Monday, June 16, 2008

Get In

by Bayard Godsave

The setting, the dense mist that had settled on Milwaukee, was like something out of one of Jim Crace’s books, where lost worlds tend to materialize slowly from the pages, with the poetic quiet of grey summer afternoons. The store had just gotten a call from Jim’s publicist at Viking: There was trouble with his plane, and he’d be taking a later flight, but not to worry, she promised us, he’d make it there on time.

Well, I thought, this is all very dramatic. But the real drama was unfolding elsewhere.

Above our heads, the British author sat in his coach seat, patiently waiting as once again the voice of the captain came over the 727’s PA system. This time, there were no more assurances that they would be landing “just as soon as this fog lifts.” This time he told them that he had bad news, that the plane could no longer circle the skies above Milwaukee, awaiting a break in the weather, and would have to turn around and return to Minneapolis. There was grumbling from the other passengers, but Jim, though disappointed, sat quietly. “I’m British,” he would say later, “and we’ll sit through anything politely.”

Milwaukee was the last stop on what had been a three week tour promoting the trade-paper release of his latest novel The Pesthouse, and Harry W. Schwartz was to be, in all likelihood, the last place he would read from that book. Ever. A pity it would be if he missed that.

As he thought about this, the captain’s voice came over the PA once more. The plane was running low on fuel, and would have to land in Madison. But,” the captain said, “this is only a refueling stop. We’re not letting anyone off the plane.”

But once on the ground, there was a genuine revolt. Angry passengers—men and women who lived in Madison, and only wanted to be allowed home—got up from their seats and insisted they be let off the plane. The crew resisted for a while, but finally they had to relent, and Jim Crace slipped in with the stream of Americans making their exodus from the plane.

“But how am I to get to Milwaukee?” he would later say. “There was a bus, something called a Badger Bus? But it wouldn’t get me into Milwaukee until seven-thirty, and that wouldn’t do. So I decided to do as I would have done when I was a young man. I decided to hitch a ride.”

He stood on the side of the road, just outside the airport, put out his thumb, and waited. And it wasn’t long before a car stopped, one of his fellow passengers, stranded, like Jim, in Madison. He already had two sailors riding with him. “Where you going?” the man asked.

Milwaukee,” Jim said, in his British accent.

“Get in.”

Jim’s reading that night (which was on time and as scheduled) was amazing. As he spoke about the genesis of his latest novel, he spoke of the importance of letting the story take its own directions. “Narrative has been around for as long as human beings have, it’s learned a few things,” he said. “Narrative is wise.” And I thought of all he’d been through to get here. It was as if the story he’d told, the story of his trip, had always been waiting to happen, and it was by trusting in that story, and letting unfold as it would, that Jim was able to get here safely, and on time.


Andrew said...

Thanks for sharing this great account of the Milwaukee reading! It reminded me that Jim Crace's first published story, "Annie, California Plates", is about a group of people hitching rides across America in a car named Annie. Best wishes


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