Monday, May 31, 2021

"The Essence of Nathan Biddle"

Alabama native J. William Lewis is a former lawyer who lives in Shoal Creek, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama.

Born in Chickasaw, Alabama, Lewis grew up in Mobile. He graduated from Spring Hill College (A.B., magna cum laude, English and Philosophy) where he was a member of Alpha Sigma Nu and recipient of the Merihl Award. While in college, Lewis served as editor-in-chief of the literary magazine The Motley. Lewis received his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law and served on the Editorial Board of the Virginia Law Review.

After a clerkship for the Honorable Walter P. Gewin on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Lewis practiced law in Birmingham for over three and a half decades.

Presently, Lewis serves as executive officer of his family’s investment company, Seaman Capital, LLC, and related companies.

He has been married to Lorraine Seaman Lewis for more than half a century.

Lewis applied the Page 69 Test to The Essence of Nathan Biddle, his debut novel, and reported the following:
On page 69, the track coach has been berating and verbally assaulting Kit for his lack of focus and his disdain of discipline. Kit’s reaction to the lecture is to “zone out,“ as the coach puts it. The coach keeps talking while Kit is bent over trying to shut him out, but Kit totally dissociates by creating in his mind an image of a boy mindlessly rolling a stone around the track at school. The boy on the track is “sweating and straining” and “totally bewildered,” and Kit in his mind wants to tell him that the track is an oval and that it goes nowhere, but the boy just stares back in “anguish and bewilderment.” Then the coach’s voice intrudes into Kit’s reverie, shouting his denigrating nickname, “Straw!”: “Are you all right, son?” When he gets no answer from Kit, the coach says, “I’m wonderin’ where you go when you zone out like that, and I’m not the only one wonderin’. You’re unnervin’....”

The protagonist of The Essence of Nathan Biddle is Kit Biddle who is about to enter his last year of prep school. In the prior year, he has sloughed off his studies and his athletic commitments, primarily because he is emotionally off balance due to the murder of his cousin Nathan and the collapse of his obsessive relationship with Anna, who is an almost Pygmalion creation of his imagination. It may be that another page would capture Kit’s existential angst better than page 69 but probably not. Like the coach, a reader who opened the novel to page 69 would not know the experiences that have exacerbated Kit’s malaise or his obsessive need to understand the why of his existence. The coach knows nothing other than that Kit is underperforming obvious capabilities, so that his response is to berate, exhort and belittle. As page 69 reveals, the people around Kit know that he is off balance even if they don’t know why.

Upon reading page 69, an insightful reader will grasp that the boy Kit imagines on the track pushing the stone is Kit himself and that Kit is thus engaging in some narcissism in empathizing with the struggling boy. The task is hard enough but it is made harder because the boy clearly doesn’t know why he is doing what he is doing. The image of the boy rolling a stone mindlessly is clearly the superimposition of Camus’ symbol for existential commitment (even in the face of absurdity) into the context of Kit’s life: He is a runner; the track in context is his hill. Kit is searching for meaning and failing desperately. The coach thinks that he represents obvious meaning--a logical next step for Kit, i.e., an athletic scholarship--and therefore he is as bewildered and frustrated as Kit because neither appreciates the other’s grasp of reality. The Page 69 Test is almost too uncanny in this book.
Visit J. William Lewis's website.

--Marshal Zeringue