Much of SPIKE SANTEE plays out in cheerful Henrik Ibsen's Norway
As mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently working away on two novels. I don’t know what it is with me and work — if I don’t have too much to do, I tend to do… nothing. So when it comes to writing, I’ve learned over the years that I can’t possibly bite off too much, if I have any hopes at all of completing anything.
Add to that the fact that I write in waves — when the creative writing tide is out, I move into painting and music. Ah, but when the author tide comes in, it’s an unstoppable tsunami, I whack away tirelessly at the keyboard in marathon sessions; it’s not so much a tremendous urge to write that motivates me as it is an absolute compulsion to tell a story that’s stubbornly lodged itself in my head.
So it is with this novel, codenamed SPIKE SANTEE.
The narrative starts in the mid-1950s in Oregon, following the development of the main character, a sensitive lad who believes he is destined for great things. Most of the novel’s action centers on the period 1969-1972, and largely plays out in Oslo and Stockholm, where young Santee travels in search of his destiny, before finally bailing for Canada.
At various times he finds himself:
- living with a family on Wolf Island in Oslofjord comprised of a lecherous, stay-at-home doctor, his Abraham Lincoln look-alike pharmacist wife, and their sons, one a rabid Marxist-Leninist, the other simply a royal pain in the ass;
-tutoring two sex-starved Mormon sisters from Los Angeles, whose father has moved his family to Moss, Norway, to escape the creeping tentacles of feminism, which he sees corrupting young Americans — especially girls;
The novel's Nordic action shifts to Strindberg's Stockholm
- leading a short-lived strike of fellow (illegal) immigrant workers in a shabby Oslo Middle Eastern restaurant;
- hooking up with a hitch-hiking U.S. army captain, on his way to Stockholm to sell a fortune in Turkish hashish;
- pretending to study Swedish in Stockholm while having an affair with a ridiculously beautiful Finnish woman in his class;
- hanging out with a band of gypsies who have a soft spot for Steinbeck;
- forming an all-star, all-Black (save Santee) basketball team, consisting of five very tall Americans, all of them deserters from Vietnam;
- working simultaneously at a state liquor store in a seedy Stockholm suburb while labouring as the Pakistani ambassador’s translator and personal assistant;
- helping create Bangladesh while being stalked by a crazed assasin;
- finding himself seriously hungover in Arlanda Airport, ready to board the next flight to East Berlin with a lovely left-wing journalist who’s about to become the Voice of Sweden on Radio East Germany.
Instead, Santee escapes, winging his way to that Golden City, that fabled fantasyland, that gateway to love and adventure so many seek but so few find: Edmonton, Alberta.
All writing, even fiction, is ultimately based on the experiences and dreams of the author. SANTEE is certainly no exception. I’m finding I’m scarcely needing to make shit up; in fact, on occasion, I’ve felt compelled to throttle back a bit, just to keep things vaguely believable. Ah, life IS but a dream, after all.
To give you a sense of the writing in SANTEE, here’s an early bit from the manuscript…
AN EXCERPT FROM SPIKE SANTEE
Section One 1955
Pity the Infidel, oh Warrior, for he does not know what you know, and will not walk the golden streets of Paradise as one day you will.
Mir Zie Hussein, The Way of the World, Book Two, Chronicle 9
The room’s walls were green. Sort of avocado, actually, bathed in a sickly fluorescent glow that made them buzz. The room smelled of rubbing alcohol and aspirin, of vomit and diarrhea. It reeked of hopes shattered, dreams nipped in the bud, of souls sliding into shadow.
Spike lay very still on his back, his legs uncharacteristically straightened, a dangerous position at home, where the end of his bed almost touched the back window that looked out into the yard, a scant 30 feet or so from the Southern Pacific tracks. No need for bent knees here, he was on the 3rd floor of Salem General, a boy-raping dirty no-good Nazi hobo would have to be a world champion pole vaulter to get at him through a window up here. He stared at the ceiling, trying to count the dots in a single square of ceiling tile. The highest he got to was 97 before his eyes started to cross, forcing him to blink and lose count.
He turned his head slightly, watching the bottle dispensing a saline solution and some sort of drug into his left arm, the one with the tube poked into it. He felt fine, in a sort of vibrating, slightly unnatural kind of way. Swallowing, he noted a metallic taste in his mouth, like someone had shoved a wad of tightly rolled Reynold’s aluminum wrap in there. Rolling his eyes up slightly, he saw a number of Christmas cards standing on the nightstand beside his bed. The one with the glittery blue angel on the front was from Miss Little and his classmates at Hoover School, proudly named after America’s premier crime fighter and Commie-catcher. Or a vacuum cleaner, or perhaps a president, Spike wasn’t quite sure which. He closed his eyes and wondered if J. Edgar Hoover had a Hoover.
Just then the door opened quietly. In walked a couple of men in white lab coats he didn’t recognize, together with Spike’s parents. They gathered around the bottle-less side of his bed. One of the doctors stuck the business ends of a stethoscope into his ears and placed the listening part on Spike’s chest. While he did this, Mrs. Santee, her eyes glistening, grasped her son’s right hand and gave it a gentle, coded squeeze, the sort that only mothers seem capable of delivering – this one was the I’m terrified but don’t worry you’re going to be alright oh please God don’t let him die squeeze, which Spike instantly understood in a genetic, unconscious way.
While his mom squeezed like there was no tomorrow (a distinct possibility, apparently), the stethoscope-less doctor cleared his throat and spoke – he was a very big man, with extremely bushy, Russian-style Cold War eyebrows, so Spike was taken aback when out of his cave opening of a mouth came a gentle, high-pitched voice.
“Hello young man, how are you feeling?” the large physician with the tiny voice intoned.
Spike did his best to smile and nod encouragingly.
“OK,” the doctor continued, “my name is Doctor Wolf. And this is my colleague, Doctor Fox,” he added, gesturing to his partner, who had pulled the stethoscope plugs from the ears and was now gently probing and pressing Spike’s lower abdomen.
Spike let this information sink in for a moment. No doubt about it, here was further evidence of the Ultimate Mystery of the Universe, undeniable proof of the existence of a Cosmic Game of Life in which he was a definite player. Wolf and Fox. Not Smith and Jones. Or Burns and Allen. Or Proctor and Gamble. No sir, his doctors, naturally, had to be named Wolf and Fox. The question was, of course, whether their arrival signified that he was a lamb being readied for the inevitable slaughter, or were they sent here to remind him that he was a hunter, too, and the pack was eagerly anticipating his return to lamb-slaughtering form.
He pondered these intriguing possibilities for a moment, then decided fairly quickly that he preferred the latter answer. This triggered one of his more fervent prayers (usually reserved for baseball games when he was on the mound and the count was 3 and 2, bases loaded, parents and pals in the stands), strongly suggesting that Jesus come down on the side of the predators, this one time only. Please.
It was at this moment that Spike first let Jesus know that, if it was all the same to Him, he’d prefer to live to be a hundred. This lying on a hospital bed surrounded by anxious adults was no fun at all. He had a sneaking suspicion that life might hold a bit more of this in store. So why not go into all that at least clear in the knowledge that, come what may, he’d pull through to his 100th birthday. Take some of the tension out of it all. Allow a guy to relax a bit, roll with the punches, take whatever life dished out on the chin, get up, brush himself off, and keep goin’. Made sense to Spike. He fervently hoped it struck a chord with Jesus, too.
As he lay there repeating his mantra-like prayer, (pleaseGodletmelivetobea100,pleaseGodletmelivetobea100), doctors Wolf and Fox conferred near the door with Mr. and Mrs. Santee. Their hushed tones made it hard for him to hear what they were saying, what with his young brain being primarily occupied with ensuring that he’d survive halfway through the 21st century and all. A few words and phrases did filter through, though – words like appendix, peritonitis, and die. Phrases like must operate, never attempted before, and high degree of risk.
The general gist of this did not strike Spike, doped up as he was, as particularly sensational, or even seasonal news. Not even cheery, actually. The adults’ conversation ended with Mr. Santee, his eyes glistening, putting a burly arm around his wife who was now quietly sobbing. Doctor Fox opened the door and motioned to someone standing out in the corridor. In came a couple of nurses and an orderly, pushing some sort of rolling bed.
They moved to Spike’s bedside. The older nurse with the enormous breasts and breath that smelled of Dentyne gum stroked Spike’s forehead, pushing his light brown hair back and up as she did so.
“Merry Christmas young man,” she said softly. “We’re going to get you ready to go down to the operating theater where the doctors are going to make you all better.”
This sounded like a perfectly fine plan to Spike, who smiled back goofily in response.
As the nurses and the orderly fumbled with the line attached to Spike’s arm, his parents moved over to the other side of his bed. His mom reached out and stroked his arm. “Spike, the doctors are going to have to operate on you,” she explained. “You have a problem in your tummy, and they’re going to fix it. You’re going to be fine,” (here her motherly voice caught, forcing her to look away and out the window into the damp December Oregon night, but she quickly regained some semblance of composure and continued), “but you have to be strong and brave and do your very best to get better. Your dad and I are going to be right outside, so are your uncles and aunts, and everyone’s praying for you, all your friends and classmates, your teachers, everyone at church. You’re going to be fine…” At this she started to sob, the sort of sob parents always try to stifle, which just makes it sound worse to the person (usually their kid) who they’re trying to fake out. What Spike fuzzily took from her comments and conduct was, man, I gotta pray harder and faster, this is not looking too good at the moment.
By now the nurses and orderly had their work sorted out, Sensing a pause in the family melodrama, the skinny, tall nurse with the hooked nose and the terrible dye job announced that it was time to wheel young Santee to the operating room.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Santa Claus came by to greet you when you get back, Spike,” she added, flashing a big, yellow-toothed grin at the boy that reminded him faintly of the slightly scary image on the cover of his otherwise-cherished Bozo the Clown record.
With that the orderly walked up to the head of the bed, unlatched the brake, and started pushing the bed and Spike toward the door and destiny.
As they wheeled their way down the corridor, his parents faces floating anxiously above him, Spike took note of the occasional additional recognizable form – there was a caricature of his Uncle Burdette’s mug looming momentarily above him, his Kansas-scoured face screwed up in a grimace of encouraging concern. Burdette was replaced by the slightly older, Perry Como-ish visage of Uncle Wayne, the eldest of the three Collins siblings, a toothpick neatly, deeply tucked in the right-hand corner of his mouth, looking as he always did, as if he was bursting to say something, likely something terribly kind, but whatever it was didn’t manage to barge its way past the obstructing toothpick before the image shimmered and passed out of Spike’s fuzzy, corridor-scanning sight.
After what seemed, oh, approximately eleven seconds, all motion had stopped. He was now in a medium-sized room, with lots of people, their voices muted by the white masks worn over their faces, moving about here and there. They all seemed to Spike to know what they were doing, where they were going, and what they intended to accomplish. That was just fine with him, he thought, as he closed his eyes for a moment.
Spike sat as usual in the front pew, slightly stage right of the pulpit. This was his post-Sunday School spot, next to his cousin, Rod. Delmar Krebs, Berean Baptist’s young minister, was in the process of laying it on thick. At least Spike assumed he was, given the man’s increasing volume, and the higher pitch his voice was taking as he grew louder. Spike wasn’t really paying attention to Mr. Krebss. He was focused on doodling on the back of the church announcements pamphlet, when suddenly something the minister said jolted him to the surface like a trout heading for airborne glory at the realization of a hook in his mouth.
“There is only one way to Heaven, only one path to salvation,” Reverend Krebs, nearly shouting now, intoned as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief, then dramatically took off his suit coat and threw it behind him where it landed at the feet of Jesus, who, nailed to a cross as he was, looked down on the crumpled Sears suit coat beneath his spiked feet with an expression of obvious distaste.
“The only Way,” Reverend Krebs continued, his voice warbling now like a small town air raid siren, “is to accept our Lord, Jesus Christ, as your very own personal savior. He is the Way. He is the only Way. Only through Him can you hope to reach Heaven, to sit one day in glory at the feet of our Heavenly Father. Without Him, you are lost, doomed to eternal damnation!”
By now the reverend was in a frothing frenzy, flapping his large hands in the air on either side of the pulpit as he hammered home this grim reminder that the Road to Paradise was indeed a straight and oh-so-narrow one-laner. Rod, to Spike’s left, appeared indifferent to this staggering statement, and was in fact fully engaged in carefully examining the booger he had recently excavated from his freckled nose. On the other hand, many of the adults to either side and behind the boys were reacting with a fair degree of enthusiasm to Krebs’ cheery news. There was much murmuring, and more than a few shouted halleluiahs, and praise the Lords reverberating around the large room.
Suddenly Spike found himself rising up off the pew, straight up, no messing around. Before he knew it, his feet were well off the ground and he was heading for the ceiling, with its big, slowly spinning fan. This all seemed perfectly normal to the boy, and also seemed to completely escape the attention of Mr. Krebs (Spike noticed the man had the beginnings of a bald patch and a bad case of dandruff as he floated above the pulpit) and the congregation, who behaved as if a kid rising to the roof on a Sunday morning in a church in western Oregon was about as normal as a wet November day in the Willamette Valley.
Looking up, Spike watched with disengaged fascination as he floated freely through the fan, entered the ceiling, and emerged out the other side, into a crisp fall day, with the fertile valley of the Indus in northern Punjab spreading out to the west, south and east. To the north the boy spied the green and black foothills of the western Himalaya. He drifted rapidly through the sweetly scented air– flew, really – in that direction, north, noting below him the teeming streets of Rawalpindi, soon giving way to a patchwork of fields and small villages as he gathered steam and moved ever more quickly towards the icy main range of the western end of the greatest mountains on earth.
He knew precisely why this was happening to him, he knew why he skimmed the summit of massive Nanga Parbat, its slopes studded with the frozen corpses of unlucky German mountaineers, he knew why he almost whacked into the icy tip of K2. He knew why he was suddenly heading east, swooshing over the Potala in Lhasa, why he was swooping low over the worshipers and tourists at Angkor Wat, why he zoomed over the endless sprawl of Tokyo, soared over the Serengeti, sailed through the skies of Senegal….
He was doing an inventory.
A checklist. For Reverend Krebs. And Jesus. He was conducting a Gallop poll for God. Counting all the doomed souls in the world. Enumerating all the little babies, the children, the young mothers, the men sitting on their haunches outside rural Punjabi teahouses, around fires in Burundi, taking off their sandals in mosques from Baghdad to Bahrain, the elders, their white hair in vivid contrast to their dark faces – counting them all, every single one of them.
All doomed. All guilty of the Unforgivable Sin.
Not one of them had ever heard of Jesus.
As an extension of his religious inventory, for absolutely no additional charge, Spike paid special attention to boys whose dads hadn’t served in the Army or Navy (branches of the service that featured four letters in their names), Air Force (eight letters, hopeless) brats mainly, ‘cause he wasn’t quite sure what to do with the offspring of Marines, given that they’re technically part of the Navy, after all. Like all those clueless, doomed pagans and Muslims and Buddhists, these boys had no inkling of just how far offside with God and the Universe they were, no sir, nary a clue.
Spike suddenly found himself, breathless, back on the pew at Berean Baptist. Rod’s booger was gone. Spike didn’t care to contemplate where. Mr. Krebs, calmer now, was inviting people to step forward, admit before God and their fellow parishioners their wayward ways, to come forward and cleanse their souls by accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, their one-way, first-class ticket to heaven.
Spike heard a voice whisper something in his ear. It was Jesus. Looking up, he saw that the Lord was looking at him from the wall behind Reverend Krebs, square in the eye, his cracked wooden lips moving imperceptibly as he spoke to the boy.
“Well Spike,” Jesus said, quiet as a cat sneaking up on a puppy’s tail, his voice reminding Spike of President Eisenhower’s, “there are a whole lot of ‘em out there, huh? Did you count them? Every single one of ‘em deader’n a doornail. It’s us Spike, you and Me, against them. How do you like them apples?”
Spike thought about this a moment, squirmed a bit on the uncomfortable wooden pew, then answered with the honesty that only a small American boy, a child of the fifties, raised right and fairly high on morphine could be expected to muster: “Well Lord, it doesn’t seem fair to me, it doesn’t seem fair at all. Just ‘cause they haven’t heard of You, why does that mean they’re doomed. It just doesn’t seem right.”
At this Jesus broke into a teeny, tiny little smile. Spike thought he winked but he couldn’t be sure.
I’ve got a live one here, Our Lord thought to himself, hanging there on the plaster wall at Berean Baptist, a spruce little church tucked into in a Douglas fir grove in West Salem, Oregon. Yessir, I’ve got a live one.
Spike fluttered his eyes, saw yellow through the lids when he shut them tightly to stop the fluttering, then slowly opened them again. He was back in the green room, his arm plugged into the plastic tubes again. His Uncle Burdette was standing beside his bed, holding Spike’s hand.
“Spike,” he said, “Spike, the doctors did a good job, they did the very best job they could. Now you’ve got to help them, son. I’m gonna put this to you straight. You’ve got to take a dump, Spike, take a dump or die, I shit you not, son, I don’t know how else to put it, I know it sounds sorta rough, but there it is. You’ve got to go to the bathroom, son, real soon – then you’ll be fine.”
This news did not strike Spike as particularly remarkable, given the conversation he vaguely recalled having recently had with Jesus Christ. So he smiled encouragingly up at the concerned face of his uncle and said, “OK.”
The boy’s subsequent bowel movement was a rousing success, everyone later agreed. Spike was later regaled with lots of visitors, capped by an appearance by none other than Santa Claus himself, complete with a giant bag full of more toys than Spike had seen in one place, outside of Heider’s Toy Store on Market Street. Much was made of the fact that Spike was the only child in Salem General Hospital that Christmas Day (for Christmas Day it was). A photographer from the Statesman-Journal popped his flashbulb, Spike would appear on the front page of a newspaper for the first time in his life the next day.
In the midst of the hubbub, Spike realized that he had learned two very important things here today. He concluded that, on balance, he had a slightly softer spot for Santa than he did for Jesus. And turns out that we really are all full of shit – but you can do something about that, if you try hard enough.