I LEARNED A HARD LESSON reading Alan Gottlieb’s novel, Ultimate Excursions. I saw all too clearly the sand trap one can land in myself included when writing from autobiographical material, no matter how fictionalized the story may be, when the plot revolves around resolving a trauma in one’s past.
Gottlieb’s protagonist, Tim Lake, suffers from a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder brought on by an event that occurred during his service in the Peace Corps; while on vacation in Peru with a fellow Volunteer, Tim witnessed his traveling companion’s death by overdose, after which, he became complicit in a cover-up by an in-country Peace Corps official. The novel begins with a graphic depiction of the death and its aftermath. The narrative that follows is the tale of Tim’s trials along his path toward absolution for his guilt and redemption in the eyes of his fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Gottlieb has written a page-turner. The emotion beneath the surface of the prose is palpable, and such a journey is particularly compelling for those of us who suffer our own guilt about ethical and personal failings during our Peace Corps service. His depiction of PTSD is remorselessly accurate the depression, numbness, lethargy, rage, flashbacks, and self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Gottlieb, a long-time newspaper reporter, has used his journalistic skills to create indelible characters, in particular a young African American man named Eugene who works in the mailroom of the Standard Bearer, the New Haven newspaper where Tim lands a reporting job. Tim becomes Eugene’s mentor and friend. Gottlieb’s depiction of Tim’s dinner at Eugene’s housing project apartment is a stunner a masterful balance of compassion, pathos, and humor. The relationship with Eugene is also wonderful up until the moment when Gottlieb takes a fatal turn and has Tim betray Eugene in such a ruthless way that I’m afraid he lost this reader’s sympathy for the rest of the book.
And herein lies the rub. Another aspect of PTSD is self-involvement and self-indulgence. The infuriating narcissism is more palatable and remediable in real life when you’re dealing with the whole person, often someone you love, but when writing a character and particularly when choosing the first person as your means, it’s very hard to find the balance that will keep the reader from growing impatient with the character, and unfortunately, by extension with the author. I’m sorry to say this is what happens in the course of reading Ultimate Excursions.
To Gottlieb’s credit, by the end of the book, he lets on that he understands this problem, in particular, the reader’s impatience with Tim and his mishegoss. Speaking of the discrepancy between his characters distress and the seeming insignificance of his trauma, he says in Tim’s words:
From a decade’s distance, it had a tinny sound small and insignificant and unworthy of the attention it had drawn. A young guy died a stupid death, I witnessed it. I contributed to it in my panic. A mid-level bureaucrat decided to cover his ass by concealing the truth of the matter. Happens all the time. Deal with it. Get on with your life. Sounds easy. Except the image of Mark’s purple face, the sound of his arms snapping against the bedside table and, most of all, my paralysis still possessed the power to wake me in the dead of night in a cold sweat. That wasn’t going to get better. His death haunted and orphaned me, all at once.
I leave you with that nice piece of Gottlieb’s writing and with the recommendation that you read his book whether you’re an old hand at fiction or a beginning writer. His mistakes are a lesson we can all learn from and his apparent talent for transforming journalistic material into the stuff of fictional place and character is something I for one will want to keep a watch on.
Marnie Mueller is the author of Green Fires, which won the 1995 Maria Thomas Fiction Award and an American Book Award. Her other novels are The Climate of the Country and My Mother’s Island, The latter has been optioned for a feature film, the screenplay of which, she has signed on to write. She has recently completed a new novel, Don’t Think Twice.