On my post yesterday on this story, I claimed a certain ambivalence re the story’s attempts and affectations. Lee Allred claims to have cracked the lock and opened to story. And, frankly, he makes a compelling case. His argument (complete with diagram) appears below. (The only changes I made were the addition of hyperlinks.)
Tell him what you think.
Lewis Horne’s Bimetrical Pinwheel
(Note: I may have an unfair advantage in reading Horne’s story.
Utah’s Uintah Basin was the last area opened for homesteading in the lower 48 states (1905). My grandfather was one of the original homesteaders (arriving in the then remote area by wagon). The senior citizens in the ward I attended in school were original pioneers of the area. There was a small cave on my uncle’s place, about the size of a living room and tall enough for a twelve-year old to stand up straight in that my cousins had dragged several old school desks (from the original one room schoolhouse) into; we played “school” in there often during my summer visits, sitting on those wrought iron and hardwood desks, dipping imaginary quills in the inkholders.
There is little effective difference between what Horne describes in the first half of the story of WWII rural Arizona and the economically backward and isolated Uintah Basin of the 60s/early 70s.)
Horne’s story is an amazing tour de force, not only for the rural Arizona ambience I can readily identify with, but for the superb structure of the piece.
1) THE EPITAPH
Luisa Perkins was quite correct; Thom Gunn’s “My Sad Captains” is very much a key to understanding “The People Who Were Not There.” Horne would have been in his late twenties/early thirties when Gunn relocated from the UK to San Francisco in the 60s and penned Captains. I suspect Gunn (or the poem at least) was a strong influence in Horne’s growth as a writer.
Much of the story reads like a response/enactment of Captains. Except Gunn’s poem puts a widening distance and deepening withdrawal of influence between the dead (those who are no longer here) and the living, while Horne’s treatment is a very Mormon-centric view of the tangled, unbreakable interactive bonds between mortality and (those who are not here) on both sides of the veil (pre-mortal and post-mortal).
Gunn closes “My Sad Captains” with the following stanza:
True, they are not at rest yet,
but now they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.
Aside from a brief tweak mentioning the D.C. monuments lighted by hard flame-fed energy, like the stars, Horne’s those who are no longer here are diametric opposites of Gunns.
2) THE STORY STRUCTURE DIAGRAMMED
I’m one of those who plots stories visually, either by storyboarding or abstract diagramming. Reading through Horne’s story gives one a sense that it seems meticulously structured. Diagramming shows a certain amount of genius in Horne’s structure.
The story is perfectly biometrical – the Arizona portion and the Richmond airport/airplane portion are mirror images of each other, flipped.
The Narrator is the center of an ever-expanding pinwheel of the past impinging on the present. The Narrator is connected to the present by Those Who Are Here who are themselves connected to the past (locale and people) by Those Who Are Not Here. The exact opposite of Gunn’s poem (“They remind me, distant now”): in Gunn’s poem, the dead and gone exert less and less influence as the poem progresses; in Horne’s story, the gone exert ever more and more influence.
Horne follows two branches of the pinwheel in each of his two story halves. The Arizona “top half” extends through grandfathers but strongly suggests further links up the chain past them. The Richmond “bottom half” extends through infant children (again suggesting further links). Horne even suggests another pinwheel branch, mentioned, but not examined, in each half: the pre-farm life in the Arizona portion; the Washington monument historical past in the Richmond section. These brief mentions suggest hundreds of more pinwheel branches.
Horne did something amazing, I think. He structured “The People Who Were Not There” as a national market mainstream literary story, which is how it reads on the surface, complete to the Gunn epigram. But at its deeper level it’s a wicked subversive Mormon-worldview direct refutation of what it appears to be. A very ambitious and accomplished story!