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The personal turbulence of wartime

There comes a moment when the image of our life parts company with the life itself, stands free, and, little by little, begins to rule us. In his debut novel, Missoula author Phil Condon explores that moment when image bids adieu to reality, and grief takes over. Clay Center is a powerful, intuitive novel, subtle in the touching intimacy of its characters and their longing for the authenticity of simple affection and sincere ideals. Set in 1969, skillfully recreating the desperation and confusion of the Vietnam era, Condon’s novel surprises with its quiet rendering of a love story; we are as wrapped up in the graceful emotions between Miller Silas and Maureena Ocear as the two characters are in what it means to be 20 years old in 1969.

In a red convertible Buick Skylark, Miller and Maureena, two college drop-outs from Omaha, Nebraska, escape the sterility of the Great Plains landscape and their respective families for California, where the protest movement reveals an intensity both attempt to honor and celebrate. The story is Miller’s, told in reflective hindsight, in which Maureena appears tangibly and unforgettably as the pivotal force in his life. Both live among shadows in the shapes of Miller’s dead father and the supposed death of Maureena’s amorphous and hyperbolic “twin.” The complexity of their mutual attachment reaches a disturbing and poetic climax in the novel’s early chapters when the two slowly make love in the Skylark with the motor running and the garage door closed. “We were trying to kill ourselves. And trying to make love. And we weren’t sure which to do first. So we managed to do neither.” From its beginnings, the novel imbues the question of “[w]hich came first, death or its imagination?”

The question of grief and death lingers throughout the novel, allowing us to focus on the individual struggles of Miller and Maureena. Unlike many novels that characterize the fraudulence of the Vietnam War with depictions of angry SDS leaders along with the token student protests, Clay Center avoids the empty structuralism of Vietnam literature that often makes the question of aesthetic value parenthetical. The objective beauty of Miller and Maureena’s relationship and the ease of Condon’s prose give meaning to the historical situation, and not the other way around:

“Numbered wars, buried friends, alphabet bombs, broken-down fathers, remote-control death threats—Miller could see it all as a kind of weather, as extreme and unpredictable as the rest of the weather in the central plains of North America. All he and Maureena were supposed to do was buy a tract home on the edge of town and make the payments and water the lawn and wait for the atomic tornado. That’s all. If it came, there’d be sirens. Someone would warn them. Someone had a stake in their survival. But did they?”

Beyond death and the grief that accompanies it, another pervasive theme is the alienation implicit in any age that forces a rapid altering of its cultural backdrop. Like any good writer, Condon has inscribed himself on the spiritual map of his time. Miller and Maureena exist in that malleable earthen center where the idyllic image of their lives seems a far cry from the duplicity of the American Dream. Gradually though, they come to realize that there exists little capable of changing the image of who they are, lodged somewhere in the Supreme Court of human interactions; that the image held of us by others (though it often bears no resemblance to the reality) holds much more weight. The tumultuous action of the drama unfolds in such a way that Miller is left painfully cognizant that our actual selves often walk in the shadows of images held by others.

With an honesty that echoes throughout the novel, Clay Center, winner of The Faulkner Society of New Orleans Award, begins with a dedication “for two voices long still.” The man and young woman named bear resemblance to Miller’s father and the character of Maureena. The dedication, though, with its honesty and simple expression, does not invite us further into the life of Condon. In a well known metaphor, the novelist demolishes the house of his life and uses its bricks to construct another house: that of his novel. Faulkner himself wished “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” The quiet mention of friends from the past simply adds to the deeply reflective tone of the novel, rendering its beauty that much more fully and poetically. The repetition of the very real individuals of one’s own life into the characters of a novel becomes a kind of litany in the reflective passages of a novel like Clay Center. Inside these passages, writers like Condon are clearly at home, inviting us in while they play with recollections of a time that no longer is. Here, we abandon ourselves to their sweet and sad vertigo. To force the question of what is memoir or not would be to unmake what Condon has presumably built out of memories.

Clay Center explores the retreat from the core of human existence and interaction. It takes so infinitely little for a person to find himself outside of that center, where everything—love, convictions, ideals, history—no longer holds meaning. For Miller Silas, that descent is as memorable for its very tangible depiction of the most turbulent time in our last century as it is for its ghostly rendering of the most intimate of human relationships.

arts@missoulanews.com

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