Friday, September 21, 1990

Jim Dodge: Stone Junction: An Alchemical Potboiler, Book Review, The Paper, 9/21/90

Stone JunctionAn Alchemical Potboiler
Book Review The Paper, 9/21/90

Poet & novelist Jim Dodge reading at Copperfield's in Petaluma. © 1990 Maureen Hurley Photo

First time’s a charm, they always say. But for former West County poet-novelist Jim Dodge, it was more like the second and third time that brought the good luck to launch his newest novel, what he dubbed “my first, and my last.” 

Stone JunctionAn Alchemical Potboiler

Dodge said his latest novel, Stone JunctionAn Alchemical Potboiler came out of fifteen years of living in a commune on The (Cazadero) Ridge—which was also the spawning ground, or should one say, the nest, that hatched his two nationally acclaimed novels, catapulting Dodge into the literary limelight. 

Translated into eleven languages, Dodge’s first published novella, Fup (City Miner, 1983), a slim story (59 pages) about a 20-pound duck, with a penchance for paddling in post-hole ponds, a wild boar, and an old codger who believes he's immortal due to the home brew whiskey, Ol' Death Whisperer, he religiously imbibes—was hotter property than the Creighton Ridge fire. It landed him a spot on the Today Show. There was talk of movie rights, and according to Dodge, it’s still under option. 

Jim said Fup was translated into eleven languages. He showed me copies of Fup in Hebrew, Swedish and Japanese, and said that the bilingual Japanese edition was being used as an American English primer for teaching American idioms and colloquialisms. The thought of poor Japanese students carefully using some of Jim's rather colorful phrases had me in stitches.   

Dodge's second novel, Not Fade Away (1987), a smashing story about a white mint '59 Cadillac intended as a gift to the Big Bopper, took off equally well, burning rubber from Meyer’s Grade, across the country, and back again at break-neck speed. The protagonist "Floorboard" George, was supposed to wreck the car for an insurance scam but instead, George runs off with the caddie in an epic journey where On the Road meets Ken Keseyian states of mind liberally laced with rock and roll.

After the fairytale success of Fup, Dodge's agent asked him if he had something else in the works. Dodge replied, “Nothing other than a first novel that is bad, really bad.” She was interested. So Stone Junction was duly dusted off and trimmed down from a hefty 800-page manuscript to a more manageable 355 pages. Dodge found that rewriting the monster manuscript was harder than starting from scratch.

Signing copies of Stone Junction at Copperfield’s Bookstore in Petaluma last spring, Dodge joked with admirers, saying, “Real men write prose.” He unpretentiously shot the bull: from playing cards, to the state of the environment, and to the proper nurturing and development of middle-aged stomach muscle.

Dodge sold Japanese printing rights, the first translation offer to come in for Stone Junction, released February 1990. Dodge explained his latest novel nearly sold out at 12,000 copies but “if a book doesn’t make it to the best seller’s list a couple of months after publication, it’s dead.” According to Dodge, the book will probably go into paperback edition very soon. 

Compared to Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic, On the Road, Dodge's Stone Junction: An Alchemical Potboiler is a story of coming of age with a New Age twist. Stone Junction is a story about Daniel Pearse, “who never had a father, who sees his mother die before his eyes, and who learns a great deal about the impossible task of growing up marked by such a history.” 

The book—spanning ten years of Haight street’s pharmaocopias, to New York’s gridlock (with bouts of homing instincts nurtured in the Cazadero hills), is also a story of an alliance of magicians and outlaws (AMO). Daniel’s real teachers were safecrackers, drug connoisseur, card sharks and magicians. The idea for the AMO “comes out of the storytelling tradition” quipped Dodge, “or from playing too much ‘fort’ when I was a kid.” 

The writer’s slapstick humor and homespun philosophy abounds as the protagonist Daniel attempts to steal the six-pound Faith Diamond, the world’s 4th largest. No one knows exactly what the diamond represents, but Daniel is addicted. He cannot leave the ultimate crystal ball behind, just like he can’t shake his mother’s murder. The CIA wants the diamond to stay buried deep in an underground in a vault that rivals Fort Knox. Only Daniel finds out if diamonds really are forever...

I like the way the book is divided into four sections: air, earth, fire and water. Dodge’s writing style is distinctive; but I was afraid it would intrude, but it didn’t. The only place where I was ricocheted out of the story line was when Moss’s mule, Old Pissgums was introduced. 

Maybe it’s because I had a donkey as ornery as Old Pissgums, maybe it’s because the story was a refreshing vingette from the main story that I was temporarily launched out of the book—or because it reminded me of Dodge’s witty poems. 

But don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade the scene with Old Pissgums for anything in the world. I liked Old Pissgums. Dodge laughed and said that the hardest challenge a novelist faces is to keep the reader’s interest directed. 

Stone JunctionAn Alchemical Potboiler is a story about male bonding and paternal rejection, though Annabel, Daniel’s mother opens the novel, and his crazy girlfriend Jennifer, closes it. Dodge commented, though it’s difficult—and dangerous—for a male writer to write about women from a woman's perspective, Jennifer is one character he’s satisfied with. 

When I queried Jim about the character of the disc jockey who breaks up the flow of the narrative, he admitted that was the weakest part of the novel. The card game is almost as tediously long as real life itself. (If anyone wants to take up Lo-ball, this is the definitive book). Dodge relies upon his own extensive experience during his salad days as a professional gambler and card shark to give this scene verve and authenticity. 

We sipped tea in the afternoon sun and discussed writerly things such as the mutual quest for the perfect sentence, punctuation and endings. I commented: “I wondered how you were going to get out of Stone Junction. So many writers flounder around the end of a novel looking for an ending in all the wrong places.” 

But Dodge was able to gracefully slip out of the story in the last few pages of the novel without leaving the reader hanging with a formulaec ending. Which I'm not going to divulge. You'll have to read it yourself to find out what happens.

One writer Dodge greatly admires is Larry McMurtry, (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment ). "Larry is pure storyteller. I’d be happy if I had a couple of novels like his.” Don't be fooled by Dodge's "aw shucks" modesty. 

Dodge is a spirited storyteller both on and off the page. I've listened to his stories for years. One of my favorites was the story of the chicken who escaped the Fulton chicken processing plant with Jim rooting for the chicken, "make a run for it!" Then there's the one about the, er, amorous bullfrog and the rock....

Dodge cranks out his novels old school but he recently upgraded to an old electric typewriter. A newfangled Smith Corona word processor made a six-hour trial debut into the writer’s life—until it made a serious faux-pause, telling him, “not a valid entry,” and it was goodbye computer, hello pen. 

Dodge gave the cheeky computer to his companion of many years, Victoria Stuckley, who in turn, transcribes his novels into disk format—thus completing the computer age circuit.

Balking like Old Pissgums himself before the camera, Dodge tried to, er, dodge the camera. Jim, who is 44, instructed: “Describe me with words; a middle-aged Gary Cooper...” Right. My editor's gonna love this one.
Jim Dodge © Maureen Hurley 1984                                 
Jim showed me a photo of his, saying, that as an undergraduate, he had to make a choice between writing and photography. Dodge said he once went through a box of 100 sheets of photo paper in one day to print one negative, “and it still didn’t come out right.” That was that.

Jim said he also spent a whole day trying to perfect a single sentence and it didn’t come out right either. He recounted, “I went to bed and next morning, I got it right. Try that with photography sometime," he said.

Dodge described the New York publishing business as a “jungle.” He said that negotiating contracts is akin to detecting lost land mines with a pogo stick. His agent, whom he’s never met, takes care of the business end of things. The basic rule of thumb he’s learned is to retain as many “rights” as possible, including reprint, foreign language and movie rights.

Dodge recently moved from Sonoma County—following the money. He shares a converted garage overlooking Humboldt Bay in Arcata with a blind kitten he perversely named Lassie. 

Dodge said as if by way of apology, “I’m not a cat man,” but our conversation was littered with kitty box potty commands and coochie-coos as we sat in a haphazard garden of a driveway warming our backs in the late afternoon sun. Lassie worked hard weaving figure eights or shackling infinity signs around our ankles.

The successful novelist also teaches creative writing at his alma mater, Humboldt State University, filling in for other teachers on leave, etc. In the process, Jim discovered that he liked teaching English courses more than creative writing. Less outside interference. Dodge said he likes teaching better when he’s working on something of his own. 

Dodge received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative writing and poetry from the University of Iowa Writers workshop in 1969.

Arcata, the alter-ego of straight-laced Eureka, is one of those lively towns where hippies, college students and rednecks collide like crude oil tankers and sea stacks during rush hour. 

There are many similarities between Humboldt County, which boasts of the highest per-capita of artists (and dope growers) in northern California, and Sonoma County, which runs a close second on all counts. (Mendocino is also a contender for the heady title). Dodge, born in 1945 in Santa Rosa, CA, has done time in both necks of the redwoods. 

Dodge, also a published poet with two out-of-print chapbooks under his belt, stated that more and more poets are turning to fiction. “Poetry is on its deathbed in America,” said Dodge, blaming its demise on writers like Pound and Eliot, who raised poetry to a “mandarin art form, so that only 25 readers in the world could understand it” without a dictionary or an encyclopedia.  

However, Dodge's next book will be a poetry chapbook, Bait & Ice  by Tangram Press. It will be an extremely limited edition (150 copies). Dodge mused, poetry should be printed on good quality paper, “the letters pressed into the paper, so tangible, you can feel them.” 

When asked why he left the Cazadero hills, and did he miss Sonoma County, Dodge said, “I don’t look back very much.” Dodge’s backwoods philosophy is honed by “17 years of being an air force brat” and tenure in “about as many schools,” including the toughest matriculator of all—life.

Dodge's parting colloquialisms to me ran the gamut from “Don’t look back; it might be gaining on you,” to “Life, if nothing else, is an adventure in consciousness.” With that, he gave me a hug goodbye. 

The shadows of redwoods were growing long. The road home was longer yet. I climbed into Lazarus, my old blue pickup and pointed its nose south and I never looked back. 

I crawled into the darkroom and spent the night trying to get the surreptitiously shot negatives of Jim to come out right. I gave up and dusted off some rather chiaroscuro photos I'd taken of him at Copperfield's last spring. Polished the sheen of my sentences with a fine cloth instead.

NOTE BENE: A version of this story was written for the Western Sonoma County Paper in the Fall of 1990. I'm not sure when it ran and I'm sure it had a catchy title knowing Nick Valentine—and I'm sure it was probably rearranged as is the wont of copy editors. I suspect sidebars were also involved to rearrange and picket fence it in.

But just getting my old work into cyber print—without the back up of my tear sheets— has been a challenge as all my pieces were written in Microsoft Works 2 or Appleworks 1 and there are no longer any conversion files for 20+ year old files. Programs are now more polite than Jim's Smith Corona (not valid entry.) Point being, I recently found a Microsoft Works 4 converter and under OS 9, I can for the first time—access these ancient files with a minimum of strange gobbelygook interspersed in every line. 

It's too hard to pick up the strings and resurrect old writing—I'm not who I was then. I can't get into that headset. I'm not willing to invest vast tracts of time in revision. So, with the addition of a few transitions and punctuation changes, the story stands—warts and all. If it's too fup'd up, well then, Mea Culpea. 
West Sonoma County Paper

A little more au current info by Jim Dodge, Some Principles for a Writing Community, in North Coast Journal March 25, 2004. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Here's a link to the introduction to Jim Dodge's Stone Junction by Thomas Pynchon (1997).

For some reason this blog has lifted my entire blog post and posted it on his own blog zoran rosko vacuum player with no link or mention. Grrr. I guess vacuum explains it all.

Here'e the tear sheet and published story, different than this post. So I'm leaving it up.

Jim Dodge, Stone Junction, The paper, Sept 27, 1992

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