Friday, May 12, 2017

"Before We Sleep"

Jeffrey Lent was born in Vermont and grew up there and in western New York State. He studied literature and psychology at Franconia College in New Hampshire and SUNY Purchase. His first novel, In the Fall, was a national bestseller. His other novels include Lost Nation, A Peculiar Grace, After You've Gone, and A Slant of Light, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award and a Washington Post Best Book of 2015.

Lent applied the Page 69 Test to his latest novel, Before We Sleep, and reported the following:
Page 69:
her teeth and ate it down before the warmth of the day could smear her fingers. Then drank the cold Coke and felt ready all over again. Even, perhaps, more so than ever.

The day was still clear and growing hot but as she passed into Machias she felt herself grow cool, slightly remote, calculating. As if what lay ahead would be happening only to some unknown version of herself. She drove through the town, peering at street signs and doubled back and stopped at an ice cream stand and asked the girl directions to Cannon Street and made her repeat them and got back in the truck and turned back once again. She went two blocks and pulled a right and went two more blocks and turned left and glided along, the radio now on but the music low, a thrum in the background.

Cannon Street was only a few blocks long and dead-ended at a low fence beyond which stretched the ball fields of a school, the long low two-story pale brick building of the school out ahead in the heat-haze, a school recently built. She sat parked for a moment trying to take it all in. The houses just passed were mostly familiar to her, old two-over-four houses that had been expanded over the years, most white with green or black trim and shutters, a couple painted yellow with cream trim. But there stood a difference between these houses and those from home and it came to her: it was the expanse of sky, the lack of hills. She was upon a tableland, close to the ocean. She wiped sweat from her brow and reversed in a three-point tight turn and went back down the street. Now peering close, seeking numbers on doors, above doors, some houses lacking them altogether or hidden from her sight. Where she could spot them. Then saw 64 on the left-hand side and changed her focus to the other side and slid along a block easily and then slowed and nudged the truck almost against the curb, peering into the shade of the trees, the halos of sunlight. She passed a man out mowing his lawn in green workpants and a white T-shirt and behind him saw the oval plaque that read 47.
Before We Sleep alternates chapters, for the most part, between a mother and daughter, telling the story of a family in post-World War II America. The daughter's chapters all take place in June of 1967, as she's enroute to try and learn the identity of the man she believes may be her biological father. Katey Snow is seventeen and is coming out of rural Vermont into the suddenly charged and changing world around her, but which so far she's mostly glimpsed through television and magazine coverage of events distant for her. The most palpable thread of that change that's reached her so far is music, which again, largely enters her through radio. Like most teenagers at the time she only owned a handful of records, so radio is the medium of change for her, literally change coming through the air. I think that's an important image to hold here, to understand Katey and her background. It's challenging to write about the 1960's because that era now exists largely in a cliched collective conscience, so I worked very hard to have Katey be open but naive, thrilled and a bit frightened also, not only of what she discovers externally along the way but how she works through these processes internally.

At first glance page 69 seems to hold little of this larger theme. She's arrived in Machias, Maine, and is seeking the last known address she has for the man she's trying to track down. All she knows about him is that he was an old army buddy of her father, who came to visit the spring before she was born. At this point in the novel the reader also doesn't know the story of what took place during that visit. But there are a couple of key points on this page.

The first and most obvious is that she has the radio of the pickup on. It's turned low, described as a thrum. She could've just turned it off, but doesn't; the music is there, running through her. In the way of teenagers everywhere it helps keep her in place as it helps drive her forward. Now, a bit of an aside here. 1967 was an extraordinarily explosive year for music. The number of breakout and ambitious and different, even difficult number of bands and albums that appeared that year was indeed a pinnacle, a banner year that has yet to be repeated. It's intriguing to compare a list of the top 100 albums from 1966 and 1967. '66 was interesting, very much a mixed bag of rock and roll, jazz, soft pop, and folk music. 1967 was, to use a phrase from the times, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll. And this was the critical time and defining aura that Katey was moving through.

Beyond that, on page 69, Katey's in a strange place. She's in the neighborhood, tracking down the house. But she's also keenly aware of what also isn't there. She's in Maine, close to the ocean and the land is mostly flat and the sky is large and close. She comes from a place where hills and mountains define the landscape, the horizon. She's nervous about what may be a pending encounter with what she's seeking and this simple fact of geography adds to her nervousness. I hope this shows not only her youth and vulnerability but also her growing awareness of self, of who she is, partly because of where and how she grew up. We are all products not only of family and education but of environment, and a wholly new environment can be provoking and exhilarating- it can also be daunting.

But the single most important aspect of page 69 lies in the first two sentences of the first full paragraph: ...she felt herself grow cool, slightly remote, calculating. As if what lay ahead would be happening only to some unknown version of herself. Pretty much literally this is the first time in her life that she's entering a situation where almost everything is unknown to her, and one that holds potentially high stakes for her. She has no idea what to expect and yet also feels she can handle whatever comes her way- she even knows she can present herself as she chooses and this factor gives her advantage, even though it's unclear to her yet how or what that advantage will be. Katey is learning parts of her own strengths that she might've glimpsed before, but never felt as keenly as she does in this strange and important moment of her life.

Finally, because it is only page 69 there's a whole lot of story still untold, unknown not only to the readers but the characters themselves. As the writer, one of the things I love most about first draft is taking the nuggets of ideas for the story and then learning who these people are and what they actually get up to as the book moves through me and onto the page. I work from only a two or three page rough outline, more of a sketch of ideas, so first draft is an act of discovery. Everything after that is refining and clarifying. But by the time one gets to page 69 a pretty clear sense of the unfolding story is well in place.
Visit Jeffrey Lent's website.

--Marshal Zeringue