Come Again No More

A Novel

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About The Book

From the award-winning author of the acclaimed Sun Going Down comes an intimate portrait of a marriage and a family struggling to survive turbulent times that echo our own.

THE PAINT FAMILY built an American empire on the legendary strength of their character, their wit, and their resolve, but the foreclosures, bank failures, and joblessness of the Great Depression may bring their world down around them. The family’s foundation is further weakened by a rift running through two generations, scarred over by stubbornness and pain. Come Again No More is a uniquely American story about a family navigating a changing world and the tough choices it presents.

The indomitable family patriarch, Eli, owns everything as far as the eye can see, but there is an emptiness in his heart. After a dramatic accident leaves him struggling for life, he must reckon with the decisions he made that separated him from the daughter he loved most. A chance for redemption presents itself in his granddaughter Emaline. Eli has faced his own mortality many times, but his pride seems to have a death grip on him.

Emaline marries Jake, a womanizing prizefighter who promises to help her realize her dream of making a life on a farm. But Jake’s inner demons and nature itself conspire against Emaline’s fierce determination to make their marriage work. Life sends Emaline many joys when she least expects them, but ultimately, she must make tough decisions about holding on and letting go.

Based on the author’s family letters and diaries, Come Again No More is a bittersweet novel, a moving and vivid portrayal of a family’s triumphs and tragedies paralleling the glories and shameful underbelly of a nation struggling through the Great Depression.

Excerpt

1.

THEY WERE THREE MILES WEST OF TOWN WHEN the sun broke through. The wind tore the clouds to rags, the sun lit the rags on fire and in fiery trails they streamed across a sky that opened like a bruised and tender heart. A few pellets of snow still drifted down and where the wind scoured the asphalt there was black ice and in every dip and swale lay drifts of snow. The big Cadillac sliced through the drifts and soared over the treacherous ice. Now and again they caught up to battered jalopies tiptoeing along the road on tires that were tall and thin and bald as a buzzard, the drivers gritting their teeth as they held on to the wide steering wheels, fighting to keep an ancient Model T or a battered Studebaker from skidding into the barrow pit. Emaline knew most of these people. She hid her face in her hands when Eli swung out to pass and hoped they wouldn’t see her, knowing what they would say. Why, aint that Emaline Hughes settin in that Caddy, pretty as you please? Nothin more than a waitress at the diner, she is, ridin in a automobile like that. The Cadillac rattled the doors of the jalopies as it passed, blinding their drivers with a plume of powdery snow.

The heater began to warm her feet and she untied her scarf, shook the snow out of it and felt her half-frozen hands burn as they thawed. They had lingered for an hour at Velma’s grave, standing too long in the snow and the raw wind, caught in a web of blood relation and antique sin. Emaline wept into the collar of Eli’s sheepskin jacket, then stepped away and closed her back to him, angry with herself for letting him see how she felt inside, like a glass pitcher dropped on a marble floor. She had heard her mother’s voice as plain as if she were right there beside them. Don’t stand in the corner and bawl for buttermilk. At last Eli drew a deep breath, straightened his big gray Stetson and led the way back to the car. He held the door open for her and she stepped into the car, feeling like a sad little princess in the motion pictures. He swept the snow off the windshield with the sleeve of his jacket, started the engine and eased the big car down the hill toward town. At the junction of Route 26, he turned right and gave it the gas and the car took off like an arrow shot from a bow.

In a pasture north of the highway, a band of horses wheeled to gallop along the fence line. Their coats were heavy with winter and powdered with snow. A big roan stallion led with his mane and tail flying in the wind, his neck stretched out, his great hooves cutting a path through the drifts. Emaline wanted to straddle his broad back and ride with her cheek pressed to his arched neck and the scent of horse in her nostrils, her fingers tangled in his mane, the icy wind freezing the tears on her eyelashes so that she rode blind, trusting the great roan stallion and the snow and sky and the wild and bitter wind.

She stared out at the weathered barns, the tall silos, the barbed-wire fences. Where the powdery snow had blown away, the remnants of the sugar beet harvest lay in the frozen earth. In November, they had tramped the empty beet fields for miles around, Velma with Emaline and Bobby, dragging gunnysacks over the frozen ground, risking broken ankles to search for beets to feed the pigs. Velma had laughed about it, saying that you knew you were poor when you couldn’t even afford to buy feed for the hogs. Now it was barely the end of January and Velma was dead.

Eli drove fifteen miles without saying a word. At Morrill he found the Stegall turnoff without needing directions and he had to slow down where the snow had drifted over the narrow gravel road. At last he spoke. “That was right kind of you to come along with me, Emaline.”

“Don’t mention it. She was my mother.”

“Yes, she was. And quite a mother you had.”

“It’s nice that you finally figured that out.”

“I never thought different. Not a day in my life.”

“You didn’t act like it.”

“Well, what a man feels and what he is able to do aint always the same thing.”

“They should be.”

“Maybe they should. There is no way I could feel worse, honey, I know that. I wanted to get down here while she was still alive and I just never made it. You always think you’re goin to have more time than you do, then it slips away and you’re left holdin nothin at all.”

Emaline stared out the window, not wanting to say more than she already had.

“You aren’t goin to cut me any slack, are you?”

“I guess not.”

“I don’t blame you. I’d probably feel the same in your place, growin up the way you did.”

“You mean getting bundled off to an orphanage because Mama was in the sanatorium with her consumption and you wouldn’t take us in?”

Eli winced. She could see that stung him. Well, let it. Her right arm was bent and broken, crippled for life by a heavy pot of boiling soup that had fallen on her as she scrubbed a kitchen floor in the orphanage. All because Eli had turned Velma out of the house for breaking the First Commandment that he laid down for his daughters. Thou shalt not fornicate with the hired hands. Emaline thought she might forgive him someday, but that day was a long way off.

1He tried one more time. “I came as soon as I found out she was real sick.”

“It was too late.”

“I know that, honey. A doggone bellhop at the hotel in Evanston mislaid the telegram. If I knew she was that sick, I would have been here a week ago.”

He started to say more and thought better of it. He could see how it would look to this young woman. He had always thought he was doing the right thing, setting an example for his other children. That was not the way she would see it. He found the Lindquist farm without help, drove the quarter mile along the lane, stopped at the small white farmhouse down in a swale surrounded by tall elm and pine and cottonwood trees. He tipped his hat.

“If you don’t mind, you might tell Bobby that he’s more than welcome to come up to Wyoming, spend the summer on the ranch. Might do him good to be with his brother for a while.”

“It would do him good. Tell him yourself. He’s out back doing chores. He’s old enough to make up his mind whether he wants to come or not.” She reached up and touched him with her fingertips, like a blind woman trying to learn his face.

“Good-bye, Grandpa.”

Eli thought she was about to say more, but she turned and opened the door, climbed out, did not look back. He watched her walk into the house, her back straight as an arrow. Closed to him, like a book in a language he couldn’t read. She looked like his mother, Cora. The same black hair, the same dark, penetrating eyes, the same high cheekbones. Not much Indian blood in her, but it came through. If she was like Cora, she was stubborn as a Missouri mule. He wanted to call her back, to say something that would make her see him in a different light. But what, you old fool? What are you going to say? Not a damned thing that is going to make a whit of difference to her.

He felt a sudden fatigue, the all-night drive catching up to him, the shock at the hospital when he learned that the daughter he had come to visit was already dead and buried. The trip to the cemetery, standing in the snow with Emaline next to Velma’s grave. It had all taken its toll. He opened the door of the Cadillac, fighting the heaviness in his limbs, followed the sound of the axe from out back of the farmhouse, beyond a barn that wasn’t much bigger than a shed. He heard hogs snorting around inside and a bleat or two that might have been sheep or goats, he couldn’t tell which. When he got to the edge of the barn, he saw the boy. He wasn’t chopping wood. The stock tank was frozen over.

He was going at it for all he was worth, swinging a double-bladed axe that was almost as big as he was, bringing it down on the ice so hard that he jumped a little with each swing. Eli stood by the corner of the barn to watch. Bobby was maybe twelve years old, about the age of Eli’s youngest boy, Leo. Only about two-thirds Leo’s size. Blue eyes and a lock or two of blond hair sticking out from under his cap. A slender, small-boned kid, but he didn’t lack for grit. He wasn’t going to give in to that ice, no matter how thick it was. Eli didn’t see a bit of himself in the boy, except maybe his determination. Bobby must have taken after his father, Ora Watson, deceased. Stepfather to Emaline and Ben, father to Bobby. Damned fool got drunk, drove himself off the side of a mountain up on Little Goose Creek, the way Eli heard it. Burned up, along with his truck. Helluva thing, when a man had children to raise.

Eli waited until the boy came up for air, then stepped up to say hello. Bobby had an easy smile. “Howdy, mister. If you’re lookin for the Lindquists, Jim and Lee went to the sale barn. Ought to be back any minute now.”

“Howdy yourself. No, it’s you I’m lookin for. Name is Eli Paint, son. I’m your grandpa.”

The boy peeled off his glove and stuck out a hand. “Bobby Watson, sir. Pleased to meet you.”

Real nice manners. That would be Velma.

“I took your sister up to see your mama’s grave, son. I only found out this morning that Velma had passed on. It’s a terrible hard blow for you and Ben and Emaline, to lose your ma when you’re so young. I’m just as sorry as I can be for all three of you, I wanted to say that.”

Bobby bit his lip, looked down at his toes. “Thank you, sir. Sure was a awful shock. Seemed like she was doin fine, like she could go on and on. Then she took sick again with the tuberculosis. We thought she’d pull through, because she always had before, but then she was gone. I can’t hardly get used to it, tell you the truth.”

The boy looked pale. He had dark circles under his eyes, like he hadn’t been sleeping much. Eli put a hand on his shoulder. “Can’t nobody get used to a thing like this. Damned shame, is what it is. But you’re goin at it right, doin your chores. When you come to the worst times in your life, hard work always helps. Harder the better. That way, you’re too wore out at night to lay awake and stew over things.”

Bobby nodded. “Yessir. Jim Lindquist told me the same thing.”

“Well, your stepdad is a wise man, then. There aint no cure but time for what you feel in your gut, but there’s things that can make it a little better and things that make it worse. Looks like you found yourself a heckuva job, bustin through that ice.”

“Yep. I broke it out once already this mornin, but it’s so darned cold it froze up again, and the livestock has to drink.”

Eli took the axe, waited for Bobby to step back before he began swinging it in long steady strokes, making the ice chips fly, biting deep into the foot-thick layer of ice with each swing, putting the power of his legs and back and shoulders and wrists into it. When Eli had chopped the ice into sections, he reached into the tank barehanded, heaved a dozen heavy blocks of ice out of the frigid water. Three thirsty milk cows, a team of heavy draft horses, and an old, swaybacked saddle horse shuffled up to drink. He set the axe down, rubbed his hands dry.

“Son, I was just about your age when my twin brother Ezra and me, we lost our ma. Cora, her name was. She went out to help a neighbor, got caught in a spring blizzard and froze to death. It was me and Ezra that found her, along with the husband of the woman she went to help. Our daddy, that’s your great-grandfather, was off haulin freight to the big mining outfits in the Black Hills. It was better than a week before he got the telegram sayin she had passed on. By that time she was in the ground. Pa died too, three years after Ma. He got kicked by a mule and never got over it. After that, we was on our own. It was a hard thing for us, same as this is a hard thing for you and Ben and Emaline. Aint nothin easy about it. Only way me and Ez got through it, we stuck together. You got Emaline here, she has you, you both have Ben up in Wyoming. You have your old granddad too, if you need me. When school lets out, if those big strapping Swedes can run this place by themselves, you come on up to Wyoming for the summer. Help Ben and Ezra with them Appaloosa horses. If they don’t have enough work, I can find plenty more. I spoke to Emaline. She said it would be good for you, but I believe she’s goin to leave it to you to decide what you want to do.”

“That would be fun, to go up to Wyoming for a while, Grandpa. Jim and Lee, they’re real fine fellas, but they don’t hardly talk none at all except to each other, then they talk Swedish. Me and Emaline, we’re goin to move into town in a week or so, cause she has to go back to work at the diner. I’m going to start at the high school in Scottsbluff next fall.”

“I imagine you’ll have more chances to play ball in town too. Ben says you’re a heckuva ballplayer.”

“I’d play ball every day if I could. I want to be like Pepper Martin.”

“The St. Louis Cardinals are your team, I expect?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you run? You got to run to play the outfield.”

“I’m real quick.”

“And you got to be tough to play ball.”

“Me and Luke Johns, we play burnout.”

“What is burnout, anyhow?”

“You stand about thirty feet apart with no gloves. Then you zing it as hard you can. The other guy has to catch every throw bare hand. First one to cry uncle, he’s the loser.”

“Do you ever cry uncle?”

“Never. My hands get all swole up, but it’s Luke who gives up every time, and he’s fifteen years old and six foot tall.”

Eli grinned a little at that. He reached out and squeezed the kid’s shoulder. “I got to hit the trail, son. I aim to make it home to the 8T8 tonight. It’s a long drive and I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night. Drove all night to get here and then found out I was too late.”

“I’m sorry, Grandpa.”

“Taint a bit of your fault. But thanks just the same.”

Bobby trailed him back to the Cadillac. “If you mean it about this summer, I’ll come up to see you.”

“You do that. We’ll turn you into a top hand, find a horse you can ride for the summer—long as you take care of it.”

The boy smiled again. Eli felt his spirits lift a little. There was always some good a man could do somewhere. He squeezed the kid’s shoulder again, hard this time, looking away so that Bobby wouldn’t see him tearing up. Then he said good-bye, got behind the wheel, turned the Cadillac around, headed down the lane. He stopped at the edge of the county road, fighting the urge to try one more time with Emaline. Then he pulled out onto the gravel, bound for Wyoming.

© 2010 Jack Todd

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Come Again No More includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jack Todd. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

 

Come Again No More details a decade of the life of the Paint family, who have made their way out to the American west and settled as farmers in Wyoming. Eli Paint, the patriarch of the family, is on the way back from the funeral of his daughter Velma when he gets into a terrible car accident, almost dying from his injuries and the following onset of hypothermia. He narrowly escapes death with the help of friends, including Two Spuds, a Choctaw cowboy, and Eli’s housekeeper-turned-lover Juanita Barrios, trained in nursing by her former husband.

 

The novel then follows the life of Eli’s granddaughter (Velma’s daughter) Emaline—a lonely waitress. She crosses paths with the famous boxer Jake McCloskey, in town for his next bout, and though his crass attitude and lack of manners are beneath Emaline, she falls for him. He can’t spell his own name, but he can dance, and he promises her a life quite different than the quiet one she leads. But their marriage ends up uncovering pieces of Jake’s past he had tried to keep hidden: Jake had a first wife, who shows up one day at their door with the son Jake never knew he had. Emaline and Jake’s marriage is put to the test as Emaline slowly discovers the man that Jake truly is—carefree and careless. Eventually she must face the ultimate question: in marriage, and in life, when do the sacrifices end?

 

Discussion Questions

 

1.       The title of the book is taken from the novel’s epigraph, which asks for “hard times” to “come again no more.” This is a book where people seem to be always on the move, running away from troubles, trying to start a new life or make amends with a former one. Do you think that trouble has a way of finding the Paint family? Or did the Paint family have a way of finding trouble?

2.       The first part of the novel is about Eli and his mistake of not being involved with his daughter Velma and his granddaughter Emaline. Emaline isn’t able to forgive him when he arrives late for Velma’s funeral. Later, he gets into a car accident and fights for survival. Did this accident make you sympathize with Eli? If this scene weren’t in the novel, would you have felt the same way?

3.       Does Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration speech (chapter 10) about the fears of the Great Depression resonate with you today? Do you agree with Emaline’s commentary, interspersed within the speech?

4.       Emaline continually has a dream about The Burning Man, an American Indian god-like creature who “communed with her without speaking, offered a vision of something beyond time and death” (221). He is first perceived as a sort of monster, but slowly becomes a comforting image. Why do you think there was a shift in Emaline’s response to this recurring dream? Why do you think the first part of the novel is entitled “The Burning Man”?

5.       Forgiveness is a central theme: both Eli and Jake are searching for absolution for past misdeeds and misconducts to their families. Who can be forgiven? Who can’t? Why?

6.       Jake McCloskey is arguably the character who changes the most, for good or ill. Chart the progression of his relationship with Emaline. Were there any moments where you lost faith in Jake? Could you understand why he made certain decisions? Was Emaline justified in her worries and fears?

7.       Toward the end of the novel, Jake is preoccupied with being a dominant figure in his family. He wants to be obeyed regardless of his decision, which is the reason his family is uprooted several times. Why do you think Jake becomes like this? Is it about power? Insecurity? Or something else altogether?

8.       How does the freeing of “the black” (the unruly and untamed horse) at the end of the novel fit in with the rest of the book? Do you see any parallels between “the black” and one of the other characters?

9.       Come Again No More is set during the Great Depression. Did this novel reinforce your perception of the time period? What new details about the era did you find within the book?

10.   The novel depicts characters of many ethnicities: Choctaw, Mexican, Welsh, Slovenian, Swedish, and more. Did this diversity in the American west shock you? Does this prove that America is truly a melting pot of culture? Were there any distinguishing characteristics of these cultures in the narrative? If so, what were they? If not, what does this signify?

11.   Juanita, during a conversation with Emaline, says that “all the best decisions are sudden” (228). Why do you think she believes that? Do you agree? Do the events of the novel support Juanita’s statement?

12.   There are several parallels set up in the novel. Both Eli and Emaline break their legs due to motor accidents. Jake and Bobby go into the armed services, and World War I is in the mind of the characters as World War II is impending. Are there others you can think of? What do these parallels suggest about history, time, and the characters themselves?

13.   Wyoming is noted to be the first state where women had the right to vote. How do you think Come Again No More demonstrates why men and women in the west saw themselves as equals?

14.   The novel is separated into four parts; Emaline is the main character for the middle two and Eli is the main character for the first and last. Why do you think the author decided to split the narrative that way? How does it add (or take away from) the impact of the story?

 

Enhance Your Book Club

 

1.       Tell your family’s history, especially that during the 1930s and 1940s. Did they have the hardships that the Paint family underwent? Did any family members head west in search of a better life? If you’re able to, bring in photographs to show the rest of the group and note any differences in facial expressions.

2.       In the author’s note, Jack Todd states that he is indebted to The Grapes of Wrath for helping him create this novel. Read Steinbeck’s novel or watch the 1940 John Ford film as a group. Discuss how the plight of the Joad family is similar or dissimilar to that of the Paint family.

3.       Jack Todd also notes that some of the stories within his book are based off those of his parents. Have everyone write a short fictional vignette based off the lives of members of his/her respective family. See what details everyone chooses to enhance, add, or subtract from the “real” story and why.

4.       If possible, try to arrange a visit to a museum or gallery that showcases artwork and photographs from the 1930s American west to deepen the cultural understanding of the novel.

5.       Think about a secondary character from the novel that you would have liked more information about. Discuss what you think will happen to said character in the next Paint novel.

 

A Converation with Jack Todd

 

1.       You mention in your author note that some of these stories were based on those of your family. Which story was your favorite to explore in the novel? Is it interesting to see in a fictionalized format?

My parents were such an oddly matched couple that I most enjoyed exploring the way they met, their courtship and their marriage, including the story of the day my father left my mother alone for hours in a hotel in Denver. My mother told me that story in some detail, but it turns out that it is only the tale of their honeymoon in Denver, not of their wedding day. I recently discovered that my parents were not actually married when I was born, because my father had never obtained a divorce from the woman known as Thelma Pearl in this novel. They were together some twenty-five years before they finally married. We were never told that my parents weren’t married, but my older sisters remember babysitting the youngest while the folks went to the courthouse to get hitched at some point in the 1950s – I was never told at all. I’m not sure I would have handled the situation depicted in Come Again No More any differently had I known, but it does cast a different slant on things.

2.       Sometimes it’s hard to lay out family history in a memoir or even a fictional work. Did you find it hard to depict certain aspects of your family’s life in this book? Are there any aspects of the book that you think members of your family would object to?

The single most painful incident in our family is probably the one I wrote about in Sun Going Down, in which Emaline is terrified that her mother is being beaten to death by her stepfather. Emaline herself puts an end to the beating by hitting her stepfather over the head with a burning kerosene lantern. Knowing that your mother endured something like this is hard enough, bringing it to life even harder.

While I didn’t necessarily find it difficult to write about my family, I don’t doubt that some family members would object to much of what is portrayed here. They want to believe that their ancestors never fought, drank, cheated on one another or had sex – even marital sex. They would no doubt be horrified to think that a family member was a bootlegger before she became a minister, but a novelist has to portray life as it is and was, not a version cleaned up for a children’s television network.

3.       To paint a portrait of 1930s farm life must have required a lot of research. How long did it take to uncover such details?

I wanted to write the Paint trilogy in part because I had heard so much of it directly from my parents and my aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. My portrait of farm life in the 1930s is taken more from life than from books: when I was born, my parents (the models for Jake and Emaline) were still living a life much like the life they endured during the Great Depression. I grew up milking the cows by hand and running the milk through a hand separator, bringing sick calves into the kitchen on cold winter nights and watching my parents battle through the early part of the 1950s to hang onto their farm, just as they had done in the 1930s. The tractors and trucks were a different model, but that was about the only difference; I was fourteen years old before we could afford a television set.

In addition to my own memories and the oral history I was told growing up, I relied to some extent on family memoirs and I read widely in other memoirs and novels of farm life in the 1930s. The Grapes of Wrath was useful for general background, but I relied more on the excellent work of Lois Hudson, especially The Bones of Plenty, a neglected American classic. The farming scenes depicted in Come Again No More, however, are based more on personal experience and the yarns my parents told around the kitchen table.        

4.       Do you think that the 1930s, with the Great Depression and Prohibition, was a dark time in American history or one filled with hope? Do you think the literature of that age agrees with you?

The Great Depression was a distant mirror of our own time, so if you feel that we are now living through a dark period of American history, you will probably see the 1930s the same way. Certainly the forces of darkness and repression were present, as they are now: in the Supreme Court, on Wall Street, in the media. But for perhaps the one and only time in American history, the working poor had their hands on, or close to, the levers of power. The depression was far deeper and more difficult than the current recession (a third of the work force was jobless when FDR took office) but there was, I think, more hope. My parents lost their farm during the Great Depression and migrated to Oregon, lost another farm during the 1950s and yet somehow never lost hope. I was raised an optimist, despite all they had endured, to believe both in the possibility of a better world and that the role of government should be to help improve the lives of the common people, not simply to protect and enhance the wealth, power and status of the rich. And although people in the 1930s had more reason to feel angry than at any other point in U.S. history, it does not seem that there was as much anger as there is today. Or, at the very, least, it seems that the anger was focused in the right direction: look at the steady, simmering anger of The Grapes of Wrath, directed at law enforcement and the big fruit and vegetable growers in California who so ruthlessly exploited the migrant workers. The literature of that age, I believe, reflects both the darkness of the time and the steady current of hope which had not yet been extinguished. I have no difficulty detecting the darkness and cynicism in the literature of the early part of this century. Hope is harder to find.

5.       You state that The Grapes of Wrath is the true great American novel. What sets it apart from the others that try to take that superlative?

One of the greatest delights in writing this lengthy trilogy is that it has given me a reason to re-read a series of American classics, including Huck Finn, The Sound and the Fury and The Grapes of Wrath, and to discover others such as The Bones of Plenty. I have already pointed to the quality that I believe sets John Steinbeck’s novel apart from the others. William Faulkner was without doubt the greater writer; he wrote more elegant prose, plumbed more deeply into the human condition, had a wider and more varied reach in the characters he created. But it was Steinbeck’s great achievement to write an entirely believable, heartbreaking human tale that was also a powerful political statement, one of the most powerful ever written. Rage is very difficult to harness. It is easy to find a million reasons to be angry with the late, unlamented regime of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, much more difficult to restrain that rage in order to let a story tell itself, to let the anger rise from within rather than imposing it from without. Because Steinbeck deals with the fundamental conflict in American society, the clash between unrestrained capitalism and labor, especially during a time of great contrast, and because he does it in a human way, without dogma or diatribe, The Grapes of Wrath stands apart from the other great novels written by Americans.

6.       The boxing sequences are reminiscent of those in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, who also has a boxer character by the name of Jake. Is that parallel deliberate?

It is entirely a coincidence that my character is also named Jake, but Hemingway was one of my earliest influences and the two characters do have much in common. Both Jake McCloskey and Jake Barnes are veterans of the Great War, both have a certain attitude toward women that recognizes a sort of female toughness that was not widely perceived before Hemingway began writing about it, both harbor deep prejudices and both are familiar with the brutality of boxing. They differ sharply in their ability to consummate a relationship with a woman.

7.       The peaceful, tranquil farm sequences greatly contrast the rowdy, violent boxing ones. Did you have to be in a different mindset to write each of them? Do you have a personal interest in boxing?

In both cases, I simply tried to depict the scenes I recall. Working on the farm, breaking ice from the stock tank with an axe, relaxing in the evening and listening to Edgar Bergen or Jack Benny on the radio, helping my father train horses at dawn and boxers in the evening, watching my mother in her rare quiet moments with her volume of Chekhov’s stories and a cup of tea, trying to squeeze in a little reading while my father ranted about how the working man could never catch a break.

With my father, the tranquility of farm life could be transformed in an instant when he lost his temper. In a matter of seconds, any man who had offended him would be down and bleeding in the dust. (Today, he would have found himself in jail on a regular basis.) He was a talented light-heavyweight boxer who plied his trade during the 1920s and 1930s, if not quite at the level depicted here. He was a veteran of more than seventy pro fights whose career began exactly as Jake’s does, with a promoter walking out to a beet field to recruit one of the laborers to face his champion. The bout against Lionel Kane depicted at the beginning of the Hard Times section is a pastiche of his memories of the fight game, beginning with the advice he always gave me when he was trying to teach me to box: “Always hit a nigger in the head and a fat man in the stomach.” I could never remember whether it went that way or the other way around, so I have tried to incorporate that uncertainty into the text. (Using the N-word, incidentally, posed another difficulty. My father's regular use of the word led us to the edge of blows more than once – a fight I would have lost. I don’t like to hear the word and I certainly didn’t want to use it – but if I didn’t, the passage would have been wholly inaccurate. It’s impossible to portray the casual racism of that time without using the language the characters would have used.) In the fight chapters, I also used my own experience as a sportswriter. I have covered world title fights featuring boxers such as Mike Tyson and Trevor Berbick and I have interviewed Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali. One of my closest friends is a former world middleweight champion, so boxing is one sport I understand thoroughly. I had the most fun, however, with the peripheral characters that are drawn more or less from life, if in a different era: the sportswriter Ed Floate, the radio broadcaster Wade Wynkoop. I looked up from ringside one very warm night at the fights and saw an obese boxing promoter wearing a floor-length fur coat. He lives on in the character of Moe Spitzer.

8.       This is a sweeping family epic that takes place over ten years. Is there a reason you wanted to keep it solely within the 1930s? Did you find this restraint helpful or restrictive?

After writing Sun Going Down, which sprawls from 1849 to 1933, I wanted to keep this novel within a significantly more limited time frame – in part so that I could concentrate entirely on the Great Depression and its effect on the lives of my characters. My initial draft of the novel included Jake’s departure from home and early years spent as a hobo before World War I, and my plan included the beginning of World War II, but through various drafts that was boiled down to the 1930s. I habitually question virtually every decision I make with a novel, but in this case I am absolutely certain that it was right to limit the time frame.

9.       There are a lot of characters and quite a family tree involved in this novel. Did you find it confusing to keep track of them all? Did you have a “cheat sheet” to remember who was who?

I grew up with all these characters, or at least I grew up hearing about them, so it was actually quite easy to remember all of them. The only cheat sheet I ever needed was a list of their birth dates. On the other hand, I now have difficulty remembering their real names, especially with Eli and Ezra Paint – in life, they were Squier and Eb Jones, but they have become Eli and Ezra to me. Names are very important to me and I find it impossible to write a scene unless a name rings true – which is why my grandmother Velma retained her given name in the fictional version. Because nothing else would do. Perhaps it's also why one of my favorite characters is the old cowpoke, Teeter Spawn. Because his name, to my ear, is perfect.

10.   Is there a particular reason you enjoy writing about the American west? Do you think you’ll eventually write about your new home of Canada?

I know precisely why I enjoy writing about the American west, even though I now live in the Canadian east. It is because I find that everything that happens in the west seems to be etched in high relief. The sun is brighter, the shadows deeper, the mountains taller, the Big Sky more vast and the characters, more often than not, somehow larger than they are in the cities, where rubbing up against so many other people seems to wear the edges off a person. I also love the language, the language I grew up with, the language of the frontier. My father was forty-eight years old when I was born and most of his brothers and sisters were older than him. The oldest was born in 1885 and grew up in Arkansas and Missouri, so I heard that speech directly from the source. Years later, I recognized that voice when I heard a recording of Ezra Pound reading his poetry. My first thought was “my God, that’s my Uncle Emery.” And I remember Squier Jones/Eli Paint visiting our farm in the early 1950s, a big man in a big white hat, driving a big white Cadillac. That’s why I love writing this: for all of them.

 And yes, after the next two novels I am now writing, I am planning a novel set in Montreal during the October Crisis in 1970, after the British consul was kidnapped by terrorists.

11.   What are you working on now?

I am working simultaneously on two novels. The first is called Paradise Rodeo: it's a direct sequel to Sun Going Down and Come Again No More, set in the 1940s, 1950s and the early 1960s. It picks up where Come Again No More leaves off and follows the fortunes of the Paint and McCloskey families through World War II and the Korean War to the beginnings of the Vietnam conflict, as Eli Paint rebuilds and extends his empire and Jake McCloskey and Emaline struggle to survive in a world that Jake, in particular, finds more and more difficult to understand.

The second novel I am writing is called The American and the situation at its core deliberately summons one of my favorite novels, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It is set over the past two decades in Quebec, Vermont, Wales, Marseille and Wyoming as two old friends quarrel over a young Eurasian woman and their vastly different view of the world and America’s role within it. While it is quite different in tone and content from the first three novels, it is in truth the fourth and last book in the series I think of as the Paint Quartet and it represents an attempt to place the first three novels in a somewhat different context.

 

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Jack Todd is the author of the novels Sun Going Down and Come Again No More and the memoir Desertion, which won the Quebec Writer’s Federation First Book Prize and the Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction. Visit his website at JackToddTheAuthor.com.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (September 2011)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416598503

Raves and Reviews

"A memorable story of the hardscrabble life on the dusty Nebraska plains during the Great Depression....There are obvious parallels with other Dust Bowl novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, but the perspectives and stories are different enough that Come Again No More is a worthy entry in the genre, and a fine salute to Todd's family history." --Historical Novels Review

"A sweeping tale of the American West in the shadow of the Great Depression." –Booklist

"The spirit and flavor of the period, the willingness to enlist almost anything in the service of a good story is spot on. [Todd] shows the passion of someone telling a story he wants and needs to tell....A first-rate novelist with a tender touch." --The Gazette (Montreal)

"Compelling...Conveys the tenacity and distress of Americans caught in the vise of the Great Depression."--Publishers Weekly

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