Another novel, The Wretch, follows a young man named Brian Hespers during his tumultuous first year of college. It starts with his being dropped off at his dorm by his father.
For those who have experienced this, do you remember what the first few days felt like? Perhaps those of you who signed up for the military out of high school remember feeling this when you stepped out the door of your home and headed off to basic training.
The Wretch begins here, at this awkward and uncertain point.
A person who wants to be a writer should read his or her favorite author (or authors) to learn technique. A story, novella, or poem should be read (first) for pleasure and, if the potential writer was really struck and impressed by the writing, the work should be studied to discover the way the author worked his or her magic. The writing should then be studied page by page, paragraph by paragraph, and sentence by sentence to analyze the author’s view of a character or situation and the words chosen to draw the reader in.
Such was the case with my reaction to the stories of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I immersed myself in these two writers to learn technique, even to the point of reading Crime and Punishment five times, the first time, of course, for pure pleasure and curiosity. When I finished my first reading of Crime and Punishment, I realized that I wanted to write powerful novels like it.
I admitted to myself that I was intimidated by the powerful writing and the feelings it evoked in me.
The next day, I opened the book to page one and began a searing analysis of Dostoyevsky’s technique, identifying and reading and rereading significant paragraphs, then nailed it down with subsequent readings.
Subconsciously, I was preparing The Wretch.
Crime and Punishment is a novel that deals with a criminal’s conscience and its inability to reconcile a utilitarian concept to a “physical” crime, meaning a crime that is universally conceded to be prison-worthy. In this case, Dostoyevsky’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, committed two murders, which is a crime that is recognized by other men to be a crime worthy of societal retribution (i.e., prison).
The Wretch is a similar novel (in theme), but the “crime” that Hespers commits is a “moral” crime, one that is not a “physical” crime; it is not one that mankind recognizes as requiring any “corrective” retribution from it (i.e., charges can’t be brought against a perpetrator). Hespers’ crime is his inability to love. This fault results in a catastrophic event for him, and he, like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, can’t reconcile himself to it. However, Hespers does not have Raskolnikov’s option of confessing to police and thus beginning the reconciliation of his soul to God.
Here’s an excerpt:
Sunday passed swiftly. Hespers was irritable all day and his attempts to study were in vain. He watched one quarter of a football game in the middle of the afternoon, but the emotional involvement of the students, their cigarette smoke, their drinking, and their voices, comments, and opinions got on his nerves. He tried to sleep, but it was pointless, and he went for a walk.
He passed a sleepless night, dozed off at six in the morning, and slept through his classes. However, his sleep refreshed him, and he showered and shaved, then placed an order in The Happy Drinker. He was joined by Gallion and Ruitt, who slid onto the bench across from him.
“You didn’t see us,” Gallion remarked with a half‑smile.
“You walked right past us. Keep your head up when you walk,” Ruitt suggested.
They brought over their pitcher of beer and their large paper cups. Hespers was happy to see them, but this gradually gave way to a general displeasure—not with his two acquaintances, but with the whole scene. They were smoking, like many of the other students. He ate his meal in the loud, smoky room and had to put up with a superficial conversation about certain poets and their works. By the time he finished eating, the place was unbearable and Gallion’s meandering opinions an annoyance. Avoiding his questioning eyes, he excused himself and sat on a bench outside on the main concourse behind the Union.
In the early afternoon on the following day, he headed for the same bench to watch people and continue his thoughts. As he approached the Union, however, he suddenly wanted a candy bar. He bought one and was passing a row of seats when he heard:
“Excuse me! Oh, excuse me! You!”
It was a feminine voice directed at him. The speaker was an attractive, medium‑sized brunette with freckles on her face and arms. Her eyes were dark brown.
“I’d like to talk to you. Do you have time?”
“Yes, but not much.”
“Please sit here, then.”
She took her coat off the chair next to her as though she had been saving it for him.
“I’ve seen you around so many times and I told myself that someday I’d make your acquaintance. I finally got the courage. But it wasn’t hard. My name’s Theresa.”
“Brian Hespers. Yes. I know.”
This evoked a short pause, then a quiet smile of astonishment from Hespers.
“How do you know my name?”
“We’ll get back to that later. You have to tell me something, though.”
He smiled more broadly at “We’ll get back to that later.”, then noted: “I was heading for a bench outside before you introduced yourself. It’s not cold out …”
“All right. Let me get my jacket on first.”
Theresa was dressed like a typical college student and her jacket was old‑fashioned and well‑worn, and it looked like a hunting coat that hunters wore in the nineteen fifties. Her voice was soft, vivacious, and musical and her eyes were lively. Her small, turned‑up nose, her moderately‑sized, but shapely lips, and the momentary flashes of her white teeth when she spoke lent her much charm. Her wavy hair was thick and full, and it fell two inches past her shoulders. Her alabaster hands were small and delicate, and her fingers were long and slim, yet there was something supple, firm, and even proud about them; her fingernails were polished pink, but bitten down a bit too far. If he met her a couple weeks earlier, he would have felt the full effect of her charm and would have responded more energetically, but now he was only mildly interested and hoped that after their little talk, they would never talk again.
They reached the bench. Theresa crossed her legs in the feminine fashion, entwined her fingers, and laid her palms on her knee, then faced him.
“Now tell me why you’re so sad.”
“I’m not sad,” he said.
“Oh, yes, you are. Even your smile is sad. Your eyes are sad. Your eyes are always on the ground. What do you think it would take to not be sad?” Theresa’s concerned and interested brown eyes were fastened on his face.
Hespers had been mildly irritated by her opening sentence and by the way she sat, but now he was no longer annoyed. He was amused by her pretty face, her warm eyes, and her youthful energy, and her presence was refreshing. Her naivete and natural charm blended perfectly and would have made a worldly, accomplished woman keep an eye on her when Theresa was near her husband or lover.
“Theresa, I’m not really sad. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind.”
“Like a lot of things that I have to find answers to, and, even if I do, I won’t be happy in the conventional sense.”
“How many ways are there to be happy?”
“The happiness that most people strive for by getting married, having children, having a home, a car, and an eight‑hour‑a‑day job doesn’t appeal to me.”
“It doesn’t appeal to you,” Theresa repeated slowly. Her gaze wandered along the ground. “Then what else is out there?”
“I have to find the answers to questions that have been up here” (he tapped his temple with his index finger) “for many years. If I do, I’ll have discovered the other type of happiness.”
“Don’t count out marriage and family life so quickly. I come from a large family and I know it has its rewards. There are good times and bad times; there are times of celebration and times of hunger; there are times of joy and times of anger—and even times of violence; but this I know, Brian: the hardships of family life and the hardships of life in general—the shattered dreams, the longing for something that is unattainable and will never be—strengthen your soul, and the happiness acquired from suffering is the contentment gained from the knowledge that you did your best. If you accept your suffering, there is nothing that will knock you down for good.” She spoke with heartfelt conviction and Hespers, his eyes fastened on her face, was magically drawn in. His face exhibited the quiet misery of his unspoken struggle, and when she said, “but this I know, Brian,” he was pulled in so quickly and so easily that his defenses shot up, his face blanked, and, shocked, he absorbed the rest of her irrefragable truths. There was something special about this girl. Numbed, he tried to remember her name. Finally, he spoke.
“How old are you?”
“How old are you?”
“I’m …” she hesitated, “younger than you.” She squinted into his eyes for a moment when she said “younger.” “How old am I?”
“You’re eighteen or nineteen. You’re a freshman.”
“We never met before. How do you know all this? What prompted you to talk to me?” This potentially hostile question was softened by his voice and his gentle features.
“I was attracted to you the first time I saw you. Since then, I’ve seen you many times and I’ve wanted to reach out and hug you and tell you that life is wonderful and worth living. I wanted to hug you and tell you that I love you.” She blushed and looked down at the ground.
Hespers was mentally paralyzed, shocked, numbed.
They were quiet for a while.“
Theresa,” he said in a loud whisper, “I can’t love … I don’t want you to love me … There’s a girl from my high school here. I fell in love with her at first sight and have been unable to get her out of my mind. I’m her slave. She gives me no more thought than she would give an animal at the zoo.”
“This girl—I want to see her,” she stated simply, with no feminine jealousy.
“Have you ever figured out what you love about her so much?”
“Is she beautiful?”“She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve seen.”
“Is she partly responsible for your sadness?”
“Does she know your feelings?” Theresa prodded.
“Of course. So she teases me. She knows that the mere thought of her tortures me.”
“Do you have a strong physical desire for her?”
“No. Even though she’s been around, I still love her. If I ever married her, all I’d ask is to see her face once a day, and then she could go out and do whatever she wants.”
“She sounds like a wicked woman. What’s her name?”
“Do you think a genuine friendship will develop between you two?”
“I don’t think so, either,” Theresa stated with confidence.
They sat a while longer in silence, watching students pass, looking at the multicolored leaves on the trees, relishing the warm sunlight and the coolness of the breeze.
“What do you want from life?” she asked.
“What do I want from life?” he repeated slowly.
“I don’t know … Right now—Would you believe it?—my fading dreams cause me no pain, but the ones that are forming have already been shattered!” Hespers broke into his natural, cheerful, infectious laugh, but to Theresa his laughter was pure sadness and it brought tears to her eyes. Suddenly, she threw her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Crying, she begged him:
“Stop laughing! Stop laughing! Please stop! Don’t laugh!”
He stopped laughing. She rested her head on his shoulder and dried her face. She kissed his cheek again and told him she would like to go for a walk.
They passed through the old but attractive neighborhood, to that small, triangular park, and sat on the first bench. She slid her hand into his. He looked at her as if to say, “Don’t expect anything to come of this. I can’t love you.” and, she, seeing this, pressed his hand softly. They sat together a long time and, although they did not speak, there was no awkwardness: there was only the breeze, the trees, the rustling of the leaves, the sunlight, and peace.
At dusk, with the cold nipping the tip of her nose and roseating her cheeks, Theresa parted from him, saying that she had to meet someone at the Union. She also wanted to spend Saturday afternoon with him. He did not find out how she knew his name and age and he still did not know how old she was or if she was even a college student.
The Wretch is available from Amazon. Please contact me for a signed manuscript or for an emailed copy in Word or WordPerfect 8.