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  • Paul Cumbo

From the Archives: Wizards, Vampires, Starships, and...Holden Caulfield?

This was originally published on May 31, 2013. It contains remarks I gave at a book signing at Dog Ears Bookstore in South Buffalo.

Now that I'm happily married, I'm willing to tell a room full of family, friends, and strangers that I was an avid Dungeons & Dragons player as a kid. I love The Lord of the Rings, and I enjoy watching True Blood, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. But no one wears a robe, casts a spell, or carries a wand or sword in my book. There are no clans or thrones or kingdoms. There are no vampires or zombies. There aren't fifty shades of anything in my book. In fact, no one even dies. Sounds like it oughta fly off the shelves, right?

As I mentioned in a previous post, a student of mine recently asked me why, when we write about literature in academic papers, it's customary to write in the present tense—to discuss not what a given character has done, but rather what he or she is doing, even though we've read the book in the past. And my answer to him amounted to this: We write about literature in the present tense because a good story, even if it wasn't true, reminds us of what is true.

Certainly, there can be truth in any fiction, including Dungeons & Dragons sessions and the books, series, and movies I mentioned before. Even the most fantastic story, while it is inherently untrue, can convey remarkable level of truth. One of my favorite books as a kid was The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende. I read it fourteen times. I know this because I made a mark on the inside front cover every time I finished it. To this day, I can't think of a book that offers a more compelling case for the importance of imagination and fantasy. The story tells of a menacing force, The Nothing, that represents allegorically the loss of childhood innocence and imagination. The Nothing threatens to destroy two worlds: both the realm of Fantastica and the real world. What a powerful truth: that the gradual deterioration of our childlike imagination threatens the very nature of our souls. While the realities of adulthood may well put our dreams and imaginations in check, forgetting them completely is a dangerous thing indeed.

And that's why we love fantastic stories. Stories that depart so wildly from the reality we know. Whether exciting, soothing, or frightening, they rekindle and enliven that childhood curiosity, imagination, and perhaps even innocence. When I read the whimsical, witty banter between Bilbo Baggins and his companions—or even the dragon Smaug—I feel like I'm twelve again, rolling dice and counting experience points on the back porch with my brothers and neighborhood friends, late afternoon sunlight turning golden around us, dogs barking down the street, and sprinklers kicking on.

But there's another kind of fiction, too. We need stories that fill in the gap between the reality of our everyday existence and those far-fetched tales rooted in fantasy. We need stories that could well be true, about characters and circumstances that might well occur in our own time and place. Stories that comprise "realistic fiction." Stories that, rather than help us escape our everyday lives, help us understand them on terms to which we can relate as ordinary men and women.

We gravitate toward realistic fiction when we need to be inspired by feasible possibilities, to be reminded of what matters and what's possible in ways that escapist literature and pure fantasy generally cannot. There are times when we cling most tightly to those stories that resonate precisely because they might as well have happened, and whose characters could well have been our friends, right here, in this world, speaking our language and struggling with our struggles.

It's why high school students across America, for so many years now, have embraced Holden Caulfield. He might as well have been our friend, our brother, or maybe, if we're older, our son. The fact that he's purely a fictional character fades in significance in the midst of class discussions, wherein he's always referred to in a very present tense. Like he's someone we've all met.

Yes, we need Gandalf, Frodo, Arwyn, and Aragorn. We need Captain Kirk and Princess Leah and Yoda and Han Solo. We might even need vampires and zombies. (Though maybe not so many books and movies about them.) It's true; we need escape literature. I've found that I like reading Tolkien after changing particularly nasty diapers, for example.

But we also need Holden Caulfield, and Steinbeck's Lennie and George; we need Scout and Jem and Atticus Finch; we even need Jay Gatsby, who, despite his appearance, is at his core—his James Gatz core, that is—a perfectly believable character. We need these characters because we can relate to them—some more than others, of course. We need to know that they could know us, if we happened to meet them. These books don't provide—at least I don't think—the same complete escape from reality that, say, The Lord of the Rings does. They can't, because they're rooted in that reality. And I think that's what makes them so true, despite their fictional nature.

Boarding Pass does not hold a candle to any of the works I just mentioned. In fact, to juxtapose it this closely is probably an act of literary sacrilege. That's not some kind of gushing patronage; rather, it's simply a sincere statement of humility. My book doesn't achieve what those books do in terms of either form or style. Truth is, any author who tells you what his or her book does achieve is probably full of baloney, so I won't do that. I can only tell you what I've tried to achieve with mine.

I didn't want to write escapist literature. I wanted to write a story that might as well have happened, and I wanted to try to capture the collected voices of thousands of students and athletes I've coached, taught, and mentored over the past sixteen years. No single character in Boarding Pass is real, nor is any based upon a particular person. But each is an amalgamation of so many students, colleagues, and families. I wanted to explore the importance of our teenage years by portraying the impact that adolescent experiences have upon who we become, whether or not we realize it. As a high school teacher, it's fascinating to observe students in the years following college—to see who they become, always against the backdrop of who they were. I suppose that's what Boarding Pass is about, at least from my perspective.

It's rooted in reality, and, as such, the story has struck some readers—and at least one young reviewer—as anticlimactic. (It did not escape me that said reviewer was college-aged, which is significant in this case.) But that's okay. Like I said, no one dies in Boarding Pass, and there are no vampires. So anticlimax is a fair word to use. The truth is, there are some very consequential moments in the story, but most of it, like most of life, is anticlimactic. Most of life is what happens in between the big stuff. There are stories there, too. Maybe the most important ones…because I think it's only between the big events that we come to understand their true significance.

It's a book about two friends from very different families who've reached their early twenties, that frightening but magnificent age where push comes to shove about making big decisions that shape our lives. That moment frames the backstory that comprises the bulk of the plot: a recollection of those iridescent, fleeting teenage years that mark the first cautious, awkward steps on the path to those decisions. It's also about families; in particular, the varied landscapes of father-son relationships.

It's probably fair to say that no one will need Matthew Derby or Trey Daniels as much as they need Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, or Aragorn, or Bilbo Baggins. But regardless, I hope these two guys, whom I've come to know pretty well over the past tens years of crafting their story, will get a chance to meet you.

#BoardingPass #realisticfiction #allegory #Tolkien #TheLordoftheRings #TheWalkingDead


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