Autumn Full of Apples by Dan Wakefield – Selection #26 of Deal Me “IN” 2016

The Card: ♣6♣ Six of Clubs.

The Suit: For 2016, Clubs is my suit for “Stories by ’Legendary’ Indiana Authors”

The Selection: “Autumn Full of Apples” first published in Redbook magazine. I own a copy via the 1966 edition of the “Best American Short Stories” anthology series.

The Author: Indianapolis native Dan vonnegut lettersWakefield, whose novel “Going All the Way” may be his most famous work. He also edited a recently published collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters. Another favorite, recent read of mine was his novel Under the Apple Tree, which I heartily recommend. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting him briefly on a couple of occasions at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Wakefield has also, just this year, had a city park in Indianapolis named after him. His website may be found at http://danwakefield.com

 

img_6202What is Deal Me “IN” 2016? I’m glad you asked! Before the start of each year, I come up with a list of 52 stories to read and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck. Each week, I draw a card, and that is the story I read. By the end of the year (52 weeks), I’m done, and ready to start a fresh deck. (For a more detailed explanation of the Deal Me In challenge, see the sign up post. For a look at my deck of cards/storylegacy project seal of approval 2roster click here.) Since 2016 is my home state’s bicentennial, in this year’s edition of my annual Deal Me In challenge, I’m reading only stories that have an Indiana “connection” of some kind. Deal Me “IN” is now also officially endorsed as a “Legacy Project” by The Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

 


Autumn Full of Apples

“Our year began those days in the hot blaze of fall, the sun was still bearing down too hard and moving back from summer’s rule reluctantly, wanting still to be king and hating to watch his green work burn away into yellow and red and finally turn to smoke. Footballs exploded off practiced toes, lockers came clicking and rattling to life in the school’s long sealed and musty halls, and a gold blare of brass rose up to the windows from the marching band, reborn again.”

Wow. How’s that for scene setting? Though I’m more than a generation or so younger than Mr. Wakefield, this quotation reanimated vivid memories of my own school days when the new year of school was just beginning. And I’d never really thought about it before, but when you’re that age, the more natural “New Year’s Day” is indeed the first day of school. A day of new beginnings, a blank slate on which to write new accomplishments – or failures – perhaps also a chance for new friends and adventures. Wakefield captures that sentiment almost perfectly in this short story.

It’s the story of the narrator, Dan, and his new love, Katie Deane. They meet when she stumbles in the school hallway, dropping her Algebra book. Dan, all chivalry, picks it up and hands it to her, trying to ease her awkward feeling of clumsiness “I drop things all the time,” she says. “Well, that’s okay. Everyone does.” Although there are references earlier in the story to “last year’s girl,” it seems that Katie is Dan’s first “true love” (I know, whatever that means), and they go through some of the stereotypical ‘courtship rituals’ of that era.

The clock is ticking on the wondrous autumn of this story, though, just as it has each year on all autumns in the real world. Is the life of Dan and Katie’s romance linked to that of the short season, or will it endure? At the conclusion of this story, my money’s on the kids…

(above: I found an appropriate “Autumn six of clubs” at http://worldsedge.deviantart.com/gallery/39568425/Playing-Cards )

Reading the story a second time to prepare for writing this post, I realized that some readers may find the story too syrupy sweet or too idyllic to be believed, but I didn’t feel that way at all and enjoyed it to the fullest.

Personal notes: ♫ I love literary coincidences and there was a big one related to drawing this card and reading this story. It so happens I read it the same week as one of my book clubs was meeting to discuss Indiana author Ian Woollen’s great book, Uncle Anton’s Atomic Bomb. In looking online for more info on Uncle Anton, I found an article written by Dan Wakefield (here if you’d care to read) himself. It turns out Woollen (who graciously drove up from Bloomington to join our book club’s meeting – hopefully I will post about that event soon also) is the nephew of Wakefield’s high school girlfriend, Kithy Woollen, upon whom the character of Katie Deane in this very story is based(!)

With this post I’m now halfway through the 52 stories of Deal Me “IN” – If you have any “calendrical” expertise, you may have noted that I should be closer to having published 32 or 33 posts by now.  Yes, I’m slacking.  I have, though, now gotten through a rough stretch at work and now have also put some other stuff behind me, so hope to pick up the pace over the next couple months to get back on schedule.  This is also the first year (out of six) where I’ve committed to posting about every single one of my fifty two stories, and, as usual, I may have overestimated my stamina here. 🙂
Note: Wakefield pic above found at hoosierhistorylive.org

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Magnificent Obsession – a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas

2015/02/img_5408.jpg(A “READING LOCAL*” post)

*One of my reading goals for 2015 was to read more works with a local connection, written by Indiana authors or maybe written about or taking place in (or near) my home state. I thus peppered my annual Deal Me In short story reading challenge’s roster with Indiana authors and also have in mind several novels as well. I was pointed to many of these longer works by Dan Wakefield’s introduction to the Indy Writes Books anthology, which I posted about in early January. This novel was one of those. It’s now an early favorite for my favorite book of the year.

**some spoilers follow**

“(I) hope this youngster will be able to realize how valuable a person he is,” said Dr. Bliss… “now that he has had his life handed back to him at such a price.”

Published in 1929, Magnificent Obsession was a refreshing break (from reading more contemporary authors) for me and recalled to my mind several other classic works. In brief, it’s the story of Robert Merrick, whose early life mimics that of countless other children of privilege. His grandfather – a great character who I loved – was a self-made millionaire, and the success of his company, Axion Motors, assures that no one in his family need “work” for a living again. “Bobby” is in full possession of this knowledge and behaves accordingly. For a while. Things change when he is injured in a boating accident and saved by a breathing apparatus borrowed from the house of a Dr. Hudson. What’s remarkable about that? Well, as the apparatus is being used to save Merrick’s life, the doctor himself is fatally stricken and could have been saved if HIS apparatus were not being used elsewhere.

(below: the edition I own)

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Dr. Hudson was also the head of a neuro-surgical hospital – the same hospital that Merrick is taken to for treatment. The doctor was much loved and the staff of hospital naturally harbor some resentment of their young patient, whose life had been saved at the cost of their beloved colleague and friend. The staff behaves professionally, however, and keeps this information from him as long as possible, but he can sense something is wrong and eventually learns the truth from Nancy Ashford (another great character!), Dr. Hudson’s ultra efficient and matronly – though still relatively young – assistant who pretty much ran the business of the hospital. A long talk with Nancy leads Merrick to decide to dedicate his life to becoming a doctor himself in an effort to repay what he’d stolen from the world via Hudson’s death. This becomes the “magnificent obsession” in the title. Or at least one magnificent obsession.

The novel includes a tortured and convoluted – yet somehow still quite functional – plot that I think even Thomas Hardy would have been pleased to count among his own. It includes Hudson’s daughter, Joyce, a “wild child” herself who knew and had been interested in Merrick off and on before the accident. There’s Hudson’s young widow, Helen, who Merrick meets – not knowing immediately who she is to him – and “rescues” from driving her car off the road into a ditch (& I never cease to be amazed how charming and beautiful – and unattached! – women are unfailingly cast into the paths of literary protagonists. If only real life were so accommodating!). Douglas’s narration of their initial meeting in this way was one of my favorite passages of the book. Just as important, there’s Dr. Hudson’s “secret journal” discovered by Mrs. Ashford and Merrick. Written in cypher, it is slowly decoded and reveals Dr. Hudson’s “secret of success” – a kind of “pay it forward” approach to life based on the gospel of Matthew (chapter 6, verses 1-4).

“Take heed that Ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise you have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have the glory of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.”

Worth noting is that Douglas began writing novels later than most, after spending time working as a minister. Though a bit of a heathen myself, I do like the sentiment of giving in secret. It seems too often philanthropy is engaged in as much for the recognition as to help those in need. I wish more people would understand that “verily” good deeds have their reward.

The book reminded me a little of 1918’s The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (another Indiana writer) in that involved the emerging automotive industry and the redemption of a formerly idly rich protagonist. It also called to mind the literary classic “Pride and Prejudice” in how Merrick, with his bottomless wallet, was continually putting things right in a Mr. Darcy-esque way – all in service of the lovely Helen Hudson, who liked him initially – until SHE found out who HE was to her. I’ll also admit that some of the books plot turns and twists were a little too convenient to be believable – which usually draws my ire as a reader – but somehow that never really bothered me in this book.

(below: an older edition – apparently the cover artist thought Robert Merrick must look like Tony Curtis…)

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Have you read Magnificent Obsession? Or anything else by Douglas? I think I may give “The Robe” a try this year too – maybe it and “Ben Hur” would be a good Easter time reading mini-project. We’ll see.  Maybe you’ve seen the blockbuster movie version of Magnificent Obsession, starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman? After reading up a bit on it, it sounds like it has some major differences compared to the book. Should I give it a try?

Week 1 of Deal Me In 2015

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(I drew the two of diamonds. I love this card (from the Bicycle “Club Tattoo” deck) – kind of a Chinese-flavored, one-headed Cerberus(!) with one paw on a “basketball” – like any good Hoosier mythological creature!)

For me, this year’s annual Deal Me In project has been my most anticipated yet. Throughout 2014, I would often think, “I need to put that (author or story) in my 2015 DMI roster,” or “That would be a great idea for a suit for my next DMI,” etc. The reason for my heightened anticipation seems clear: the interaction with the other bloggers who participated in DMI 2014 opened many doors to new authors and new stories AND new ideas for DMI. For this I am thankful.

It was with this irresistible anticipation, then, that I thought, “Hey, I should draw my first card for 2015 at the stroke of midnight On New Year’s Eve!” I even had a new deck of cards (the way cool “club tattoo” deck from Bicycle) that I was going use for the project. So I settled in to do a little reading about ten p.m. on Wednesday (I celebrate New Year’s Eve in the afternoon – much safer)… Of course, the next thing I remember is waking up about 1:45 a.m. 🙂

So, I drew my card on Thursday morning and was crestfallen when it turned out to be the two of diamonds – a wild card. All this planning of titles and authors I had done in advance, and here right off the bat I had to come up with a wild card story!? I hate drawing a wild card so early. It’s like hitting the daily double on Jeopardy! with your first selection. Serenity now! What was “worse” was that it was the two of diamonds. Diamonds is the suit I’d assigned to stories from the Indy Writes Books anthology and, traditionally, I try to keep my wild cards in the theme of the suit. Problem was, there are twelve – and only twelve – short stories included In that book. Sure, there are other pieces of non-fiction and poetry included, but was that really how I wanted to start my “short story” year? (Drawing a different card, of course, was out of the question. Fate had already spoken.)

Then, scanning the other pieces in the anthology, a logical choice soon became clear. I should read Dan Wakefield’s introduction in the book – an introduction focusing on the great tradition and literary history of Indiana writers. So my wild card is Wakefield’s essay/introduction “Corn, Limestone, Horseweed and Writers”

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I’m familiar with Wakefield from his novel “Going All the Way” and his being a sometimes visitor to the Vonnegut Library book club weetings, where at one of which we discussed his recently published volume of of Vonnegut’s letters. He has also been referred to as the “patron saint” of the Indy Reads Books bookstore in downtown Indy, having – until recently – lived just a few blocks down the street. (In 2014, I also began participating in a book club that meets at that location.)

Shortly into reading the introduction, which tells of a ‘golden age’ of Indiana literature, I encountered the following pronouncement:

“Here is my hot news: ‘The Golden Age of indiana Literature’ never ended, and is still in full swing.” – Dan Wakefield

This sentence is certainly welcome news to me, with my intent to “read local” as much as possible in 2015. My initial, knee-jerk skepticism, however, made me think, “well, I’m sure many other states or locales think they’re in a golden age too,” but Wakefield presents rather convincing evidence of Indiana’s ’literary might’ and by the end had me convinced how lucky I am to be living and reading (and blogging?) in such a literary state.

He mentions the Lew Wallace novel, “Ben-Hur” (perhaps you’ve seen the movie, but did you know that – after The Bible and Uncle Tom’s Cabin – it outsold every other book from 1880 to 1936? ’36 was, not coincidentally, the year Gone With the Wind was published) which I already had on my 2015 reading list, but I also gleaned a few other titles to add to my ‘read local’ books for the coming year:

An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser)
Ernie Pyle in England (Ernie Pyle)
Magnificent Obsession (Lloyd C. Douglas) or The Robe (same author)
Girl of the Limberlost (Gene Stratton Porter)
An Abundance of Katherines (John Green)
Alice Adams (Booth Tarkington)

So… an unexpectedly “educational” start for my 2015 Deal Me In project. What short story or stories did YOU read this week?

If you’d like to read this introduction – and the rest of the book of course! – it’s available for purchase at Indy Reads Books in downtown Indianapolis, or you can order online if you’re one of the unfortunates who doesn’t live in central Indiana. 🙂 See http://www.indyreads.org/indy-writes-books/ for details.

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The Value of the Indefinite

It was another good day at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club yesterday – for many reasons. First, we had two special guests, Majie Failey (author of a biographical book on Vonnegut, “We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek”) and author Dan Wakefield, who has a book coming out on Vonnegut’s letters at the end of October – not to mention he is also the author of the novel, “Going All the Way,” which was later made into a movie starring the then still relatively unknown actor, Ben Affleck. We also had, by my count anyway, five first time attendees and a record nineteen attendees in all. With so many people there I resolved to just “shut up and listen” for once and try to give others the opportunity to talk more.

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I stuck to my strategy for the most part, except for one interlude when the topic came up about a letter Kurt wrote to his father while he (Kurt) was a prisoner of war. He advised his father not to write him back. There was some speculation on whether he said this because he actually didn’t want to hear from him or just because he knew the letter wouldn’t reach him where he was. At this point, it was revealed that the Vonnegut Library (located down the hall from where the book club meets) has among its displays a letter from Kurt Sr. to his son that has never been opened. If I am not mistaken, it was donated to the library under the expressed condition that it would remain unopened. One of our new attendees, an english teacher visiting from Ohio, was incredulous that such a potentially historical artifact had been left unopened. A brief debate flared up about whether it should be or not, with one member relating a story from his family about (I think it was) his mother who had requested that he and his sister burn an old box of love letters (without reading them, of course) when she passed away, since she wasn’t ready to part with them while she still lived. “And you did?!” asked the new attendee, again lamenting the loss of potentially historical documents. “Yes,” he said. “We honored her request.”

I eventually piped in and defended the “unopening” of the letter, relating, perhaps clumsily, the philosophical idea of the quality of the “indefinite.” While the letter remains unopened it can be thought to contain just about anything – a quality it would lose if its contents were to become known or fixed. We already have hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters related to Vonnegut that HAVE been opened so allowing one to remain unopened doesn’t seem so egregious. I admit this is a favorite concept of mine, reading about it a couple times before, once – I think, anyway – in Stephen King’s book, “On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft.” He spoke of the almost “magic” quality of an unspoiled ream of paper or notebook, awaiting whatever stories it might become. Kinda neat, huh?

The first time I remember reading about this is in a seemingly less likely place for a book blogger, though… In my years spent as a “serious amateur” playing in chess tournaments, I read many books about that game. One of my all-time favorites was by Scottish Grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson, who also studied philosophy and wrote a PhD thesis on “Wisdom.” His book was titled “The Seven Deadly Chess Sins,” covering in a general way the common types of mistakes chess players make in the course of play. Naturally, today I remember very little of that part of the book. What stuck with me was something he talked about in the opening chapter. Something called “the value of the indefinite.” For my money, it’s essentially the same thing we were talking about yesterday. Here’s the passage, talking about the starting position of a chess game:

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“Let me borrow a Taoist idea to explain why this position is so fascinating. It is called ’the value of the indefinite’ and, suitably, is conveyed by considering an uncarved block of wood. Such a block has not been made into any particular object and serves no definite function. It has no distinctive shape and has no obvious aesthetic value. So if it’s worthless and plain you might suppose it’s not worth much, that it lacks value. The only way to make use of it is to carve it in a certain way, paint it, varnish it, make something of it, right? No. Give the matter further consideration and you see immense value in the uncarved block of wood. When you carve it, you gain something, but something else is lost. It may become one thing, but it loses its original potential for being an infinite number of different things. So, as Santo and Steele put it, in their Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ’A valuable actuality is gained, but an even more valuable reservoir of potentiality is lost.’ “

So, one never knows (or at least I never know) where discussions on books, authors and literature might lead. Perhaps that is why I enjoy them so much…

(Below: Chess Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson – a wise man indeed)

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