Deep Background

By Mark Alpert

To write a novel, you have to do more than simply tell a story. You have to stop yourself from telling the story all at once.

One of the trickiest skills in fiction is to flesh out the history of your point-of-view character. In some cases, this can be done in just a few sentences. But in other novels, the character’s past is crucial to understanding how he or she acts in the present, and a few sentences of background aren’t enough.

The great pitfall is presenting too much background information too quickly. The reader needs to be fully immersed and engaged in the present-day story before the writer has the luxury of delving into the backstory. We have to care about a character’s current predicament before we’ll have the patience to learn what brought the character to this impasse.

I had some trouble with this skill when I started writing fiction. (I wrote four never-published books before writing my debut novel, FINAL THEORY, which was published by Simon & Schuster in 2008.) In my first attempt I created a character named Jack Blanchard, a 29-year-old newspaper reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, who’s covering the reelection campaign of a longtime governor with a vicious segregationist past. (Like many first novels, this one was somewhat autobiographical; in 1986 I was a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser and wrote stories about George Wallace, who was still Alabama’s governor at the time.) Jack has a younger brother named Philip who’s only twelve years old; I mention this fact in the novel’s first chapter, but I don’t provide any explanation for the big age difference between the two. But about fifty pages into the book, after the governor offers Jack a job as his assistant press secretary, and after Jack gets drunk and wrestles with the question of whether he’s actually going to take the job, I include a chapter with Jack and Philip that includes some of their backstory.

I think we learn more from our failures than our successes, so the first part of that chapter is presented below. (If you’re interested in reading the earlier chapters, they’re here, here, here, and here.) Let me know what you think!

——-

That night, I dreamed of the long-tailed parrots of South America.

I dreamed that ten thousand long-tailed parrots ascended from their damp nests in the Amazon jungle and swarmed north toward the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. They flew all night over moonlit whitecaps and made landfall at dawn on the Alabama Gulf Coast. They continued inland over broad fields of wiregrass until they reached the off-white dome that crowns the Statehouse. Then the parrots smashed through the skylight on top of the dome and spilled into the rotunda like a waterfall, with green, yellow and orange torrents pouring down the marble corridors.

I thought for sure that the legislators and lobbyists would be stunned by the bright wings flapping over their heads, but none of them showed the least bit of surprise as the birds settled, one by one, on their shoulders. The parrots selected their perches by seniority: The birds with the shortest tails sat on the shoulders of the first-term legislators, the newly elected representatives who had no power or influence yet, while the parrots with longer tails alighted on the committee chairmen and floor leaders, the men who controlled the House and Senate.

The parrot with the longest tail of all perched on Governor Fowler’s shoulder. It was a raggedy-looking, ill-kempt bird. Its tremendous tail dragged along the floor behind Fowler’s wheelchair, leaving a trail of dusty pinfeathers. The other parrots yelled their obeisances to Fowler’s bird, and their squawks reverberated across the Statehouse, echoing off the marble columns and walls and the dark portraits of nineteenth-century governors. The noise grew so loud I had to shake myself awake.

I answered the telephone that was ringing beside my bed.

“What the hell happened to you?” my mother asked over the phone. “It’s nine-thirty. You were supposed to be here at…”

The groan of a tractor-trailer drowned her out. My mother always called me from the Junction, a truck stop and convenience store about half a mile from her house in Butler County. She didn’t have a telephone at home. She’d had some trouble paying her bills on time, so BellSouth had disconnected her.

“What?” I yelled. “I can barely hear you.”

“Jack, you said you were coming to see Philip today, but now you ain’t here, and I gotta get to work.”

“Ma, it’s Saturday. Why—”

“I know what goddamn day it is! I thought you’d be here by now, so I said yes to a woman in Greenville who wanted her house cleaned for a party tonight. When’s the soonest you can get here? You know I don’t like to leave Philip by himself.”

My head was throbbing. Tequila hangovers are the worst. “I’ll try to be there in half an hour. Ten-thirty at the latest.”

“Well, you might as well not come at all if you’re gonna be that late. I’ll just take Philip with me. I don’t want him getting into any more trouble.”

“Ma, he’s twelve years old. You can leave him alone in the house for half an hour.”

“Believe me, that boy doesn’t need half an hour to get into trouble. Five minutes is all he needs.”

“Look, I’m coming over, all right? Just tell Philip to sit still until I get there.” I hung up before she could argue any more.

I drove as fast as I could and reached the Butler County line by ten o’clock. I turned off Route 50 and put my Civic into first gear so it could climb the steep dirt path to my mother’s house. The house stood at the center of a clearing in the scrub pines. A junk Chevy on cinderblocks guarded the front door and the carcass of a Ford pickup lay farther back, nearly hidden in the weeds. Thick smoke rose from a rusted metal drum in the middle of the yard. My mother burned her garbage in the drum because that was easier than dragging the stuff all the way to the landfill.

The house itself looked like it had been built in stages and never really finished. The front was the only part that resembled a conventional residence — the siding was nearly horizontal and painted a dull battleship-gray. But as you moved toward the rear, the siding became a crazy quilt of tilted pine-boards and the gray paint ran out altogether. The back of the house was nothing but an open-air shed underneath which the dogs napped and the cats yowled and the long woodpile settled.

Philip was taking a leak on the firewood as I drove into the yard. He quickly zipped up his fly and leaped onto the hood of my car. Wonder and Useless, the two yellow dogs that also urinated on the woodpile, ran behind him as far as their chains would allow.

“Jack!” The boy’s voice was gleeful. He pressed his face against the windshield. “What the hell took you so long?”

“Get off the hood.” I turned off the engine and stepped out of the car. “Come on, get off. You’re gonna mess up the paint job.”

“No, I’m not. I’m wearing sneakers. Look.” He rubbed the sole of his sneaker on the hood. “It doesn’t even leave a mark.”

“Well, you’re gonna bend the metal or something. Just get off of it.”

Philip slid down the side of the car. It looked like he’d grown an inch or two since the last time I saw him, but he was still just as skinny as always. My mother didn’t feed him right. “How come you’re wearing glasses?” he asked.

“I lost one of my contacts.”

“You dope. How’d you lose it?”

“It fell out.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I don’t know. It just fell out.”

“I bet you got drunk. That’s why you slept so late this morning, right?” Philip cocked his head and grinned. He was a prolific liar himself, so he knew the ways of lying. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell Ma. Hey, do you like my new shirt?” He wore a white T-shirt that listed Fourteen Reasons Why A Pickup Truck Is Better Than A Woman. “I like reason number ten,” he said, peering down at the words. “It don’t get jealous if you drive another one. Pretty funny, huh?”

“Yeah, real funny. Where’d you get it?”

“Ma bought it for me at Wal-Mart. Hey, can we stop by there on the way to the mountain? I need a new pair of pants. I’ve been wearing these jeans all week. My teacher said I couldn’t wear them to school anymore cause they have too many holes.”

Philip didn’t seem bothered by this, but I was mortified. “Why didn’t Ma buy you new pants when she got you the T-shirt?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe the shirt was cheaper. Hey, can I ask you a question?”

“What?”

“Why are you such a dildo? I’m just asking cause I’m curious.”

He danced away from me, ready to bolt if I made a move toward him. But I was too hung over to play this game. “Come on, let’s get moving. Go in the house and get your stuff.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Just get in the house. Did you feed the dogs yet?” After some perfunctory barking, Wonder and Useless had crept back into the shade.

“We ran out of dog food yesterday. Ma said she’d pick up a bag on her way home.”

I followed Philip into the house. The door to the kitchen was situated toward the back, near the woodpile. Broken auto parts and assorted pieces of junk were heaped next to the doorstep. A third dog, Wonder’s and Useless’s mother, slept between the scrap piles. Two cats sprang out of nowhere and slipped into the house as Philip opened the door.

“I also need some more BB’s for my rifle.” Philip ran toward his bedroom. “We can get them at Wal-Mart when we buy the pants.”

I waited for Philip in the kitchen. The two cats headed straight for an aluminum pot on top of the stove. After sniffing around a bit, the cats stuck their heads into the pot and started eating the crusty mac-and-cheese left over from last night’s supper. A stack of unwashed dishes filled the sink. I thought I’d clean some of them while I waited for Philip, but no water came out of the faucet when I turned the handle.

“What wrong with the sink?” I yelled. “There’s no water coming out.”

Philip answered from his bedroom.    “They turned off the water last week.”

“Well, how do you clean the dishes?”

“Ma fills up a bucket at the Junction. Why do you wanna clean the dishes? I’m gonna be ready in two minutes.”

My mother had a microwave oven and a VCR, but no telephone and no running water. Philip had one of the most extensive collections of video games in Butler County, but there were basketball-sized holes in the walls of his bedroom. The stench of the house was unmentionable — suffice it to say that it always surprised me no matter how much I prepared myself for it. Flies casually sampled the contents of the litter box, although the cats more frequently relieved themselves in the bathtub. And believe it or not, this was the home of a professional housecleaner. Ma spent six days a week cleaning other people’s houses, but she hadn’t washed the floor of her own kitchen since last summer.

But here and there amidst the general clutter were signs that at one time my mother had tried to make the place look decent. Her coffee mugs hung neatly on a wooden rack above the stove, and a pretty plastic butterfly with a magnetic belly pinned “The Rules of the House” to the refrigerator door:

THE RULES OF THE HOUSE (written by my mother on a sheet of notebook paper when some cousins came for an extended visit):

  • Eat at mealtimes only. DO NOT leave the refrijerator door open and stand there all day long. DO NOT drink all the coke.
  • DO NOT touch the tv or vcr unless an adult is there. These things can brake and you will have to pay for it.
  • DO NOT make unnesessary noise. If someone is sleeping, walk slowly without tramping your feet.
  • If you are alone and a stranger comes by the house, sit down and be quite until he leaves. Stay away from the windows.

My mother had moved to Butler County in 1974, not long after what she called her “accident.” Before that, we’d lived in an apartment on Clinton Street, which was the worst neighborhood in Montgomery, or at least the worst neighborhood where white people lived. My father hadn’t left us much in the way of savings or insurance, so after he died we sank below the poverty line. We got evicted at least once a year during the late Sixties and early Seventies, always moving from one crappy apartment to another. Ma wore torn shirts and tattered sneakers, and she never carried more than ten dollars in her pocket, and when we stood in the checkout line at the supermarket and she saw how much the total bill was, she always had to pull a few cans and cereal boxes out of our shopping cart. The teenage girl at the cash register usually scowled at Ma when that happened, and seeing that look on the girl’s face — annoyed, impatient, disgusted — well, that was the essence of poverty for me.

I blamed most of it on Ma’s boyfriends. She had a lot of boyfriends back then. They came to our apartment as regularly as the seasons, each staying for a few months and borrowing money from my mother and then disappearing, usually in the dead of night. It bothered me a lot when I was younger, but by the time I reached high school I was never home anyway, so I didn’t care what Ma did. I was too busy getting stoned and cruising around town with the other burn-outs from Jeff Davis High School. For almost four years I didn’t say much more than hello and goodbye to my mother.

And then, in the fall of my senior year, I came home one evening and found the front door of our apartment kicked in and most of the furniture smashed and my mother lying unconscious on the sofa. Her face was mottled with purple bruises, and blood seeped from the corner of her mouth. I grabbed her by the shoulders and screamed, “MA! WAKE UP!” but she just rolled her head and let out a moan. She was naked except for the bruises and dried blood.

When Ma finally woke up at Baptist Medical Center, she had no memory of the attack. I suspected it was one of her old boyfriends, but the cops didn’t pursue the case too aggressively. In a neighborhood like Clinton Street, there were just too many potential suspects. Ma came home a week later with a bandage across her face and a set of store-bought teeth. But after a few days she said she was too scared to stay in the neighborhood, so we moved to the old lean-to in Butler County that her father had built in the Fifties as a hunting shack. We didn’t have a car, so Ma lost all her cleaning jobs and we had to go on welfare.

That was a turning point for me. For the first time ever, Ma got desperate and begged me help her. So I stopped getting stoned and started taking life more seriously. I fixed up the shack to make it livable and did odd jobs for the neighbors to bring in some money. I enrolled at Butler High School and actually went to most of my classes and earned enough credits to graduate. Most important, I took care of Ma during her recovery, doing the laundry and the grocery shopping and the cooking for her. For months after her “accident” she refused to step outside the house, and on her worst days she wouldn’t even leave her bed. She’d curl up in her blankets and shiver uncontrollably, even when it was hot as Hades in her room.

And every day I noticed, with something akin to horror, that her belly had swollen a little bit more. She never said a word about it. The one time I tried to bring it up, she turned scarlet and told me to mind my own business. If she struggled with the question of whether to terminate the pregnancy — abortion had become legal in Alabama the year before — she never gave a sign. Philip was born that summer, nine months after the attack.

After fussing around in his bedroom for ten minutes, Philip finally came back to the kitchen carrying a BB rifle, a rusty skinning knife, and a can of lighter fluid.

“Why are you bringing the lighter fluid?” I asked.

“To start a fire, dumb-ass. I’m gonna shoot a squirrel and cook it in the woods.”

“You don’t need lighter fluid to start a fire.”

“Yessir, you do. I ain’t gonna wait forever while you fool around with leaves and sticks like you did last time.”

“All right, all right, bring it. I don’t care.”

We stepped outside. Philip locked the door and hid the key under one of the junk piles.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

6 thoughts on “Deep Background

  1. Read all of them. Liked this one the best. The long-tailed parrot dream at the beginning got me going.

    Thanks, Mr. Alpert! Knowing when my story starts and when to start the drip of backstory is one thing I still struggle with.

  2. A dumpster-fire bunch of characters. Only George Wallace would make them look good in comparison.

    One of my professors who taught Southern Lit said that every political novelist of the South has one ALL THE KING’S MEN in them, and this series was yours. Every other serious author has a Faulkner novel and the shadow of the Civil War lurking within. James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series is a perfect example.

    I managed to escape both by what I write, but I couldn’t escape Shakespeare. No writer with a strong background in literature can ever escape Shakespeare. Cue JAWS music.

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