It took me a few decades to write and rewrite the novel Diving for Carlos. It began as part of a novella about a priest, begun in New York City, in 1963 or ‘64. And then it became a screenplay written for the director Steve Carnovsky—we met and discussed it often during the 1965 season at Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where we both worked—he as assistant stage manager, I as an actor. The screenplay was about a gang of high school kids and a priest. At the time most teenage films seemed phony to me, they lacked realism. (This was before some of the great ones came out.) So was attempting to present a more life-like story about young people, their language and feelings, attitudes and troubles. A stolen car played a part in that early version. I had gotten into trouble as a freshman in high school when a group of us stole a car one night after a football game and the police eventually discovered who we were and we all got hauled into the police station. That experience was crucial. As a screenplay the story already had natural dialogue reflecting Midwest speech.
It was leaving my hometown, Rock Island, Illinois, and living in New York City that first made me aware of the distinctive language, slang, jokes and spirit of Midwest teenagers. The spoken language of a patch of earth can be a very distinctive and colorful part of the culture, and a rich material to use in telling stories. For better or for worse, I saw what a master like Mark Twain could do with the vernacular and Midwest humor, and have used it to the hilt in my fiction.
While I was writing Diving for Carlos, after reconceiving it as a novel, and then while rewriting it a few times, I returned to visit many places around the area in the Quad-Cities where I grew up. I went to the Chippianuk graveyard in Rock Island, to the Mississippi River where the centennial bridge links Rock Island to Davenport, Iowa, and to the Rock Island Arsenal. I also looked around my old high school and the downtown of Rock Island, once a great river town, now a shell of its former self, and revisited the great stone-and-timbers WPA building at Black Hawk State Park on Rock River, where as an adolescent friends and I spent time in the “Rumpus Room.”
Ethnic backgrounds were attracting my attention, especially after I spent some years on the Lower East Side in the ‘60s and six months in India in 1970-71. The Mexican American culture of the Quad-Cities was colorful and intriguing, more than I had realized as a teenager. I sometimes went to Hero Street in Silvis, climbing the steep hill where Mexican American recruits had fun before shipping out. And I mosied around, following the poetically named Honey Creek, and hung out, imagining life there, soaking up the atmosphere at different seasons. And I read everything I could find about the families who lived there, and studied the Hero Street documentary narrated by Martin Sheen, too. I immerse myself in places and people as much as I can before writing about them. Then I find them in myself.
A community of Mexican-American Workers had begun growing in Bettendorf before I was born, near the place where the work was—a Foundry. And some of the people living there worked picking crops, too. But the Mexican-American neighborhood I wanted to learn about was in Silvis, by the railroad yards, so I went there each time I returned to the area to visit my family. Each visit I saw new features in the memorial park there—an old army tank, decorated with Christmas lights during the Christmas season, a stylized Aztec design hillside, a memorial plaque dedicated to generations of Chicano veterans. My mother sent me newspaper articles about happenings there too, including the local endeavors to raise money for a memorial monument. Mexican-American food, clothes, worship, language and folklore fascinated me. The faces and personalities were not the kinds usually seen on TV. I dreamed about celebrations there, and encounters with people from the past. I talked with Mexican-Americans to absorb their ideas, attitudes and ethos.
Maybe, as one American Studies scholar said, the Vietnam Wall is the key document of the whole generation of Americans in which I find myself. Because the narrator of my novel is a Viet Nam vet, I wanted to entertain that possibility seriously. I visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington. A replica of the Vietnam wall memorial was set up for a while in the park on Hero Street. I put the narrator inside that plywood replica toward the last part of the novel, crawling all the way from one end to the other, recalling some of the men whose names are on the wall.
I worked on Diving for Carlos off and on for three decades, while working in New York City and in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, while studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and doing research in India. All that time gave me a chance to explore the story’s landscape, so it included research into the local history of the US government buildings on Arsenal Island, and exploring the old Native American story of the Spirit who lived in the cave there at one end of the island. The spirit was said to be taller than a man, and with wide wings. That island was sacred to the Indians, and was a favorite place for youngsters in the tribe to go and spend time together. I still think it’s inspiring and thought-provoking, a place of initiation into the depths of experience. Besides returning a few times to that historical native American site, I also visited many Indian mounds in several Midwest states, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
I got used to sifting through large amounts of material, massive in-depth studies, while doing research at Harvard Law School Library where I had a part time job while writing up my PhD research about a South Indian composer and lyricist. This gave me a sense of delving into large collections of information to find useful bits. A novelist can compile some parts of a story selecting from found data. For example, old folklore about the Mississippi river, data on juvenile delinquency, etc. At first it’s kind of scary to feel like massive materials might overwhelm you. But you survive.
My idea of a great American artist is Bob Dylan, and his work has been a prime influence for almost 50 years. Leslie Silko’s novel Ceremony was also an inspiration. I taught classes at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis for 20 years using that book and admire its superb artistry and Native American expression of life. Surreal satires by Burroughs and Rushdie helped me burlesque the grotesque personalities of our times. Kerouac and Ginsberg were trailblazers in countercultural spontaneity and jazzy language I resonate with.
Gary Snyder predicted that new findings about early human beings would change our ecological viewpoints and our understanding of human identity in the early 21st century, and I thought that possibility was worth pursuing in fiction. And so I did some research in anthropological studies of early human beings, starting with research findings reported in magazines and newspapers, and exploring articles and books and discussions coming out of anthropologists’ debates and ambiguous findings. I was drawn to imagining a certain human being—Lupita, an attractive female person who led me to ways she could play a part. It was as if a figure like “Lucy” our common ancestor of the Rift Valley was an anima figure, a muse—a soulful woman, mysterious, activating my imagination. I just followed her lead.
Also, because the novel includes some discussion and references to the Vietnam war, and the narrator is a veteran of that war, I gathered expressions and impressions from conversations I had with Vietnam Vets, including some who were pals from high school days. Whatever anecdotes and language they used I wrote down, saved like gems. I still hear those words in my memory: “The bullet went in like a dime, came out like a cash register.” “Get that dust-off in here!” “Charley was putting ground glass in the drinking water.” Every phrase seemed so vivid to me. I was also studying Vietnam vets' stories in documentaries on TV, and in books and wherever else I could find soldiers’ experiences and language being represented.
But, as I indicated above, the language of teenagers and kids in their twenties in the late ‘50s early ‘60s Midwest—the idiomatic phrases, the barnyard humor and scatology, especially attracted me. I read Huckleberry Finn and saw what Twain did with midwest vernacular and folklore—Twain made me realize how many colorful sayings, jokes, colloquialisms, etc. were all around me when I was growing up in Illinois. I started collecting the talk I had heard in the Quad Cities, jotting it down as I remembered it and seeking out people who still used it decades later. The farmers had their jokes, and the guys in the poolhall had theirs, full of bravado and clowning. “Lower than whale shit.” “Haven’t had a match since Superman died.” “Third man on a match dies in a whorehouse.” “If I want any shit out of you I’ll squeeze your head!” All the stuff, both printable and censored by the Miss Grundies, people actually say.
I wanted the novel to be a treasury of those everyday sayings I knew from my own experience, as rich as Chaucer or Shakespeare’s fund of English sayings and colorful phrases. In the graveyard scene I tried to compose a funny drunken series of insults spouted by staggering teenage punks cursing each other, using their whole repertoire of put-downs. I knew that to some readers it would seem excessive, but the whole point was to reveal the glory of grotesque images in this hateful yet humorous language, showing these snarling human tomcats clawing each others’ eyes out with funny names, true to the actual way teens talked. Though doing this is forbidden, it shows the imagination of a shadow side of human nature. Of course in 1960 you wouldn’t ever see these things written on a page, or spoken in a movie or on TV. But an authentic work about teenagers yelling at each other would have to include them, harsh and ridiculous and politically incorrect as they might be. Today, some people might take curse words for granted in films and TV, and in magazines and papers. But there are still censors, though they are not always as powerful as they were in 1960.
I also researched Native American trickster stories, the spirit of which came alive in the tricks and teasings of Scoto and Rev, Carlos and Hector, and the wildness of the gang of teenage kids. America has a lot of tricksters, and my novel reflects that. Psychological insights of Jung and Hillman also gave me hints and pushes while I worked on this book. I think this list of backgrounds that went into Diving for Carlos helps make clear how this book is the most daring one I’ve written.
William J. Jackson