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  • Written by Alexander Irvine
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  • Written by Alexander Irvine
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Written by Alexander IrvineAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Alexander Irvine

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On Sale: July 27, 2004
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-47855-9
Published by : Del Rey Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

The story says that one day a Fisher King will rise to heal the land.
In the 1950s, they’re still waiting. . . .

At the turn of the twentieth century, a baseball player named George Gibson embarks upon a mystical journey to the Congo. His mission: to shepherd a powerful relic to its home in Abyssinia. But poet—turned—grail seeker Arthur Rimbaud is after what Gibson possesses–as others before him have been for millennia.
A half-century later, after receiving an honorable discharge from the Korean War, twenty-year-old Lance Porter vows to put his civilian life back together–which means heading to commie-infested Berkeley to see his high school sweetheart, Ellie. But after Lance gets cold feet, he encounters instead a drunk, gay poet named Jack Spicer, who spews crazy stories about Lance being the Fisher King.
It appears that the bearing of the grail has been bequeathed to young Lance, much to his shock and disbelief. Can a legacy born in the deserts of Ethiopia truly be reemerging in the bohemian bars of New York City and San Francisco? And is a vet with a lost soul really worthy of its care?

ALEXANDER C. IRVINE has breathed a refreshing burst of air into the Arthurian legend. In One King, One Soldier, ancient characters and Irvine’s pitch-perfect historical accuracy merge with a gritty, dark portrait of America in the Cold-war ‘50s. Here, three stories come brilliantly together in an edgy mix of baseball, imperialism, poetry, and grail mythology.

Excerpt

LANCE

The first thing the doctor said to Lance Porter was, "March fifth, is that right?"

Lance didn't know what he was talking about.

"When you were wounded."

Wounded. So that was why he felt so shitty. Lance couldn't quite open his eyes all the way, but he tried to get a better look at himself. He was lying down, and his right leg hung from a pulley. Pain tolled like a distant bell in the leg, and in his hip. "What happened?" he asked the doc.

"Mortar shell. The guys at the MASH saved a couple bits of shrapnel for you. Your leg was broken, and there are some pieces missing from your hipbone on that side, but you should be okay. Surgery went well. Your war is over, Corporal Porter."

The MASH. That brought back some memories. Mostly lights, Lance trying to say something and a masked face snapping irritably at someone Lance couldn't see: he's not out yet, for Christ's sake, put him out. And before that, a muddy stream bank. Shaking his head, trying to figure out what had happened.

"Reason I brought up the date is that it's the day Uncle Joe finally cashed in his chips," the doctor said.

The words took a long time to soak through Lance's skull. Uncle Joe. "Stalin?" he said.

"Stalin. Everybody's favorite despot. Had a cerebral hemorrhage, is what they're saying." The doctor flipped sheets of paper on Lance's chart, made notes. "A nurse will be in to see you in an hour or so. She'll top off your morphine if you need it."

"Thanks, Doc," Lance mumbled automatically, and was asleep again before the doctor got to the door.



He awoke to the whistle in his head of the falling shell, and remembered.



Just after dawn, when even the mud and tree stumps of Korea were beautiful. He'd been awake much of the night with a toothache, and had finally given up and climbed to the top of the bunker stairs to watch the sun come up. Mornings looked different, smelled different, when you'd been awake waiting for them, and on this morning Lance felt his spirits lift a bit as the sky brightened. Luke the Gook hadn't sent them any mail overnight, and he never attacked in daylight. All Lance had to do was wait for the morning jitters to pass on both sides, and then he could walk back down the ridge to the CP and get a ride back to have his tooth worked on.

Morning jitters: someone down the line to the east ripped off a long burst from a BAR, just on general principles. A few rifle shots cracked here and there. Across the valley that separated the 2/23rd Infantry from Hill 355, Luke greeted the dawn in his own fashion; Lance ducked back into the bunker as the clacking of a gook machine gun echoed from 355. The bullets didn't hit anything near him. After waiting five minutes for form's sake, Lance put on his helmet. "Sarge, I got a toothache," he said to the platoon sergeant, who was stirring in the corner of the bunker.

"Better take care of it," the sergeant said.

Lance climbed out of the bunker and walked down the back of the ridge, behind the line and away from Luke's Land. The trail switchbacked down the steep incline before following a stream to the CP, and Lance was just coming around a bend when he heard the whistle. Mortar, he had time to think, and then it hit him.

The blast erased all thoughts from his head, and it surprised him to find that he wasn't on the trail anymore. He was lying on his left side on a muddy slope, with his feet in the shallows of the stream. Automatically his hands started looking for his rifle. Rocks, mud, helmet. No rifle.

Pain rose in his leg like the brightening of dawn. He groaned, or thought he did, and realized he was deaf from the blast. And something was in his mouth; he worked it to the tip of his tongue and picked it out. His hand came away bloody, and between thumb and forefinger Lance held a triangular piece of metal about the size of his pinkie fingernail. Now how the hell did that get there? he wondered, probing around in his mouth, and he found a clean hole in his right cheek about two inches back from his front teeth. While looking around he brushed against the sharp stub of his aching molar, and the jolt of pain was much worse than the throb in his leg. I'll be damned, he said, and couldn't hear himself. Luke knocked out my bad tooth for me.

Okay, inventory. Hole in cheek, broken tooth that wasn't any good anyway, ears starting to ring, little stings awakening all up and down his right side . . . oh God.

He hadn't really looked at his leg yet, and when he did the pain rolled over him and he started to scream for real.



Broken, the doctor had said. So casual. Bullshit, Lance thought. Broken was when someone cut you on the football field, you heard a clean snap, the doc set it, and that was that. Lance's leg had been a hell of a lot more than broken. But there it was, apparently whole, encased in plaster and suspended from a pulley. The doc had said something about his hip too, and Lance instinctively reached down to check that his works were all still there. They were. He let out a long sigh.

The guy in the next bed started to laugh at him. "You too, huh? I did the same thing, buddy. Sonsabitches only shot me in the arm, but as soon as I woke up from the surgery I went looking after my Johnson too."

Lance let his heart rate settle down. The sudden motion had reminded his leg that it hurt like hell, and his head was clear enough to figure out that the morphine had about worn off. "How do you get the nurse?" he asked.

"You can ring, but they come quicker if you yell."

Lance found the button on his bedside table and rang.

"I gotta warn you, though, the more you bitch about the morphine the less they give you."

"Well, I haven't said a thing yet. They must cut you a break the first time, right?"

The roomie shrugged, and Lance noticed that only two fingers stuck out of the guy's arm cast. He saw Lance look and said, "I'm left-handed. Lucky me, right? I'm Morton Trecker." He reached his wounded arm out to Lance as if he really might want Lance to shake it.

Lance introduced himself, and the nurse came in. She was about fifty, with career military written all over her: ramrod posture, hair in a bun that an atomic bomb wouldn't shake loose, lines at the corners of her mouth, eyes bright and pitiless as a hawk's. "What can I do for you, Corporal Porter?"

"I think my morphine's worn off."

She checked his chart and gave him a shot. "Hey, what's the date, anyway?" Lance asked.

"Twelfth of March," she said. "Three forty-seven pm."

A week. He'd been wounded a week ago. "Where are we?"

"USS Repose."

A ship? Lance held himself still, and couldn't detect any motion. Maybe the shell had done something to his inner ear.

She saw what he was doing and smiled. "It's a big ship, and we're not moving right now. Plus you had a severe concussion from the blast; you've been a little dazed since we got you, but you're coming around now. We're going to transfer you in a couple of days. Maybe if you're lucky we'll get a storm and you'll notice we're on the water."

The curtain parted again and a much younger nurse came in with lunch. The morphine started to hit Lance, and he'd barely touched his sandwich before he lost interest in it and fell asleep again.



Six weeks later his leg was still hanging from a pulley, but now the pulley was bolted to the ceiling of a room in the Oak Grove Naval Hospital in Oakland, California. It only hurt when he twisted his body the wrong way, and then mostly in his hip. The doctors said he'd make a full recovery, the halls were full of gorgeous candy stripers, Joe Stalin was dead, he'd turned twenty on March 20, and in general Lance was beginning to feel optimistic. Could have been a lot worse, he thought, looking out his window at the city and a tiny sliver of what must have been San Francisco Bay. Trecker lost fingers; I just lost a rotten tooth and a couple of pieces of bone that'll grow back.

While he was still on the Repose, a dentist had come around and done a root canal on Lance's broken molar. Now he had a gold tooth. It made him feel like an outlaw, somehow, a pirate or a gunslinger. His tongue wandered over it often, and then found the lump of scar on the inside of his cheek, and he caught himself wishing the gold crown was closer to the front so people would see it when he grinned.

One of the candy stripers came in with a canvas bag full of paperback books. She handed one out to each of the six guys in Lance's room, and they all watched the switch in her hips as she left before seeing what they'd gotten.

"You got a science-fiction book," the guy to Lance's right said. "You like science fiction?"

"Not as much as you do, I guess," Lance said. He tossed the book over.

"Thanks, pardner," the guy said. He was from Texas, Lance remembered, but he'd forgotten the guy's name. He'd had the toes blown off his left foot, and was waiting to have a special shoe made so he could start walking again. All the guys in their ward had leg wounds.

"Wait a sec," Lance said as he opened his new book. "Mine's not right." He looked at the cover again, a guy with a gun and a fainting girl. It was right-side up, but the words on the page where he'd opened it, somewhere around the middle, were all upside down.

Without looking up, Tex the science-fiction fan said, "It's two books. They put 'em upside down to each other so you know when the first story's done."

Lance turned the book over, and sure enough it had another cover that aligned with the upside-down words. Junkie, it said. The other cover read Narcotics Agent. Strange pair, cops back to back with robbers, or cowboys with Indians. A Fed, Lance thought. That's a line of work I could get into if my leg heals up right. Probably a lot of ex-GIs doing it. He bent back the cover and started to read, trying to ignore the itch under his cast.

The next morning a different candy striper came in, this time with mail, and Lance's heart did a little skip when she handed him a letter from Ellie.

She'd written on the thirteenth of March, but the letter had probably gone all the way to his unit before being sent down to the MASH, then the Repose, and finally Oak Grove. He tore it open, thrilling a little to the sight of her handwriting.



Dear Lance,

By the time you get this, maybe you'll be home. Your mother told me as soon as she got the telegram, and I wrote right away. I don't even know how bad it is yet, but your Mom says not to worry. She's sure that you'll be okay. Here's my news: Dexter is closing in around me; I'm going to quit working for Mel Fricker and--are you ready for this?--come to CALIFORNIA to meet you! I have a place set up in Berkeley, thanks to a friend of Jerry Kazmierski's, but I won't get there until Mel can find a replacement, so if you get discharged write and let me know where you are. If not, we're expecting another telegram from the army telling us where you're recovering, and I'll just come there.

I'm so excited to see you, Lance my love. But a little scared too. You see, I'm not just coming because I want to--although God do I want to--but some people have asked me to come and talk to you about something important. It has to do with your family; Jerry came back from New York City looking for me, and he's talked to your mother, and there's some big secret they won't tell me. I'll get it out of them, though. They talk to me like I'm a little girl, and it drives me nuts.

This is important: don't go anywhere until I get there and we have a chance to talk. I want to tell you more, but it's not the kind of thing you should read in a letter lying in the hospital.

Not too terrible a request, is it, to hang around in San Francisco for a while waiting for me? I hope not. Get well, get completely well, and I'll see you soon.

Love, Ellie.



He read the letter over again, making sure he hadn't missed anything. Below her signature was an address in Berkeley.

Ellie was coming to California to meet him, and she wouldn't tell him why except it was about family. "Hey, Tex," he said to the science-fiction fan. "Where's Berkeley?"

Tex pointed out the window. "Right over there eight or nine miles. North of Oakland, across from San Francisco. That's where all the Reds go to college around here."

Sweet Jesus, Lance thought. Was Ellie a Red? Was that why she was being so mysterious? She couldn't be. Her parents wouldn't allow it.

Dexter is closing in around me, she'd written. If she was a Red, she wouldn't be able to stand Dexter, Michigan, that was sure; even though it was right next to Ann Arbor, it wasn't a place where a commie would find much sympathy.

"Is everybody at Berkeley a Red?" he asked Tex.

"Just about. Why would they go there if they weren't?"

Don't be crazy, Lance told himself. This is Ellie you're talking about. She's as American as any girl. She's no Red.

The worry stayed with him, though, as he went back to his book and read about Maurice Helbrant's crusade against dope fiends and degenerates.

He didn't get his cast off until the first week of June, and by that time he'd come close to tearing it off with his toothbrush, just to scratch the ten million itches that crawled along his leg. The itches in his head were worse--try as he might, he couldn't shake the fear that Ellie had gone Red, and he couldn't figure out how to ask her about it, so in the end he didn't try to get in touch with her at all. He read the newspapers to get a sense of what Berkeley was like, and what he saw, especially in the Examiner, confirmed all his suspicions. So he let it sit while he figured out how he could feel her out without actually confronting her. If he did, she'd either deny it and be hurt or admit it and try to turn him, and if that happened Lance didn't know what he'd do.
Author Q&A

Author Q&A

DR:Tell us about your new novel, One King, One Soldier.

AI:One King is a kind of secret history involving Arthur Rimbaud, imperialism, the Ark of the Covenant, baseball, and the Grail legend. Also the emergence of beat literature, the importance and danger of belief, and the possibility of atonement. At least that’s what it seems like to me; readers will come to their own conclusions.

DR:Where does the title come from?

AI:Good question. I have a miserable time with titles, and didn’t come up with this one until after the book was done. At any given moment in the book, one of the three main characters is a kind of soldier, and another is a king–whether he knows it or not. Their relationships with each other shift constantly but take place within this framework. In that way, the title glosses what happens in the book without referring to a specific event.

DR:I was reminded of some of the fiction of Tim Powers, especially his novel Last Call. Was he an influence? What other writers have influenced you?

AI:I’ve read all of Tim’s books and enjoyed them. For the idea of taking gaps in history and backfilling them in interesting ways without contradicting the historical record, I’m indebted to him, and Last Call certainly rang some cool new changes on the Arthur story. I think our approaches to the world–insofar as you can infer this from reading someone’s books–are very different, though. Other influences, man, that’s a long list. I carry around little bits of all the writers I admire, from Cervantes all the way up to whatever it is that’s in my pocket right now. Which happens to be Elmore Leonard.

DR:I’ve always been fascinated by the life of Rimbaud. What made you choose him as a major character in your novel?

AI:He’s too interesting not to. I was reading a book called Rimbaud in Abyssinia in which the writer tried to retrace the poet’s (or, by that time, ex-poet’s) movements in the Horn of Africa, and I was captivated by the combined bravura and incompetence and bad luck that characterized the last half of Rimbaud’s life. He tried to do everything, and wasn’t always very good at it, but he had determination and willpower in spades, and he wrote these amazingly cranky and demanding letters to his mother and sister all the time, wanting them to send him books and scientific instruments. He was so outsized that I wanted to dig into his character a little. Then I’d also been reading some Grail stuff for a grad-school class, and when I read that Rimbaud had died of a tumor in his leg, I thought, hey: that’s kind of a Fisher King wound, isn’t it? And things went from there.

DR:Where does the baseball angle of the novel come from? Is the character of George Gibson based on a real player?

AI:Well, this is where Jack Spicer comes in. I’d read his poetry and appreciated it, and had this cracked idea to write a book in which he and Philip K. Dick are characters; Dick and Spicer were roommates for a short time in, I think, 1949, and Spicer remained a fan until he died in the 60s. But Spicer took Rimbaud very seriously as a poetic ancestor, and he also wrote these exploded Arthurian poems...and he was a big baseball fan. He even wrote a couple of baseball poems, and I decided that one of the characters in One King should be deeply involved in baseball, which is a kind of rite of spring that–if you’re in the right frame of mind–can be made into a fertility ritual. So that’s why George Gibson exists. He’s not based on a real player.

DR:George’s nightmarish journey through an Africa despoiled by its Colonial masters rivals anything in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Is there historical documentation for the atrocities George witnesses, or have you exercised a novelist’s prerogative and made things up?

AI:There’s a guy named George Washington Williams who documented much of the worst horror of Leopold’s Congo as it was happening, and published some of his findings in American newspapers. I used some of that. The Congo in the years after 1890 was one of the worst places to be in the history of the world, as books like King Leopold’s Ghost have made clear. Then I also made things up. All of the logistics about Stanley and Emin Pasha is historical.

Heart of Darkness itself was of course an inspiration as well, and Conrad makes a brief uncredited cameo appearance.

DR:You mentioned the poet Jack Spicer. One King features epigraphs from his work, and he also appears as a character. I don’t think many people are aware of Spicer today. How did you discover him, and what attracts you to his poetry?

AI:I first read Spicer in a poetry seminar in grad school. His poetry is interesting for its odd combination of rhetorical whimsy with this intense passion for love and connection. Apart from his Arthurian poems, he wrote a longish poem called “A Fake Novel About the Life of Arthur Rimbaud”; so that connection was there for me to explore. And any guy who said, as Spicer did, that his source of poetic inspiration was Martian radios was impossible to ignore. He was this literary magpie, picking up little bits from Lorca and Rimbaud, and also his contemporaries like Creeley and Olson and Duncan, which makes his poetry read like a kind of palimpsest, and in that way Spicer’s poetry maps nicely onto the secret history of the book.

DR:Poetry is obviously important to you. How does it influence your fiction? Does poetry has a special relationship to fantastic fiction?

AI:A friend of mine once said that poetry exists at least in part to purify the language of the tribe. It forces language into new configurations, restores its freshness and vitality. I used to write poetry, and then tried to take some of the lessons I learned from it into fiction–with questionable success. I get leery of people who talk about “prose that reads like poetry.” The two enterprises are to my mind fundamentally different, although there are certainly odd borderlands where they overlap and collide. As far as fantastic fiction goes, I think it can have the same effect on literary or naturalistic fiction as poetry has on language. John Updike, for example, reaffirms our experience of our daily lives; Borges bends that experience and forces us to look at it with fresh eyes. By stretching and maybe deforming standard categories of understanding, the best fantastic fiction opens up new fields for everyone to explore. On the other hand, the worst fantastic fiction is every bit as hidebound and boring as the worst grad-school lit-journal fiction.

DR:Did you have any trepidation in setting out to retell the Grail myth, which, after all, has been done countless times, both in fantasy and mainstream fiction?

AI:Sure, but there was also a kind of excitement in seeing if I could bring something new to the story. Some of the people who read early drafts of One King were angry at the changes I made to the boilerplate version of the story: Lancelot wouldn’t do this, the Grail wouldn’t work like that, and so on. But the Grail story we take as the default is sort of a distillation of who knows how many earlier versions, a number of which were begun by one writer and completed by another. I didn’t feel any compunction about taking what I wanted from the standard body of myth and then mortaring it together with a bunch of other things that interested me. That’s what Malory did, after all, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Also, I wanted to write a Grail story that was about renunciation rather than this constant annihilating desire.

DR:Why did you choose to set your retelling of the Grail myth during the Korean War? Why not a more recent war . . . or, on the contrary, an older one? Why that particular moment in American history?

AI:The primary reason for this is the actual historical distance between Rimbaud and Spicer. Those two poets are kind of the foci of the book, if you want to think of it as an ellipse, which maybe you don’t...but anyway. Then I wanted to map the two soldiers, if you will–George and Lance–into a similar dynamic, and one thing led to another.

DR:Your first novel, A Scattering of Jades, also featured characters from history. Do you see yourself as a “historical fantasist?” Can you talk a little bit about the intersection of history and fantasy in your fiction?

AI:Part of the interest is plain old love of conspiracy stories. They’re all loony, but that impulse to find patterns in randomness is of course very human. I get interested in historical periods or events that seem to lend themselves to some broader topic I want to write about. Not to sound tendentious, because a lot of it is just happy accident, product of a lot of diverse reading and so on, but I encounter stories embedded in or emerging from historical moments, and they seem like stories to me because they speak to something that I would like to have a chance to write about–in this case longing and renunciation. I try not to make too much of a point of using historical people, though, at least not famous ones. Too many times that turns into a kind of fakey Historical Personages of the Year XXXX tour, a way to piggyback on the star power of famous dead people. Jades had PT Barnum, Stephen Bishop, and a pseudonymous Poe, but I tried very hard to minimize the presence of Barnum and Poe. Bishop was different, so fascinating and now forgotten unless you’ve gone to Mammoth Cave and taken the Historic Tour.

The fantasy half of what you’re asking comes from the same wellspring as the conspiracy thing I mentioned. I’ve just never been able to prevent myself from asking, “And hey, what if there’s a monster?”

DR:Here we are in 2004, and you’re still writing the old-fashioned way: not even with a typewriter, but with pen and paper. Why?

AI:Because it’s slower. I type pretty fast, and I get keyboarding away sometimes in a hurry to get to the next scene or the next idea without settling in and taking the time to really feel each word come out onto the page. A lot of moments in writing are pretty time-sensitive; you can drop yourself a note to go back and put in the thing about the streetlight, but then when you do, the texture you initially wanted is lost. Also I like the sensation of making physical words, ink on a page, as opposed to manipulating phosphors. When the longhand pages go into the computer, that’s the first revision.

DR:What other projects are you working on?

AI:A new novel, set in kind of a phantasmagorical Detroit during World War II. And there are always short stories cooking. A couple of them will come out around the same time as One King does.

Praise

Praise

“A captivating historical thriller, a great spine-tingling romp through history in search of the Holy Grail. Fans of The Da Vinci Code will love this!”
–KEVIN BAKER, author of Dreamland and Paradise Alley

Irvine’s prose is rich and evocative, his plot tightly structured and beautifully paced.”
The Washington Post for A Scattering of Jades

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