Nothing in our culture is immune from being placed in the context of Sept. 11. For instance, in an issue that prominently featured Osama bin Laden’s head on the cover, Time magazine took care to note that its accompanying world music supplement went to press before the attacks, as if the bombings had rendered music either disrespectful or obsolete. Such an attitude recalls the aftermath of the Holocaust, when some prominent Jews proclaimed that, with the knowledge of such horror, art was no longer possible.(1) Others, like survivor Elie Wiesel, argued that at the very least, it was changed forever. “I don’t believe the aim of literature is to entertain, to distract, to amuse,” Wiesel has said. “It used to be. I don’t believe in it anymore.”
All of which is to confess that it’s nearly impossible not to talk about Bill Roorbach’s debut novel, The Smallest Color,(2) without thinking about all the cultural upheaval of the last month. Especially since his novel, published last week by Counterpoint Press, is about the 1960s. And especially since he was the one who brought it up.
“With recent events, a lot of those memories are coming back,” Roorbach said, referring to the ’60s, “all the talk about war and stuff. Although, here’s a case where it’s much clearer what we have to fight about.”
That last statement may be debatable—or, if it’s clear what we have to fight about, it’s not at all clear what we have to fight against. What is clear is that The Smallest Color is about the anger that accompanies times of such confusion. Is the enemy The Man or is he your hard-ass father? Is it possible he could even be your brother?
At the center of Roorbach’s story—which is told in two alternating and eventually interwoven narratives, one set in the summer of 1969, the other in the present—stands Coop Henry, an Olympic ski coach with a bad marriage, a bad crush and a bad secret. Coop’s draft-dodging older brother Hodge, we learn, has been missing since ’69. Coop knows he’s dead but hasn’t said as much to their mother, who finally hires a private detective to poke around for him.
Meanwhile, Coop goes about the messy business of recalling the long, strange journey of that summer, when he was only 15. Addressing his remembrances to Hodge, he confesses his anger toward his parents and the pigs, his worship of his brother and his cross-country quest to find him. He lays out all the sex and the drugs, the laws broken both small and large. And over the course of the novel, the burden of Coop’s secret—which encompasses not only the fact that Hodge died, but how—slowly exerts itself, overwhelming his adult life and forcing all kinds of cathartic confrontations, from the quiet and the poignant to the sort that land you busted up and in jail.
‘IT HAD BEEN BLOWN UP.’
It’s a book that Roorbach has been plugging away at for 10 years now, even as the Temple resident busily published short fiction, essays, journalism and memoir. His story collection Big Bend, released earlier this year, won the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction, and its title story will be produced this season on the National Public Radio program “Selected Shorts.”
Sitting on the couch in his screened-in porch, enjoying the noisy antics of his two dogs and his year-old daughter Alicia, I asked the soft-spoken, pony-tailed Roorbach what kept him committed to Coop’s story for so long.
“What kept me going? I don’t know. I think it was something about the trauma of being a draft-age kid in the late ’60s,” he said. “The trauma of the whole period just stayed with me. And I’ve wanted to talk to myself about that and try to let some of the anger settle down. It was a terrible thing to be involved with, the unclear conflict in Vietnam and the unclear conflict at home. There was a feeling that the generations couldn’t get along, that unity had been busted and nothing was as it had been promised to us when we were 10 or 11. It had all been blown up.”
Roorbach admits that nothing “too horrible” happened to him personally, “but I was left with a legacy of anger,” he said. “I think that looking back now. I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago. But I feel like that’s what the novel has accomplished. It’s let me have my explosion on the page and helped me organize my thinking about the time, and I’ve really been able to let it fall back.”
Until Sept. 11, that is, when some of the old memories reasserted themselves. But in the rush to sort through all the meanings of the terrorist attacks, all the complex repercussions, The Smallest Color might serve as an example that such understandings—invariably as personal as they are social—come only with time.
“That’s something I learned toward the end of this whole process,” Roorbach, 48, said. “Someone called it a ‘coming of middle-age novel,’ and I think that’s perfect. I started the book when I was still youngish, in my 30s. And the things I was learning about myself as I approached middle-age I also learned about the novel.”
This is Roorbach’s second stint in Maine. Most recently he was a tenured professor of creative writing at Ohio State University, but six months ago he quit the job to write full-time and return to what he calls “my kind of scruffy place.” “To me, Maine reminds me of the Connecticut of my childhood,” he said. “There’s still farms left, there’s still dirt roads. I like the Midwest all right, but it was never going to be home. And a friend of mine said to me, ‘My daughter said the other day something about being from Ohio,’ and I thought, oh my God, my daughter’s from Ohio. I don’t want my daughter to be from Ohio. I want her to be from Maine. So we did one more half-year at Ohio State and then I quit my tenured position.”
That said, Roorbach isn’t particularly interested in being labeled a Maine writer. “I just say I’m an American writer who lives in Maine,” he said. “I don’t want to get into that whole Maine writer thing. I just happen to live here and I love it here. I don’t make any special claims.”
It’s fair to say, then, that if The Smallest Color is not a Maine novel, it’s certainly an American novel. The action self-consciously sprawls across the continent (it reminded me of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in this respect), from Colorado, Montana and Idaho to Seattle, Chicago and even Farmington, Maine. It’s a novel about place—an obsession in much of Roorbach’s writing—but not in the way that, say, James Galvin’s The Meadow, a wonderful memoir I spied on Roorbach’s bookshelf, is about place. It focuses on the opposite of rootedness.
It’s an idea that traces back to the ’60s, according to Roorbach. “That was part of letting go of the traditional ideas about family and about sex. A lot of that stuff is with us now in a way that we’ve forgotten what an upheaval it was. A long list of things just shifted suddenly and for the better, I think. One of those things was the idea of rootedness, staying put. I wanted the book to be American, so I put in a lot of parts of America. It’s all over the place. I wanted to have the characters be from all over, too. All corners of the United States are mentioned. It’s a kind of placelessness that makes people think about place.”
Toward that end, Roorbach even spent a weekend in Chicago so he could get it right. The Windy City is where runaway Coop, along with his poet girlfriend Tricia, finally finds Hodge, where he hooks up with a Texas hippie named Bailey, and where the novel begins its sad descent into violence and reconciliation.
“I knew I wasn’t getting Chicago right,” he said. “That was one of the problems in the novel. I knew it had to be in Chicago because 1969 was the summer after the Democratic convention and the summer of the trial of the Chicago Seven. The summer before had been a summer of joyous explosion, but that summer, the militants were starting to scare me just as much as anyone else.”
At Coop’s age in ’69, which also happened to be the author’s age, Roorbach was tearing around New York, a preamble to a Kerouac-like, Coop-like journey of his own.
“I was really a wandering soul,” Roorbach said. “I was playing music, I did a lot of carpentry work, just the usual writer’s wandering years. At the time I wanted to be a writer, I always knew that, so I said to myself, I have to do this. I must have read it from Hemingway or something. I have to have lots of experiences so someday I can write about them. And it’s turned out to be true.”
Roorbach attended Ithaca College in upstate New York, worked a cattle farm in Nebraska, lived in Seattle for a year playing keyboards in a band, and then ended up back on the East Coast, dividing his time between the Big Apple, Montana, Colorado and Martha’s Vineyard. By the time he was 33, he had slowed down enough to earn a master’s degree in fiction.
“Suddenly this footloose musician found himself teaching at Columbia University,” Roorbach remembers. “I would walk around there going, ‘I teach at this place. I’m getting a degree here.’ I was old enough to really appreciate it.”
The Smallest Color’s imperative is expressed early on by Roddy, an Olympic skier whose big brown eyes and passion for art history threaten to topple Coop’s already unsteady marriage. “Remember your life,” she tells him. “Do not romanticize it. And don’t make things up. Just remember it plainly. Then maybe you can let go.”
“I’ve already let go.”
“You can’t let go of something you don’t have hold of, Coop Henry.”
Foremost on Coop’s list of things to get hold of—a list that also includes his wife Madeline, a lawyer whom he claims to “admire” but not quite love, whose colleagues refer to as Lady Moonbeam—is Hodge. Both as a boy and as an adult, Coop worships his brother in a fashion that is both painfully sincere and fundamentally dishonest. While talking him up in public, he privately remembers the time that Hodge defended a bedwetting Coop from the wrath of their father, only to betray him in the end. “God, how I loved you, and love you still,” Coop tells his dead brother.
“What a prick, huh?” Roorbach said. “That bedwetting scene I put in quite late as a way of thinking about making sure we could trace Hodge’s badness a little bit, even when he was younger. So that was a big breakthrough, finding out who the characters were and letting them be who they were.”
It’s a complicated business, as the characters are constantly figuring each other out, too, and themselves. There are a few hiccups along the way. For instance, Coop’s relationship with Madeline, which is bound in a way by Hodge, seems muddled. How did he come to admire this woman so much in light of the facts he eventually faces up to? Was it guilt? Fear? Perhaps it’s a situation like the one Bailey describes: “One time I was with my sister Petie at some hot-damn function in Houston, some government thing of my Daddy’s and I just looked at Petie and stared at her, and I could not figure out who she was, all of a sudden, just like that, just could not get it. I mean, I looked at her and I said, baby, who are y’all?”
In that sense, The Smallest Color wonderfully succeeds in following Coop and his coterie through the discovery process. Even the questions seem mysterious and awe-inspiring.
So while Coop has kept the secret of his brother’s death from their mother, he has also refused to face up to it himself.
“Sometimes I think you protect him,” Coop’s mom tells him.
“Protect Hodge?” I say. And I look around the living room at all the belongings Madeline and I have collected in almost twenty years, good chairs and that deep red rug from our perfect six weeks in Mexico those many years ago, a thousand books on drooping shelves, a hundred rocks and shells and bowls and photographs. I note the suddenly lovely and golden cone of light from the heavy floor lamp, light that falls inside the greater sunlight of the many morning windows. I see as if for the first time the old hand-built ranch cabinets hanging in the open kitchen. I see the big chairs Madeline and I read in, the counter we cook on, the table we eat on. I say, “It wasn’t Hodge I protected.”
It’s a simple enough insight that takes a novel to fully play itself out. Coop’s memories, told in the past tense, rumble along like the sound of his subconscious, while the present tense is slowly invaded by new understandings. When the wandering Coop finally stumbles upon his brother in a Chicago halfway house, the scene is narrated, importantly, by the present-tense Coop.
“Hodge, you were pissed, furious … You were Dad. I’m sorry, but you were Dad.”
In the end, The Smallest Color is still about anger, but the anger isn’t necessarily political. The 1960s were a time when the political lines were so clearly drawn, some families simply split apart, Roorbach said. “So the fury that normally would be family fury was political fury, and the fury that would have normally been political fury was family fury. It wasn’t everybody. But it was this character, his brother, their father. And in a way it’s about that, about anger and about families more than it’s about the era. So I wouldn’t call it a ’60s novel.”
And I wouldn’t call it a Sept. 11 novel, either. It is, however, good and insightful writing from someone on the cusp of literary fame.
The Smallest Color by Bill Roorbach (Counterpoint, 336 pages)
Maine Times, October 2001
1 Okay, not just “some Jews,” but one Jew, Adorno. And he didn’t say art, he said poetry. So here is Phillip Lopate’s take on that quote, from his essay, “Resistance to the Holocaust”:
Theodor Adorno once made an intentionally provocative statement to the effect that one can’t have lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Much as I respect Adorno, I am inclined to ask, a bit faux-naively: Why not? Are we to infer, regarding all the beautiful poetry that has been written since 1945, that these postwar poets were insensitive to some higher tact? Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker, has explained what Adorno really meant by this remark: any art from now on that does not take Auschwitz into account will be not worthy as art. This is one of those large intimidating pronouncements to which one gives assent in public while secretly harboring doubts. Art is a vast arena; must it all and always come to terms with the death camps, important as they are? How hoggish, this Holocaust, to insist on putting its stamp on all creative activity.
2 The only thing I’ve written (I think) that’s been blurbed anywhere, in this case on the back cover of the paperback edition of The Smallest Color.