by Arthur Powers
followed by Q&A
The Big Day was one of those blockbusting novels about World War II that came out during the 1950s. It’s about a platoon fighting its way across Europe, and the main subplot deals with a character named Marty Scherer. As the novel unfolds, the platoon and the narrator—who is one of his fellow soldiers—gradually discover that Marty Scherer is a homosexual. They are appalled and—without ever mentioning it—back away from him, isolate him. But as the novel continues, with their lives depending on each other, they begin to realize that he is one of them, part of the brotherhood. In the end, Marty is killed saving the lives of two fellow soldiers, and his death is grieved by the group as that of a hero.
It’s been years since I read the book—it isn’t the kind you’re likely to reread. As I remember, it is pretty well done—the tension well developed, the issue handled thoughtfully, the characters believable. But it would now be considered old fashioned. Its attitude toward homosexuality is clearly negative—indeed, the development depends on the other soldiers’ (and perhaps Marty’s own) abhorrence of his homosexuality. In any case, by the late 1970s, sales of the book—which had been a best seller in the 1950s—trickled down to the point where we backlisted it and never thought of reprinting it. It is difficult to imagine who would be its audience today.
The author, Daniel Morgan Gray, came out with a couple of other books in the early ’60s—not published by our house—and then dropped out of sight. That is, until a few weeks ago.
My father walked into my office with a manuscript and tossed it onto my desk. “Take a look at this, Steve.”
I glanced down and saw a typewritten letter—I mean one from a real typewriter. It had a return address on the Northwest side—our publishing firm is located on Michigan Avenue in Chicago—and was simply addressed to Marion Brothers.
You published my first book, The Big Day, in 1955. I am wondering if you would be interested in publishing my recently completed one, Thorn.
Enclosed is the manuscript for your consideration.
Daniel Morgan Gray
I took the manuscript home that night and read it. It was a photocopy of typewritten pages. The story is about a group of men on a hunting trip in the 1950s, somewhere in Canada. The theme is pretty much The Big Day, but with a couple of differences. This time the narrator is Marty Scherer, so to speak—although he is named Al Martin. What I mean, though, is that this time the story is narrated by the pariah and not by one of the others. The pariah feels he is isolated and an outcast, tells of his own reinstatement and redemption—though this time the heroic act is more subtle and doesn’t get him killed.
But there is something disturbing, unsatisfactory about the story. First, unlike The Big Day, there is no clear indication that the other members of the group know about Al Martin’s problem, or intentionally in any way make him a pariah. It almost seems to be an entirely inner process of his feeling himself to be an outsider—although, again, this is not absolutely clear. Second, there is really no indication of what Al Martin’s problem is. It could be homosexuality—but only having read The Big Day would make one think so. It could be some other sexual issue, or something else altogether. Believe me, I went back over the text for an hour trying to figure it out—and it isn’t there. It leaves one with a strange, disoriented feeling after reading a manuscript that, on its surface, seems like a pretty straightforward story.
Marion Brothers, our publishing house, has offices on the 8th and 9th floors of one of the best buildings along Michigan Avenue. That we are in Chicago, and that we are still family owned, set us apart in the publishing world.
The firm was founded in the 1920s by my grandfather and his two brothers, and they did very well through the 1950s. My grandfather and great uncles had the sense to diversify—we own the building we are in, for instance—so that the firm doesn’t depend solely on publishing for its livelihood. That allowed us—especially in the 1960s as my father became more influential—to focus on quality, so that our name was—and is—right up there with Knopf and a handful of other firms that are really interested in books. With the help of Molly Hanrahan, who’s our lawyer and my second cousin, Dad has restructured the firm so that the publishing portion is controlled by a family foundation and would be almost impossible to take over. Our understanding is that, as long as there are Marions—or friends and relations—interested in publishing good books, the firm will stay in business.
In any case, we have a bright future as my older brother, Sam, is a genius at publishing and is recognized by the family—and by the non-family senior editors—as the heir apparent once Dad retires. In addition to Sam and me, three other family members of our generation are active in the firm—our cousin Jack Thompson, who works in finance, and our second cousins Mark Marion, who lives in London and represents the firm there, and Molly. I emphasize that Molly is my second cousin because she’s special—the way she holds her head at an angle when she talks to you, the chestnut highlights when the sun touches her hair, the glint of humor in her eyes. But there’s a difference between us—Molly graduated from Northwestern Law School and could have walked into any job in the city; I certainly wouldn’t have my job if my last name weren’t Marion.
“You’re a good boy, Steve,” Dad said to me when he was in my office recently. “You’re our touchstone to reality.” And he reached out and tousled my hair. I’m twenty-nine and my dad still tousles my hair, and I don’t mind it.
Sam came into my office and slouched into one of the chairs.
“It seems that Daniel Morgan Gray is in a nursing home and can’t get out and around,” Sam said. “I’ve made an appointment to see him tomorrow. Want to go along?"
“Sure,” I said.
I looked at Sam. He’s four years older than I am—but, right now, with sleepless nights and worry, looks older. His five-year-old daughter, Carla, has some sort of growth disorder that the doctors can’t seem to identify—even though Sam’s wife, Nora, is a teaching assistant in bio-ethics at the University of Chicago and has tapped into all the resources of the medical school.
“You’ve read Thorn?” I asked. We have a rule that neither of us will tell the other what we think of a manuscript until we’ve both had a chance to read it and write down our initial impressions.
He nodded. “Most of it. I’ll finish it up tonight, then jot down my thoughts. We can discuss it in the morning.”
He stayed for a few moments, apparently lost in thought, staring at his long thin fingers. That’s okay—sometimes he comes into my office for a while just to sit and think and be away from things. But today, after a minute, he suddenly startled back to awareness, shot me a fleeting grin and heaved himself out of the chair.
“Ten o’clock?” he asked.
“Fine,” I said.
That afternoon I was reading an incredibly self-absorbed manuscript by a guy who I have heard is a darling of the literary world. By page seven, I had decided that this was one on which I was probably going to vote “no”—by page 30 that probably had become definitely—and by page 44 I decided to vote “no” on reading the rest of it. I stood up, restless and bored, and—as I usually do at least twice a day—decided to stroll down the hall to Molly’s office.
When I walked into her office, I could tell she was intense. That meant law. Molly is a wonderful, light-hearted imp except when it comes to legal matters. I remember I once asked her why she hadn’t dated anyone in law school. “Marry another lawyer,” she flashed back “—do you think I’m crazy?” I took that as a hopeful sign. I wanted to say, “How about a junior, junior publisher?” but somehow it didn’t get said. It sometimes seemed it never would.
She was on the telephone now, and I knew what the problem was. The book was on her desk—a family saga about a fictional senator from Wyoming who, after publication, turned out to have an awful lot in common with a non-fictional ex-governor of Montana.
She set down the receiver—looking as though she would have rather slammed it—and glared at me. “Liability,” she said. She reminded me of Susan B. Anthony talking about women’s suffrage. “Why doesn’t anyone understand liability?”
I picked up the volume on her desk and weighed it in my hand.
“Oh, I don’t know, Moll,” I said. “It’s a mighty thick book, but—even if it fell on someone’s head—it couldn’t do that much damage.”
She looked at me fiercely for a moment, then giggled and leaned back in her chair, the humor once again glinting out of her brown eyes.
“Stevie,” she said, “I swear, sometimes you’re a Godsend.”
“So why Thorn?” I asked. “The title, I mean?”
“Think, Steve,” Sam answered. He was driving us out to the Northwest side. “Literary references.” It was a game we had played ever since I could remember. Probably half the intelligence I have is due to my big brother making me think.
“Give me a hint,” I said.
I thought back to my short career in Sunday school when my mother, the painter—Anne Marion, was going through one of her religious periods.
“Moses. There’s something about Moses and a burning thorn bush.”
“Try the New Testament,” Sam said.
That was harder. I had tried to read the Bible as a teenager, but had never gotten beyond Exodus. Later, in college, I’d read parts of the New Testament—I knew some of the stories, of course—but thorns? Then something suddenly popped into my memory.
“A thorn in my side,” I said.
“Very good,” Sam said, as he slowed for the Irving Park exit. There was silence between us as he pulled off and down the ramp.
“That’s as far as I can get,” I said.
He nodded. “Saint Paul.”
He turned onto Irving Park and headed west. “Paul mentions a thorn in his side—that’s where the phrase comes from, of course—that he prays will be removed. But God won’t remove it. So Paul figures it must be there for a reason.”
“So, what is it?”
“Paul doesn’t say. There’s been a lot of speculation about it—some think it was a pain or illness, others that it was a sin—or, more likely, a temptation to sin in a particular way. But nobody knows.”
“Oh,” I said.
The nursing home, when we got there, proved to be a wing of a retirement community—what Dad would call an old people’s home. As we entered the lobby, I had the feeling of stepping back in time—Glen Miller playing over the sound system, posters announcing this week’s movies—Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire. Pictures of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman on one side of the lobby were balanced by pictures of Dwight Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover on the other, presumably to make everyone feel at home. A brightly smiling, seventy-year-old receptionist asked us who we wanted to see and directed us to Mr. Gray’s room.
The room, when we got there, was a typical hospital room. Daniel Morgan Gray was sitting in a chair, wearing blue and white striped pajamas, a dark red robe, and leather slippers. He made no effort to stand up, but smiled and leaned forward to shake our hands.
“Forgive the hospital room, gentlemen.” He spoke expansively, his voice firm. “I’m here under observation, and they won’t let me wander about.”
He had a catching smile that wrinkled around his eyes, leathery skin and a crew cut. He seemed—sitting down—to be about medium height, but sturdily built. I don’t think he had ever been handsome, but he had a likeable sort of Robert Mitchum quality—a sort of man’s man from the 1940s and 50s. If you told me he was a retired truck driver, I would have believed it. If you told me he had been a soldier in World War II, I would have believed it too. I had never bothered to form a picture of him in my mind’s eye—but if I had, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.
My brother brought out his business card and handed it to him. DMG (I can’t go on calling him Daniel Morgan Gray—but Daniel would be more familiar than he ever warranted, and Mr. Gray is way too bland) took it.
“Mr. Marion himself.” He smiled, looking up at Sam. “I’m impressed.” He turned to me. “And you?”
“Just one of the family,” I said lightly, handing my card.
We had just settled into functional hospital chairs and begun the conversation, when Sam’s cell phone rang. Worry glimpsed across Sam’s face. He excused himself and, answering the phone, got up and left the room.
DMG’s observant eyes followed Sam out, then turned toward me.
“His daughter is sick,” I explained.
“I’m sorry,” DMG said. He sounded like he meant it. He looked at me for a moment, then asked a surprising question.
“He feels responsible, doesn’t he? For his daughter being sick.”
I thought for a moment. “I suppose he does,” I said. “I don’t know why he should, but I think he does….”
“Feeling responsible is a funny thing,” he said, “—not always logical.” He looked down at the business card I had given him. “It says here just ‘Editor.’”
“They all say that. Except the ones that say ‘Senior Editor.’ Or my father’s—that says ‘President.’”
“So you really are one of the family. Know anything about books?”
I smiled. “A little. You grow up with them. It gets into the blood.”
He chuckled. “I know. My own father was a university professor.” He glanced at me, a slight twinkle in his eyes. “You look surprised.”
“Do I? I suppose I thought….”
“I know,” he said, grinning. “It’s the tough, working man look. I guess I started to pick it up as a kid, in the thirties—hanging out with the townies, you had to be a little showy tough if you were a prof’s son. Then I got really good at it during the war. And later it was great PR as a writer—in the 50s they liked their writers tough and manly and a little working class.”
There was a rustle behind me and Sam came into the room, his face concerned. “Steve,” he said, “can you handle this?” And then, “I’m sorry, Mr. Gray—a family matter. I have to go.”
Sam stepped over to shake DMG’s hand. DMG stood up with an effort. As I had thought, he was about average height—an inch or so taller than I am.
“I hope your daughter is okay, Mr. Marion.”
“Thank you. This may be a breakthrough.” Sam said it, but I sensed that he didn’t believe it, that he knew Carla’s condition would be with us a long time. He motioned to me. “My brother….”
“Your brother is doing fine. We’re having a great talk.”
“I’ll catch a cab back,” I said. Sam nodded and was gone.
“So you really were in World War II,” I said as we sat down again. I had a fascination for that period, looming like a myth decades before I was born. I loved to hear the old men tell about it.
“Did you think I made all that stuff up?”
“Some writers do. Stephen Crane did.”
“Crane was a genius. I’m just a writer.” He gave me a fleet half-smile—and I realized he had just said something that pleased him.
“Did you really know Marty Scherer?” I asked.
He looked at me oddly for a moment.
“I was Marty Scherer,” he said.
“Oh.” I felt taken aback—as if somebody had suddenly told me a very personal secret—which people, in fact, sometimes do. “But you didn’t die.” Dumb observation, Steve.
“No. More’s the pity. In the 50s I used to feel bad about the guys who’d been killed in the War, but sometimes, now, I think they were the lucky ones. Saved all this”—he waved his hand around the hospital room—“and all the shit the world’s gotten into. If they’d known this was what we were fighting for....”
He broke off.
“But it must have been easier for you during the last thirty years....”
“Easier?” He looked baffled, almost on the verge of outrage. “What kind of damn fool statement is that?”
He looked at me fiercely for a moment, puzzlement written on his face. I felt myself blushing. Then suddenly he threw back his head and laughed.
“Oh, that’s it. You think I’m a homo. Because I said I was Marty Scherer... You think I’m a homo.” And he laughed again.
The strange old-fashioned word fit his role. But it was my turn to look puzzled.
He must have noticed my bewilderment.
He sat looking at me for a moment, then leaned forward in his chair. “Let me explain, kid,” he said. He put up his right hand, the thick index finger extended. “Have you ever felt like an outcast?”
“Sure,” I said. “I suppose everyone has.”
He nodded. “Most everybody feels it as a kid sometimes. The pimply punk wanting to be accepted by the athletes. The athletes—the ones the punk thinks have it all wrapped up—wanting to prove themselves.” He grinned. “The prof’s son wanting to be accepted by the townies.”
“Or as an adult,” I said. “Walking into a cocktail party where you know no one and no one knows you—or seems to care.”
“You’ve got it,” he said. “Well, some guys fit in more than others—guys from small towns who’ve grown up among people they know, guys who aren’t too self-conscious. But others carry something in them that makes them feel that way all the time. I noticed it in the Army.”
“Marty Scherer,” I said.
“That’s right. I balled up all of that—all those feelings I had—and put it into one guy. There were guys like that in the Army. Not necessarily homos—and not all the homos were like that—but guys who were different, somehow, just didn’t seem to relate, to belong. I had enough of that in me to feel it. I wasn’t all Marty Scherer—I had enough of the regular guy in me to see it from their side too. But in writing you—how can I say it—distill things, make them clearer. You know what I mean?”
“So that’s what I wrote about.” He leaned back in his chair and looked at me.
“You did a great job of it in The Big Day.”
“It was a good book,” he said. “Did you ever read the other two I published?”
“No need to be. After I finished The Big Day, it continued to gnaw at me—this outcast stuff. I searched around for subjects. One of the books was about a guy who wants to kill people—a sort of hidden murderer. He never does it, but he wants to. Trouble was, I couldn’t like the guy. I liked Marty Scherer—but this guy—by half way through the book, I couldn’t stand him. How can you write about a guy being an outcast when you’re thinking he damn well deserves to be an outcast? I finished the book because I had a contract, but I never liked it much.”
“And the other?”
“The other was more interesting. It was about a woman—May Thompson—who’s a kleptomaniac. It’s a thin little book, but it was hard as hell to write. It’s about a woman—most kleptos are women—and that was new for me. And then kleptomania—I mean, it’s a tragedy for those who have it, but it’s a little comic seen from the outside, and I had to control that—not ignore the comic but keep it under control. I did pretty well—it’s not a bad little book.
“But when I got done with it, I was at loose ends. I needed to write about something that makes one an outcast without being completely repulsive—you know, something that is abhorrent and yet not abhorrent. And hidden enough to make one seem almost normal—not an obvious defect—not a Quasimodo. When all this stuff broke out about child molesters, somebody suggested I write about one. They didn’t understand—I’m not interested in evil…or in witch hunts. There might be a story there about someone wrongly suspected of molestation, but never openly charged… something that follows him like a silent cloud. But I could never get into it.
“In the 1970s I got fascinated by a case that happened in South Dakota. This guy was State Secretary of Education. He died suddenly and they discovered he was a bigamist, with two families in the state, neither of them knowing about the other. I thought about that a lot—how this guy, well-known and visible—balanced those two families in a small, rural state for years. No wonder he had a heart attack! It must have been schizo—but in the end it was hard to see him as an outcast. His problem was—you know—rather an excess of inclusion.” He shot me his half-smile again, pleased with his own remark.
“You really got to me a few minutes ago,” he continued, “when you said that things must have been getting easier for me these last thirty years. Way off base—it’s just the opposite. Do you know how hard it is to write about pariahs in a society where everything is okay? I mean, could I write The Big Day now? No way. Readers would just think Marty was a guy who needed to come out of the closet, and that the others were a bunch of bigots. There used to be lots of things you could write about: Negroes passing for white, people covering up lower-class roots or insanity in the family, all kind of things that would make a person feel like an outcast. But now. Have you ever watched daytime TV? Every repulsive thing you could think of—and some you couldn’t—pulled out and made public. Sometimes I think people sin—we used to call it sin—not for the pleasure of it, but so that they can publicize it and make big bucks. Or they don’t even do it... just make it up.”
He ran out of steam and paused for a moment.
“You have a point,” I said. “I’d never thought of it, but it must be tough to write about outcasts in a world where everything is tolerated.”
“Everything tolerated, talked about, paraded all over the place. Christ—we were a lot more interesting when we were inhibited.” He paused a moment. “But even now...even with all this belly-hanging-out stuff...we still, we still feel like outcasts. Tell me it’s any different today than it was.”
“No,” I said, thinking of the young people I knew. “I don’t think it’s any better—maybe worse.”
He nodded. “Everything’s supposed to be okay—I’m okay, you’re okay—no hang-ups or guilt. And still, deep down inside, we are strangers, outcasts, pariahs….”
He looked at me for a moment. “And so....”
He left the sentence dangling and I completed it for him.
“And so you wrote Thorn.”
“I won’t rewrite,” he said later. “I can’t. A few commas and clean-ups and stuff,” he waved his hand, “okay. Anything you decide on. You understand what I’m trying to do. But I can’t rewrite—I’m too old, it doesn’t matter enough anymore.”
We had been talking for half an hour. About the book. Thoughts I had. Questions.
This was the third time he had emphasized that he wouldn’t rewrite. I didn’t want to push it any further. Underneath the tough exterior, I could see the effort he was making, the age showing through. He was tired.
“Okay,” I said, standing up. “I’ll have to reread the manuscript and think about it. And, of course, I don’t have the final word.”
He reached out and shook my hand.
“Whatever happens is fine,” he said. “Talking with you’s been great. At my age, having one good reader’s as good as having a hundred thousand.”
I smiled and turned to go. As I reached the door, he called out to me.
“Steve,” he said, and I turned back toward him. “What does it feel like to be just one of the family?”
I stood with my hand on the door handle, looking back at him. I hesitated for a moment, then smiled.
“Most of the time—” I said, “just great.”
There were seven of us in the meeting room: Dad, Sam, two senior editors, two other junior editors besides myself. Thorn was the third book up for discussion. Five of us had read it.
I gave a brief report on my meeting with DMG, then let the others talk. It went around with the usual insights—these were bright, sensitive people who knew books. One of the senior editors was mildly in favor of the book, one of the junior editors thought it wouldn’t have any relevance or impact—“Much less sales.”
“I really don’t know,” Sam said. “Steve, what do you think?”
I was at the foot of the table, where I usually sit. I was aware of the old table’s polished mahogany surface, of their eyes turned toward me.
“Publish it,” I said.
My father nodded.
Arthur Powers is from Chicago, and has lived most his adult life in Brazil. He and his wife spent seven years in the Amazon, organizing subsistence farmers and rural workers’ unions in a region of violent land conflicts. He received a Fellowship in Fiction from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, three annual awards for short fiction from the Catholic Press Association, and 2nd place in the 2008 Tom Howard fiction contest. His writing has appeared in America, The Hiram Poetry Review, The Roanoke Review, The South Carolina Review, The Southern Poetry Review, and many other magazines and anthologies.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I awoke one morning with the story, “Thorn,” fully formed in my mind.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: A ’cello.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Conner, Graciliano Ramos, Jorge Luis Borges. In poetry, Robert Frost, Alan Tate, Wallace Stevens.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: Any place cool and quiet. Long drives. Stories develop in my mind, to be written when I have an opportunity to sit down at my laptop.