The Price of Salt

Ten days after my twenty-fifth birthday—Thursday, July 18, 2009—I woke up early and headed to work as usual.  I expected it to be just another day in a string of extremely long summer days—I run the aquatics portion of our summer camp and typically my days are thirteen hours long at this time of year.  Being halfway through the season I was understandably exhausted.  I remember throwing my hands in the air sometime around noon and telling my boss I was preemptively taking the following day off.  I needed a break for my mental health.

Oh, if only I knew—

Around five o’clock I started having this feeling—something akin to really bad gas.  I didn’t have gas though, and it was frustrating.  It wouldn’t let up.  I tried taking some medicine but that did absolutely nothing.  It was a barely manageable agony, but I pushed through.  When the pool closed at nine I could barely walk.  A coworker drove me home and then I spent two hours moping around my house wishing the feeling would just pass already.  At certain points I could lay on my bed in a position that eased the pain a little, but the reprieve was only ever temporary.

Around eleven-thirty or so my roommate decided she’d had enough and strong-armed me into going to the hospital.  I didn’t want to.  Since the pain’s initial onset (six and a half hours previous) people had been throwing around the word ‘appendicitis’ and I didn’t like that at all.  It was the first thing the triage nurse suggested and that served to further cement my fears.  Around two in the morning I had the pleasure of drinking some radioactive fruit punch which helped to confirm via CTScan.  Appendicitis indeed.  Around four-thirty I went under the knife, and a short time later the surgeon called my parents in Colorado and told them glibly that he had my appendix in a bucket and everything was going to be fine.

I was home by three-thirty the next day—sore all over and with a pretty bleak outlook.  As much as I was stressed about work the thought of not working was even more stressful.  The discharge papers prohibited me from lifting anything over about ten pounds for the next month.  Because the ability to lift things is a pretty major part of my job I was facing four weeks of laying around at home.  It was tough for me to swallow, but work handled it pretty well.  Slowly over the course of the next day or two my spirits rose a little and I started to think about what I might do with all this time I’d just been given.

I probably should’ve been worried about money.  I wasn’t making a ton then, and I was going to lose out on quite a bit of camp money which I depended on to keep me afloat at that point.  For whatever reason though, I didn’t worry about it.  Instead I went on a shopping spree.  I bought my first iPhone (a 3GS), a couple video games, an antique reproduction clock (which still hangs in my kitchen though it no longer works) and a few books.

One of the books was ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith.  As I’ve mentioned multiple times already on this blog, she is now one of my absolute favorite authors, yet at this point I’d only read one of her novels.  I picked it because the title kept popping up in sentences like “The author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt.”  It was engrained in my consciousness.  Repeated exposure to the title surely assured it was a good one, right?

I had the best of intentions, but between the iPhone and the video games the books were cast aside.  Then, about a week into my recovery, when I was already sick of everything else and I might have picked up a book I decided instead to write one of my own.

See, I think I wanted to be a writer before I wanted to be anything else.  Its a dream I kept coming back to as a child and an adolescent.  Then some other shinier idea of my life’s purpose would turn me away from writing for a while, but I’ve always circled back.  The four or five years I spent thinking maybe I’d be a songwriter instead of a novelist was probably the biggest chunk of time I turned away from this dream.  By about the time of my appendicitis, though, I was realizing the songwriting thing was, if not unattainable, extremely far-fetched.  I’ve only ever been passable at piano, and that made it hard to write music that was actually playable by anything other than a computer.  I’m a decent singer, but probably not good enough to sing my own stuff.  I’ve never really loved pop music—my own tastes are eclectic and obscure—and thats really where the money would’ve been.  If those weren’t enough obstacles, I had absolutely no idea how to break into the industry.  Its a shame because I’ve written some beautiful music that almost no one will ever hear.

I thought a lot about this as I lay idle and healing.  It was depressing because I’ve always had this incredible need to express and share my creativity.  If the music wasn’t going to work out there had to be something else—some other way.  It didn’t take me long to think of writing, and the common advice suggests “write what you know.”  At that point I wasn’t too far on the other side of the events that inspired TEORG and I thought my own real-life story was good enough to be a book.  I could just change some names and tell it all like it actually happened and I’d surely have a bestseller on my hands, right?

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Revenge is better with a side of bacon. . . 

I spent the last three weeks of my recovery slowly churning out what would eventually become Chapter One and Chapter Two of my manuscript.  Then I went back to work.  TEORG started collecting dust on my hard drive and ‘The Price of Salt’ started collecting dust on my bookshelf.

Now fast forward six years and four months.  A week and a half ago after I finished Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ I stood in front of my bookshelf thinking about what to read next.  I really need books right now.  First of all its gotten a little too cold for me to commute sixteen miles a day on my bike, so I’m facing an hour and a half per day on the bus and train.  Secondly, reading has proved to be a much needed distraction from TEORG—it feeds my brain while preventing me from obsessing over the work.  I’ve been thinking a lot about Patricia Highsmith lately.  There were two volumes on my shelf I hadn’t read yet—’The Price of Salt’ and ‘Strangers on a Train.’  I already knew the story of the latter, so I settled for the former.  I thought it would be good.  I knew it was a romance of sorts—the story of two women who fall in love in the 1950s and how they deal with it, etc.  It seemed appropriate.  Maybe I’d find some connection to my own work.

I was not disappointed.  Patricia Highsmith is important to me for innumerable reasons, and after reading ‘The Price of Salt’ I feel closer to her than I ever have before.  Normally I admire her because of her clear, easy mid-twentieth century language.  She is able to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary.  To make a nod to my own work she excels at finding the beauty in the mundane.  I’ve written about how she is a master at passing time.  And like Stephen King and Tom Perrotta rather than obsessively plotting she was a fan of putting her characters into situations and letting them work their way out naturally.

With ‘The Price of Salt’ Ms. Highsmith has given me something else entirely.

A validation of Ryan Gregori as a character.

The protagonist in ‘The Price of Salt’ is a young woman, nineteen years old, named Therese Belivet.  She is living in Manhattan with dreams of becoming a set designer for plays.  She has absolutely no experience and she is really just trying to get by.  She is working temporarily in a department store during the Christmas rush when she encounters a beautiful older woman named Carol who is buying a doll for her daughter.

What ensues is the subject of a truly fantastic novel, but I won’t summarize it here.  Instead I’ll describe why this novel has had an effect on me and my writing.  Ultimately it comes down to the character of Therese and Highsmith’s treatment of her sexuality.

Therese is nineteen—the same age as Ryan.  However to read her I would think she was much older.  Therese is smart and she speaks intelligently.  She is able to easily hold her own against characters much older and wiser.  She’s able to do all this and yet she is still believably nineteen.  I’ve often worried that Ryan and his friends are too mature for the ages I’m representing in TEORG.  I wonder if I should make them seem younger and more dramatic.  Therese works for Highsmith, so I know I can make Ryan work for me.

Perhaps more importantly, Highsmith treats homosexuality as if it is a perfectly natural human condition (it is of course).  This must have been revolutionary in the early 1950s.  But what is more impressive than Highsmith’s incredibly forward thinking is that she treats it as a total non-issue.  There is no discussion of it—no justification.  It simply is and by avoiding any explanation—any effort to legitimize homosexuality to her readers—Highsmith prevents the giant 1952 elephant in the room from getting in the way of her story.

I’m sure if she’d wanted to, she could’ve turned the character of Carol into Carl or Charles, changed a few pronouns, and had a story of pretty much the exact same effect.  The theme of ‘The Price of Salt’ is one of love triumphing over adversity.  It wouldn’t matter if it were two men, or a man and a woman Highsmith wrote about.  This is a human story.

That is all I could ever want for TEORG.  Ryan’s struggles in his search to find love and acceptance have nothing to do with his sexuality.  In fact, though most of my characters are gay I have tried very hard to downplay Ryan’s sexuality.  You may notice there has been no mention of homophobia.  There is no discrimination or disapproval anywhere in this story so far.  That is by design.  This is a human story about love.  I’d like to think, again, if Ryan were to become Rianna, wouldn’t the story essentially be the same?

There are other things too.  Highsmith manages to drum up a lot of sexual tension and then satisfy it without being pornographic.  She leaves the details to the imagination.  Ryan has some things coming up.  I’d like to follow her example.

Its just funny.  ‘The Price of Salt’ is the kind of book I’d like to write.  Its funny because it came into my life fresh and new at the beginning of this journey and I left it to yellow, forgotten until nearly the end.  Its funny because it was exactly the right book at precisely the right time.  If I’d read it six years ago when I was laying in bed I think it would have energized me.  Maybe I’d have written three chapters instead of just the two.  But thats where it would’ve stopped.  I wasn’t ready to write TEORG back then—thats part of why its taken so long.  But now?  Its energized me now, and it might just propel me through to the end.

Patricia Highsmith died twenty years ago, but clearly her impact survives her.  I’m not the only one to be inspired.  I discovered halfway through the book that its just been made into a movie called ‘Carol,’ starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.  I think its in theaters now, but I’ve got the digital copy on preorder.

Chapter Fourteen is coming along, and Chapter Twelve will go up on Friday morning.  As always, thanks for reading and have an amazing week!

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