The Fiction of Mid-Life

My grandfather lived to be 84-years old. If we take 84 to be the new three score years and ten, then later this month, when I hit 43, I’ll be past the literal midway point. I haven’t gone out and bought any fancy cars, or tried to eliminate the gray from my hair (it’s been there since my mid-20s, so I’m used to it by now). But I have had some interesting recurring thoughts lately.

Actually, it started as a recurring image in my mind: a great sweeping, empty plains, with tall, stark mountains in the background. Over time the image has developed into something more: a quiet ranch in a sparsely populated county of some northern state like Montana or North Dakota. I find myself day-dreaming–not of winning the lottery or writing a bestseller–but of living on a small, quiet ranch miles outside some small town, far away from everything. Except my family, of course. My family is always there, the kids playing in the open spaces, Kelly and I talking long walks while the sun hovers low over the western horizon.

I don’t know exactly where these thoughts and images come from. Part of my suspects it is a reaction to living in a metropolitan suburb, and the hyper-connectedness of my daily life. Sometimes it seems to be disconnected, to be outdoors more, working with my hands, would be a welcome change.

Now, I’m not quitting my job and moving my family to some small town in the mid-west or west. Instead, these recurring images are finding their way into my fiction. In two recent works-in-progress, characters are dashing off to isolated areas to get away from something. It wasn’t intentional–at least not in the sense that it was anything plotted. It’s just how the stories have worked themselves out. And whether or not the stories ultimately sell, I’ve found a great deal of satisfaction in living vicariously through these characters. It’s my way of escaping, I guess.

This was brought to mind in a stark kind of way, when I realized how much I was enjoying the two books I am currently reading. One is fiction, and one is nonfiction, and I am enjoying both far more than expected.

The first is Stephen King’s The Stand. I’ve read the book before, but this time, I’m reading it as it was originally published in 1978–not the “uncut” version that was released in 1990. In any case, despite the horror of Captain Trips, and the plague that decimates the human population; despite the battle over good and evil, I find myself mesmerized by the descriptions of the trip across the desolate country. It is, yet, another expression of this strange desire for isolation.

The second book is The Longest Road by Philip Caputo. This is a road trip book, much in the manner of Blue Highways, about a man, his wife, and two dogs, who take a four month trip from the southern most point of Key West, Florida, up into the Arctic Circle in Alaska. It is an absolute pleasure to read. I found it interesting that I happened to be reading these two books at the same time1, and I think that is what brought to mind those recurring thoughts about the open space, and the tall mountains.

This is one of the true advantages of being a fiction writer: I can send my characters off to do the things that I can’t, living vicariously through them, and it is almost as good as doing it myself.

  1. I am reading the paperback version of The Stand in the evenings, and listening to the audiobook version of The Longest Road during my daily walks.

3 thoughts on “The Fiction of Mid-Life

  1. Jamie,
    I have similar issues. My last novella is literally, and literarily (I hope) about a family trying to escape the chaos of the apocalypse to go out and live in the wilderness. Of course, once they get there, they still have to deal with their own fears and issues!

    I don’t expect, with my past health issues, that I would live long after an apocalyptic event, but it sure is fun to write about it.
    Rob

  2. Maybe it’s worrying about how the whole world seems to be falling apart and finding a place where you could survive the collapse.

  3. +1 for The Longest Road and Blue Highways!

    But don’t forget Travels with Charley, by John Steinbeck!

    He’s one of my favorite authors, and that book is full of small sketches of an America both vanished from today’s modern world and achingly familiar. Read his descriptions of the people he meets and then Caputo’s and see how little has really changed in 50 years:

    “…I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.”

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