The Puddle Variations

Jeff Alworth

In this small caesura between the end of a campaign and the beginning of governing, let me bend your ear.  Some years ago, I started writing a novel.  I spent a year finishing a draft, a couple years editing it, and another year trying to get it published.  At the end of that year came a letter with these words: "Thank you so much for letting us consider The Puddle Variations, which we've read with much interest.  We're afraid, though, it's not quite what we're looking for..."  The fine editors at Milkweed Editions had drafted it, after running it pretty far through their editorial process--thanks but no thanks.

I had almost decided to do what most self-respecting failed novelists do and shove the manuscript into a box somewhere and forget about it. But then I came across an article in the New Yorker.  My failure to find publication is not an unusual fate for a first novel.  Many "debut novels" are actually debut publications--many first-time authors have one of those unpublished novels decomposing in a cardboard box in the basement.  This was not news.  But this was: books are bad business--a shocking 79% of those that do actually make it to publication fail to sell a 100 copies (!).  So then a bit of the old blogger DIY ethos emerged.

Thanks to technology, it's now possible to self-publish cheaply but professionally. Puddle_variations Despite the embarrassment I feel for having to resort to this, I think it's worth it. Art exists as a communication. We don't paint or film or write just for the pleasure--and I use that word advisedly--it provides. We spend those hours because we have some idea we'd like to share with others.  Ultimately, my desire to see this novel to reach its potential as a communication was stronger than my embarrassment at having to self-publish.  And since I learned that most novels sell fewer than 100 copies, I thought, well, what the hell, it's an effort doomed to failure even in the best of circumstances.

I put the book out 11 1/2 months ago, and when the ticker hits twelve, the experiment will turn into a pumpkin.  We near the end.  So, in the manner of a carny pitch man, gravelly-voiced from too many Marlboros, I invite you to step right up ...

The Puddle Variations
Walking Man Press, 2007, 260 pages, $15.
ISBN: 978-0-6151-7184-5
Click to buy the novel

I'll include a description and excerpt below the jump, but I would, in all seriousness, love it if you picked up a copy.  An unread novel is a terrible thing.

And don't forget--they make great gifts!

About the Novel
From the back cover: What portion of a 16mm movie can be made for $1,000? Or, put another way, how does one turn a thousand dollars into a 30-minute short? This is the question confronting Charlie di Paulo, who has just received a seed grant from the Portland Film Institute to shoot his 16mm film. For a 26-year-old cab driver, a thousand dollars is a lot of cash, yet it won’t even cover the cost of his film stock.

Money isn’t Charlie’s only problem. His new girlfriend and his stepfather, Vic, are both convinced he should be pursuing his dream through more conventional means, and Vic has offered to pay for film school. For Charlie, whose 8mm short was good enough to win him the grant, education isn’t necessary—money is. As the book unfolds, he sets about trying to raise the money and mount the production, and along the way he receives support in various forms from the local doyenne of independent film, a cobbler, a philosophy student, and a bookie.

For BlueOregon readers, I'll add a little more.  It's set in the slightly distant Portland I discovered when I arrived here 20 years ago.  For those of you who remember Fryer's Quality Pies and the no-man's land of warehouses that we now call The Pearl (see excerpt below) this is that Portland. For those of you who never knew it, here's a not-quite-historical look.  There are no politics, but other things Portlandy, like movies, beer, and the Blazers, are covered.

When the Bowman Bakery was built on NW 12th, the owner, Hollis Bowman, had to clear the land of Douglas fir.  Built on a parcel west of what was then Portland, an early example of sprawl.  Years and fires and collapsed economies had changed the building and its ownership.  It grew and shrank and moved a block and grew again and, for the past six decades, sat and decayed.   Its second and third stories had been converted to cheap storage, the spaces now mostly filled with forgotten, moldering wares. 

But in the southeast corner of the basement was the hibernating building’s heart, a lively tavern that had been there since the move to 13th Avenue in 1896.  Compared to the fortunes of the building, the tavern’s were more stable.  Six owners in just under a century—and only two since 1960, when the name was changed to capture the “romance” of earlier years.  Under the current proprietorship (effective 1981), a single change: in 1990, the bar started pouring microbrews. 

It was the only life for blocks.  Now mired in a dead-end neighborhood by the freeway, separated by blocks of boarded, uninhabited buildings, a nook of the city abandoned even by the bums.

When they crossed Burnside at 12th, Janie studied the boarded Pella Building.  “Where is this place?”

“Not too far,” Carlos said.

“It’s cool,” Charlie said.  “You’ll like it.  Trust us.”

Janie looked out the window dubiously.  There were no cars, no stores, just silent, dark buildings.  But then, at the corner of 12th and Irving, three cars parked in a line and a neon sign in long, narrow letters. 

Charlie coasted along the edge of 12th, through empty parking places, until he was across the street from the bar.  “This remains weird, guys,” Janie observed, not neutrally.  “Those are the first cars we’ve seen since Burnside.”  Charlie and Carlos climbed out of the cab, but Janie sat and watched.  Outside, the streets were glossy under the streetlights.  A blond woman in a wool hat was standing outside the building, smoking.  Everything seemed to be in sharp focus.

Charlie stopped in the middle of the street and looked back at Janie.  She finally climbed out. 

Sounds seemed louder, clearer—a crack from the car door, snaps from heels, ricocheting off dead buildings.  The woman underneath the neon light smiled as they passed and Carlos tipped his hat.  The smoke from her cigarette looked like steam in the light.

Janie had the sense that she had walked onto a movie set.  The abandoned town, the smiling extra on a smoke break.  Even time felt artificial, as if beyond the set it might be noon—or midnight.  She wondered, if she reached out and scratched the brick wall of the building, would it make the hollow noise of papier-mâché? 

They descended six granite stairs, the top of which was flush with the sidewalk.  Charlie reached the door first and held it open, nodding as Carlos and Janie passed by.  Janie’s sense that this was all artificial began to drift away when she reached the cozy, smoky dark, but it did not vanish completely.  A row of windows ringed the south and east corner of the pub, and she could see the crystalline set outside.

But inside, the ambiance of the old bar started setting her mind at ease.  She could tell from the furniture that the place had not been updated for decades: although the wooden tables and leather booths had a certain historic charm, they were worn, unsentimental, and small.  Little blue lamps dotted the tables and at the north end of the room were two pool tables, unoccupied.

“You know, I think I’ll have a whisky sour with Janie.  Whatcha having, Charlie?”

“Yeah, make it three.”

  • Yoma (unverified)

    Jeff, Hold your head high, Man, it's a great book and so well written, I savored the pleasure of the writing as well as the story line. And the the ending is unexpected. I recommend this book.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)
    <h2>I know of one sale my poor little review got you, I hope there were more. I'll throw this out, the book is worth your dollars and the encouragement worth more.</h2>

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