ONE OF THE PROBLEMS with writing an autobiography is that it's so ... personal. And your friends and relatives might get mad. But you do want to write about your life, if only to figure out what happened.
In Any Day Now, Terry Bisson uses the time-honored stratagem of transmuting his experiences into a novel — a Bildungsroman about a Kentucky boy's transit through the radical scenes of Sixties-era New York City and into a mountain commune in Colorado. And there's a second-order distancing as well. Not only is Any Day Now a novel, it's a novel about an increasingly divergent alternate world. So we don't know if the book precisely reflects Terry Bisson's actual life. Even so, we can take Any Day Now to be a rigorously accurate depiction of the world as Bisson has experienced and remembered it. A novelist dreams while awake — and revises the dreams.
Bisson's prose is lapidary and brilliantly observed. The opening chapters are broken into delightful snippets, stained-glass-window scenes from his memory-chapel. One thinks of the first few pages of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist. Here's a taste: Bisson's character Clay is falling asleep on the ledge up in the back of his parents' car, right under the slanting rear window; it's night, a road trip.
The little boy opened his eyes. The one-eyed moon looked back. The world below it was dark. Light bounced off running posts and signs. The world was flat. The moon was round. The car made a singing sound. Tires, motor, radio. The big trees, far away, went slower the farther away they were. It was all moving, just right. It was perfect.
The novel is pervaded by Bisson's sense of our world's beauty. Though he does his part fighting against racial and political injustices, our main character's world-view is that life is an adventure in wonderland. A telling step in this revelation occurs soon after Clay discovers the ever-changing lode of paperback science-fiction novels in the local drugstore of Owensboro, Kentucky. Reading SF books, Clay gets a sense of a wider world. One night he takes a stroll outside to savor his thoughts.
Owensboro was all edges. The town ended at the end of the street. He walked out into the darkness, between the long rows of burley tobacco, still only waist high. He kept his eyes on the ground until he was far out in the field. Then he looked up. There was the Universe. It was all stars. He lit a Kent and watched the smoke drift up into the Universe. Nobody in Owensboro even knew it was there.
That last sentence is wonderfully tuned. The character Clay — and surely the author Bisson — have the born outsider's ongoing sensation of living in the land of the blind.
Clay goes to college, drops out, and moves to New York, first working as a fry-cook in a folkie night-club, then finding a job fixing cars — something he'd learned to do back in Owensboro. As it happens, cars, cigarettes, and coffee are persistent themes in Any Day Now — much more so than the expected stand-bys of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. Some of Clay's friends are Weathermen — what we'd now call domestic terrorists. They blow up a building, the FBI gets involved, and Clay skips town, driving west till he hits the front range of the Colorado Rockies. He has a friend who lives...read more