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A Hero’s Death

A Hero’s Death, Nathan Childers, Vanity Press Publications, Nassau, 1978.

This work is a curiosity. The publisher is not a vanity press; Vanity Press Publications is the name of the publisher. It is one of those anomalous quiet byways of the modern world, much like the trades in G.K. Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades. The story goes that they solved the distribution problems of small elite literary publishers by abandoning book sellers entirely and selling only to a select subscription list of people with serious literary interests. The list is not advertised and one cannot apply to get on it; you must be recommended for inclusion by someone already on the list. To be so recommended is considered quite an honor by those who are aware of its existence at all.

I learned of the existence of Vanity Press Publications quite by accident. A friend of mine with some literary pretensions had a copy of A Hero’s Death lying in his apartment. I noticed the publisher’s imprint, was struck by it, and quizzed him about it. He told me their tale. Although I do not generally read works published by small presses I was intrigued and enquired about the possibility of receiving their works. He smiled, condescendingly I thought, and said that he didn’t think that I was quite suitable for their list. As an afterthought he loaned me the book and said that I should return it when I understood it.

At first sight the work is a simple one. It nominally covers the last day in the life of a drunk in the gutter. The story is told in the form of a montage of press clippings, narrative fragments, flashbacks, snippets of poetry, and dream reveries. In other words it is (apparently) thoroughly conventional in structure. I took a few days to read through it – one has to subject these engines of literary complexity to close scrutiny – and was ready to return it to my friend when I realized something odd.

In what I took to be the final chapter there is a small scene with a young woman named Mona. It is only when you read this scene that you realize that her life story appears as a thread in the book in reverse order; that is, she appears as an old woman early in the book, as a middle aged woman in the middle of the book, and as a young woman at the end of the book. This continuity is artfully disguised so that one doesn’t realize that the respective scenes refer to the same person until the final scene, the key being that an essential feature of her character, one that is subliminally present in earlier scenes but is only established definitely in that final scene. It was, I thought, a clever literary trick but only that – a clever literary trick. Still, I thought I was honor bound not to return the book until I had teased out the other little tricks that might be concealed within it.

By fortunate chance I had a free week with nothing to do but read and study as I pleased and I tackled the book seriously with a view to untangling the character threads for once and for all. I took copious notes and discovered at least half a dozen characters whose stories were artfully concealed. Unlike the thread which established my Mona (whom I began to conceive of as my Beatrice in this literary Inferno) these threads were scattered every which way. What is more there was no simple resolution of them. A particular bit might be from one character or it might be from another. In the end I concluded that this confusion was a deliberate policy on the part of the author.

My spell of liberty ended and set aside my notes on the book and returned to work. It was not until several months had passed that I had another chance to go through it and tidy up my analysis. At last a free weekend came and I set down with it, determined to be done with it. Imagine my horror when I discovered that my copious notes made no sense at all to me. I could not follow the reasoning in them; I could not recognize the characters that I had imagined; the events that supposedly fit into threads seemed disconnected. I determined then that I would master this thing. If I am not a master of literary analysis, still I am an intelligent man and this book was not that complicated.

It took me the better part of a year, working on it on weekends and the odd evening, to sort out the character threads. This time I was very careful. I wrote a full explanation of each connection that I made, a full delineation of each justification and each line of reasoning. In the course of so doing I saw where I had gone wrong earlier. The author had laid subtle traps, little invitations to go wrong and misread, to make hasty unwarranted assumptions. This was no matter of clever literary tricks – the tricks were a tortuous ingenuity. In the end though I mastered the trickery and unmasked the hidden cast of characters.

When I had finished I realized that I had a problem. In my original reading I had assumed that these bits that I had so carefully disentangled were part of the life of the main character, that they were part of a hero’s life, that he had been a hero of a sort who had come to a sad end. But now, I saw, it was not so. The supposed heroism dissolved into separate actions. And yet the title could not be an accident; it had to be meaningful.

I finally concluded that the author was making a statement, taking an indirect way of saying that heroism is not a single persons action, that it is always a montage of actions, an intermingling from multiple lives. The man was a hero but not it was not by his actions alone; his “heroism” was a composite. I was not entirely satisfied with this reading but I saw no alternative.

Feeling that I had solved the puzzle of this book I tried to call my friend to return it and be done with it. To my surprise I discovered that he had moved and that I had no way to get in touch with him. There was no forwarding address; his employers did not know where he had gone; neither did our common friends. Finally, in desperation, I wrote the publisher, asking that they send the book to him with their next shipment. They wrote back that “M. Blanc has given particular instructions that you are not to return the book until you have fully understood it.”

This was a bit of a jolt. For a moment I felt as though I had wandered into one of Borge’s Ficciones. I realized, however, that my wayward friend knew me well and knew how ready I was to jump to a premature conclusion. He was leaving me a challenge – Was I really sure that I understood this book? I decided that I might have been too hasty, that I had not properly considered what the author was saying about what it means to be a hero. I resolved to dust off my copy of Carlyle and begin anew. So I resolved, but in truth I was mightily tired of struggling with this cursed book.

Life over rules literature. I met my future wife. We had a brief and furious courtship. In two months time we were wed and happily settled into domesticity. She was my life and I quite forgot my somewhat neurotic obsession with literary analysis until one day, some three years after we had wed, she came across the book and my notes on it. She was mildly curious and wanted to read it. I forbade it to her. She was hurt and wanted to know why. I could not truly explain why even to myself but I felt, somehow, that it was a private matter, private even beyond marriage. We quarreled; it was our first quarrel. Mona accepted my ban but with no good grace. That quarrel was the beginning of more quarrels and within a year we were divorced.

I did not handle the divorce well; divorce is a hard thing for a man. I drank. I drank heavily until one evening while drinking with a friend I told the tale of the book. I was very drunk. He remarked, rather sarcastically, that if I kept up at the rate I was going the book would be my biography. That was a shock; I hadn’t realized how close I was to becoming another drunken bum dying in a gutter. That evening was the last time I’ve ever taken a drink.

After I had been sober for some months I took another crack at the book. At first it went well. I discovered that the author had something to say about heroes and heroism and that he had, as usual, concealed it carefully. I discovered his clues but I could not make out his message. Finally I decided to be done with it. I would never understand what this book was really about. It had wasted my time; it had ruined my marriage; it may have almost killed me. I wrote the publisher and told them to take it back. I was not surprised to learn that they had moved, also with no forwarding address.

I could not bring myself to destroy the book so I locked it and all my precious notes away and swore never to look at it again. I haven’t. It’s been years now since I’ve seen it but it does not leave me. Sometimes I dream about it. In my dreams I realize that it has a very simple, very clear story that I am just not seeing. In my dreams I say “How obvious.” But when I wake I never remember what it was that was so obvious.

I am not a religious man, not a churchgoer. I live an ordinary life; I haven’t done anything really evil. But if I am no great sinner, neither am I a good man. If there is an afterlife, a heaven and a hell, I expect that I shall end in whatever pit holds the incompetent sinners. However I like to think that those ancient Egyptian kings who had themselves buried with the goods that they expected to enjoy in the afterlife had the right of it. Accordingly, I have left instructions in my will that when I die that damned book shall be buried with me. When I arrive in the Halls of the Dead to spend Eternity I shall have a book to read.

Copyright © 1997 by Richard Harter
This page was last updated June 28, 1997.