Playing with the narrative


Hampton, Oregon

Hampton, Oregon


Conventional wisdom says you don’t mix first person narrative with third person. In my novel-in-progress, Thunderhead, of course, I’m doing exactly that. I’m also toying with the narrative form. One of the forms I’d trying is transcription of telephone calls, telegraph messages and surveillance recordings. Here’s an example of a bugged conversation of Harkness and his friends in the room in the back of the barber shop:

Harkness: Ed, get settled and tell us about the flying saucers.

Judge: Ain’t no such thing.

Harkness: Hold your horses. Go ahead Eddie.

Sound of papers rattling.

Dilkes: A flurry of reports of unidentified objects came during a two-week period in late June and early July, 1947. The sightings ranged over a large portion of the western United States. Independent witnesses described the objects as saucers or disks, sometimes flying erratically, sometimes hovering or flying at speeds estimated at 1300 miles per hour.

Harley: Saucers. Like the ones over Oaks Park up in Portland?

Dilkes: Exactly, they were among those reported. A total of eight police officers from three different agencies, two aviation pilots and a river pilot reported spotting those objects over the Columbia or Willamette on June 28th, 1947.

Harkness: Wasn’t one of those coppers a Sergeant?

Dilkes: Actually, two Sergeants, one for Portland Police and one for the Clark County Sheriff’s Department across the Columbia. Another witness was the Captain of the Harbor Patrol.

Judge: Poppycock.

Harkness: No. Something was happening. Maybe one copper could be hitting the sauce, maybe even two, but not all eight. And pilots, back in the war, I flew in puddle jumpers dropping onto little atolls all across the Pacific. Perilous stuff. There’s no body more level-headed than a pilot.

Redmond: Still

Harkness: I’m not all that convinced that them lights are little green men from Mars. Back when I was young and stupid—

Judge: Last week?


Harkness: Before I was so rudely interrupted, when I was 16 going on seventeen, I rode line for the Johnnie Wangler down in the Hampton Buttes.

Redmond: Mean country, Hampton.

Harkness: Mean country, dry and hot, not fit for nothing but scorpions and rattlers, but I loved it. Spent a year and a half down there, stringing barbed wire, digging out silted over springs, tending cattle—

Redmond: Thought you didn’t ride.

Harkness: People change, but horses don’t. Anyhow, we worked hard. Not much to do in the evenings, being 70 miles from either Bend or Burns. Some nights, we’d truck back to Brothers or Millican and buy a bottle of whiskey, me and a kid named Jonesy and an old desert rat named Sherm, then we’d head up into the buttes and chase the lights.

Harley: Lights?

Harkness: Damnest thing. At night, long about 2 am, lights would play on the side of one of the buttes, bright like Hollywood searchlights. We’d pile in our Model T pick-me-up and ride hootin’ and hollerin’ through the desert up to the bottom of the butte. By time we got there, the lights would be gone. No, not gone, moved, to another butte. Off we’d go again, chasing lights until we ran out of gas or whiskey. What I’m saying is that we saw things out in the buttes that can’t be explained by science.

Harley: Indian spirits.

Harkness: Not saying that, but I do think we could be dealing with a natural phenomena here and something up on Grizzly is either creating the phenomena or stirring up the elements.

Harley: Let’s assume that something is going on. What does that mean for us?

Harkness: Don’t rightly know yet.

The passages about the flying saucers are drawn from actual newspaper accounts of the time. Hampton Buttes do exist and they are very mean country indeed, and back when I was young and stupid, I chased the lights just like Harkness.

The novel opens with Agnes Flehardy seeing lights zipping around Grizzly Mountain. Thunderhead is set in 1953, prime time for flying saucer mania. I want to capture the mood of that time, but I really don’t want little green men clogging up my narrative. With this passage, I’m trying to steer the narrative back to magic realism–not an easy task since American literature doesn’t have the tradition of it that Latin and South American cultures do. I’m honestly not sure it will work.

Oh yes, this is all from my first rough draft, so please excuse, typos, grammatical errors and general cheesiness.

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