Friday, September 04, 2009

Coming of Age, Part Five: Internal Wars and the New Self

During my tenth grade year I began to sense, for the first time, a fear of not realizing my creative potential, fulfilling my deeper identity as a writer and thus being affirmed by community as a poignant voice in the wind. This fear became a stone in my shoe, a quiet but unsettling whisper that has nagged and kept me restless and dissatisfied, wondering what else is out there. At times it has paralyzed my creativity and motivation, leading to a sense of resignation and an almost intentional embrace of Thoreau's observation that most men “lead lives of quiet desperation.”

It is blatantly obvious that the clearest way out of a sense of not fulfilling one’s potential as a writer is to simply write. Emotions, distractions and even the mythical “writer’s block,” however, have their say and get in the way of the words, bottling up the poetry and diminishing the relevance of the creative idea. To be a writer intrinsically means to be somewhat of a scrambled mess. The darkness and constant interplay of emotions and passions that create the ebb and flow—and the highs and lows—also are what produce the scattered moments of brilliance that make the words meaningful, true and life-changing.

I had enough momentum remaining from that hinge passage of a summer to produce one final adolescent novel, by far my longest and most bizarre. During the late fall and early winter I cranked out Locust, written while I was immersed in Stephen King novels. This explains a lot about the psychological horror genre that characterizes my 407 half-sized typewritten pages.

In particular, it was King’s The Dead Zone that inspired my plot. King’s story concerns Johnny Smith, who wakes up from a car accident with clairvoyant powers that torment him and lead to a fateful mission to save the country from a diabolical politician. My Locust protagonist, Jack Garrel, also is tormented by his mind but in a different manner.

The story is broken into three parts. In the first, “The Dark Journey,” Garrel and his colleague Frank Krossinger are in Nicaragua, and I demonstrate how I had learned just enough Spanish to be dangerous with sentences such as, “Come to my casa.” Garrel and Krossinger write for The New York Scope, covering the war between the rebels and the government (just a few years before the whole Iran Contra scandal broke). Garrel has horrible nightmares that usually involve him being propelled by a force beyond his control and pummeled by frightening images of a white dragon; menacing buildings; missiles and other symbols of war, set to familiar rock music such as The Doors’ ballad “The End” strewn together in maddening montage.

One fateful day Krossinger is lured by a stranger to buy some drugs at an undisclosed location, where he is kidnapped and strapped to a sort of “mind machine” by an evil genius (of course) named Dr. Wesley Handor. Krossinger is made to watch horrible images that strike close to home, such as the depiction of a former lover being attacked in a grotesque manner by a giant snake. While Krossinger suffers, Garrel is across town and nearly killed by an explosion. He wakes up after a nine-month coma (a not so subtle nod to Mr. Smith of Dead Zone) in a hospital in Havana, Cuba, where a Dr. Johnson tries to help him make sense of things to little avail. With his colleague Krossinger missing, Garrel returns to New York and learns that his sister, another New York-based writer, is missing as well.

Garrel’s magazine editor then suggests a “relaxing” assignment in a small town called Mayport, home to a mysterious mental hospital that warrants an investigative piece of journalism. The hospital has long been shut down by the government, yet faces and shadows are sometimes observed in the windows. Garrel (perhaps stupidly) agrees to go, and the novel’s second part features the writer arriving in Mayport and meeting the small-town newspaper editor who will be his temporary guide…

…and things immediately grow quite bizarre. Garrel has a late-night encounter at a hotel lounge with two individuals whom he later learns do not really exist. His nightmares intensify with the ubiquitous white dragon. His attempts to get into the grounds of the Mayport mental hospital lead to an encounter with droid-like guards.

Days pass and Garrel is getting nowhere on his assignment for the magazine, his editor growing impatient. Realizing that the mental hospital resembles a structure Garrel often sees in his nightmares, he visits a psychiatrist; and grows even more uneasy when the doctor chronicles some of the supposed history of the mental hospital. Somewhere in the conversation the shrink alludes to Dr. Handor, who had tortured his friend Krossinger.

The book’s final section, “Living Nightmares,” kicks off with Garrel imprisoned at the mental hospital by none other than Handor and the psychiatrist. Handor resembles the white dragon Garrel has seen in his nightmares; he reveals that he has been tracking Garrel for years as a chosen subject on whom to test his “mind machine.” Garrel, Handor says, reminds him of his late son who was a brilliant writer.

During Garrel’s escape he runs into, much to his shock, the Dr. Johnson from the Cuban hospital, and learns that several people are being kept in some sort of frozen hibernation chamber (a la Han Solo in the first Star Wars trilogy?) within the mental hospital. He suspects that Krossinger and his missing sister are among the frozen chosen. Garrel runs to freedom outside of the hospital, only to be arrested by a corrupt local sheriff who works for Handor; but almost as miraculously as the Apostle Peter’s midnight express, a deputy named Sam Smith sneaks him out of jail.

Garrel resolves that he must return to the hospital to face Handor, the “locust” who will not stop his assault until one of them is destroyed, the one who has somehow caused his nightmares. He and Smith, well-armed, storm the mental hospital to free the frozen captives and face Handor, and they riddle the evil doctor with bullets before Handor crashes through a top-story window. After they free the captives and rush out of the mental hospital the building strangely self-destructs. Just before the implosion, Garrel sees Handor’s image in the same window he had fallen through just minutes earlier.

Reunited with Krossinger and his sister, Garrel heads back to New York to try to get his life together. The novel’s final scene shifts to a hitchhiker who also is traveling toward New York: Dr. Handor.

As I re-read Locust I am amazed, as I am with most of my early novels, by the sheer patience I had to bang out page after page on a typewriter; yanking out and sliding in sheet after sheet of paper, backing up with corrective tape to fix typos and misspellings. I also am perplexed that I remember so little of what I had written, and cannot even picture myself giving birth to the text. It is like stumbling across someone else’s work, yet familiar enough that I know a part of me remains in the pages.

Similarly, I am not quite sure how to characterize this final novel’s enduring message or theme. I was grappling with the madness of war; the power of the mind; the poison of unresolved inner conflicts; and the sheer evil that can plague a person as he descends deeper into darkness and madness.

I have learned how often the wars we fight are internal, and can leave us quite scarred and battle-hardened. At some point we have to storm the gates of the structure that has imprisoned us, and take the risk to find some resolution. We seek some healing for the crop amid the assault of the locusts, so that there might yet be hope for a bountiful harvest of authenticity.

Perhaps the structure that has served to incarcerate me is a lingering lack of self-esteem, affixed firmly to an early foundation of loneliness mixed with fantasy. Too often I feel like I am straddling a pair of lives, the John who connects with the world and the one who is engaged in an idolatrous realm that no one else can touch.

Through grace and my occasional cooperation with the Spirit wind, Christ has made much progress in storming the gates of this teetering yet stubborn structure. His Word, and the words of many others, have compelled me to, as Paul writes in Colossians 3, take off the “old self” and put on the “new self.” As I finished Locust I was almost 16, and still trying to cast off my “old self” but unsure of whom the “new self” should be.


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