JUNE 1, 2012
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 in a mountain-valley settlement of communes. The communards welcome Clay to stay. When he wakes after his first night there, Clay “felt he had slept for a century and awakened in another world.”
Near the beginning of his sojourn at the commune, Clay, high on acid, climbs into a stock tank near the communal dome. “Clay sat down. The water made room.” Clay looks over the edge of the stock tank. “He ran his hands along the horizon, smoothing it further.” This a perfect Terry Bisson passage — calm, surprised, Zen-like observations regarding our miraculous world. You get into a tub and the water makes room. The water knows you’re there. Reality is deeply strange, if only we notice. Ordinary life is science fiction.
At this point, Clay’s friend asks him a pivotal question: “Do you want to spend your life tearing down the old world? Or do you want to spend your life living in the new one?”
Clay proceeds to spend the entire second half of the book in the commune: rolling Bugler cigarettes, repairing whipped old cars and tractors, brewing cowboy coffee, growing vegetables and pot, patching the dome’s roof, having a few wispy sexual affairs. He’s left our world. He’s in Shangri-La.
Now and then, family ties draw our hero into brief trips off the commune to visit consensus reality. “Clay had forgotten how aggressively ordinary and unremarkable the modern South was. Redbrick churches and redbrick schools. It was suffocating. It was Nashville.” The news from the outer world grows steadily weirder. There’s a tangle of political events involving the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, and Hubert Humphrey — and by the end of the novel, the United States is a failed nation-state, a Balkanized jigsaw-puzzle of battling principalities, the whole mess being kept somewhat under control by blue-helmeted forces from the United Nations. There’s trouble between Clay’s commune and the neighboring communes as well. With full anarchy underway, Clay ends up in a literal fight for his life. But he survives, and he shows every sign of planning to continue living in his settlement. And why not? At this point there’s nothing better left. The communards, of all people, are ready for anarchy.
This is an exhilarating part of the book. It’s kind of cool imagining a U.S.A. that’s completely fallen apart. You get a war-time buzz. Nothing really matters anymore. School’s out for summer, school’s out forever. An endless senior week. No more jobs, no more banks, everyone’s on their own. A dream come true.
In the final chapter, Clay travels back to Kentucky for a funeral, and ends up courting his old love, Ruth Ann. He asks her to come live with him on the commune. He’s leaving the next day. As he asks her, they’re sitting on the hood of a car out in the countryside, with the good old Universe up above.
“You used to say there were vast intelligences out there,” Ruth Ann said, looking up. “Do you still believe that?”
“I’m sure of it.” Though he wasn’t.
She slid off the hood of the Lincoln. Even in the dark she was pretty. The bugs were loud.
“Tomorrow’s awful soon,” she said. “You’ll be coming back. Meanwhile, I’ll think about it.”
What does Any Day Now mean? Why did Terry Bisson write it this way? I actually know Terry — in fact, he’s a friend of mine — and I’ve asked him these questions, but he’s quite reticent on the subject. He prefers to let the book speak for itself. So let’s go at it.
Any Day Now is oddly structured, in two ways. First, rather than moving onward through the stages of a man’s life, Clay gets stuck at the commune halfway through the book — and he stays there. Second, the book is an alternate history that veers far away from our own.
I’m nearly the same age as Bisson and I remember the times he’s talking about. Back in the Sixties and early Seventies, many of us had an overriding sense that things had changed for good. We weren’t going to grow up and be like our parents. We weren’t going to get real jobs. The revolution was coming soon. As I used to tell my friends, “A giant UFO is going to come down and take us all away.” I wasn’t entirely serious when I said this, but I wasn’t entirely joking either. Psychedelics and radical politics were changing everything. We could see into reality like no generation ever had before. History had reached an end.
At least that’s what we thought. And of course now, watching Earth roll through her cycles, I understand that every young generation feels the same way. The end of the world is always coming. There’s even a scholarly phrase for this recurrent feeling: “the immediacy of the eschaton.”
Another element that comes into play here is that older people are nostalgic for the high times of their youth. For people my age, it’s common to say that the Sixties didn’t last long enough. Things were just getting good — and then leisure suits, cocaine, and disco kicked in. The pendulum swung to the right, and it’s never really swung back.
How might we get back to the garden? We can write ourselves into it. Terry Bisson has spent much (but not all) of his career writing science-fiction stories and novels. He’s good at imagining alternate worlds. His hero Clay stays in the garden — and the nagging, bullying, finger-wagging outer world conveniently falls apart. Why not? It could have happened that way. And, during the golden hours that we’re reading Any Day Now, it does.
And now for a bagatelle of extra comments!
Bisson uses a particular stylistic trick that’s worth mentioning. He likes to repeat phrases or sentences. For instance, when Clay first arrives at his mountain-commune redoubt, one of the guys there describes the view in a certain way. And later Clay repeats the description word for word, I think twice. Certain beloved phrases about car engines crop up maybe a dozen times. This repetition gives the novel a bit of a children’s-bedtime-story quality, but I think there’s also an ascetic motivation, a minimalist urge to craft a novel with the simplest possible set of linguistic materials, in the manner of Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Look, for instance, at one of the sentences in the passage from the end of Any Day Now that I quoted above: “The bugs were loud.” Is this flat-footed and plain, or is it brilliant and haiku-like? I’d vote for elegant … pretending to be dumb.
Check that one off, and now I want to shoehorn in an interesting remark that Terry made to me a couple of years ago. We were discussing the comparative differences between writing stories and writing novels. Terry said, “I’ve worked as a farmer and as an auto mechanic. Writing a short story is like being an auto mechanic — you get some hulk into your garage and you beat on it for a few days and then you’re done. Writing a novel is like being a farmer — you’ve got the same damned field to tend day after day, sometimes for years.” We might regard Any Day Now as a bumper crop.
And what about that title? Not wanting to do the pounding-in-every-nail thing, Bisson refrains from quoting the full Bob Dylan lyric, which was popularized by The Band. But I’ll print it here. “I see my light come shining / From the west unto the east / Any day now, any day now / I shall be released.”