Tuesday, 23 May 2017

All Good Things by Lev Butts

Parsival by Richard Monaco
When I was a teenager, as many of you know, I discovered on the shelves of an Atlanta used bookstore the book that would figuratively chart the course of my life: Richard Monaco’s Parsival or a Knight’s Tale. The story is not new. I have told it time and again both here and elsewhere. But I am a Southerner and one thing we Southerners excel at is telling the same story over and over with little or no diminishing of interest. So you’ve heard this story before but not in this way.

I had skipped school that day and gone to Oxford II Books. I often did this. I wouldn’t skip school and hang out at bowling alleys, movie houses, or amusement parks; I would go to bookstores or libraries and read all day. My teachers knew about it. My dad knew about it. It wouldn’t go unpunished, mind you: My father would scratch out an embarrassing note (“Please excuse Lev from school yesterday,” he would write, “he woke up with exploding diarrhea and stomach cramps. I felt it best to leave him home, leaking from all ports as he was.”), and my teachers would read it, chuckle, and write me an excused note.

Anyway, on this day I went to Oxford II Books in Atlanta. They were the first bookstore I was aware of that had a coffee stand inside and actually encouraged you to sit a spell and read their wares before buying, so it often became my go-to spot for playing hooky. That’s where I found Monaco’s novel. The thing about the book that first caught my eye was the cover art: The ink and watercolor cover art made it look very much like a high-end graphic novel, so I picked it up to see why it wasn’t with the comics.

When I realized it was an Arthurian novel, I decided to give it a closer look. I sat down with my coffee and to read the first few pages and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. When I was done, I realized I had read all the way to the store’s 10:00 closing time. I paid for the book (and the two sequels they also had) and went home. My father was livid: His note the next day informed my teachers that I had been suffering from “crippling premenstrual cramps.”

If you have followed my work at all, you probably also know that I loved Parsival so much that I took to keeping my copy in my backpack or satchel wherever I went in case I decided that today was the day I read it again.

Richard Monaco became everything I aspired to be in a writer: witty, intelligent, cynical, but also steeped in pathos. When, in late 2009, I went on to write my own Arthurian novel, Guns of the Waste Land, I wanted, as closely as possible, to mirror Monaco’s style while also developing my own voice. It was shortly after deciding to write an Arthurian Western that I met Monaco.

I found him on FaceBook of all places. We struck up a conversation about writing and reading and literature that has continued through the publication of Guns (which was due to his own championing of my work and convincing his publisher to give me a chance), through our working together on the online Literary Journal, Grand Central Review, to this day as I fly to New York City to see him in the hospital for what may possibly be the last time.

Richard has taught me more about the art of writing than just about anyone else. As I mentioned last month, I am, like Richard, a gardener in my writing: Richard taught me that just as you eventually have to let your children go their own way, your characters, too, need to have the freedom to tell their own stories at the risk of giving up on whatever plan you had for them.

“Plan, yeah,” he says, “but you can’t get so wrapped up in your plot that you lose the story. The characters know where they want to go. You make their desires fit yours. Rein them in if you have to, but give their ideas a try first.”

Richard also gave me the courage to not only write what I know, but to give myself permission to tread unfamiliar waters, too. “I never left the country, and I only left New York once really. What do you think imagination is for? If I had to write only what I know, I never could’ve written Parsival. Do some research and let your imagination build on that.”

Richard taught me not to fear taking risks. When the first publisher I submitted Guns of the Waste Land to had passed because they didn’t know how to market it, I considered scrapping the whole project, but Richard stopped me “Tell the story you want to tell, and tell it well. Don’t worry about whether it will sell or not. If it’s good, you’ll find an audience; if it’s not, you will probably still find something worthwhile to build on later. At the end of the day, the story is yours.”

Richard has taught me about much more than writing, though. He has taught me how to live. One of Richard’s prized possessions is a genuine katana his first wife bought him as an anniversary present. After all these years in his possession, it is a bit worse for wear: the hilt wrappings are growing tattered, the blade is a bit loose, the edge a tad dull.  His wife and daughter fear it will fly off one day when he’s practicing with it on the roof and kill some hapless dog-walker on the street below, but Richard is unconcerned: “The key is balance,” he told me the first time I met him in person and he showed it to me, “You have to know where it needs to be,” with his back to me and lifting  one foot like a crane and raising the sword over his right shoulder, he spun 180 degrees and brought the tip of the sword just under my chin, “and balance your desire to put it there with your restraint. Balance your wishes with the sword’s, and nothing can go wrong.”

Of all the things Richard has taught me, the most important also has nothing to do with writing. A few years ago, we were standing on the roof of his apartment building in Manhattan watching the boats go up and down the Hudson and discussing his memoirs. We were talking about his growing up in and around Manhattan, and he was reminiscing about his parents and aunts and their friends. He talked about the role they all played in shaping the man he grew up to be. “You gotta love your people,” he says. “Your friends, your family, your students, your teachers. Hell, even the rotten bastards who cut you off in traffic, and the poor bastards hitting you up for dough.  They’re all part of the world you created around yourself, and they all contribute something. You don’t gotta like them. But you gotta love them.”

And, when I am in my seventies or eighties, or God-willing my nineties, that’s what I will remember most about Richard Monaco: this rangy guy standing damn near six feet tall, white/blonde hair wafting in the evening breeze and katana resting casually over his shoulder as he watches the sun set over the Hudson and tells me that the key to living a good life is to love everyone. 


3 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

Fascinating, Lev. A hard lesson to put into practice but one that, if adopted by more people, would revolutionise the ives we live. Thanks.

Reb MacRath said...

A perfect tribute, Lev, an amazing writer...and, I know now, an even more amazing man. Monaco couldn't have asked for a lovelier or more heartfelt tribute.

Umberto Tosi said...

We should all have had a mentor like your Richard! Thanks for a moving and entertaining account, Lev!