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  • Written by Larry Watson
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Sundown, Yellow Moon

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A Novel

Written by Larry WatsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Larry Watson

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On Sale: November 11, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-819-5
Published by : Random House Trade Paperbacks Random House Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

On an icy day in January 1961, in Bismarck, North Dakota, a sixteen-year-old boy walks home from high school with his best friend, Gene. The sudden sound of sirens startles and excites them, but they don’t have long to wonder what the sound could mean. Soon after seeing police cars parked on their street, the boys learn the shocking truth: hours before, Gene’s father, Raymond Stoddard, walked calmly and purposefully into the state capitol and shot to death a charismatic state senator. Raymond then drove home and hanged himself in his garage.

The horrific murder and suicide leave the community reeling. Speculation about Raymond’s motives run rampant. Political scandal, workplace corruption, financial ruin, adultery, and jealousy are all cited as possible catalysts. But in the end, the truth behind the day’s events died with those two men. And for Gene and his friend, the tragedy is a turning point, both in their lives and in their friendship.

Nearly forty years later, Gene’s friend, a writer, revisits the tragedy and tries to unravel the mystery behind one man’s inexplicable actions. Through his own recollections and his fiction–sometimes impossible to separate–he attempts to make sense of a senseless act and, in the process, to examine his youth, his friendship with Gene, and the love they both had for a beautiful girl named Marie.

Spare, haunting, lyrical, Sundown, Yellow Moon is a piercing study of love and betrayal, grief and desire, youth and remembrance. Using a brilliant, evocative fiction-within-fiction structure, Larry Watson not only brings to life a distinct period in history but, most affectingly, reveals the interplay of memory, secrets, and the passage of time.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter 1
 Although I have devoted much of my life to writing stories, they are all, I have come to realize, part of a single story that has shifted and swelled over time but never strayed far from my core. I will call its beginning the January day when I was sixteen years old and walking home from school with my best friend, Gene Stoddard. We heard sirens, but we couldn’t see where they were coming from. Their combined howl, however, was so close that we believed police cars or fire trucks, and an ambulance, had to be nearby. We ran toward the sound, hoping to catch a glimpse of the vehicles and perhaps discern their destination. When we came to the Will-Moore Elementary School playground, its new snow packed and rutted to bare ground in places from the boots of hundreds of children, we saw a police cruiser and an ambulance speeding up Fourth Street. Those were the last vehicles in the procession. It was obvious we’d get no closer to them and their mystery, so we stopped, our heaving, slowing breaths fogging the frigid air. Gene and I both lived a few blocks away on Keogh Street. (Our street was in a fairly new section of Bismarck, North Dakota, and the developer’s wife, a student of history, had arranged to have some of the street names in that part of town named for the officers—Keogh, Yates, Cooke, Reno—in Custer’s command when Custer and the Seventh Cavalry left Fort Abraham Lincoln, just west of Bismarck, on their ill-fated campaign that ended at Little Bighorn.) For all of our school years Gene and I had walked to and from school in each other’s company. Recently, however, that had begun to change. We had a couple friends with cars, and one of them usually picked Gene and me up in the morning. They were both on the basketball team, however, and practices meant they stayed later at school. Also, Gene had started going steady with a sophomore girl, Marie Ryan, and he was often with her after school, but on that day she was in rehearsal for a choir concert. So we were walking together again, and we’d planned to go to his house or mine. We had to memorize the dagger speech from Macbeth for Miss Cordell’s English class, and we needed to work on our recitations. For a moment we were tempted to take a detour in an attempt to find where all those sirens were going. Their wailing seemed to have stopped, and not far away. Could they be at one of the stores at the shopping center on Third Street? At the state capitol, only a few blocks north of us on Fourth Street? Or could they have been going to a private home on one of the residential streets or avenues that surrounded us? Perhaps if we had not had that homework assignment, or if it had not been so cold—the snow underfoot squeaked when we shifted our weight—or if one of us had been allowed the use of the family car, we might have followed the trail of undulating sound that still hung in the crystalline winter air. But we did not. We turned up the collars of our wool overcoats (although this fashion would reverse itself before the decade was out, in 1961 teenagers imitated the attire of adults), pulled our stocking caps down to our eyebrows, hunched our shoulders to our necks, and moved on. Would it have mattered if we had not trudged immediately homeward? It would not. Sirens sound when deeds are done. We went to Gene’s home because it was closer, by four houses, and when we entered, we were surprised to find Gene’s father home. He was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, and wearing his hat and overcoat. Is it only hindsight that makes me want to say he looked gray, drawn? Cold of course leaches color from as many cheeks as it fills. “Where’s your mother?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure she works at the church library on Wednesdays.” Gene’s father—Raymond—nodded gravely. “Wednesday. That’s right. It’s Wednesday.” My discomfort grew. Raymond Stoddard was a somber, reserved man by nature, but he wasn’t usually tensely grim, as he appeared to be at that moment. That he wasn’t aware of Mrs. Stoddard’s schedule, something that the women in the other houses up and down the block would certainly know, struck me as unusual, but no more so than the fact that a seemingly healthy male was home before five o’clock. He hadn’t taken off his hat and coat, and he hadn’t greeted me in any way. And I knew from hearing my parents talk that Mr. Stoddard had once lost a job because of his drinking. I’d be willing to concede that my entire sense of unease might not have been true of the moment but was added only with the aid of hindsight, except for this fact: I didn’t remain at the Stoddards’ that day. Before I removed my own cap and coat, I made up an excuse and told Gene I couldn’t stay. Later that evening, we decided, we’d get together and practice the dagger speech on each other. At our house nothing suggested anything but the ordinary. My mother was in the kitchen moving from refrigerator to sink to cupboard to stove, preparing the evening meal and pausing only to take a drag from the Viceroy burning in the ashtray on the kitchen table. My sister, younger than me by eight years, sat on the living room floor watching cartoons and eating some kind of sweet that had already made her heavy for her age and that would lead to lifelong unhappiness over her weight. All was as it should be. The furnace was running, its constant exhalation heating the house until the insides of the windows perspired and the kitchen’s cooking smells drifted all the way to the bedrooms and back again. Warmth, food, family—it was a scene of reassuring comfort, and although I might have felt it as such, nothing about it registered itself as rare, and that I took it for granted only testifies to how few interiors I knew well. “Do you know what those sirens were about?” I asked my mother. “I was going to ask you the same thing.” “Gene and I saw an ambulance and a cop car going up Fourth Street, but there had to be more than just those two.” “Police car,” she corrected. “And two went past on Divide, too.” “Going east?” “Going east.” “There wasn’t anything on the radio?” My mother had a radio on in the kitchen from early morning until night. “Haven’t heard a thing.” “Well, if you hear anything from my room, it’s me. We have to memorize this Shakespeare speech for English, and the only way I can get it is to keep saying it out loud.” “Let me know if you want me to test you.” I went off to my room and behind its closed door paced back and forth and recited Macbeth’s words: Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight? or art thou but A dagger of the mind, a false creation, Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? I see thee yet, in form as palpable As this which now I draw. To this day I remember the soliloquy, although I’ve had no occasion to repeat those lines. That they’re sealed in my memory makes me believe that disaster has the power to cast not only every attendant fact in the sharpest relief but collateral details as well. Over the sound of my own voice I soon heard sirens again, though faintly at first. Because of what we had witnessed earlier, I stopped speaking and listened carefully. Their wail traveled so easily to my ears it seemed as though I could map their movement in the air—up Fourth Street again, west on Divide Avenue, closer, closer, until they were right there. I jumped to my window in time to see one police car and then another slide around the corner and career down our street. Their lights sliced through the early evening dusk and tinged the snowbanks and the houses on the block a pale, pulsing red. That same light found its way into our home, its presence a violation. In other parts of the city did they hear the sirens and calculate that they came from our block? I ran to the living room, from whose windows I could see farther down the street. I didn’t have to look far. Both cruisers pulled awkwardly to the curb in front of . . . the Stoddards’? Was that possible? Even more improbable was the car already parked there. In the driveway, right behind Raymond Stoddard’s dark blue Ford Galaxie was an emerald-green Nash Rambler. If anyone in town owned a Nash in that same color other than my father, I didn’t know about it. Surely there had been other moments in my life when I had been immobilized by conflicting impulses, but that was the first time I was aware of it. I was caught between the desire to flee back into the interior of our house, back to where those lights couldn’t touch me or those sirens reach me, and a wish to run in the other direction—out of the house, across the drifted lawns and the snow-packed street, and down the block to where the real invasion was taking place, to my best friend’s house. But perhaps it was confusion that truly paralyzed me. Dad’s car? In recalling the events of that and subsequent days, I’m sometimes unsure about chronology, about what occurred before or after. In part, that uncertainty is a consequence of how I’ve learned about the events—often in fragments—and my own version of what happened is a patchwork (although no less accurate for that). Scenes and realizations have been stitched together, sometimes overlapping one another, as I have made, and occasionally revised, my discoveries over time. About the order of days and hours I’m generally confident, but occasionally the seconds or minutes jump ahead or behind one another. For example, I have the impression that my mother came to the window too, and as she was looking over my shoulder, I asked her why Dad’s car was there, but before she could answer me, the phone rang and she ran to pick it up. After a brief conversation, she came back to the window and said, “That was your father. He said neither you nor your sister is to go outside. Do you hear? You’re to stay in the house.” But in truth, the phone had already rung, and my mother had talked to my father for a few minutes, long enough for him to give her a brief account of why he was at the Stoddards’ and why the police would be there soon. True, he told my mother to keep my sister and me in the house, but his real concern was that neither of us go anywhere near the Stoddards’, no matter how hard the obligations of friendship or the temptations of curiosity tried to move us out the door. He had instructed my mother to stay home as well, or at least until he phoned again or until she saw Mrs. Stoddard return home, and then she was to come running. I could continue to withhold information, revealing it only in slivers and shards, and in that way try to duplicate in these pages the suspense that I lived through that night, and in the process induce in you the apprehension and uncertainty that I felt, but while that might be effective narrative strategy, it would not be entirely true to the situation. I don’t recall exactly how or when I came to know what had happened in our city and our neighborhood, because to this day I am still augmenting the story, though more now with human understanding than with factual details. Nevertheless, when I finally went to bed, it was with sufficient knowledge—sufficient but incomplete—to allow me to fall asleep without being totally bedeviled by questions. This much I knew: True to one of Gene and my guesses, those sirens had been heading toward the state capitol, only a few blocks from our homes on Keogh Street. I had been in and out of the capitol building so often over the years—on my own or with school groups, with relatives and friends who came to visit—that I knew its architecture and floor plan almost as well as I knew my school’s, the public library’s, or the civic auditorium’s. I had no difficulty picturing the setting for the afternoon’s incident. In the capitol, both the senate and the house were in the legislative wing, an impressive high-ceilinged, wood-paneled, art-deco-inspired hall. Right outside the legislative chambers were upholstered banquettes, intended no doubt as places where the senators and representatives could meet, during session breaks, with lobbyists and constituents. In January 1961, the legislature was in session (worth noting because to this day North Dakota’s senate and house convene only every other year), and during a recess Monty Burnham, a popular, charismatic senator from Wembley, in Cleave County in the north central part of the state, sat on one of those padded benches in the hall. At Senator Burnham’s side was John Ritterbush, a Fargo attorney. While the two men conferred, a lean, swarthy man approached them, reached into his overcoat pocket, and brought out a pistol. Without discussion or warning, he fired at Senator Burnham. The bullet struck the senator in the chest. Burnham tried to rise from the bench, but failed and slid to the marble floor. While he lay there, the gunman shot him again. This bullet went through Monty Burnham’s throat. Ritterbush was not a target, but he was injured slightly when a fragment of either lead or stone struck him in the cheek. The senator’s wounds were mortal, and while he lay dying on the floor of the capitol’s Great Hall, the gunman calmly walked away, exiting the building through a revolving door on the south side of the building. The fact that a weapon was in his possession may have kept anyone from trying to detain him. There were many witnesses to the shooting and its immediate aftermath, and in spite of the inevitable confusion and panic, it was not long before someone volunteered an identification of the man in the overcoat. He was recognized as an employee of the North Dakota Department of Accounts and Purchases, whose offices were on the sixth floor of the capitol. His name was Raymond Stoddard. Considering the span between the time when the shooting occurred and when Gene and I saw his father, Mr. Stoddard must have driven directly home after leaving the capitol.


From the Hardcover edition.
Larry Watson|Author Q&A

About Larry Watson

Larry Watson - Sundown, Yellow Moon
Larry Watson is the author of In a Dark Time, Montana 1948, Justice, White Crosses, Laura, and Orchard. He has won the Milkweed Fiction Prize, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Regional Award, and numerous other literary prizes. He lives with his wife in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH LARRY WATSON

Random House Reader’s Circle: You tell the story through a timid and unnamed narrator. Was he modeled after anyone? At times he is likeable, yet ultimately he betrays his best friend. What relationship did you have with the narrator while writing? How do you think the reader should react to his actions?

Larry Watson: I’m strongly tempted to duck this question, because the narrator–timid and traitorous, as the question suggests–is based on me. We grew up in similar neighborhoods in Bismarck, North Dakota. We both lived within view of the state capitol building, and in childhood came to know that distinctive structure well. We both graduated from Bismarck High School. (He’s from the class of 1963; I’m from 1965.) We both attended the University of North Dakota, and we both became fiction writers. Each of us in adolescence fell in love with a girl who had been dating our best friend. In fact, the narrator is one of two characters in the novel with a real-life counterpart. Anyone who knew my wife, Susan, when she was younger (or, for that matter, who knows her now) will almost certainly identify her as the model for Marie Ryan. I seldom base my characters so closely on people from life, but these two characters in Sundown, Yellow Moon are exceptions.

I suppose I could console myself because the question also applies the word “likeable” to the narrator, but I’ve already read reviews, met with book clubs, and heard from readers who have said they find the narrator unlikeable. I can live with those opinions, and I understand why readers respond to the narrator in that way. He lives too much in his head and too much in the past. He is calculating and self-absorbed. But he is also punished for his failings. The man who looks back on his life and tells this story–these stories–is haunted and anguished. I, of course, escaped his unhappy condition. I never broke up with my Marie Ryan; my wife and I have been happily married for more than forty years. There are other essential differences. I never had a neighbor who was an assassin and committed suicide, or had a friend who was a murderer’s son, and no matter the extent to which fictional characters might be based on real people, they can’t be the same people when their experiences are different.

This is a long way of saying that the narrator is and isn’t me. Even when a writer works from the actual, the very act of writing produces an aesthetic and an emotional distance that guarantees the written version will differ from its real-life analogue. The narrator and I also share a reverence for the writer William Maxwell who wrote in So Long, See You Tomorrow that “in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.” That strikes me as a little strong, since “lie” to me suggests an intent to deceive. It would be more accurate, in my view, to say that our memory always lies to us. But then fiction is a lie to get at the truth.

RHRC: The entire town of Bismarck, North Dakota, becomes obsessed with Raymond’s murder and suicide and, of course, his motives. You grew up in Bismarck. Was it how you portrayed it in the book? Was there an instance in your youth that inspired this story? What is it about this landscape that you wanted to bring to the reader?

LW: The correlation between the Bismarck of the novel and the “real” Bismarck is similar to the correlation between the narrator and me. I wrote about a place that resembled a real place but whose true existence was in my imagination. For the purposes of the novel I altered a few facts about the city, and I’m sure my memory altered others. Nevertheless, the real Bismarck of the early 1960s was, I believe, comparable to the Bismarck of the novel in that they were both fairly conservative, largely middle class, and somewhat repressed homogeneous communities, removed in many respects from the rest of the nation by climate and geography. One of the ironies of the novel is that Bismarck is brought out of its isolation and anonymity by an act of violence. There have been, unfortunately, too many real-life instances of communities made famous, however briefly, by the violence that has occurred within their borders. In that regard, it should be noted that Sundown, Yellow Moon takes place not only in a small city on the northern plains but also in America. From the political assassinations of the 1960s to last year’s insane slaughter on the Virginia Tech campus, Americans have had event after gruesome, grievous event that have forced us to ask again and again who we are as a people and why we live in such a culture of violence.

RHRC: First loves, first lovers, childhood friendships, and people’s past relationships are big themes in this book. How do you think each relationship affects the next? Which relationship in the story was primary for you? Which one did you feel contained the crux of the story?

LW: I do believe in the power and durability of first love, but whether that early relationship lasts, as my wife’s and mine has, or doesn’t, it’s still capable of forming a template that many people apply to subsequent relationships. These people spend a good part of their lives seeking to find a partner with whom they can recapture the passion, purity, and intensity of a youthful love affair. This is the predicament of the narrator of Sundown, Yellow Moon. Because of that, I regard his relationship with Marie Ryan as the crux of the story. To the end of his days the narrator will long for something he once had but can never have again. And he knows it.

RHRC: Raymond Stoddard’s motives for the murder of Monty Burnham and his suicide are never revealed. Do you believe there is a single motive? Did you write it with a clear answer in mind? The protagonist seems to believe it was jealousy. Do you agree? Do crimes always need motives?

LW: I didn’t write Sundown, Yellow Moon with an answer in mind as to Raymond Stoddard’s motive. I never doubted that he would have one, or more than one, but the desire to know what is ultimately unknowable–what was going on Raymond Stoddard’s heart and mind–obsesses not just the narrator but other characters in the novel.

Jealousy is plausible as a motive, but of course, the narrator is drawn to that as an explanation because he himself is prone to jealousy. I had hoped that one of the ways readers would participate in the novel would be through examining their own personalities and by speculating on how that examination would lead them toward certain explanations. But it would be a brave, introspective reader willing to do that.

Yes, I believe that crimes always have motives, no matter how irrational, crazed, twisted, or inadequate they may be.

RHRC: Sundown, Yellow Moon contains many short stories written by the protagonist, who is a writer himself. How did you come up with the idea?

LW: Almost immediately after the murder and suicide, the narrator struggles to comprehend what has happened. Such acts are beyond puzzling; they’re inexplicable. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to understand and explain them. Reason won’t provide answers, so the narrator tries to imagine his way into lives that are otherwise closed to him. At first this activity takes place only in his mind, but that signals the beginning of his life as a writer. It made sense to me that he would continue to do that throughout his life, though, as for any artist, at some point the aesthetic demands of making a good art object–a short story, in this case–takes precedence over the personal stimulus that initially moved him toward making that object in the first place. Artists are, in my opinion, people finally more interested in making than knowing. The narrator of Sundown, Yellow Moon has a dramatic past that provides him with all the raw material he needs for a lifetime of stories. I thought that, by including his stories in the text, readers would be able to see how his imaginative mind works. Do we know him any better through reading those stories? I believe we do.

RHRC: When you began writing this story, what were you hoping to accomplish? What did you want to find out or share with your readers? You also speak directly to the reader. What did you set out to accomplish with this technique?

LW: I could never be classified as a postmodernist, fabulist, or metafictionist, but anyone who writes fiction as long as I have is bound to notice some self-consciousness about the practice creeping into his thoughts. And while I’m dug in too deeply in the realist trenches (and am too devoted to story) to write a novel that is entirely a self-reflexive riff on the nature of narrative, I am interested in conducting fictional experiments and in attempting to see whether I can challenge the borders of fiction–without losing readers in the process, of course. In Orchard I tried a nonchronological form. And in Sundown, Yellow Moon I tried to address some fundamental questions about stories, such questions as Where do stories come from? Why do humans need them? What uses do we make of stories? How do fictional truths differ from other varieties? What is the relationship between memory and imagination? So in the writing of Sundown, Yellow Moon I was aware that I was a writer remembering and imagining his past and in the process writing about a writer remembering and imagining his past. But I didn’t want this to be an exercise in academic theorizing or in navel-gazing; I wanted, as I always want, a story that would engage, entertain, and move readers, and in the process provoke some thought. Addressing readers directly was a way, I hoped, to indicate that they and I were in this together.

RHRC: Do you have a writing routine or any rituals surrounding your work? How long was it after you first had the idea for this story before you started writing it?

LW: I don’t have routines or rituals that must be followed–no necessity for twenty sharpened pencils or a pot of Earl Grey tea. I can work in any place and at any time as long as I have the materials at hand. But I do make sure that I work on a novel– producing new material, not just reworking old–every day. I will probably also make a journal entry, and I might work on a poem, an essay, or a short story. But I must work on a novel every day without fail. I began writing Sundown, Yellow Moon almost as soon as the idea came to me.

RHRC: What are you working on now?

LW: I’ve been working on a novel set, once again, in the early 1960s, and for this novel, whose working title is The Doctor’s Boys, I’ve returned to Montana. A teenage boy has become infatuated with a woman a few years older than he. In pursuing her, he finds himself in competition with a charismatic, powerful man, a doctor in the community.

Praise

Praise

“Watson succeeds impressively, especially in deepening our understanding of first love.”
–Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

“A marvelous evocation of a time and place and of high school existence when it was considerably less ferocious than it is today . . . [Sundown, Yellow Moon] twitches aside the curtain to reveal the menace and mendacity lurking behind placid and mundane lives.”
–Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[An] oddly heartbreaking story: allowed to run amok, the past becomes a monster capable of devouring the present.”
–Booklist
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What does Sundown, Yellow Moon say about the nature, source, and durability of young love?

2. Of the available possible explanations for Raymond Stoddard’s actions, which do you favor and why?

3. Each character seems to favor a particular explanation. What does that preference reveal about his or her character?

4. Does the explanation you favor reveal something about your character and experience?

5. The narrator writes stories to explain and understand what happened in his neighborhood. Is that a universal human response, or does it stem from his personal nature?

6. Does Sundown, Yellow Moon say that storytelling is a basic human impulse?

7. The narrator doesn’t emerge as an entirely likable character. Why? Is he made less than sympathetic because of what he says and does, or because of what he thinks and feels? Or because of what he writes?

8. What does Sundown, Yellow Moon say about the nature of memory? Of memory and imagination?

9. In some respects, the narrator is stuck in the past. What prevents him from living in the present?

10. How is the setting, both the time and the place, important to the action in the novel?

11. Because of the many stories within stories, it’s not always possible to determine what “really happened” in the narrative. How does that uncertainty figure in the novel’s themes?

12. If you knew the narrator based only on the stories he’s written, would you characterize him in the same way you would based on his behavior, speech, thoughts, and emotions?

13. Do you have a favorite character?

14. There have been many assassinations and attempted assassinations of politicians in the United States. How does this novel comment on the social, psychological, and cultural response to such events?

15. What does Sundown, Yellow Moon say about violence in America?


  • Sundown, Yellow Moon by Larry Watson
  • November 11, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Historical
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $15.00
  • 9780375758539

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