And yet, upon finishing reading Garth Stein's novel I was reminded of a few conversations I had with a bartender I used to know. About a year ago, when I was beginning to form the characters needed to carry the plot of the story, I came in after work (second shift, Tuesdays and Wednesdays off-- thus my social life must involve a bar as it is the only gathering place open after work) the bartender greeted me with a pint of beer and a question.
"Where you been?"
"The world. It is mean and nasty out here. Actually, I started work on a novell--"
"You're a writer? I didn't know that."
"Yes and no. I write, but almost always just for myself-- stuff I need to articulate so that I can understand it-- or try to."
"I wrote for a small town newspaper as a reporter for a few years, if that counts. It doesn't count for me. I have never tried to get any of my fiction published. I was required to for an assignment in college, but I sent in a crappy piece I didn't care about." With a grin, I added, " the stuff I like is too personal to risk either publishing or rejection."
He laughed, and then asked (it was a slow night at the bar), "What sort of novel is it?"
"Well, if it gets written, it will be a tragedy."
"Wow! Why a tragedy?"
"Because it is based on a real story, my own, of course, and real life doesn't have miraculous happy endings."
"So I have noticed. "
He was pouring two shots of bourbon, and then slid one against my hand while offering the other in his own for a toast. I smiled and accepted the gift, amused that he, too, was partaking. I lifted my shot glass and said, "To beautiful women..." then grinning toward Sara who was closing someone out at the register, I added, "on both sides of the bar." Sara looked up at me and winked. When, as the custom has been in the neighborhood bars, we tapped the glasses to the bar before drinking, the bartender offered, "And to tragedy."
We downed the bourbon and then he raucously and gustily proclaimed to the whole bar, "Real life is tragedy, people!"
Back to me in a normal tone with no sign of the drunkenness he had just exhibited, Dan pried some more. "So, when are you going to publish this novel? I am intrigued that someone wants to write a tragedy."
"As a matter of fact, I fear it may never get published for that very reason. My guess is publishers don't want tragedies-- they want happy endings. I'm writing it anyway. As far as when I will finish, I don't know-- I have never even tried to do a novel before. Right now I am working on the characters based on some pretty interesting historical people I have been researching-- they are unknowns, but did some impressive things with their lives-- good souls, good hearts, real heroes, and no one knows of them."
"Cool. So if the publisher says, 're-write the ending?'"
"I've thought about that. My story is nothing unless it is a tragedy. I'll publish on the web for free, if I can't sell it. It needs to be told. Broken people don't need happy endings, they need to be encouraged despite tragedy, not to be led to believe that everything works out in everyone else's life."
About then some friends came in, patting my shoulder and saying hi as they passed to go out to the patio out back and smoke. I was still holding a cigar in one hand, because I had intended to get the beer and do the same. A few strangers bellied up and Dan needed to tend to their orders. He slapped his hand on the bar and leaned toward me to say, "Promise me something?"
"Don't let anyone make it anything other than a tragedy?"
"I promised myself that already."
"God bless you."
"And you, Dan."
If I ever am able to meet Garth Stein, I am going to ask him for his original ending-- the one he had in mind before he wrote a happy ending. I appreciate that he acknowledged how rare such miraculous exonerations are and suggests, rightly I believe, how such redemption must take place in the rare instances in which it happens: It requires a tragic figure to redeem another from tragedy.
Moreover, he prods the reader to consider what it may take to be a source of that salvation for another. It requires a rare heart and a rare soul to become tragic, and it is even rarer that such a person survives the tragedy. Most rare of all are those who are ever redeemed-- in this life.
To quote Garth Stein's character, Denny, "Sometimes, I believe. Sometimes I really believe."
For me, unredeemed, a stranger in a strange land, a sojourner...
I am not sure I can again find myself in that place where my car is skidding because I intentionally put it into a skid-- and that because I know how drive in a skid. I was doing that when a teammate intentionally took me out, ruining my career.
I can still race in the rain better than anyone, but it is the lack of a teammate that has been my end.
I wait on a Sponsor who will never call upon me. I wait for a teammate that will allow me to finish the race-- but such teammates don't exist in my life-- they are too broken from their own crashes to race with me, and I am too broken to race without them. For that matter, no one needs a driver who can race in the rain-- nowdays, they just call off the race.