OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Novel Links Family Mythology & Myths of Nation

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Keith Scribner

The most sympathetic thing I ever heard my father say about my mother was, ‘How’d you like to be that fat?’ It was raining and I was in the backseat of the Impala, eleven years old, my sister Helen beside me, and my brother Timmy leaning against the other window. We were on a vacation in Maine, looking for a motel. My father thought reservations were limiting -- he liked to take each day as it came, find a motel on the edge of a sleepy town no longer on the main road, cut off from the Interstate by ten miles. A motel managed by an old couple – The Swaying Pines or The Whale and Schooner – dark paneling, dusty lampshades, a Howard Johnson’s ashtray, a sign welcoming hunters and snowmobilers even in summer, and rock-bottom rates.

The opening passages of Keith Scribner’s novel in progress, House of Stairs, describes two related scenes told in the voice of narrator Max Phelan, the first a typical moment on a family vacation, the second the death of a young man who plunges from a rooftop at prep school. “In part, the novel is about memory, how memories change over time and how they can be created or imagined,” said Scribner, a Research Fellow and assistant professor of English at OSU.

The book merges three main narratives; one in 1963, one in 1976, and one present-day narrative at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The 1963 narrative is about Max Phelan’s maternal uncle, Richie, who goes to college but drops out to join the army and is killed in Vietnam. Max recreates Richie’s story from imagination, with little real information.

Others in the family also are obsessed with the story of the lost Richie, each believing private versions in which he’s a hero who saved his platoon, or a martyr who joined the army to bring honor to a dishonored family, or a victim of the Sixties. “The novel explores these sorts of fabrications and the ways in which family members can live their lives in response to each other,” said Scribner. “In a more general sense, it explores the ways in which American mythology can influence a family’s mythology.”

Most of the novel concerns the 1976 narrative about Max in prep school. A scholarship student, he is motivated by class aspiration and feelings of resentment and inadequacy. He is compelled by Richie’s story because he comes to realize that, like everyone else in the family, his life is a reaction to the life he has imagined for Richie.

“I think of the 1963 narrative as the ‘beginning’ of the Sixties, and the 1976 narrative as the ‘end’ of the Sixties. Richie is killed in the summer of 1968 – perhaps the height of the Sixties – a year of assassination, paranoia, and chaos. Richie stumbles into the beginning of the Sixties and social freedom he can’t navigate. In 1976, Max and his friends are beset by a feeling of having just missed the Sixties, longing for what they see as a more socially liberal time that has passed them by.”

In 2004, Max Phelan’s teenage son has an accident that he may or may not survive. The novel links the death of Richie with the death of Todd Harrington, the young man who fell from the school roof – a death that Max turns out to have been more involved in than is revealed earlier -- and both are linked to the possible death of Max’s son. “Max’s redemption and the salvation of his son involve Max’s revisiting the earlier deaths and symbolically saving Richie and Todd through an act of forgiveness.”

The screen rights for Scribner’s novel The GoodLife have been optioned by Killer Films, which hopes to raise the money to produce a movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Matt Dillon, and Allison Janney, to be directed by Scott Elliot. Scribner also is the author of the 2003 novel Miracle Girl, and is completing, The Oregon Experiment, about a fictional secessionist movement in the Pacific Northwest.