Back at the State University of Binghamton, where I was a creative writing student in the mid-1990s, I wrote a short story called “Shakespeare’s Night on the Town”. It wasn’t a very good story–overly moralistic (hey, I was raised Catholic!) and slightly naive. It was also a very long story. I told my professor, Liz Rosenberg, that I struggled to write short stories. “Maybe you’re a novelist,” she responded. I have never forgotten she said that. It resonated at the time, and it continues to resonate now.
Life is full of disappointments and this is especially true, in the novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, of Hector Maddox, father of the novel’s protagonist, Billy Maddox. Hector collapses in an existential fit of grief and disbelief when his youngest son, Matthew, is killed in a gun battle between drug mules and Border Patrol agents on the Maddox family ranch in Cochise County, Arizona.
The death of a family member can be devastating beyond belief but, as many a life coach has been known to say, it is a measure of our success in life to determine how we respond to tragedies.
Life is full of disappointments. Life is suffering. All things must pass.
Anyone who ever wanted to pinpoint the source of some of life’s major pain points would do well to heed these oft-used expressions. Billy Maddox Takes Shot, my novel about the life of a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona, takes aim at the latter (“All things must pass”) though in a less philosophical and more violent manner.
Any life coach will tell you that memory represents one of the most challenging areas in people’s lives. Remembrances of past pain, conflict or misfortune tend to make one hesitate to act. Fear, concern and even bitterness tend to be the offspring of bad experiences, and the impact of memory is no less a feature in some of literature’s most compelling stories. Hamlet broods over his father’s death at the hands of his uncle and mother’s deception. Rochester’s wife goes mad in Jane Eyre and her imprisonment in the attic (the metaphorical equivalent of one’s mind) to hide her from the public eye represents one of the most pleasantly lurid manifestations of the way memory never dies — if you’re into that sort of thing.
Memory is not only a reality, but a crippling one for Billy Maddox, the young protagonist at the heart of the novel Billy Maddox Takes His Shot.
My long short story, “Green Bay Outsiders”, is coming along. Yes, I know I’ve been at work on it for a while and it’s dangerously close to turning into a novella, truth be told. I converted the manuscript into Microsoft Word the other day just to see how long it was, and it had reached 170 pages. When did that happen?
In any case, one of the fun things about writing a story that turns long is that new themes emerge, or existing themes take on depth or nuance you originally didn’t expect. I posted my first post about “Green Bay Outsiders” back in September when the only thing I really knew was that one of the main characters, Jack Billings, was a Vietnam vet who had fought in Khe Sanh in 1968.
As part of my research for my current story, “Green Bay Outsiders”, I looked at some of the challenges facing Vietnam veterans once they returned to the United States following hostilities in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The protagonist of “Green Bay Outsiders”, Carl Daniels (who becomes a major character in the novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot), lives a somewhat comfortable if routine, middle-class existence in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is fascinated, however, by the history of his uncle Jack Briggs, a former Army Special Forces soldier who fought at Khe Sanh in 1968. Jack’s experiences continue to haunt him, and his influence over the younger man (Carl is a recent college graduate) only grows when Jack moves to Green Bay from Missoula, Montana to help take care of a former war buddy, Bob Brown, whose exposure to the Agent Orange herbicide has led to serious health problems including the onset of Hodgkins disease.
To start researching Vietnam veterans, I turned to the First Blood films from the 1980s.