Authors: Ernest Hebert
Also by Ernest Hebert
Live Free or Die
The Passion of Estelle Jordan
Whisper My Name
A Little More Than Kin
The Dogs of March
A NOVEL BY
University Press of New England
Hanover and London
University Press of New England, Hanover, NH 03755
© 1993 by Ernest Hebert
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mad boys: a novel / by Ernest Hebert.
ISBN 0-87451-643-9 (hard)
I. Title. PS3558.E277M33 1993 813′.54—dc20 93–969
I’d like to thank Audrey Lyle, Dayton Duncan, Annie Proulx, and Jim Schley for critiquing earlier crude drafts of this work, with special thanks to Terry Pindell, who read two drafts and made several key suggestions that helped get this project rolling. Michael Lowenthal deserves tremendous credit for his editing job of
. I couldn’t have done it without you, Mike. To Medora Hebert, Lael Hebert, Nicole Hebert, Barbara Cunningham, Kathy Harp, Lou Renza, Cleopatra Mathis, Cynthia Huntingtom, Tom Sleigh, William Spengemenn, Nat Sobel, and Ted Timreck: bless you all for keeping up my spirits. I’d like to thank Dartmouth College for sabbatical time and for some money to help cover the travel expenses for the research on this project. To Mary Jane McCord: a special thanks for your kindness and hospitality on the road.
I grew up in Keene, New Hampshire, with two brothers, no sisters. Lived in a neighborhood with no girls my age. Went to a Catholic school where boys were segregated from girls. In short, I grew up with boys. They had a tremendous effect upon my life, so this book is dedicated to the boys who enriched my childhood and especially to: the memories of Dick Doherty and Michael Patnode, who left us too soon; my brothers, Omer and Paul; and my “best” friends, Gordon McCollester, Bill Sullivan, Dennis Patnode, and John Westcott, who taught me the A-Y-G language.
The character Royal Durocher in
is named after Royal Desrosier, a boy I idolized when I was a kid. The real Royal, who was kind and warm, is nothing like the fictional Royal. The characters of Mary Jane and Marla are named after my Texas cousins; the real Mary Jane McCord and Marla Norman are not to be confused with their fictional namesakes in personality, or in any other way.
The inspiration for
came from photograph I saw of a boy who had been raped and murdered. I thought: this is the Huck Finn of our time; what if he got away?
Journal Entry 627
: On the TV a bearded man speaks of the child within, distracting me from writing my essay on Virtual Realism. There is not much room in a van for two, and the TV definitely takes up room. I gave the van an exciting name, the Green Hornet, in hopes of keeping up the boy’s interest. He went along with the name for a while, but lately he’s been calling our home on wheels the mother ship. I’m afraid he has mother on the mind, but at the moment he sleeps at my feet on the mattress. I have installed the TV to keep him occupied and to provide myself with company. Sometimes I do not need the TV; sometimes the boy is company enough. He’s bright and inquisitive, but there are moments when a man needs someone his own age to talk to, to listen to. The TV neither speaks nor listens, but it does alleviate loneliness by exciting the emotion of belonging and by simulating engagement with another. The TV is a virtual companion. Which returns me to my ruminations regarding Virtual Realism.
“Virtual Reality” was brought into the language as a computer term. It means merely that one can electronically simulate conditions in the real world; for example, train a pilot by having him react to a virtual moving world on a video monitor. The first time I heard the term “virtual reality,” I was, like many people with an intellectual turn of mind, suddenly, completely, complicatedly, and inexplicably captivated. I felt like a man digging in a garden whose spade hits metal and in the vibration, shuddering through the shovel handle to his hands, thinks “buried treasure.” In other words, my elation at the phrase was far greater than its given meaning. The term suggested something grander than a computer-aided simulation. But what? For a long time, I struggled to unearth this “treasure.” Now I think I have found it. The virtual life we humans create through an artistic rendering of experience is more vivid, meaningful, and profound than the ordinary life of our day-to-day existence. What defines us as a species is our ability to create virtual worlds, as in art, religion, ideology, and values, and then not only to exist in but to thrive in the virtual reality of these virtual worlds.
To explain further, let us say that I am not the essayist Henri Scratch, but a more intuitive soul, the fiction writer Ernest Hebert. For breakfast, Hebert eats a boxed cereal, virtual corn (flakes) or virtual (puffed) wheat or virtual (rolled) oats. In Hebert’s office, incandescent light bulbs provide virtual sunlight to illuminate the virtual wood grain of his metal and plastic desk. He telephones his agent, a virtual friend. He shops at the local mall, a virtual village. In a bar (a virtual living room), Hebert reads the virtual news in
over a drink, which supplies virtual relaxation. Hebert’s virtual world is not one of substance, but of style; not of fairness, but of
; not of speech, but of spin; not of the chicken, but of the McNugget.
In Hebert’s virtual world, events are enhanced by human imagination and technology. For example, let us say this bachelor author of long standing marries. The ceremony is submerged in a murky sea of conflicting emotions and the tick-talk of time and ritual. The marriage only comes round as a vivid, felt reality later when the bride and groom view the videotape of the wedding ceremony. For a truer, more profound experience, viewing is superior to participation.
Not Hebert, but another anguished Catholic author, Jack Kerouac, was the first blatantly obvious virtual reality sensibility. According to his biographer, Anne Charters, young Jack remembered a flood in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, “as something in ‘The News of the Day’ on the screen of the Royal Theater.” Kerouac enhanced the reality of the flood on a virtual movie screen in his mind. The author’s adult life had three aspects: (1) the day-to-day drone of ordinary existence; (2) the meticulous record-keeping of that existence in hand-written notes; (3) the presentation of his life, highly romanticized, in prose fiction. It couldn’t have been a good life for the creator. He died of drug and alcohol abuse before he was fifty. How can a man be real at the same time that he is recording the event of his reality? Which of the two acts is real, the living or the note-taking? Or is it the third act, the artistic rendering of the notes into fiction, that is real?
I am distracted again by the bearded man on the television and his talk about the child within. I shut off the TV, and now it is quiet in the van. The silence is more oppressive than the noise. I cannot gather my thoughts. . . . Once there was a child within me but he is gone, a virtual dead boy. Perhaps that is why I took a living boy off the Indian plateau. Five years now we have criss-crossed the country, avoiding pursuit. The first years were full of adventure. We took in the sights—the giant redwoods of California, the Badlands, the Grand Canyon, the Tetons, and Yellowstone. The boy liked the Carlsbad Caverns best of all. I eked out a living by writing magazine articles and book reviews. I was happy; the boy was happy. But as he turns the corner into adolescence, he is getting harder to handle. I think he’s losing respect for me. I have to do something about this situation.
Journal Entry 635
: Somebody on my trail. Boy becoming disruptive. Can’t find the peace of mind to work on my essay.
Journal Entry 638
: I’ve identified my pursuers, the boy’s half-brother, Royal Durocher, and my darling wife, Marla. I was the one who first recognized Royal’s genius; I had his IQ tested; I galvanized him with a detailed account of his father’s suicide. When Marla married me she was just another marginally talented visual artist. I was the inspiration for her bizarre sculptures. Now they mean to kill me. The ingratitude.
Journal Entry 641
: The boy is becoming a burden. He’s losing his appeal. Traveling alone, I would be less conspicuous. I would be free.
Journal Entry 642
: Night. I am in a New Hampshire community of perhaps 25,000 people. I have parked the van in a cemetery. Below are some trees, brush, and a swamp. The boy sensed what was in the offing and tried to get away. But I caught him, carried him down to the swamp, and drowned him in black, sticky muck. As frogs croaked in mating calls, I knelt on the moist ground and cleansed myself in a fit of weeping. Now I can get back to work on my essay. May God—if, as I once believed, there is one—have mercy on my soul, if there is one.
First memory: A series of still frames in a movie. Me, running up a long, slippery ramp leading to the mother ship suspended in space. Studio lights in my eyes. The ramp, so steep. “Faster! Faster! You’re not going fast enough,” yells the Director. He’s got a carrotcolored beard, black cat-burglar suit, a hunched back, and he speaks through a device that disguises his voice, so that he sounds like a drowning man about to go down for the last time. I slip. Reach for a rail—there is no rail. I fall and start sliding down, head first, on my back. I come right out of the screen in two dimensions. Last frame: ramp, hovering mother ship, the stars, me outside the screen, in a zone between dimensions.
I can’t remember my actual birth, but I know the feeling from the second memory: squeezed out, new, empty, choking, wanting so bad just to get a breath. I coughed and coughed and spat mud out of my mouth and throat. After I’d finished and began to breathe, I saw trees, one tree, branches, one bare branch, bugs, one bug, grid-eyes of a fly, one cell staring at me as it would stare at a turd: with hunger.
I struggled to escape. It was hard going. A big suck kept drawing me down. But I finally pulled free. I didn’t have any clothes on, but I hadn’t realized that yet. My nakedness was covered by a thick paste of mud.
At the sight of me a startled bird up a tree screeched and flew off. I didn’t see it, but I heard the thwip-thwip of its wings and the noise turned my thoughts to the sound of my own breath. It came fast, in troubled pants. Thoughts, dreams, events, and breaths flowed together like streams making a river, so I couldn’t judge how long I lay there. It must have been a while because the mud had dried on my skin. I didn’t think “dry”—I thought alligator scales; alligator: great big jaw. The mind picture didn’t scare me, but the sound the alligator made in my head, an echoing roar, did, and brought me to. I realized I was laying on my side on prickly ground. In the offing were hemlocks, their weepy branches and, in the spaces between, gloom. A snake of light slithered through the trees and beckoned to me. I rose up on my feet, not sure whether to run toward or away from the light. I tottered, fell, rose again, and staggered forward.
The land edged up and when I came out of the swamp and forest I was in a cemetery. Faded flags. Faded flowers. Freshly turned earth. Dark, dank earth. Kiss the flags. Kiss the flowers. Kiss the earth. Read the “the ends” on the tombstones. Elman. The end. Jordan. The end. LaChance. The end. Jordan again. The End. Salmon. The end. I tried to think of my own “the end.” The image of a tombstone appeared in my mind, but instead of a name carved in rock there was a question mark. I tried to recall the face of a loved one. Nothing. My own face. Nobody. I searched my memory for something, anything. Everything in my head: gone. I tried to will myself aboard the mother ship of my first memory. I couldn’t see the beginning or the end of the ship. Nor did I see doors or windows, but it was fraught with hatches barely two feet high. Locked. I conjured burglary tools, and imagined myself cracking open a hatch. Crawled in. Dark inside. I turned on the lights and found myself standing in a video library where the shelves went on as far the eye could see. I grabbed a tape. The cover was a plain, dull black upon which was a figure silhouetted in white. No details, just the slim shape of a boy running. I jammed the tape into the VCR and pressed “play.” The tape was blank.