Research Notes · 07/12/2013

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Eric Barnes writes about Something Pretty, Something Beautiful (Outpost 19).

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Drinking Beer on Pacific Ave

When I was a kid growing up in Tacoma, the city’s strip of adult bookstores and triple-X movie theaters and dive bars and prostitutes was located along Pacific Ave. We’d drive along the strip a few times a month when I was little, given that, back then, it was located right in the middle of downtown.

I don’t do research for my books. Instead, for me, moments of riding in the back of a car along what we as kids called Pac Ave, that was my research.

There’s one scene on Pac Ave in my new novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful. And in part because I don’t do research — and in part because there’s a need in most us, I think, to forget or alter the most painful memories from our childhoods — I can’t quite remember how much of the scene is true.

In the scene, the narrator and his friend Will Wilson are kids, riding in the backseat of Will Wilson’s step-dad’s car with a girl, Jodi, who lives with the family. Will Wilson’s mother is in the passenger seat and the step-dad is driving along Pac Ave. When the step-dad stops at a red light, he begins telling everyone else in the car about how much fun the hookers on Pac Ave are. He’s drinking a beer while he drives, the can wedged between his thighs, and he talks in a way that he thinks he’s holding court. The wife says nothing. And the narrator and Will Wilson are hardly listening, because they’re looking at one of the step-dad’s porn magazines in the back seat.

Only Jodi responds, beginning to joke about the step-dad, which interferes with his holding court over everyone else. Jodi is ignoring him, which begins to infuriate the step-dad, until he starts reaching into the back seat and flicking her in the head. Jodi doesn’t stop talking, though, which angers the step-dad even more. He makes her shove her own head into the gap between the front seats, where he can flick her more easily. But, still, she doesn’t stop.

It gets worse. Both the step-dad’s reaction to Jodi and his fantasies about the prostitutes, all of which are shared with everyone in the car. It all gets much worse.

When I first wrote that scene back in the early 1990s as part of a very bad novel that thankfully was never published, my friend Andrew Cozine called it one of the most disturbing scenes he had ever read. This meant a lot to me, because Andrew had read a great deal of very disturbing fiction and he wrote very excellent, very disturbing fiction himself.

The scene is a relatively short part of the book, just two and half pages. The step-father is barely mentioned again in the novel, although Jodi does appear again and Will Wilson is a main character in the book. Still, in many ways, the step-father in that scene sets the tone for the entire book, a book that is certainly fiction, but which is obviously influenced by many very strange and disturbing events I witnessed as a child.

In real life, here’s what I do know. I know that when we were very little, my brother and I, probably 7 and 9 years old, were riding in a car with one of my uncles who was very, very angry with his 9-year-old step-daughter, my cousin, who I’ll call Amy. There was a great deal of yelling as he drove. He was enraged.

I can’t remember what had made him so angry. But I can remember that he was drinking a can of beer that he kept between his thighs.

I know that my aunt was in the passenger seat and although I don’t remember her saying anything, it’s possible she was talking or even yelling at my uncle. I just can’t hear the sound of her voice.

I do remember my cousin Amy refusing to be quiet and my uncle screaming at her, reaching wildly into the back seat as he drove, flicking Amy every time she said anything. I remember he finally made Amy shove her head into the space between the two front bucket seats. Every time she spoke, he flicked her.

She kept speaking. He kept flicking her.

I don’t remember if we were driving down Pac Ave that day.

I’m quite certain there were no porn magazines in the car, although we found some in his garage a different day.

Will Wilson is not based on my brother.

Jodi, and what happens to her later in the book, is not based on my cousin.

And so what sort of research have I done?

I wrote Something Pretty, Something Beautiful over many years, some of the novel written as short stories, some of it as part of that very bad novel I thankfully never sent out, and most of it written as part of the book that’s now been published.

But because I have re-written so many of these different scenes so many times over so many years — and because, quite honestly, there are many things from my childhood that I don’t want to remember — I’ve lost track of whether certain things in the novel really did happen. Because I’ve lived these episodes in my mind for so long, and because many of the episodes were based on events from my life or from the lives of people I grew up with, there’s a blurring that’s taken place.

I’m relatively comfortable living in that blurred space.

I know that some writers — and certainly some readers — would want to find out how much of the Pac Ave scene, and other scenes in the book, are true, not least of which because the book in many ways reads like a memoir. Or a confession.

The book seems very, very real.

And so reading the book, or even reading this essay, I understand if a reader now wants to know if if all three of my uncle’s children and step-children were in the car. I know that some people want to know if Pac Ave was two blocks long or three. They want to know what Amy’s mom did or didn’t do to stop what was happening to her daughter.

They want to know why my uncle was so very, very angry.

But, for me, in terms of the book, none of that matters. The scene itself has gained a kind of truth in my mind and in my memories. A truth that transcends my real life.

Because the reality of the things that happened and the reality of the book are all deeply, terribly, horribly sad.

All of it happened. All of it could have happened. So does it matter what was real?

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Eric Barnes is the author of the novel Shimmer (Unbridled Books), an IndieNext selection praised for its “sheen of elegance and terror.” He has published short stories in numerous journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Literary Review, Best American Mystery Stories, among others. He lives in Memphis with his wife and their four children.