Authors differ in their approach to producing fiction. Some outline; others don’t. Some know the ending before they begin. Others approach the daily blank page with little sense of where the story will take them.
I am among the aimless sort, having been impressed in my 20s by a claim that a teacher attributed to the American-born novelist Russell Hoban. “If I knew what was going to happen in a story, there wouldn’t be any point in my writing it,” Hoban was alleged to have said.
My primary aim when writing Bongs For Steve was to learn how to breathe life into its characters. Their behaviour would determine the plot, in so far as there would be a plot. And only those elements of their behaviour that had been accessible to the first-person narrator.
Nevertheless, in a market where most novels are plot-driven, it occurred to me that an outline of the plot could inform people who might want to read Bongs For Steve. Here is that outline, as I perceive it in hindsight.
PERHAPS at some time you got high with a friend and said more than you meant to. In Bongs For Steve, disaffected memoirist Seamus Cullen recalls occasions when he unburdened himself after sharing a smoke – and acknowledges that each changed his life.
Seamus, 50, has been placed on leave from his editing job while he seeks a cure for his precipitate absences. A counsellor, whom he names Ms Felicity, has proposed that he make a record of happier times, in case he finds something that he’s been missing.
Book One: Winter
He responds combatively by recounting the hazing of his one-time friend Bob Cottleman, whose recent death has reactivated historic resentments. Seamus revels in describing his abetting of an admired former housemate, fellow dropout Roland Browne, and Roland’s reckless companion Steve Hurtley, in heckling Bob over his parsimony in the consumption of weed – while getting silly in the profligate way Steve has encouraged.
Having immersed himself in Bob’s humiliation, Seamus turns to the departure of the mercurial Steve. He confesses that he was not unhappy to learn that Steve’s heedlessness had proved fatal, and admits that when he joined Roland in honouring Steve, sharing bongs from Steve’s abandoned stash, he was celebrating his outlasting of a dangerous rival.
Book Two: Spring
At a loss for how to continue his reminiscing, Seamus disinters a sketch he had composed when he lived in a seaside suburb with artists. The sketch purports to recount Roland’s stonewalling of his girlfriend, Debbie Marten, who had entreated him to take her out on a Saturday. Roland contrives a surprise visit from a friend, and represents it as his duty to offer a bong to this guest and to smoke one himself from politeness.
As he quotes from his rediscovered portrayal of Roland’s carousing, Seamus remarks upon the warm acceptance he had felt when playing the guest role himself in the aftermath of Steve’s expiration.
Triggered next are Seamus’s memories of his first love, Patience Moore, who had tiptoed around his anxious celibacy when she visited his bayside share-house with Bob. Patience, better known by her schoolyard nickname, Pash, had met Seamus at the funeral for Steve, having become entangled with Steve over the previous year. Seamus describes his enchanted bonding with Pash, after several joints and a dose of amphetamine, over a second sketch he had drafted, this time featuring Steve, whose typescript Pash had retrieved from among Steve’s possessions.
Book Three: Summer
Seamus sees that his subsequent estrangement from Bob may have cost him opportunities. But he reminds himself of the occasion when he made a confession to Pash as the two shared a post-coital smoke, and Pash’s responding with a manufactured dispute and a retreat from his company.
Seamus has since learned that Bob knew a critical fact about Pash, one that could have empowered him to forestall her withdrawal. He believes that Bob, by now a doctor, also broke up his bohemian household, wooing Jessica Faithfull, its most talented member.
Seamus records his first encountering of Jessica in Bob’s company, on an occasion when he was re-enacting with Roland the extravagant pattern of their smoking with Steve, and remembers his gleeful insulting of the bong-resistant Bob as incompetent socially.
The dissolution of his household had forced Seamus to consider a job offer, set up for him by its departing principal, Zamyr “Zoom” Zhuzhumi. He paints a picture with words of his final session with the resourceful and well-travelled Zoom, who had encouraged him over a series of joints to cease pining for Pash and move on. Zoom had engineered for Seamus a trial position on the staff of their suburb’s free newspaper. Seamus, who had augmented his unemployment relief with infrequent freelance submissions, recalls his surprise over how much he relished his newfound income and status.
Book Four: Autumn
This connection with a job he may never return to reminds Seamus of a session with an intriguing new boss, former big-newspaper staffer Pete Ulverson, who had impressed him as “a playboy type but a very competent playboy”. The two had connected over Pete’s botting of cigarettes, and Seamus had accepted easily an invitation to retire for an after-work smoke.
He responds to Pete’s remarking on his expert bong handling by holding forth on the ritual excesses of Roland and Steve. The relationship contributes to his being promoted to a role in which he checks the work of other editors.
This is the very role from which he now stands suspended, and its licensing of his critical outlook has won him no friends at work since Pete found greener fields. He recounts his agreeing with Ms Felicity that he liked to be right, and his admitting reluctantly to an isolating belief.
The admission, and what follows, leads to his recalling his attending with Roland and Debbie a party marking Bob’s engagement to Jessica. At the party he had overindulged and was nursed by, among others, Pash. Bob refrained from inviting him to his wedding. Reflecting upon these events he receives an epiphany.
It is Roland who phones Seamus to bring him news of Bob’s death, mere months before Seamus expects to turn 50. Seamus describes his attending a service with Roland, Debbie, and a friend from their younger days, Jamie, upon whom Seamus had modelled the guest in his Saturday sketch. There he offers condolences to Jessica, whose paintings he can no longer afford, is invited to pay her a visit, and sees Pash but does not approach her.
Afterwards, Roland, Seamus and Jamie, now established professionals, reminisce over bongs while Debbie makes dinner. Seamus recalls himself as musing that all three had lived more prudently than the reckless Steve and the competitive Bob, but finds little comfort in this.
When Seamus meets Jessica two weeks later for lunch, she compliments him on the creative non-fiction he produced at their arty share-house, and claims that reading such sketches can edify their character models.
She presents him with a sketch Bob had drafted, in a similar style, that is based on his visit with Pash. The sketch is critical of Seamus, and draws on private knowledge to analyse Pash’s behaviour. Seamus recalls his denying to Jessica that he had seen Pash at the funeral, and Jessica’s informed refutation of his denial. He admits to himself that his morning drinking and workplace absenteeism had been precipitated by Bob’s death, by his intuition that his relations with Roland and Jamie were thin, and by the deflating image of himself he had seen in Bob’s sketch.
Engrossed in the reshaping of his accidental memoir, Seamus concludes that he is done with his editing job. Jessica hosts for him a surprise reunion with Pash, who asks him a penetrating question and makes an alarming disclosure.
AND that is the outline, excluding some elliptical reflecting that Seamus undertakes, in the prologue, on how his year of reminiscing has changed him.
The result has surprised me with its complexity, and more so given my awareness of how much I’ve left out. It is satisfying to see how the invent-as-you-go method of story development fosters nuance. And yes, I’ve left room for a sequel. Suggested developments are welcome in comments.