Clarke, Terence 1943-
Clarke, Terence 1943-
Born in 1943; son of Hank (a salesman) and Alice (Brennan) Clarke; married Cathleen Daly (an artist); children: Brennan. Education: Attended University of California—Berkeley.
Home—San Francisco, CA.
Poet and novelist, 1976—. Salesperson for printing companies in San Francisco.
The Englewood Readings (poetry), drawings by wife, Cathleen Daly, Dustbooks (Paradise, CA), 1976.
The Day Nothing Happened, Mercury House (San Francisco, CA), 1988.
My Father in the Night: A Novel, Mercury House, 1991.
The King of Rumah Nadai, Mercury House, 1994.
Author of Chiquilín, a documentary film about children in Buenos Aires learning to dance the tango.
Novelist and business writer Terence Clarke comes from a long line of Irish storytellers. He draws on that heritage, as well as time he spent living in Borneo, in his critically acclaimed novels. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, and he has also written, produced, and codirected a full-length documentary film.
The Day Nothing Happened, Clarke's first published book of fiction, is set in Sarawak, Malaysia. Told in vignettes, the book delves into the experiences of Dan Collins, an American engineer working in Sarawak in the mid-1960s. Life in Malaysia is very different from his own life in San Francisco, bringing unique challenges such as sharing his home with chickens and watching a young American "go native." According to Albert E. Wilhelm in Library Journal, "Clarke provides colorful glimpses of an exotic land as well as sensitive potrayals of human experiences."
Clarke used his native San Francisco as the setting for My Father in the Night: A Novel. The book tells the story of three generations: a grandfather who regrets his time working for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a father who works as a lawyer for the Irish Republican Army, and a young boy searching for his identity as the two men he most respects find themselves at odds. Library Journal critic A.J. Wright found the book to be "an engaging narrative with appealing characters and contemporary relevance." Sybil Steinberg, writing in Publishers Weekly, considered the novel "a probing, amazingly vivid portrait of an Irish-American family." American Book Review critic Fred Moramarco commented on the novel's "stylistic precision and its nearly Joycean evocation of a time, a place, a cultural heritage."
In Clarke's third novel, Dan Collins reappears as the main character. Now a high-ranking official in the U.S. State Department, Collins is fired when one of his employees "goes native" and appears on the cover of National Geographic. Jobless and outcast, Collins doesn't know where to turn but to "go native" himself, and lives among the Ibani people. "The novel is at its best when weaving together different cultures—Malay, Chinese, Iban, British—that struggle to form the emerging Malaysian nation," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Janet Ingraham in Library Journal felt that the novel is "marked by vivid depictions of the Borneo jungle and the indigenous Ibani culture."
Along with his own writing, Clarke is on staff at Levin Editorial, a company that provides assitance to experienced and beginning writers.
Terence Clarke contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
HAD HE NOT RESEMBLED MY FATHER AS HE SLEPT …
I had told A. the story of my son Brennan, how it is that his unrelenting epilepsy and severe learning disabilities have always reminded me of my father Hank's infirmities, who had himself died in the middle of an epileptic seizure in January, 1971. Hank's illness had sickened his mind as well, in the last ten years of his life. His speech had been reduced to the simplest of expressions. He said the same things over and over, with occasional long pauses between utterances, and so was very similar to how Brennan is now.
Their epilepsies are not related genetically. My father's seizures were caused by a slow-growing brain tumor, while my son's have no demonstrable cause of any kind. Nonetheless, the symptoms of their epilepsies are, to me, almost alarmingly similar, as are the two men themselves. They look so much alike that my son appears to me as a kind of copy of my father, the way my father appeared as a young man in his twenties in old photos. And they are most alike in how they are afflicted. The leaden talk. The long monologues. The repetition. I am frustrated by my son in the same ways I was frustrated by my father. Angered by them similarly. Crazed by them similarly. And I recognize how important I am to my son, and how my father so insistently sought my approval by raining so much approval down on me. The fact that neither man really knows much about me, or could know much, occasionally deadens my feelings for myself and for what I feel I must do to serve the two of them properly.
When I speak with Brennan now, twenty-six years after the death of my father, I realize that he was born less than a year after my father died, and that when he is attempting to tell me a personal anecdote of some kind, his personal story, it is then that he sounds most like my father.
I tell A. all this, and she sits in the darkness of the car, looking out into the surrounding darkness.
"Well, it's clear to me," she says rather abruptly. "Your son is your father, that's all, come back to tell you what you missed."
"What did I miss?"
"The truth about yourself!"
When he was very small, my son Brennan loved to run up the trails toward the Children's Grove, a section of great monument redwoods in the deep forest forty miles south of Eureka, California. He was quick and bright, his then-blonde hair like a fluff of light bounding through the sword ferns and clover. He hid from us behind a tree, and jumped out, as though clovenhoofed, to frighten us. It was a constant game, and he played it over and over. As long as we wanted to be frightened, he wanted to frighten us.
In that forest, such creatures abound, though usually they are only imagined as they shimmer in the late sunlight faraway in the trees. They can be seen in winter as well, in the cold runoff from a sodden storm or in the waver of the five-finger ferns tapped by rain from above. Such a forest engenders spirits like Brennan, and he ran about through the groves, his laughter sharp in the dark afternoon silence.
The trees themselves, so famous, barely moved. The unnerving thing about them, for me, is not their size, though they are the biggest in the world. It is that they are so straight. They grow without any sense of doubt. They suffer no infirmities. So, it is easy to be frightened by them.
There is, for example, the "widowmaker," a specific danger of which there is plenty of evidence in the groves. A straight branch that has been knocked free by the movement of the trees against each other, it falls to the ground like an arrow. Frequently it enters the ground with such force that the still-green frond of the branch stands up like a newborn tree. But really it's an instrument of death, should it fall on the hapless tourist or unsuspecting forest ranger making his way whistling through the afternoon. I have always expected to find a widowmaker driven through the heart of some passerby, his tongue lolling and black, like that of Lon Chaney, Jr., lying in his coffin.
But that's a small matter compared to what would happen to you if an entire tree fell on you. And entire trees frequently fall in these forests. The root systems are shallow, and spread out from a short core. The trees can be as high as three hundred feet. So, when one is encountered fallen down in the forest, it seems to disappear far into the distance like a tremendous, barkladen monster. With time, the fallen tree itself becomes covered with ferns and clover-like moss, from which celtic mists seem to rise on summer mornings. The dead root system rises up like a star, crusted with red earth and tentacles all around the outer edges. The root system of a fallen redwood can itself rise up thirty feet from the ground.
Cathleen and I and her parents would go on walks through the groves with various of her little cousins, nephews, and nieces. Brennan and the other kids would play the game, running up ahead in order to hide from us and scare us.
On one particular day, we were walking with Cathleen's nephew Chuckie and a teenage friend of his, a boy named Chris. The forest was quite warm, it being the middle of August. We meandered through the trees, following the trail over a short hill, past several redwoods, and along the south fork of the Eel River. It was a lighthearted afternoon walk, spent in one of the wondrous forests of the world.
Chris decided that he wanted to climb up onto a fallen tree. He took Brennan with him, and the two of them disappeared the length of the tree, looking for a way up on to the trunk. They reappeared after several minutes, two sailors on the deck of a sailing ship. Brennan waved at us and threatened to jump. He stood at the very top of the root system, with Chris, looking down at us. I could feel the excitement in him, the sense of derring-do that laces a child with the certainty that his parents are watching him, that he has all their attention, and that nothing bad can happen to him now.
And then Brennan fell, in a sudden, spasmodic seizure, toward the ground.
"Chris! Grab him!" Cathleen yelled, as Brennan pitched forward, stiffened by the epileptic attack.
"Grab him now!"
Chris took the tail of Brennan's shirt between his hands, arresting the fall. Then, quite gracefully, as though they were two dancers on the stage, he grabbed Brennan by the stomach and lifted him onto the flat surface of the tree trunk, laying him down on his back. I could see only Brennan's hands and arms, extended into the air, vibrating in the seizure's rush.
We don't have many photographs of Brennan from those years, and I believe that that is because he was so ill. But in one of them, the shadow falling across the redwood fence on which he's playing gives an impression of vernal softness, as though the afternoon were simple, pleasant, a lark in the woods. Which it was, and Brennan, then just three, was the one most responsible for that.
In the photo, he's playing on a grapestake fence in the shade of an oak tree, summer 1975. We were still a family then, and, as during every summer, year after year, we were at Englewood, a ranch owned by Cathleen's family, in the Redwood National Forest south of Eureka. A few miles north of the Children's Grove.
The ranch was the kind of place I would have thought imaginable only in my imagination. But there it was, every year, five houses, each representing a different clan-like splinter of the Daly family, each one at just enough distance from the others to make any neighborly contact unlikely. Or, more to the point, unnecessary. The houses were surrounded by apple orchards, Douglas firs, redwoods, plum trees, and grasses, all moving about in the summer afternoon wind, so that we would be lulled into a kind of floating oblivion every day after lunch. There were bridge games and swimming in the pool, horseback riding and visits to the one-room schoolhouse on the neighboring ranch.
And walks to the Old Orchard with Brennan, like the one this afternoon, the purpose of which was to gather wildflowers for that evening's dinner table centerpiece.
Brennan was, as most people said who ever saw him then, an angel. Even at three years old, his nascent kindliness showed in the way he offered a fistful of crushed blackberries to his favorite aunt Michaela, or held a cat in his lap. At the supermarket, we were forever approached by other customers, usually women, to be told that they had never seen such a handsome boy. Such beautiful hair, they said. So sweet.
This kindness of his shows in the photo as well … in the European touch of the scuffed sandal, appropriate to his having been born in Paris, and in the patterned cotton shirt which I remember was faded red and quite manly, especially when worn with his dust-splotched jeans. He looks at the camera with obvious enjoyment of the moment. He doesn't question much. He lives a life the way children are supposed to. He's loved. His eyes soften with the attention given to him by his mother, who is taking the picture while I stand at her shoulder.
That he undergoes many grand mal seizures a day does not matter at this moment. He may fall from the fence in a paralysis a half minute later, to kick dust about, his eyes searching the trees in a manic clutch, his face grey and twitching as the seizure's current runs through him. But for now he is the Brennan we had hoped for, simply enjoying the fence, the warm afternoon, and the affection of his parents.
There have been so many seizures over the years that they run into each other in my memory. Brennan fell forward. He fell backward. He fell in every way possible. But, like the attack in the Children's Grove, particular ones stand out.
He once went into a seizure as I was feeding him, having just popped a blueberry into his mouth. His teeth clamped down on my finger, and I had to wait a minute or so, clenching my own teeth, until he was released. The bleeding teeth marks on my index finger eventually healed, then turned blue, like bruises, finally disappearing after two or three weeks.
When Brennan was about five, we were standing at the corner of Mason and Columbus in San Francisco, down the hill from our apartment. It was a very cold fall morning, and we were bundled up against the wind. We were awaiting the cable car. I was looking down Columbus for the trolley when I heard a thump, like a dropped melon breaking against the ground. Brennan had fallen face down to the sidewalk. His arms were at his sides. He writhed, jerkily, and his face was ground into the cement, smudging it with smears of blood.
Another time, a few weeks later, we were riding on the cable car, the California Street car. My mother was with us, and was seated on the bench inside. I stood before her, holding to a leather strap. Brennan was in my free arm, saddled on my hip, and I recall that I was looking out the window at Grace Cathedral.
He entered a seizure, a very violent one. His entire body stiffened and his arms rose up, his face turning grey and twitching. I called to my mother, and then saw that the woman sitting next to her was riveted with terror. She was black, dressed in a red wool coat and a scarf. Brennan's face took on the pale, phantasm-like color of death. His eyes were contorted, turned up and inward. The woman's glance at me was as contorted as his face, though her look came simply from fear. Brennan's body stiffened, unresponsive to my murmurings of comfort. He was lost in his seizure.
The same happened one morning in the Caffe Trieste on Vallejo Street. He and I were seated on the window bench to the left as you enter the cafe. I was reading, and his convulsion caused his legs to straighten, his arms to flail before him. By then (he was about six) I had become quite accustomed to the attacks, so I continued reading. It was a Jane Austen novel. Emma, I think. The seizure lasted half a minute, and, as I looked up, I noticed the man across the table from me, a poet of some sort, judging from the pencil manuscript before him. There was an ashtray piled high with his exhausted cigarette butts. He was aghast, his yellowed eyes terrified by Brennan's gyrations. I checked Brennan over. He was sound asleep, immediately so, which is normal for the postseizure half-hour. I turned back to Emma, too angered by the moment to say anything comforting to the beatnik across the way.
But later I wondered, was this man shocked by the seizure itself? Or did he find my interest in the book a kind of callous betrayal of my son's illness? Had I arrived at war-weariness? Was I heartless, a father who ignored his son because he was ill?
Or was I simply accustomed to the lightning?
When he was a teenager, Brennan had a seizure in front of a store on Market Street in San Francisco, and his companion, a girl from his school, panicked and called an ambulance. I had learned from other epileptics that this event is embarrassing, and unfortunately quite frequent. It's embarrassing because the ambulance usually is not necessary, since the seizure will end after a few minutes, and the epileptic will recover on his or her own. However, a manic siren and the feverish ceremony of rescue by the paramedics draws a crowd. So that, when the epileptic finally emerges from his seizure, usually not knowing what has happened, he is on his back on the cement, surrounded by horrified onlookers.
Knowing this, I commiserated with Brennan after he had returned home from the hospital, saying I was sorry he had to be carried away in an ambulance, in such an aggravating way. He responded that, "Gee, Dad, I thought it was kind of fun."
Last summer, he had his first seizure in a swimming pool. His cousin André was with him, and saved him from drowning.
Brennan has had so many seizures that it has been difficult to tell whether they ever actually end. Sometimes it has felt like he is having just one seizure, all the time, with quiescent moments during the general storm. You try to protect your son, to keep his writhings from doing him damage. In a seizure, he moves as though an iron burst of electricity has entered him and plunged through his body, head to foot. He is rigid and shaking, and as I watch, I can imagine what it feels like, the surge of the electric bolt charging his muscles …
But this is writerly excess, poetic license. Apparently, he feels nothing, although to see the aftermath of one of these attacks, in which he is entirely lethargic, cannot speak, and looks at you through a watery glaze of incomprehension, you would think that some sort of angry wrath has seized him and wrung him of all his life, except for the will to stay alive. Often I cradle his head in my hands, imagining that I can feel the surge tearing through his mind.
Brennan's seizures as a young child were worse than those later. At least it seems that way to me now. They were very frequent (about eight a day) and quite violent. But he was small then, and we could hold him close and caress him, so that often the seizures went unnoticed by anyone else. We could always feel them, though, because his childish musculature would tighten like ropes.
The worst of it for me was that I was so helpless in any effort to give him aid. My son collapsed in a writhing heap and twitched in some kind of seeming possession. He retreated from the world, and I could simply stand and watch. Or lie down with him and watch. Caress him, take his hand, kiss him. There was nothing I could do. I was paralyzed myself, and could only wait for the moment of his release, unable to help him. He was alone, floating through his seizure, voyaging through a terrible half-minute of electrification.
At this writing, Brennan is twenty-six years old. He has had about twenty thousand such attacks in his life.
There is a similar familial kindness in the photograph of my father that was taken in the summer of 1928 by his brother Gene, in the Mojave Desert in California. The fact is that, in this photo, my father Hank looks like my son Brennan now.
Hank sits on the hood of a Ford Model A, a shotgun held tight in his two fists. He looks like he doesn't really know how to hold the gun. He told me about this day many times, how he and his brother and some friends went out to the Mojave to hunt jackrabbits. While Gene drove, Hank sat on the hood, a leg wrapped about a headlamp. They drove cross-country, the car bounding wildly through sage and ruts. When someone spotted a jackrabbit, Hank took aim and fired. I don't believe a rabbit ever lost its life during one of
these hunts, and I can imagine the bolt of pellets flying off into some dry gully, there to terrify a roadrunner at rest or a family of gophers airing themselves in the desert morning.
The smile is what gives my father's vulnerability away. The photo is bright with enjoyment and hope. He never victimized anyone knowingly. He was conservative, kind, unwilling to bother people with his problems. Indeed, now that he's been dead for twenty-six years, I find it difficult to imagine his being adept at such a destructive act as aiming a shotgun at anything.
He would go on to a career at Montgomery Ward, labors that were not very well understood by me. Especially when I went to Berkeley in the sixties, and learned from the pamphlets handed out in Sproul Plaza that a life like that spent by my father—pushing the "hardlines," pots, pans, and hardware, from Oakland to Boise to Spokane—made him a simple tool of The State, a businessman. Worse, a salesman. No matter that he did such things for love of his family. Or that he himself had not been able to finish his education at the University of Arizona because of the Depression of 1929, and that he had had to go to work to support his younger brother and sister after their parents had died.
My doctrinaire, breezy bohemianism was just barely tolerated. The beard I had in the sixties—a laughable thing that appeared to be pasted to my cheeks, like drama-class fuzz—was more than my father could bear. But, although it was the single, most obvious hint about the truth of my life, he chose not to publicly notice it. He said nothing about my beard, as though it were a secret indiscretion that he did not wish to acknowledge.
It was my father's unwillingness to bother others with his difficulties that was our undoing as father and son. My father was ill for the last fifteen years of his life with a brain tumor that made him prematurely senile. He fell into patterns of repeated language, so that the opinions he had fashioned from the ruin of the Great Depression were stated over and over, usually verbatim. They were often negative opinions, in which minorities were ill-treated, political demonstrators excoriated, dreamy endeavors misunderstood. Dreamy endeavors like my own, which I did not share with him because, I felt, he would never understand them. The poetry I wrote, for example, my first effort as a writer.
But there was no fire in his outrage. My father had been enclosed and made self-protective by the economic troubles of his youth. He was a mild man. So he did not rage and lurch. His anger was quiet.
And the repetition was caused by his tumor, which grew, amoeba-like and inexorable for decades. It pushed his brain aside. Finally, it addled him, so that his conservatism took on an extra dimension that I now realize was illness.
The worst was when I came home from Berkeley every few months for a visit. After dinner and television, my mother and sister would go to bed, and I would sit up with my father. He would take out a cigarette, a rare indulgence for him, and we would shoot the breeze.
He was in his late fifties, and his curly hair was greying. He always kept it very well groomed, and, of course, short. It was part of his conservative ideal for himself that his appearance remain always the same. So, I never saw him when he was not neat. He sat in an easy chair, and held the cigarette away from him, down at his side. There was a delicacy to the gesture, as though he did not want the smoke to get in his eyes. These conversations seemed dictated to him by something outside of him. He was a stuck record. So, as I sat through them one after another over the years, I was able to memorize them.
First, he spelled out what he had not had as a youth.
"You know, my brothers Gene and Jack went off on their own. So, I never was able to enjoy a real family," he said. "Jack was trying to get into the movies or something. And Gene was at USC, playing football with John Wayne. There wasn't much … much family life."
I remained silent. Soon, there would be his college days, and baseball.
"And when I went to Arizona," he continued. "On a baseball scholarship …"
My father leaned forward and brought the cigarette to his lips. His glasses gleamed in the reflected light from the lamp to my right. He crossed his legs.
"You knew I had a scholarship, didn't you?"
I nodded. The scholarship had not lasted, ruined by the stock market crash.
"Yes, it was a shame. I lost the scholarship, of course, in 1929. Funds dried up, no money. I had to go back to …"
He shook his head.
He surveyed his hands, open before him on his lap.
"You know, I always wanted to be …"
He sighed, smiling to himself. He had studied Spanish in school, and still enjoyed speaking it when he could.
"To be a Spanish teacher. But I guess it just wasn't to be."
Then my father would begin a long description of what made him happy.
There were my brother and sister and their obvious abilities in school. My sister Kate especially was a star, with her very quick smile, her contemplative manner, and her superior golf game. He loved her, I believe, more than he loved anyone in his life. And there was my mother and her family, a large, argumentative, and humorous group of people, Irish-Catholics.
"You know, when you're like me, out here in left field, to see them laugh at each other … the way they make fun of each other …"
At this point in the conversation, I would begin to feel a kind of painful impatience. Because I knew that my father did not think much of himself, by comparison to everyone else. He had lost his mother at the age of ten, and had never been close to his father. My mother's family provided a refuge for him, though he never seemed to feel that he had been accepted as a member of it. So I would become impatient with him, because his assumption that he was outside the pale actually made him so. He was an outsider, out in left field, as he said so very often, a stranger. Sitting in the easy chair, he appeared entirely isolated. The light from the single table lamp seemed to fall only on him, dimly so, leaving the rest of the room in darkness.
The most immediate memory I have of those conversations, sadly, is the one in which I could predict, several sentences ahead, several minutes ahead, what my father would say. And then there would be my disappointment … No. Finally, after so many such conversations, my disgust … as, indeed, he made the utterances, word for word.
I might try to deflect the subject material, to change it to something else. But he always came back immediately to what he wished to say. I memorized whole conversations.
He would praise me, without criticism, as the epitome of what he had wished to be. Bright, humorous, with fine grades and a bright future.
The reader may wonder how this could be difficult for me. Few of my friends have ever been so well-regarded by their fathers. The trouble was that my father did not really know much about me. At the age of twenty-four, I was hanging on in Berkeley by a thread. I had barely made it through the university, and was now selling jewelry from a stand in front of Cody's Books on Telegraph Avenue. I had no plans. I drank beer and discovered my love of a social life. I went to the movies, at the Telegraph Avenue Cinema, where my landlady was the charwoman. She got free tickets, which she gave to me. I did read a great deal. Hubert Selby, Jr. William Burroughs. Thomas Pynchon. Baudelaire. Kerouac. And, of course, Allen Ginsberg.
And I made fun of my father to myself, laughing at his inane observations, the unquestioned value he saw in my efforts at Berkeley, and his reactionary stories, over and over.
It was only years later that I concluded that his repetition was caused by the same tumor that killed him.
I had had no idea that he was so ill. Oh, once, years before, when I was seventeen, he had been taken away in an ambulance, having suffered a major seizure in the middle of the night.
None of us children was told that my father had had a seizure that night. Nor were we told that he had been suffering such violent deep-sleep seizures for a decade. Our parents did not want to burden us, as the saying went, with their troubles. We were told that Dad had been taken with a spell of some sort, and when he came home a few days later, everything went back to normal. He worked. We went to school. And, as time went by, he repeated himself more and more often. He puttered about the house incessantly. He grew increasingly strange. He listened to the same records he had listened to for years, over and over. He retreated, the repetition incessant.
My father died during another seizure, in early 1971. It stiffened him in his bed. He slept face down, and the intake of breath pulled in a portion of the pil-
lowcase. I'm sure he never knew what was happening. But as he gyrated on the bed, his legs kicking and quivering, the life went out of him, stuffed into submission by the bunched cloth in his throat. He choked to death as the seizure electrified his brain.
So, the two photographs are on my desk and I'm looking at them now, as I write. And there's a third picture, a photo of myself looking out the back window of my parents' 1949 Studebaker. I'm about eight years old, and I'm wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I'm posing, with a big smile, for my father, who is taking the picture, and I look a great deal like my son in the photo of him playing on the fence. I am a happy child. Everyone says so. I enjoy the attention I'm getting.
My father was killed by a seizure. My son lives, a favorite of his relatives, through seizures of every kind. Looking at these photos, I wonder what happens when convulsions seize the lives of those like me, who suffer no epilepsies at all.
The silence and darkness around words interest me as much as the words themselves. The minuscule pauses between words, the long silences in which all of the language waits for a few of its words to be organized and chosen.
That organization, for me, is the dark pool of wordplay and the beginning of the story. And everything is a story. Whatever story. The quick joke over coffee, gruff disgruntlement, a daydream, a major novel. Style is the story. Plot is the story. Character. Birth. Suspense. Comedy.
And all of it can be found in the pause. Who taught me the most about this is my son Brennan.
For me, a state of gregarious chatter is the norm, something that comes from my family (Irish storytellers all, particularly my grandfather M.J. Brennan and his daughter, my mother, Alice). This gabbiness has only been enhanced by my lifelong profession selling for large printing companies in San Francisco. Among the serious authors I know, this is a rarity. It is so even among those authors who aren't so serious. My profession is simply a long conversation that really never ends, though luckily it's never been the sort of calling described by Charley at Willie Loman's graveside as one that is lived "way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine."
It has featured reasonable amounts of embarrassment when some complex printing job gets delivered too late for the product-release press conference, or the colors, for some reason, come out wildly wrong. And in my case there was a very notable firing by the owner of a company for which I had worked for fifteen years, a born-again Christian whose sense of moral guidance was somehow defeated in a moment of great, and unwarranted, anger with me. It was an awful day, in which I was escorted to my car on five minutes' notice after a decade and a half at the firm, in which my gregariousness had gotten the better of me and I had talked my way into getting canned. The out-of-court settlement for wrongful termination was substantial.
But on the whole I've enjoyed my business profession, especially for the opportunities it has given me for humorous conversation.
Business does not provide a contemplative life. Everything happens very quickly, with hectic, sometimes cantankerous or panic-stricken results, and there is little in business that feeds one's soul in any sort of way. It is life for the person of action. So I've always needed to find ways of providing myself with times of contemplative silence, so that I could write. I must be in a solitary frame of mind when I do that. I must be alone with my thoughts. So the very act of translating all the things I see in my business life into elements useful to, for example, the development of a particular character in a novel requires such solitude.
Although I needn't be physically alone, or even in a quiet place, when I write. My silences are internal to me, and are not dependent on actual place. One of the problems of being in business is that there is seldom time to write. So, I developed some time ago the ability to write anywhere, under almost any circumstances. I could write in the trenches if I had to. My book of stories The Day Nothing Happened was written at lunchtime, principally at the San Francisco Tennis Club. I had a dining room privilege there through the company for which I was working, and I had lunch in that place a good half of the days that it took me to write the book. But I also wrote elsewhere, surrounded by waiters, clattering dishes, and noisy lunchtime customers, at numberless tables for one, in most of the coffeehouses and restaurants in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, between the waterfront and, approximately, Fifth Street.
All my books have been written under such circumstances.
The words on the page reflect the haphazardness of the writing. My handwriting is, under the best of circumstances, illegible. It's as though I write my own oracular code, even though it's plain English (or, in the case of my most recent novel, plain Spanish). It's left to me to present myself to the computer late at night, to interpret the handwritten runes for it. No one else could.
In the face of all this clatter, I've found the internal silences to be all important. They represent a void that Thomas Moore in his fine book Care of the Soul says "evokes an awareness and articulation of thoughts otherwise hidden behind the screen of lighter moods." (Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, HarperCollins, 1992, p. 138.) Melancholic darkness contains what we don't know yet or have not discovered, and is the source of art and language, the stuff that matters to me most.
For most of my life, I have not known this, and so have feared contemplation of such darkness. For many years I turned away from it, preferring to accept some sort of status quo, some formula determined for me by my family or by my own fear that stepping out of line was dangerous. As my father said so often in our conversations, "You shouldn't bother people with your problems. Keep them to yourself." For me, that's another way of saying that you should not admit to the possibility of chance disaster, to the notion that the empty universe is really empty, or that in silence and darkness lies the search for the new.
But I too thought such things should be avoided, because they caused me to be afraid. Darkness and silence couldn't be quantified. You couldn't tell what they were, much less what they meant. No wonder my father saw them as problems. No wonder they terrified him so!
During the conversations with my father, I would sit for an hour, sometimes two, late at night, bubbling with fury. I couldn't bear the conversations because they were so similar one after another, making my father appear to me foolish and fuddy-duddy. The conversations were also based on misinformation, because they painted such a glowing portrait of me and my accomplishments, when those assumed accomplishments really had little to do with the truth. What I wanted was for my father to depart from his formula and to imagine other possibilities, to commiserate with the difficulties I was having, or, more importantly, to be able to see what it was that I was trying to understand … just then for the first time in my life. The reading. Exploring dark fearfulness. The poetry. Extracting some kind of expression from the sea of words. The exploration.
But I know that this was impossible for him. For a couple of reasons. Darkness was the very opposite of what fueled my father's interest in living. He hated the contemplation of such things. Darkness meant unhappiness, dismay, bad behavior, all things negative.
"I've got my own problems," he said to me hundreds of times, when I would be making an attempt to change the subject. Indeed, that phrase was one of the formulae that would bring the conversation directly back to where he had left it off, when I had interrupted.
So I would fume, resentful. I'd sit uncomplaining, listening again to an exact repetition of what I had heard him say to me the last time I'd come home from Berkeley. Or perhaps to the same thing he had said to me the night before! I could not change it. I had too much respect for him to shout at him. And I didn't know how to ask anyone else in the family if they had discerned the same kinds of things I was seeing, because my family doesn't pry. You were supposed to keep your troubles to yourself. So we didn't ask, because the truth would maybe require that one's troubles … my father's troubles … be spilled out for everyone to see, a fate we all thought was unbearable.
So, with time, I came to feel like a volcano in a vault.
Now though I realize what it was like for my father. All he wanted was to tell his son how proud he was of him. And I know that he had great respect for my achievements, especially since I had heard so often the story of his own hurried departure from the University of Arizona in 1929. As stolid and formulaic as that story was, it was always told regretfully, always told sadly.
He was like Brennan, in that his search for expression, his wish for words to tell the story, encountered extreme difficulties. A lumpish fist was growing in his brain and muscling it out of the way. Some tumorous mass of listless, and truly thoughtless, gristle was making it impossible for him to seek new ways of talking, new ideas, new versions of things.
There is a symptom that accompanies some forms of severe epilepsies. It is called perseveration, and it features the monotonous repetition of words, sounds, and actions on the part of the patient. The patient will frequently get into patterns of speech that are almost exact, repetition to repetition.
Perseveration is the source of much of Brennan's repetitiveness. I'm not sure that my father's constant, circular conversation could be said to be the same direct result of his own epilepsy. For one, each individual portion of his repetitive speech was hours long and quite complex, unlike my son's. But at least I'm certain that those monologues of his were caused by some symptom of his disease that surely resembled Brennan's.
When the idea entered my mind the first time, it came as a kind of convulsive shock to me. I'd been complaining about and condemning my father's oddities for a very long time. I learned about this new possibility from my son's physicians after my father had been dead for more than ten years.
In 1975, at about the same time of the photograph of Brennan playing on the fence, I wrote a group of poems about him and his troubles. He was taking five anticonvulsants and having more than a half-dozen major seizures a day (one of which was in bed with us, first thing in the morning, almost every day; it was as though the transition from isolated sleep to the nesting arms of his parents changed the atmosphere, allowed his nerves to drop their guard, and ushered in the lightning strike).
There were only a few poems to him, about a half-dozen, that were included in my first book ever, The Englewood Readings, published by Len Fulton at Dustbooks in California. The proverbial slim volume of verse. In the chaos and pain of that time, one of the things that distressed me the most was the silence that opened between Brennan and us in the midst of his attacks. There was nothing for Cathleen and me to do but watch him embraced by the strange silence. There was no explanation. So it was left to us to ruminate about it, as we did hundreds of times.
(In these situations, the parents of such a child always consider the possibility that they have done wrong. That this child is God's punishment, and that you have now entered the dark room with Job. You do this at your peril.)
The seizures were very quiet. Sometimes at the beginning he would cry out, a kind of guttural grunt that announced the release of all that undisciplined energy in his head. But more often, he just fell headlong into it, in silence. He'd be seized, literally, in a split-second, and his muscles would turn to taut strings, everything would straighten out, and he'd quiver, immovable, tossed to the ground.
In his teenage years, the bad seizures changed, so that he was no longer thrown down. Now, he can remain standing. He maintains his balance. But he is just as disappeared, beyond our reach just as much as ever. Also, now, when I take his hand or try to put my arm around him for comfort (he is, by the way, now more than six feet tall), he pushes me away, pushes my
hands away, as though he doesn't want any help, as though to say, "Get away from me!" So he stands by himself, his face contorting, his arms shaking, in complete silence.
And in all this epileptic silence, Brennan and I share some space somewhere. In quite different ways. But closely.
Now Brennan is twenty-six years old, and there are similar elements in our relationship to those described in the poem, written when he was three. Conversations with him feature frequent repetition of large portions of previous conversations, and very long pauses during which Brennan is trying to figure out what he's going to say next. I've always thought that it's rude to finish sentences for him, even though I could do that for almost every sentence. I almost always know what he's going to say. It's part of his affliction that he repeats himself and that he has such trouble putting together his thoughts. So when one of the pauses comes, I wait.
Sometimes we sit for several minutes.
I think that one of the reasons for my patience is that I know how it is for Brennan. Like all other writers, I frequently sit and stare into some dull-seeming oblivion, apparently dumbfounded. But of course what we're doing is thinking about it. "If J. were to do this, what would that mean to M.'s uncle when he asks P. to run away with him to Islamabad?" "Didn't J. say something just the opposite about a hundred pages ago?" Etc. It would probably come as a surprise to most of my business clients to know that I am thinking all the time about what's going on in my writing, even in the midst of rapid-fire, complex, and heated business meetings. All the time. Because it's all in the pause, all in the darkness. I'm trying to force a word or two from the silence.
In Brennan's pauses, he too is in the dark pool of wordplay, although his choices apparently are much fewer than mine.
His speech is the last word in realism. With many people who are brain-injured, abstract thought is not much of an option. The facts are what matter and what form the basis for what thoughtful consideration there is. So, to ask Brennan for a sensuous description of the foods he ate at dinner last night is to ask him for information he doesn't have.
"How was dinner, Brennan?"
"What do you mean, ‘good’?"
"The fish was good."
"How did it look?"
He comes the closest, I believe, to leaving the facts and moving to things like metaphor when he talks about his personal relations and particularly about kindness. Since he has been an adult, Brennan's childhood kindness, which was constant and constantly remarked upon, has become part of a complexity of other kinds of personal expression, like anger at his situation, self-interest, unwarranted disgruntlement with Cathleen and me, foolishness, cruelty mistaken by him for humor, wrong-minded misapprehension, and so on. That is, he's more like the rest of us now.
But when the subject of kindness in personal relations comes up, he can sometimes come close to waxing eloquent about it, even though it is often expressed in terms of an irritating self-congratulation.
Of course, the notion of "irritating self-congratulation" is one that Brennan does not understand, thus making helpful suggestions on my part that are intended to instruct him on how to behave a little better (every father's prerogative) into moments of comic uselessness.
Nonetheless, when he's in the middle of one of his long pauses, he's struggling to pull those fact-driven utterances from it that will brighten the other, gregarious side for him. And I'm not sure that his spoken realism reflects the reality of his mind or feelings. Because, when he falls into the silence, he has to do combat with the strange electrical misdeeds of his brain, which make the contemplative search even more difficult. In many respects, I think his visits to the silence are far more profound than mine. Because his silences are interrupted by lightning. It's the lightning that dazzles him into repetition, that makes his choices for language appear like no choice at all. It's no wonder he seems stupefied so often in his search for words. He's being shot through with odd electric currents even as we sit quietly waiting.
So I wouldn't presume to interrupt and try to finish the sentence for him, because it would not only be a betrayal of his feelings, it would also be a betrayal of his personal struggle. And, last of all, a betrayal of the silence itself, the source of the story, of darkness, the attempt at language and communication.
My real writing gets done when I revise my manuscript, and in the case of a novel, I revise it literally hundreds of times. Maybe thousands. It's the same story over and over, each time with some variation, some change in the nuance, some minor alteration in the breathing. And every time, a little bit more of the story.
So repetition is at the center of my art.
There is a natural tendency toward the dramatic in everyone's stories. A personal anecdote always has dramatic form … literally, a beginning, a middle, and an end. So that, a family story that over the years has taken on emblematic meaning for everyone in the family, that has become the story, has a shape that makes the story memorable. When you hear the cliché, "If I could only write, I could tell you such a story," that person already has done much of the footwork, and doesn't realize it.
What the novel itself lacks for the writer are the actual people themselves who, in the family anecdote, performed the thoughtless action or made the unguarded remark. Maybe Little Rose, the perennially sick baby who died so sadly, or Uncle Eddie's memorable night in the backseat of some convertible, or Grandpa's deathbed admission … in the anecdote, all these actually took place. In my work, as the novel takes shape, the characters and events become like characters and events that have actually taken place in my life. The completed novel is like the final recorded memory of those things. I've given the memory a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's just that I never had the actual facts. I just made them up. I just made the memory up.
Revision is the shaping of that memory, and I have to go over it again and again so that I understand it and can make up the next memory. Because memories have to have a shape, a form that makes sense, a flow.
So I write and revise, read and re-read, to the point at which any normal person would gladly give up. That much repetition is way too much. But so it is, and every time, the manuscript is new to me. The actions, characters, gatherings of words, all of it refreshes me. It's as though I'm coming across it for the first time every time, it's all so interesting.
The fact is, I'm compelled to repeat myself when I write.
And with all this, I think a lot about my father and my son. Cathleen sat through the many years of complaint I had about my father, and the conversations we had must have seemed boringly repetitious to her. How long should it take for sons to get over the troubles they have with their fathers? Can't there come a time when you simply give up?
These days I think just as much about Brennan, and I'll probably never give that up, since we're still in the middle of the process, and probably will be for many, many years. The revisions are still being made, his and mine.
The difference between Hank's and Brennan's stories and the ones I tell about those two men, though, is significant. Because they are compelled to tell theirs in the same way every time, by forces of illness that are beyond their control. They're forced to tell their stories the way they do.
I don't have to do that. They both suffer severe epilepsies, and I do not. I'm in the middle, some kind of conduit for the messages traveling between them. Perhaps, as my friend A. said, my son is my father come back to tell me the truth about myself.
Thomas Moore writes that "if we were to examine our diseases poetically, we might find a wealth of imagery that could speak to the way we live our lives…. We could attune our lives and allow ourselves to be corrected by the disease. That is what I mean when I say that without sickness we wouldn't be cured, physically and psychologically." (Ibid., p. 171.)
It's up to me to write for my father and my son what they've been forced to miss. And that is the truth about me.
Terence Clarke contributed the following update to CA in 2007:
It has been ten years since the preceding four sections were written. Brennan is now thirty-six years old. We now know—barring disaster or some other unforeseen circumstance—what Brennan's life is and most probably will be. There is no longer the swirl of possibilities that, even though he was so severely afflicted, still remained for him when he was a child and a younger man.
He has held a long succession of jobs at various large companies in California, like Long's Drugs and Yardbirds, in which he's done basic janitorial work, stocking, carrying bags out to customers' cars … that sort of thing. None of these has panned out well because Brennan has great difficulty with authority figures like job coaches, department managers, and store managers. Even those who are trained to deal with learning-disabled adults and their insecurities have trouble with Brennan, who takes a suggestion—that maybe it would be better to do something this way instead of that way—as a rank insult. Such a suggestion often infuriates him, because he thinks that one thinks that he is stupid. Naturally he rises up against that because he believes he is smart and knows what to do. So he becomes very angry and sometimes seems threateningly violent when mild suggestions are made to him.
He's been fired many times.
The governmental organizations that help us with services made the decision a few years ago that unless Brennan underwent a "behavior modification" program—to help him control his anger in these situations—they would no longer fund his support and job training. The trouble was that those in the program recommended to us quickly threw up their arms. They gave up on him, basically, finally not allowing him to do anything except ride around in the vans in which other clients were transported back and forth. In short, the experts trained to help him with his difficulties could not. We took him out of the program and haven't spoken with them since.
Recently he fell down in the street in Walnut Creek, California. Fearful of the oncoming traffic, he got up and ran to the nearest curb. When he got there he discovered he had separated his left shoulder in the fall. He went to the hospital and got the appropriate treatment, including a sling to wear on his left arm and shoulder. He noticed that he did not have his high school ring, something that is very important to him. So he went out at about midnight that same evening to find the ring. Arriving at the intersection where he'd fallen, he searched around for it until a Walnut Creek police department squad car arrived. The policemen sent him home, and Brennan waited an hour or two in his apartment before going back to the intersection to search for the ring once more.
The same policemen saw him and this time told him more forcefully that he was not to be out wandering around in an intersection in the middle of the night. Brennan became afraid and belligerent and, to make a long story short, the Walnut Creek policemen maced him in the face, threw him to the ground, handcuffed him, and tossed him into the back of the squad car—separated shoulder, sling and all. They apparently began to understand only then that Brennan was learning disabled and physically injured, and they finally took him to a local hospital and left him, alone, in the emergency room there, to get home under his own steam—which he did the next morning.
Our complaints to the police went unheeded. Since no charges were pressed against Brennan, they said, there was no record of the occurrences and therefore nothing on which we could go to determine the actual sequence of events.
There is a more pertinent literary reference, though: the moment in which Prince Myshkin's life is saved by his affliction. The main character of Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, Myshkin is an innocent in a treacherous world. He is also an epileptic. One night, he is climbing the stairs toward his room when an assailant jumps out at him from the darkness and attempts to kill him. (The assailant is Parfen Rogozhin, a dark-minded, complicated man who is jealous of the prince's seeming emotional success with Nastasya Filipovna.) In the very moment of the attack, Prince Myshkin is overtaken by a violent epileptic seizure that so frightens Rogozhin that he runs away, inflicting very little harm on the prince himself.
I've thought many times about this moment, especially in the context of Thomas Moore's remark, quoted earlier in this essay, that without sickness we cannot be cured. In Prince Myshkin's case, he is actually saved by his sickness. Strict reason would have it then that the more chronic or protracted your illness, the more cured or saved you will ultimately be. In my father's case, this speculation leads nowhere because he was killed by his affliction. In Brennan's case, I'm not sure it's very appropriate either because his illness remains ever the same. The barrenness of it, the plain sameness of it, year after year. Where's the cure in that for him? What's he being saved from, or for? He still repeats himself. His life has changed little in the past ten years, except for his brushes with job-site authority and, to our continuing worry, with the law.
But there is a cure for me in this. Brennan too is an innocent. He has been given a bad deal all his life, and it causes him problems that cause him to cause problems. Yet the sameness of his days—ten years ago and now—includes a kind of self regard that allows him to think that he's simply leading his life and that those who would have him do things differently are simply wrong. He floats. He revisits the things that are important to him frequently and repetitively. He knows he's different from others, but because he has so little understanding of what it's like to be one of those others, the differences are, in fact, unknowable to him. Brennan is always simply Brennan and despite my worry and my wishes that he could be different and that he would understand the world, despite my sometimes anger at and frustration with him … despite all that … Brennan seems to lead a life that is satisfactory to him.
It is, as you can imagine, not satisfactory to me. But I seem to make it through the world with more or less ease. I'm gregarious. I enjoy a good story. I talk well, a conversationalist in a world in which conversation seems to have disappeared. I love to write. I make friends.
In fact, if it were not for Brennan, I could have walked through this life without any real problems at all. In other words, I could have led a shallow life in which I did not have to search for anything, dig for anything, or suffer any loss. But when Brennan had that first seizure thirty-three years ago, the darkness opened before us. We looked into it, and I, just to speak for myself, fell into it.
I went down to the dark, to the room where the seizure's flash ushers in the black. I've been there since that moment, and Brennan has escorted me around. He brings with him a kind of complicated light that allows for my emotional search, for my study of the nooks and interstices of the soul's unhappiness and happiness, for the reasons why it is so important now for me to seek friends, emotional exchange, conversation, and perhaps even the possibilities for writing well.
Unlike others, Brennan's mother and I have not given up on him, in the sense that we have not abandoned the fact that he is a man who needs true love, deep caring, and real respect. But I think that the bond is less evident in regard to the trio of men so tightly interweaved that I described ten years ago, the message more muddled than it was then. The memory of my father and my difficulties with him has faded, mostly I think because I no longer hold anything against him, nor he against me. I now know full well what it really means to be a father whose hopes have gelled into a kind of injured pain, and I believe my father has watched approvingly from the beyond as I've dealt with that and learned therefore how to treat Brennan in the way that he simply is, without unwarranted expectations.
It's a darker scenario than what I had hoped for ten years ago. But Brennan is now loved on real terms … realistic terms … and will always be so. Perhaps, as my friend A. told me then, I had missed the truth about myself. Knowing what that truth now is, it still holds that it was Brennan who brought it to me.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Book Review, December, 1991, Fred Moramarco, review of My Father in the Night: A Novel, p. 11.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1988, review of The Day Nothing Happened, p. 473; April 15, 1994, review of The King of Rumah Nadai, p. 493.
Library Journal, August, 1988, Albert E. Wilhelm, review of The Day Nothing Happened, p. 172; March 15, 1991, A.J. Wright, review of My Father in the Night, p. 113; May 15, 1994, Janet Ingraham, review of The King of Rumah Nadai, p. 98.
Publishers Weekly, April 28, 1988, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Day Nothing Happened, p. 66; March 9, 1990, review of The Day Nothing Happened, p. 62; January 25, 1991, Sybil Steinberg, review of My Father in the Night, p. 45; April 25, 1994, review of The King of Rumah Nadai, p. 56.
San Francisco Review of Books, annual, 1988, review of The Day Nothing Happened, p. 47.
Levin Editorial Web site,http://www.levineditorial.com/ (July 31, 2007), profile of Clarke.