Starting at 'the end of the road... ' - Umberto Tosi

Jobim, 1981
Águas de Março, Tom Jobim's poetic, meditative, 1971 Bossa Nova gem celebrating southern Brazil's rainy month of March, has been playing in my head as we free-fall into 2021. Back in the 1980s, I memorized the lyrics so I could strum to it with my Goya, Spanish guitar. The song - about endings, beginnings and timeless flow, Zen and the beauty of common things - helped me through a rough patch. I can neither recite nor strum it from memory now, as this new year begins in which we all hope to emerge from a rough patch. But it's there, still flowing.

"A stick, a stone, it's the end of the road
It's the rest of a stump, it's a little alone
It's a sliver of glass, it is life, it's the sun
It is night, it is death, it's a trap, it's a gun
The oak when it blooms, a fox in the brush
A knot in the wood, the song of a thrush...
... It's the wind blowing free, it's the end of the slope"

 - The Waters of March, Antonio Carlos Jobim.

I finally see the end of a novel I worked on all year. I've finished its final draft after many, many revisions, Now I tackle the arduous tasks of polishing and copy editing with a mix of relief, liberation and melancholy. I've come to know these characters and I'm about to say goodbye to them in a sense. "It's the end of the slope."

E. L. Doctrow, 2013
I spent a good part of 2020 stuck in the mud of not knowing how the novel ends. I should say, without a clear idea of the mystery's dénouement. My private eye could be clueless, but I thought at least the author should know where the story was going. I always find it difficult to embrace the adage expressed by the late historical novelist E.L. Doctorow. He said: "Writing a novel is like driving at night. You can't see past your headlights, but you get where you're going anyway."

Fortunately I'm a head-banger. I learned to run at brick walls over decades of writing on assignment against immoveable deadlines. Usually I broke through, or discovered a way around. Maybe it's because I'm a bullheaded Taurus born in a Chinese Year of the Ox, if you're into astrology. 

In any case a suitable wind-up came to me by end of summer, sequestered well into the pandemic by then. I realized what perhaps should be obvious by now: that I couldn't start out my mystery with its conclusion - not a credible one anyway. I had to write my way to it. That's just me. My private eye - the one-eyed detective Frank Ritz needed clues. He needed to wander the maze for a while, getting mugged and misled in the process in order to figure things out - coming to actionable conclusions not necessarily to his liking, but that's the PI life.

Anyway, by then, I realized once again who dunnit is secondary to who are the characters, really, and why do they do what they do: That is in the kind of mysteries I favour. If the writer plays it write, the reader doesn't want the story to end. Not that leaving loose ends works.There are no hard rules but plenty of aphorisms. I can't remember which writer said that "a great ending is one completely unexpected, yet inevitable in retrospect." A place to aim, I've thought.

Don't ask me how one can turn a series of random plot events into clues and come up with anything that makes sense. It happens. I can't insure a suitable dénouement next time around  because I can't figure out the process. Moreover it will be up to the readers to judge if it works. 

I won't give away the novel's conclusion, but I can safely divulge its coda (as opposed to the dénouement.) It's an ending that is a beginning - much like we experience today, 3 January, 2021, when we emerge from dark year into a beginning filled with hopes and apprehensions. 

The Phantom Eye - which I'm planning for spring release - is set in Hollywood at the noir-ish end of the 1950s. I was barely in my 20s than, and working as a copy boy/editorial intern at The Los Angeles Times

I used a personal anecdote that has stuck with me from that time as my coda - a beginning that marked the end of an era. My private eye, Frank Ritz is older than I was then - a WW2 combat vet in his mid 30s. But he could well have been standing nearby me at that moment. It was on the side of a makeshift grandstand one evening in mid-July, 1960 at the gargantuan Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, when John F. Kennedy, fresh from winning the Democratic Party nomination for President of the USA gave his now famous "New Frontier" acceptance speech. 

"...We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier--the frontier of the 1960's--a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils-- a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats. ... For the harsh facts of the matter are that we stand on this frontier at a turning-point in history. We must prove all over again whether this nation--or any nation so conceived--can long endure... " proclaimed the dashing young candidate who would become America's 35th President, in words that echo the challenges of today as we dispose of the thug and demagogue who has been the nation's 45th. 

I had positioned myself by the press section. As a "copy boy," I was tasked with collecting the stories that our reporters would typed feverishly and rush the copy straight to the Times Building city room a few miles away. I did not fully comprehend the historic dimension of JFK's speech at that moment. Neither would fictional Frank Ritz perhaps fully grasp the watershed moment that began the 1960s. He would be there on a gig as part of security arranged by the Kennedy campaign. 

Candidates in that more innocent time didn't have the U.S. Secret Service protection that they now enjoy by law. Who thought about assassination then - even though half-forgotten attempts had been made against FDR and Truman? And who would have guess that JFK would have been shot dead in Dallas just a bit more than three years later? Not me. Not Frank. So there is my coda, an end and perhaps the beginning of my next Frank Ritz Mystery, this one works well enough and I'm willing an able, I hope as 2021 begins. Happy New Year to each of you readers, and for me, one day at a time

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, and Milagro on 34th Street. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor, and the Center for Humans and Nature's City Creatures Blog. He has also been a contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he spent eleven years as an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was twice editor of San Francisco Magazine as well. He has written more than 300 articles and stories for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including A Flash in the Pen, Sparks2, and Another Flash in the Pen. He has four grown daughters and resides in Chicago. (Contact: Umberto3000@gmail.com)


 

 

Comments

Reb MacRath said…
Well done, Umberto! I enjoyed the back story of the writing of your new book and the description of your mystery-writing process. While I often have the ending clearly in my mind, specifics of how I'll get there--and how I'll pull it off--remain mysteries until I arrive. I'll look forward to reading this book.
Very interesting to get a glimpse of your writing / thought process, thanks. My favourite mysteries to write (and to read, I suppose) are the ones where the story looks as if it's going to turn out one way and then suddenly turns itself inside-out or upside-down at the last minute. That's quite hard to achieve though.
Sandra Horn said…
A fascinating glimpse into your writing brain, Umberto! It feels as if, once the characters are given life by becoming so well known to you, they tell you their story - or is that too fanciful? Thank you and all the luck in the world with the New Year and the book!
Aliciasammons said…
A relevant reflection for our time: The art of writing and living is to allow the mystery to unfold
Griselda Heppel said…
What a wonderful starting off point. I love your depiction of yourself as the keen young boy witnessing a great turning point in history with no idea of its significance, just poised to race the reporters' articles to the Times Building so they can be hot off the press. That is absolutely how stories begin for me too - an image, it could be a memory or something imagined - that stays hard and clear in the mind until the story grows from it. For my latest book it was a shivery couple of lines from Our Mutual Friend, about someone looking in a mirror and seeing, beyond his own image, an unknown person reflected there.. brrr.

And yes, it's why, rather than what, that makes a story gripping. The Phantom Eye sounds intriguing!
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Umberto, congratulations on typing "The End," at least for the first draft. :D

Great quote from EL Doctorow, I love it. He sounds like a pantser to me, hehehe.

Look forward to reading your novel and thanks for giving us some insight into your process.

Happy new year!
eden



Peter Leyland said…
Thanks for this Umberto. You re quite right we are at another defining moment and in the USA's terms it often begins with a president. I had not thought that there had been as many as 10 presidents since JFK, who was the one that seemed to define my own era, although cut short. I share your hope that we can emerge from the darkness we have been in with Trump. I don't know Frank Ritz but am a great collector of detectives, my favourites being Holmes and Marlowe. I will make a note of The Phantom Eye. Happy New Year!
Umberto Tosi said…
Dear Peter, Eden, Griselda, Alicia, Sandra, Cecilia, and Reb: Many thanks for your kind and stimulating comments! Happy New Year to all! - Umberto

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