A departure from my usual brief comments by well-known writers on writing. As someone who’s relatively new to writing fiction I’m amazed (and frequently embarrassed) by how much I don’t know about this pursuit. Readers are a case in point. I’ve always known there were many types of writers but it never occurred to me that there would be as many varied types of readers until my novel Thirty Below appeared in print. In many ways the readers who are the most fun to discuss a book with are those who prove to be closest readers of the story and ask lots of questions and here I’ll attempt to answer one of their questions about a pivotal point in Thirty Below that applies to other fictional works as well, and don’t worry, you don’t have to have read Thirty Below to follow this thread.
The question is: would Bart really have shot the dogs?
The answer is: he might have…
First, let’s look at what I call the pivotal points of two other novels—the events without which there is no story—and how they underline this concept of he might have.
The first is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Robbie Turner is desperate to be accepted by Cecilia Tallis and types her a letter admitting that he becomes lightheaded and foolish in her presence. Dissatisfied with his first attempt, he types a second and in frustration ends it with a lewd comment on the sex act he’d like to perform on her. He pulls this draft from the typewriter and writes her a gentle note in long hand, “confident that the personal touch fitted the occasion.” He places a note in an envelope and asks Briony, Cecilia’s younger sister, to deliver it to her. As Briony disappears with the envelope Robbie realizes that he has sent Cecilia the wrong note with this explanation:
The handwritten letter he had rested on the open copy of Gray’s Anatomy, Splanchnology section, page 1546, the vagina. The typed page, left by him near the typewriter, was the one he had taken and folded into the envelope. No need for Freudian smart-aleckry—the explanation was simple and mechanical—the innocuous letter was lying across figure 1236, with its bold spread and rakish crown of pubic hair, while his obscene draft was on the table, within easy reach.
Would Robbie have been so careless with such an inflammatory letter, a letter that he’d labored over and that meant so much to him, one typed rather than written in long hand? The answer is he might have, and all else that follows in the novel turns on Briony’s reading of the letter and the revenge she seeks.
The second incident takes place in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men when Llewelyn Moss comes across a gangland style execution in the desert in which several men are riddled with bullets but one man is still alive and pleads for agua. As Moss flees the scene he comes across a leather document case containing $2.4 million dollars in small bills: “His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead.”
Moss goes home and hides the money but that night he wakes wondering if the lone survivor is still alive and fills a gallon jug with water when his wife asks him where he’s going.
Somethin I forgot to do. I’ll be back….I’m fixin to go do somethin dumbern hell but I’m goin anyways. If I don’t come back tell Mother I love her.
His wife says she doesn’t want him to go, to which Moss replies:
Well darling we’re eye to eye on that cause I don’t want to go neither.
But Moss goes anyway. Would a man who’d just found his life’s fortune at a horrendous crime scene return to that scene to give a dying stranger some water when he knows it may get him killed? Well, he might have, and Moss did and in doing so created the pivotal point of the story for his return alerts the criminals to who has their money and begins their relentless, deadly search for Moss.
In Thirty Below, when Carrie—now unable to escape the wilderness until the spring thaw—calls Bart a killer and says the dogs hadn’t done anything wrong, he defends his action this way:
“Nor did I,” Bart said quietly. “There’s no way we could feed them the whole winter.” He shifted his weight from boot to boot like a schoolboy in front of his teacher. “I did it for us and for them. If we’d kept them all they’d have starved and we would have, too. It’s a difficult lesson to accept but an important one: there are certain things you and I must do to stay alive.”
There’s a lesson here for us as readers and writers alike: we’re not Bart (nor Robbie nor Moss). Maybe those that pose this question are really asking if they themselves would have shot the dogs. Regardless, the answer is that Bart, with all his experience of previous winters spent in the wilderness, might have. The fact that he did provided the pivotal point of the novel for if he hadn’t, Carrie could have headed back home to her boring life in southern California and there wouldn’t have been a story, at least not this story.
I’d love to know what you think.