July 30
I'm a lawyer in my past life, who got the kids through college and decided to try something different and a little more fun. A used book store sounded like a good idea, so that's where I am for now. I just hadn't counted on a recession or E-readers and am a little afraid there's going to be a third act. In the meantime, I have plenty to read and a little time to write. Not a bad way to spend a day.


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FEBRUARY 27, 2012 9:31AM

From Here to Obscurity--Eight Blocks From James Jones

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I grew up in a small central Illinois town "where the highways cross and the porch lights burn all night."  It was our claim to fame--the boast of a town of 3,000, set amid expanses of corn fields and soy beans, a mere dot next to railroad tracks on most maps.  It was the tag line on our water bills and on the postcards that you could buy at Cauldwell's Five and Dime, where Mr. Cauldwell never failed to say, "One thin dime, little lady," when I bought my Richie Rich comic book or my bag of candy.

It was also the town where James Jones finished writing "From Here to Eternity" at the writer's colony that sat just one block north of main street, where he lived when he won the National Book Award in 1952, and where he went on to write other books and to build himself a two story bachelor house on the edge of the colony, a short six blocks from Mr. Cauldwell's Dime store. And eight blocks from my house--a five minute bike ride away in the town where I grew up knowing everyone. 

Except that I didn't know James Jones, or Jim Jones, as I vaguely remember him being called. To my knowledge, I never saw him.  My sister remembers seeing him at the community pool, doing a swan dive off of the high diving board.  But she also remembers an airplane dropping little toys from the sky at our annual Easter Egg Hunt, so I have reason to doubt her account.

Perhaps I saw him from a distance, as he was known to frequent the taverns downtown and to mow his grass without a shirt on. He was also known for other things, which is probably why little reverence seems to have been afforded him among the townspeople.  Tales of drinking, and women, and trips to the red light district in Terre Haute, Indiana, 18 miles away, filtered through the hushed conversations of adults playing cards at our dining room table, in the front room, on Saturday nights.   There were words in his books that weren't repeated at that table or in good company in our town. 

Which is the idea I had of him as I grew up.  Not good company.  A man to avoid.  Not a role model that any of the parents or teachers wanted to put in front of us.  

And so he lived and wrote, almost a ghost, eight blocks away. 

In high school, we read Macbeth and memorized Longfellow.  But we never read James Jones, or spoke of how he finished one of the best books of the 20th century in our town, or how Norman Mailer came to visit him here.  There was a scholarship given out to a graduating senior with writing talent each year, which my sister won and I didn't, much to my chagrin since I wrote the senior poem and the senior history in our yearbook.  It gave a few dollars to a senior and continues to this day, although James Jones name is not a part of it. It carries the name of Lowney Handy, his purported lover, and the woman who started the writer's colony and then financed it in large part from the money that Jones recieived from publishing "From Here to Eternity."

His second book, "Some Came Running," was started and finished at the colony, but didn't receive the same acclaim. Critics didn't like the misspellings and poor grammar that he adopted to bring realism to the characters from the small Midwestern town that was the setting of the book, and which also may account for the less than open arms that our town extended. Arms that may partly explain why he left some seven years later, never to return, leaving the colony to flounder for another seven years, and then finally to fold.

It was then that I first visited the colony on my bike and explored the little cabins and round edged trailer homes, and gawked at the swimming pool--a concrete pond, really--empty by then.  No filters that I remember. Most likely fed by the cold water stream that meandered on the outskirts of the colony. The buildings were still filled with barren furniture, and magazines, and papers, and odds and ends that my friends and I rifled through, but didn't take, although I wish we had.  

The two story bachelor house that he built was empty too, but was locked to the curious eyes of little girls. It was an open concept house, ahead of its time, with only two rooms, we had heard.  When I finally had the chance to visit in later years, it appears it wasn't true.  There was a kitchen, and two bedrooms, and bathrooms with doors, and a separate living space.  More open than the Sears prefabs of the time, but not the two room house that gave up any pretense of privacy and lent itself to the parties that I had always imagined.

James Jones was not the man I imagined either.  He was a real writer.  A man who left a mark on the world that extended far beyond the shine of our porch lights or the dot of our small town amid the cornfields of central Illinois.  A man who had the talent, and the time, and perhaps the courage to write books of hard truths and use real language. 

Only eight blocks away. 

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Now I've got two more books on my reading list!
Gasp! I had hoped to meet Jones in Paris in 1970. I ran into another American at an anti-war protest. We got to talking and he said he was on his way to meet Jones at his home in the Île Saint-Louis, that he'd met one of Jones's daughters at a party and she'd invited him. He'd never heard of Jones, so I told him how to impress him, by saying something JFK had said to Mailer, which impressed him, that JFK had "enjoyed The Deer Park and the others." This was cool, Mailer said, because nobody'd read his second book, The Deer Park.

So I told this kid to tell Jones that he'd read "The Pistol and the others." I told the kid the Left Bank hotel I was staying at, hoping he'd be grateful for making a big hit with Jones and would wrangle an invitation for me to meet him. Never heard from the kid. This was 1970 and Jones was writing The Merry Month of May, a novel set against the backdrop of the 1968 student riots in Paris. I wish I'd have tried a little harder to meet him.
How sad that he wasn't embraced by your community - but I guess it's understandable. This was a fascinating piece, beautifully written, as always.
You deserved the scholarship given out to a graduating senior with writing talent. But it doesn't matter, your writing and the subject are simply fascinating. Thank you for sharing such a compelling life piece.
V.Corso--They're pretty good ones.
Chicken Maaan--I could have given you some good things to ask him. Everyone still wants to know what that secret room was used for and there's a little thing about a stabbing.
Alysa--Thank you. An, yeah, but they don't embrace Democrats very easily either.
Fusun--Thank you. It still irks me, although my poem really sucked.
I envy, truly, writers who break loose and write as he did. I worry too much about what my family would think if I did that. This wonderful essay also started me thinking about who does live 8 blocks away from where I am now? Great title. Oh that hunky bod! Makes an old lady sit up...
What a great thing to be able to boast about regarding one's hometown.
Love this. Really personalizes both him and you. Kind of a musing.
lights burn all night...

that is something to boast about...plus Ande Bliss' comment...

the passion here, yours and his...I am headed to the library with V. Corso!
Wow! I had no idea! Thanks for a peek into the past - another beautifully written piece.
are you quite sure this is your image of a litearily-savvy
high school system/?

In high school, we read Macbeth and memorized Longfellow. But we never read James Jones, or spoke of how he finished one of the best books of the 20th century in our town, or how Norman Mailer came to visit him here.

these guys were...well..i dunno..
not fun reads, is all i gottta say.
i may be saying this from profound ignorance of their charms.
this is how i say most profound things.

Every moment of one's existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit.
"Hip, Hell, and the Navigator" in Western Review

well that aint bad........

the Naked and the Dead (1948)
You're a fool if you don't realize this is going to be the reactionary's century, perhaps their thousand-year reign. It's the one thing Hitler said which wasn't completely hysterical.

oh i dunno . sorry. just dont like these cranky old man twentieth
century fuckers.
so negative.

i will dig up joyce quotes but i dont believe i gotta.
Ande--I agree with you, it's hard to break from those familial constraints. And a hunk? Yes.
Mary--Well...the porch lights were kind of lame.
Lea--Thanks for the nice words.
Catch 22--I hope they have multiple copies.
Jennifer--I think I followed your lead. Your brush with Rosa and Ali was in my head.
James--It definitely wasn't a literary high school. Macbeth and Longfellow were the only things we read--with the possible addition of The Gift of the Magi at Christmas. We mainly diagramed sentences for four years.
This is a really lovely piece. Funny the little secrets we each know are relevant somehow, even as kids, that stay with us until we unleash them. rated
Wren--Thanks for reading.
Desnee--Thank you. And isn't it funny how, when you start writing, you remember more things and then have to pick and choose?
Yes it is funny about having to pick and choose. I've written several essays but I feel that longer pieces will get lost on OS because there are so many posts. I feel selfish because I'm not sure this is the outlet for a 2,000 word piece.
Loved this. I had similar experiences in high school in wanting to learn more about "eccentric" writers that were only available to the "advanced" students. : ) My desire was finally fulfilled in college and I could not get enough. I still can't. R
Faved and rated for geographical propinquity alone! I'm going to immediately message you.
I loved learning about the greatness so close to you. Jack Williamson, the science fiction pioneer and Grand Master, was a fixture in our small town and he was a greatly beloved professor.
Nice memoir, beautifully composed, as usual. Merv Griffin used to live here. That's why Jeopardy is a Califon Production........Yeah, I know. It's not the same thing.R
Reflecting--My real reading didn't start until later either.
Old New Lefty--geographical propinquity--I'll take it (although I did have to look it up).
Miguela--My town might have embraced a professor.
Gerald--We have to take who we get.
I enjoyed reading this post yesterday and can't remember if I posted a comment. I particularly appreciate your exploration of the abandoned building of the colony. My wife and I used to photograph abandoned houses and decrepit barns in our travels throughout California and the west. Amazing what you find left behind...

Thanks for a great post. Small towns can be as cruel and suffocating as they can be charming. Now I want to know more about this writer.