Summer Writing at Skidmore

03/22/2010 at 1:18 pm (Novel Excerpts, Skidmore)

The first big piece of news surrounding this novel-in-progress: I got official notice that I will be attending – on scholarship! – the NY State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College.  This is a tremendous honor, one that I was nominated for, and then accepted based on the strength of an early draft of my novel’s first chapter.  Of course, I’m now feverishly trying to complete this current draft so that I can go to the retreat with a better understanding of my novel as a whole, and with new pages that can be presented to the workshops there.  I will be studying with Allan Gurganus and Joseph O’Neill, as well as meeting a ton of creative minds in poetry, non-fiction, short story and novel disciplines.   It should be a tremendous learning experience, and a big boost for my progress on BEAR.

I submitted the first chapter of my novel to the Institute with my application, but instead of posting the entire thing here, I’d like to just offer up a taste.  These are the opening few pages, which establish the frame story and act as a kind of prologue.  Of course, all of this will (and probably should) change by the time I reach my seventh or eighth draft of the novel, but it’s nice to see where the whole thing started.


Chapter One

Born Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, named for Joyce’s artistic young man and a living example of the ridiculous, romantic gestures that defined my father, I was raised an only child for five years of my life.  In 1970, my brother Demian was born, also a victim of my father’s love for literature and bombastic displays of narcissism disguised as affection.  Less than a year after his second son was delivered at Alta Bates, a small but respectable hospital less than ten blocks from where we were raised, Thomas O’Neill packed his Hesse, Joyce and Beat Poet books for a new life on an island three thousand miles away.  Pursuing a dream to transform himself into the most relevant poet of his generation, he abandoned us in a two-bedroom rental house in Berkeley, California so that he could experience the life of a Greenwich Village boho without the distractions of a wife and two children.

Less than thirty years later, my only brother succumbed to one of his more prodigious funks and hanged himself in a studio apartment littered with mildewed clothes, empty beer bottles and drug paraphernalia.  When I arrived to collect his meager belongings, I found the only present our father ever gave him: a dog-eared copy of the bastard’s one and only chapbook, self-published and full of typos and misspellings.

I blame myself for Demian’s death, and if that sounds melodramatic or like a form of survivor’s guilt—those left behind always wonder what they could have done to recognize the signs, to save the deceased from themselves—then I’m exactly like ninety-nine percent of the people in this world who lose someone they love to a tragic, premature death.  Except, I saw the signs.  In fact, I helped create and foster them, influenced the path he followed and did nothing to halt the cataclysmic choices he repeatedly made in his life.

How did I do it?  Why did I do it?  These are the questions I’ve been asking myself, surrounded by the scant physical reminders of the one person in the world I should have protected, the only person in the world I ever really trusted.

In the summer of 1976, when I was nearly eleven and Demian was barely six, I made decisions that I’ve regretted ever since, but that I never fully understood.  I don’t strive to be the voice of my or any other generation.  I have no intention of following a path into the literary sinkhole where my father now resides.  I only want to find the truth, by chronicling the events of my life with Demian as faithfully as I know how.

He deserves a proper eulogy.

In the face of everything I did wrong, there may be a chance I get this one thing right.


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