There is one riveting and unforgettable scene after another. It is a tour de force of sight, sound, smell, tactile sensations, tastes Ė ALL your senses are engaged. Come and See is a bleak heroís quest told through the eyes of a child who literally ages before your eyes. I will never forget this kidís face. I will never forget this film. As a complete film Ė story, acting, visuals, technique and emotional impact -it is the greatest movie I have ever seen.

Sean Penn gave this gift to me and I am now passing it on to you. I urge all film lovers to rent Come and See. But be warned. It is VERY hard to watch. Several people in the crowded San Rafael theatre could not. They simply got up and left. What a shame. To turn your head from this movie is to turn your head from truth. While the film is not particularly gory, it is violent and gritty and dirty and permeated with a pathos that bludgeons. There are scenes of shocking cruelty, but if youíve seen Schindlerís List or Saving Private Ryan, youíve seen worse and you owe yourself this. Bear in mind that sound is very important in this movie, so turn the volume up and persevere, I urge you, persevere through this movie. It will leave you breathless.

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Shackleton, Jacob Flint, and Me 
When you're writing you first novel, or really when you're writing anything that comes from your heart, you're in uncharted territory. But you must struggle, for anything real and true. You must take those risks. In such endeavors, doubt, is your ally my friends, and certainty is a sure sign you've taken a wrong turn.

Monday, February 25, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco

I was anxious to get started today and even anxious to write to you. Thoughts have been bubbling through my head all morning and not all of them bad. Since I am so ready to go, I may not write a long letter. But I promise you that it will be scattered and lively. On the whole, I am very pleased with my writing Ė I mean the words and sentences and paragraphs of the book. But I still have the nagging feeling that I am not digging deep enough, that I am not tapping into the essence of the work. I have been good about describing the external landscapes of my characterís worlds and I have been good about describing action and building momentum but perhaps I have been ignoring the most important landscape of all and that is the mind of Jacob Flint. Do I even know what he is thinking? Am I, as the writer, over-thinking this? Does one need to think of this? Do I really need scenes and or descriptions of his thoughts? Or are actions sufficient to explain them? Does he have great fear? Great doubt? Great bouts of self-deprecation and if so how do those feelings manifest themselves? So far, he is doing. He is being. He is acting. It is almost as if he is on auto-pilot and perhaps this makes sense, to a point, but what is that point and how will I know when I get to it?

Last week I wrote most of chapter thirty-two in long-hand in my notebook and I suppose it will take me most of this week to type it up and turn it into something that makes sense (to me I mean). It is about fifteen hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages with exposition, scene and dialog all mixed in. This chapter is the preparation for Jacobís first solo revival and in it someone very close to him will die but I wonít say who (though you can probably guess). The only two people close to him who are not here are his mother and the old woman (but the old woman is already dead). Now I think Iíve got to cut his legs out from under him and I have to tell you Iím scared as Hell. More scared than he is I think. This next scene is crucial, and a turning point, and I think all my conceptions may be wrong, but I wonít know until itís done. I wish I could write faster and increase my word count. But I have to have faith that this is how it is meant to be done. I donít mean that I should not push myself, because I think I should, but I just feel Iím worrying too much. I wish I could show you what I have written and I wish you could reassure me but I know that that would only be a crutch. I canít rely on help or good weather to get me through this expedition. Like Ernest Shackleton, I must merely persevere. I only hope I donít wind up eating my dog. Spring is here soon, and thus the thaw, and when these ice-floes break apart maybe a ship will come. Stay well, and rest assured that I am giving this my whole heart and soul because I want you to be proud..


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The Green Hills of Africa 
More Serpent Box letters. 7 years ago I was in the thick of it and all I had to keep me going was Andrew Wilson and Hemingway..."I am all flourish and pomp. Iím a green-horned kid, all pistols and flash. If writers were gun fighters, I would be decked out in silver and black with tassels hanging from my gloves and Hemingway would be Wyatt Earp, all calm and cool and dark and subdued."

Tuesday, February 19, 2002
Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco


I had a good run yesterday. I felt like shit but I managed six hand-written pages in the notebook and none of it even in real time. It was all exposition. No dialog. Not real action. I love that kind of writing. Iím afraid of it, but I love it. Weíll see what happens today. I am getting a late start (itís already 10:20) and it is raining. Sometimes I am surprised at how prolific I can be off-routine.

Today I will also finally finish Green Hills of Africa, a book which at first surprised me at how boring it was but has since, in the second half, become almost astounding. There is one part, covered by perhaps three chapters, in which EH is in pursuit of Kudu. He has one day left in country and no Kudu. His luck is running out and he fears not getting one. But after much effort he manages a huge, beautiful bull, the taking of which may be the best passage of descriptive dialog I have read in a long time. It is on pages 230-231 in the Simon & Schuster Touchstone paperback. Pay particular attention to the description of the fallen bull. It sends shivers up my spine and draw tears from me. He is so damn good that it kills me. Itís going to take me years and years to better him. How in Godís name does he show such restraint? I am all flourish and pomp. Iím a green-horned kid, all pistols and flash. If writers were gun fighters, I would be decked out in silver and black with tassels hanging from my gloves and Hemingway would be Wyatt Earp, all calm and cool and dark and subdued. You would be Doc Holiday sans TB.

Okay, so today I get back into it. And I discovered something important yesterday. Itís funny how you make little connections and little discoveries that shed light on your own characters. But this is big. This is potentially huge. You see, a sign-follower must invoke the Holy Spirit before engaging in dangerous acts of faith. It is the spirit who protects him. This is called the anointment of the spirit, and is accomplished through the combination of living a true, clean life, and by prayer. A sign follower must attain and maintain a state of mind conducive to the coming of the spirit. I imagine that this is much like meditation. It requires work, great effort and it is not full proof. It can fail. The spirit can not come. But Jacob you see was born with the spirit in him Ė like John the Baptist (see Luke1:15). He need not invoke the spirit, the spirit is already there. He can tap into it anytime. But he does not know this yet. And the question is: what does this mean? And this is a huge question Andrew, huge. Too big.

You can tell David Plante that I am following his advice in spades, I am writing about what is much, much greater than myself. I have the naivete of a child, and my ignorance is my strength. This is what I have in common with Jacob.


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Another Guest Blog from Don Williams: It could've been all different, Jack... 
'It could've been all different, Jack... You got to believe that'
By Don Williams

By way of explaining a first-person scene he'd written in which a mother drowns her baby girl in a bathtub, the late great John Updike told me once in an interview, "In a novel of any length you should be able to enter some other character's mind. The genius of the novel is to demonstrate different points of view."

It's not a notion favored by those who demonize enemies in order to make short work of them. Anyone who's tried to publicly analyze motives and psychology of terrorists knows how quickly such missionary work draws down the wrath of inflamed citizens.

That attitude extends not only to those who would understand terrorists, political foes and culture warriors, but especially those who express any empathy for the crooks, liars and greed mongers who perpetrated our current economic fiasco.

But those who would try and take the measure of their humanity as we march our Bernie Madoffs to guillotine or country club prison could do worse than read Inman Majors' novel, The Millionaires (W. W. Norton, 2009, $24.95.).

It's a book I loved reading two or three weeks ago, and one that I've thought about almost daily since.

The novel's more than loosely based on what's known as the Butcher banking empire of East Tennessee. It's a sort of true-life tale of would-be kings who lose their Midas touch or---to mix my myths a bit---fly too close to the sun, like Icarus. Flying ever higher, they find themselves out of their element, borrowing outrageously and moving funds around in a desperate, possibly well-intended effort to leave a mark on the landscape.

And leave one they do. Like Jake and C.H. Butcher, who were seminal in bringing the 1982 World's Fair to Knoxville, as well as a pair of gleaming towers still pointing to the heavens above that ever-fairer city, Roland and J. T. Cole bring a world-class exhibition to the fictive town of Glennville where they build their own towers.

If asked to describe the towers in one word, you might be tempted to say phallic. A truer word might be crystalline, for the real life towers not only mirror the skies and mountains of Tennessee, they're like crystals in which an astute observer might've caught glimmerings of the future---a future of greed and corruption we're experiencing still.

A quarter-century after the real life Butcher banking scandals, their crimes have been rendered almost quaint by a litany of scandal and mismanagement on an international scale, including the Savings & Loan fiasco, Enron, Madoff, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, AIG, bank after bank, and a fistful of Bush Administration political scandals.

One could look at the Butchers as canaries in the mines of an nation that thought it was building towers to the heavens when, in fact, it was digging itself ever deeper into a pit of moral and financial despair that brought multitudes of investors, pensioners and others down with them.

And yet. Inman Majors has managed to render his similarly bereft brothers sympathetic, even lovable. He shows us their hard-scrabble past, the banal beginnings of their banking deals, their brotherly chemistry and competitiveness that got out of hand. Some critics have misunderstood what Majors is up to here, and write his book off as humor or satire. But what Majors is really up to in this 475 page book---which does contain formidable humor in the Tom Wolfe tradition---is tragedy.

In that way he resembles the great social realism novelists of the twentieth century. His protagonist brothers could be seen as hill country versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Robert Penn Warren's Willie Stark in All the King's Men or Rabbit Angstrom in Updike's Rabbit is Rich. Yet the Coles are richly defined by their own quirks, visions, vices and manners, and so rise above stock comparisons. We meet their lovable children, wives, lovers, advisers, bartenders, friends, foes, employees and townspeople who knew them when.

There's something humbling yet bracing about watching such rich and powerful men get their comeuppance, because most of us at one time or another have envied such people. I'm reminded of pithy words from commentator William Safire, who once wrote, "Nixon looked down on the Kennedys with utmost envy."

So true. And yet, J.T. and Roland Cole are rendered more real than even the Kennedys because they're like us--especially those of us who hail from south of the Mason Dixon line and west of the Appalachian Trail.

Underneath their wool-blend suits they're scruffy and country, rooted in a community that's in turn rooted in the earth. They're the pride of an outlying community still based in large part on cattle and corn and hay and tobacco.

Yet somehow they've managed to fly to the sun, as symbolized by an architectural bauble that defines Glennville much as the Sunsphere has come to symbolize Knoxville.

There's a scene in The Millionaires that, purposely or not, invokes Gatsby reaching with arms stretched to embrace the light at the end of Daisy's pier. It comes toward the end of the book, at night, at a lavish party on a lighted lawn brimming with food, drink, laughter, an orchestra and beautiful people.

Standing on the fringe of the party talking to Mike Teague, the true protagonist of this book, Roland stretches out his arms as if to embrace the whole estate, the very stars in the sky and asks, "I mean, am I really standing here? Tell me. Am I?" And you feel the wonder of just how far he's come and just how bitter his fall will be.

Like the best of books, The Millionaires grants its subjects their humanity, and leaves you pondering the imponderable, not only about the Coles, but about real life counterparts. What if they'd been able to stave off inspectors for six more months until some of their investments came to fruition? What if Roland had won the governorship? What if the fictive counterpart to the real-life President Carter, a close friend of close friends, had won re-election in 1980? What if they'd gained acceptance from old money in Glennville?

Many novels resonate in mind thanks to a a line or two, like those quoted above. In All the King's Men, the lines that live on for me are, "It could've been all different, Jack. You got to believe that."

Like Fitzgerald, Warren, Wolfe and Updike before him, Majors makes you believe it.

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A Good Day to Die 
I honestly have no idea what to do next. I am clueless, really. My characters are all standing on a cliff, the void below obscured in dense mist. As I put pen to paper today, I step into new territory. I have the same feeling now that I did when I stepped off the plane in Japan almost ten years ago. Where the Hell am I? What is this place?

[excerpts from A Serpent's Journal, February 15-18, 2002]

Higher Grounds Cafť, San Francisco

Yesterday I finally finished (chapter) thirty-one and broke the three-hundred page mark. I feel good about this and even a little proud. I have taken a twelve-page short story and have so far squeezed three-hundred pages out of it.

I am at ninety-thousand words and am thinking Iíll go one-fifty or so before completing the revision draft. But now I face the daunting task of making it all come together, of making it all make sense. I have more fear today than I did the day before I began.

I canít speak this language. I canít even read the signs. Where do I go? What do I do? How do I even begin? Iíll do as I always do. Iíll start with a feeling that is tied to an image and see where the dream leads. God this is exciting. Do you still feel it even after you have written many stories and many books? Does it stay or go away? I love this feeling, Iím giddy with it. Today, is a good day to die.

February 18 , 2002

I re-read the last two chapters, focusing on thirty. (chapter) Thirty is where Jacob drinks lye for the first time and has a bizarre vision of sorts. There is now no question that he is a blessed child, more than ready to lead a revival of his own. His father can no longer deny that he has power, nor can he hinder his development into a great man. He cannot deny the promise that the boy holds.

His physical appearance, and his shy personality, belie his gift. He is like a young athlete, a Tiger Woods, or the son of an Olympian. In the shadow of his father he stagnates. It is time for him to move on, not to a greater teacher, but to a different kind of teacher Ė in a different kind of arena. This much I know. The rest is all fuzzy to me. So it is time now for Jacob to lead the show. Weíll see if I can get some pages in today.


Crazy Horse

Today is a good day to die. This quote is attributed to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse from the Battle of Little Bighorn, but is a war cry of the Lakota Sioux. When researching it I stumbled upon this wonderfully written account of that day. I am trying to locate the man who wrote this. It made me weep:

Some time in the early spring of 1876, Sitting Bull climbed to a hilltop, seeking a vision. In his dream, a great dust storm swirled down upon a small white cloud that resembled a Lakota village. Through the whirlwind, Sitting Bull could see soldiers marching. The little cloud was swallowed up for a time, but the storm eventually dissipated and the village emerged unharmed.

It was an encouraging dream. And in the spring of 1876, the Lakota needed encouragement, for General Philip Sheridan had already drawn up a plan that would send three columns of soldiers to find Sitting Bull and drive him and his followers onto the reservations.

One column, led by Brigadier General George Crook, was to move north from Fort Fetterman; another, under Colonel John Gibbon, was to march east from western Montana; and the third, commanded by General Alfred Terry, would march west from Fort Abraham Lincoln.

With Terry went the 566 enlisted men and 31 officers of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer. They moved out to the tune of "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
On June 6th, some 3,000 Lakota and Cheyenne were camped along Rosebud Creek in Montana. There they held their most sacred ritual -- a sun dance -- in which prayers were offered and vows made to Wakan Tanka, their Great Spirit.

Sitting Bull slashed his arms one hundred times as a sign of sacrifice. Then he had another vision: The soldiers came again to attack his people -- "as many as grasshoppers," he said -- but this time they were upside down, their horse's hooves in the air, their hats tumbling to the ground as they rode into the Lakota camp.
On the morning of June 17th, General Crook's column had stopped to brew coffee on the bank of the Rosebud, sure that no Indians would dare attack so large a force as theirs. Then, suddenly, Crazy Horse and more than 500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors rode down upon them. Crook's command included Crow and Shoshone scouts, eager to fight the tribes that had once taken their lands, and in the desperate fight that followed, the Indian scouts twice rescued the soldiers by riding through the Lakota and Cheyenne ranks. Unnerved by the enemy show of force, Crook withdrew the next morning.
The Lakota and Cheyenne moved north and formed a new camp, where for six days they celebrated their victory along a winding stream they called the Greasy Grass. Whites called it the Little Bighorn.

On June 21st, Custer met on the Yellowstone River with Colonel John Gibbon and their superior, Brigadier General Alfred Terry. They knew nothing of Crook's retreat.

Terry ordered Gibbon to march to the mouth of the Little Bighorn, while Custer and the Seventh Cavalry would try to locate the Indians and drive them down the valley toward Gibbon and annihilation.

As Custer rode off, Gibbon called out to him, "Now Custer, don't be greedy. . . . wait for us."

"No," he said, "I will not."

Fearful that Sitting Bull would elude him, Custer pushed his column hard -- 12 miles the first day, 33 the second, 28 the third. The exhausted troopers began to grumble about the man they privately called "Hard ***."

As they followed the Indians' trail, they did not grasp the full meaning of the fresh pony tracks that seemed to cross and recross it. In the last few days, 3,000 more Indians -- Lakotas, Arapahoes and Cheyennes -- had left the reservations to join Sitting Bull. His encampment now stretched out for three miles along the Greasy Grass, a gathering of more than six thousand Indians, eighteen hundred of them warriors.

On the evening of June 24th, Sitting Bull made his way to a ridge that overlooked the encampment, gave offerings to the Great Spirit and prayed for the protection of his people.

Custer knew nothing of the terrain and could not tell how many Indians awaited him. But it had been a surprise attack that had destroyed Black Kettle's Cheyenne on the Washita eight years earlier. With the weapon of surprise, a victory seemed just as likely here.

Custer hurried toward the Little Bighorn. He saw dust rising over a ridge just ahead of him and thought the Indians were already on the move to escape.

It was now or never.

Some 40 warriors appeared, then began racing back toward their camp. Custer sent Major Marcus Reno and three companies -- 140 men -- in pursuit, promising to support them. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was about to begin.

Reno's men crossed the river, formed a thin skirmish line, and began firing into one edge of the village, assuming that Custer would reinforce them. They were soon outnumbered and Reno ordered a retreat.

The soldiers were falling into the village, just as Sitting Bull's vision had predicted.

More warriors swarmed out of the village, but still Custer did not come. Instead of following Reno, he had led his five companies of 210 men toward a ridge, convinced the Indians were fleeing and that by charging down into the village from there, he could cut them off.

Custer was outnumbered more than four-to-one, but he led his troops down toward the village, firing as they came. Cheyenne warriors led by Lame White Man, Hunkpapa Lakotas under Gall, and Oglalas under Crazy Horse rode out to turn Custer back. Stunned at the sight of hundreds of warriors headed right at them, Custer and his men stopped short and began a headlong retreat toward the summit of a long, high ridge.

Some of the Indians remembered later that the legs of the men and the horses trembled as they scrambled up the slope.

Crazy Horse:

I called to my men: ďThis is a good day to die: follow me.Ē...As we rushed upon them the [soldiers] dismounted to fire, but they did very poor shooting. They held their horse's reins on one arm while they were shooting, but their horses were so frightened that they pulled the men all around and a great many of their shots went up into the air and did us no harm.


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