When I was growing up the family stories were set piece stories that never changed, even though the family got its identity from a writer.
And maybe they never changed because he was a writer and the stories were written just once and forever – so enshrined that they were meant to always stay in place – unlike stories so alive they grow and change each time an artist steps into them.
Some of my grandfather’s stories were in place before he was born – the woman who would be his mother a heroine in the great Chicago fire, his father a self-made rich man on the Wheat Exchange who read the classics and got his strength from heroic happenings in the Civil War. And some of the stories came straight from my grandfather’s his own life. What he wrote of as a glorious time of leisure and privilege in huge houses on Lake Michigan before everything was thrown into doubt and chaos by the First World War – and also the stories about the settlement house movement and his Socialist politics and the Russian Revolution. All such stories apparently stayed in place in the years when he was politically radical, and were still in place in his final years when his base was a very formal “restricted” summer community in the White Mountains of New Hampshire – one of the last places you would expect to find a serious artist.
As a child I looked forward to having set piece stories of my own that would be as unchangeable as my grandfather’s, and like my grandfather’s would stay in place for me and those who followed me, solid things to keep in mind wherever we might be.
One of them had to do with when at 21 – after years of East Coast life and short happy spells in Europe – I became a wire service newsman and saw for myself that there could be nothing so silly and rear-guard as the flat city of Indianapolis, where I had a room in a brick building next to a Toddle House diner and where I covered mostly McCarthyite right-wing politics, this place where so recently you could not start a political career unless you with the Ku Klux Klan.
And so it was a surprise that I should wind up in Indianapolis when I started writing of places I had loved – places I later lived while young where I would leave my house or apartment in the morning saying to myself I am happy now, here now, in the sort of place I know I should inhabit. Something inside me soared as I walked out from these places.
Walking out of the airy teak house where I lived with Sunisar and then Barbara in Thonburi to step into a small ferry at my river landing across from the palaces and temples of Bangkok. Walking out of my our one-room white-washed house, where I lived with Vannie, my girlfriend from New York, high on the side of the Acropolis. Coming out of a sea-view place to walk along a blue bay in the devious Levantine city of Beirut in a time otherwise of frenetic desperation and deep depression. At these moments – when my spirit soared and I felt I was stepping into a kind of happiness – I would always on some be level be thinking with pleasure and excitement of coming out of the brick rooming house in that most mundane of all cities – Indianapolis – where for the first time in my life I felt free.
But this was something I did not know until I typed it while sitting at an unfamiliar new desktop computer in my mountain view house in Woodstock. Indianapolis, where I was first on my own, covering crazed right-wing politics, making weekend forays into Beat-era bohemia in Chicago, going into a trance in a tiny museum while standing in front of its main attraction, a Cezanne painting, full of mystery, exploring red tile roofs going up a European hillside – in Indianapolis making my own living, dealing with journalists and politicians and labor organizers and girls of the day and of the night, free from family, it seemed, and free from enforced schooling – strangely angry about that family – writing a novel at night when not exploring gloriously seedy night places, and all the while sending off letters to the East making fun of the Midwest. And then years later it all came back while I was writing – how my heart was leaping each time I stepped out of my brick rooming house into places that had no precedent in family lore.