“That was the summer when everything we would become was hovering just over our heads.”
This extraordinary line comes near the end of “Nilda,” the acclaimed short story by Junot Díaz that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1999. Here, the retrospective narrator, Yunior, is recalling a season of youth when his life was changed irrevocably by a tragic, personal loss. “In another universe I probably came out okay,” he goes on to speculate, “ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”
I could search high and low and still be hard-pressed to identify a finer and more succinct example of an author describing a phenomenon we all experience along the way: a turning point in time when something, or somebody, breaks through the everyday tangle of our lives to such a degree that it manifests an unmistakable demarcation between what had been and what is now to be. In “Nilda,” Diaz depicts one such event, and its ripple effect sweeps up not only Yunior, but also his mother and his brother Rafa’s girlfriend, Nilda. For these three characters, much of what transpires going forward in their fictional lives—whether for good or ill—is set in motion or at least colored by Rafa’s untimely death.
Turning points need not always be as heartrending and final as in the case of “Nilda”; but in a relative sense, they are always potent and brimful with meaning. What is more, they are necessary in both life and literature in order for the “story” to continue in a meaningful way toward resolution—if only in our own sense of hope, or in the imagination of a reader.
Hence, Ernest Hemingway’s slice-of-life short story, “The End of Something”—in which a young Nick Adams breaks up with his first love and long-time fishing partner, Marjorie—could as easily have been titled, “The Beginning of Something Else.” The two have beached their rowboat along Lake Charlevoix, in Michigan, after an unsuccessful trout fishing venture. “Go on and say it,” Marjorie prompts Nick after a time, as though she intuits what is about to transpire. Nick, though “afraid to look at Marjorie,” manages at last to deliver his hard truth: “It isn’t fun anymore,” he says. “Not any of it.”
Although saddened, Marjorie maintains her composure in spite of the news, and announces simply that she will return across the lake by herself. Nick, for his part, can “walk back around the point” on his own. She leaves the now distraught young man lying face down on a blanket, and Nick hears the sound of oar blades in the water as Marjorie rows out into the lake, away from him and into her own future.
In this story, Hemingway utilizes Nick Adams’ auditory sense to deliver the true meaning of the turning point he shares with Marjorie. In many cases, however, the information is conveyed through visual imagery. Bobbie Ann Mason provides a poignant example of this with “Shiloh,” another relationship story, in which Leroy, a recently disabled truck driver, discovers that his new stay-at-home status has annoyed his wife, Norma Jean, beyond repair. His presence reminds her of the child they had lost years ago, and it disrupts her own private world and plans, which include self-improvement through exercise and a return to school. It is during a day trip to the Civil War battlefield park in Tennessee—taken at the behest of Leroy’s mother-in-law, Mabel—that Norma Jean finally reveals her intent to leave him.
Though beautifully told, “Shiloh” could have ended up as yet one more in a corpus of breakup tales, but Mason makes especial use of the park’s physical landscape, leaving readers with a striking image to underscore the widening gap between the two. As Leroy smokes a joint at a picnic spot, processing the news that was just delivered him, Norma Jean walks off through the cemetery, following a “serpentine brick path” that leads to a plot of high ground in the distance.
Leroy gets up to follow his wife, but his good leg is asleep and his bad leg still hurts him. Norma Jean is far away, walking rapidly toward the bluff by the river, and he tries to hobble toward her. Some children run past him, screaming noisily. Norma Jean has reached the bluff, and she is looking out over the Tennessee River. She turns toward Leroy and waves her arms. Is she beckoning to him? She seems to be doing an exercise for her chest muscles. The sky is unusually pale—the color of the dust ruffle Mabel made for their bed.
It is this imagery that renders “Shiloh” an exceptional short story, and one might even say a modern-day classic. I first read it many years ago, as an undergraduate, but largely because of this final paragraph, the story has stayed with me ever since. For my taste, Bobbie Ann Mason has chosen the perfect—and not to mention regionally appropriate—tableau to illustrate this unfortunate couple’s turning point.
Until now, we have looked exclusively at personal moments of intense change, but individuals also experience and process milestones of national or global scope. While these are sometimes no more intense on an emotional level than personal upheavals, they are perhaps more dramatic, if only because of their magnitude. Americans of the Baby Boom generation, almost to a person, can recall precisely where they were at the moment they heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas on 22 November, 1963. Similarly, they can recall the iconic, frozen-in-time visual memories related to the event—Walter Cronkite wiping away a tear on the CBS news, “John-John” saluting his father’s casket as it passes by, the disturbing but nevertheless intriguing Zapruder film.
Many too have pinpoint memories of Robert Kennedy’s killing five years later, or the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. outside of a Memphis motel. Each of these events set in motion repercussions that thundered far beyond the slayings themselves in scale, horrific though they certainly were. In their own ways, they exerted direct influences on the course of American history, the mythic and practical effects of which we continue to feel to this day. Moreover, the public’s unwavering interest in all three political crimes practically guarantees their perennial designation as go-to topics for writers of all modes and genres.
The same is true of Abraham Lincoln, whose assassination a century-and-a-half in the past has generated an industry in terms of publication. Most of the histories have been well written, thankfully. Some of the more recent ones even break new ground—Michael W. Kauffman’s American Brutus and Anthony S. Pitch’s “They Have Killed Papa Dead” come to mind. But there are others, too, that simply proffer the same threadbare, and unfounded, conspiracy theories that haunt all such crimes. This, I suppose, is to be expected.
My favorite accounts of the Lincoln assassination are those of first-hand witnesses. In 1995, Timothy S. Good compiled many of these in a book titled, We Saw Lincoln Shot. The reason I enjoy this collection so much is that some of the featured witnesses recall not only details of the shooting at Ford’s Theater, but also the public furor and anguish that erupted in the Washington streets on that evening and over the course of the next several days. “The excitement here is terrific,” theatergoer Edwin Bates writes in a letter to his parents a day after the shooting:
…the street corners & hotels are crowded with people swearing deep & deadly vengance [sic] to all rebels & the whole south—& so it will be over the north & what the results will be none can tell. Mr. Lincoln was certainly a “Saul among the people” & the early peace & prosperity that I had hoped under his hand would soon return to the country I am afraid now is far distant.
As a fiction writer, I cannot but marvel at the thought of this unfolding scene in the nation’s capital—the vociferous crowds gathering, rumors spreading, cavalrymen dashing about in search of perpetrators—and what a splendid backdrop it would make for a novel. The story that I currently have in mind, and about which I am in the process of researching, does not even focus on the assassination itself. It merely unfolds amid the hubbub. Hopefully, I’ll have more to say on this at another time.
Of course the most salient American historical demarcation of the last two decades is, without a doubt, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on 11 September, 2001. Few of us can look back on the now seemingly distant, comparatively quaint years of the 1990s without realizing the extent to which the events of 9-11 have altered (often to the point of distortion) our national and world outlooks going forward, the conduct of our nation’s foreign policy, and even our own personal priorities and life choices. For my own part, 9-11 continues to haunt me; and the fact that I experienced the tragedy only from the vantage point of a television screen makes it seem all the more powerful. To this day I cannot hear the sound of a low-flying jet without looking up reflexively. And the more I mention my personal quirk to other people, the more I discover that I am by far not alone in this behavior. I cannot fathom what a New Yorker or a Washingtonian experienced at the same time, and how the attacks forever tempered their reactions to certain everyday stimuli that previously would never have merited their attention.
Many consider 9-11 to be the “Pearl Harbor” of recent American generations, though as a historian I would argue that the two events share far more differences than similarities. Still, considering the fact that comparisons between these milestones are drawn in the first place—eschewing all other potential candidate events that occurred between the two, and since—it is at least a testament to the lingering influence that the attack of 7 December, 1941 has over the American psyche and collective memory. Of course, we can no longer predict its staying power with absolute certainty, particularly in light of the fact that the men and women who experienced World War II as adults are now passing away at an alarming rate—something like 1,000 veterans per day in the United States alone.
Not surprisingly, some of the best literature documenting this period of time came from authors who had experienced the war firsthand, or those who were touched by its effects in a personal way. Among my favorites are Norman Mailer, Heinrich Böll, Jessica Mitford, Dan Davin, Primo Levi, Martha Gellhorn, Graham Greene, James Michener, Evelyn Waugh, Brian Moore, and so many others.
Considering the Pearl Harbor attack exclusively, I would single out James Jones’ From Here to Eternity as a decent example of fictional characters encountering a historical event on a personal level. Jones, an Army veteran who had actually been stationed on the Hawaiian Islands at the time, sets the moment of attack in an Army mess hall near Wheeler airfield. Sergeant Milt Warden, suffering a hellacious hangover from the night before, is going back in line for seconds on breakfast when a far off explosion rumbles up through the floorboards and rolls off “across the quad like a high wave at sea.” Conversation ceases immediately, but soon resumes after one of the men tentatively suggests that engineers are probably dynamiting ground for a new fighter airstrip. Warden, too, returns his attention to food. But then a second, closer blast occurs that removes all doubt as to the source. “This is it,” a lone voice announces. In that moment, Warden looks across the room and locks eyes with fellow NCO Maylon Stark in what seems an odd, but at the same time understandable, reaction for two young service men at the climax of that tense, expectant period just before America’s entry into the war:
There was nothing on Stark’s face, except the slack relaxed peaceful look of drunkenness, and Warden felt there must not be anything on his either. He pulled his mouth up and showed his teeth in a grin, and Stark’s face pulled up his mouth in an identical grin.
And so begins their war. And, as with all similar turning points in the lives of individuals and nations across time—whether in literature or in real life—what had once been is forever separated from what is now to be.