Larry Baker, Photo by Ofer Sivan
An excerpt from the new novel Love and Other Delusions, by Larry Baker
“My name is Alice Marcher. I’m your teacher, for better or for worse. Tomorrow is my birthday, and I expect presents.”
Danny sat in the back of the room, near the door, sullen and slouching, wearing baggy black jeans and a white oxford cloth shirt that was two sizes too big. He was going to work at the Centre Theatre after class. Because there was a freakishly large boy in front of him, he had to lean sideways to get a good view of his teacher. That was when she first saw him too, his head appearing as if out of the shoulder of a giant.
Ten years later, in bed together, they would both misremember the moment. Neither would claim it was love at first sight, but both wanted that first eye contact to have had some significance. With him almost thirty and her turning forty, they were breaking up for the second time, and there was a lot of history to romanticize. In another few years they would break up for a third and final time, but whereas all three had been her idea, the second break up was mutual and sentimental. They had convinced themselves that they were doing the logical thing. So that second time was important, to organize their history between them, to reminisce, to even videotape a tour of St. Augustine as they drove around and talked to each other about all the places that meant something to them. But they still glossed over that first look with too much sentiment. Their first private words to each other, however, were etched indelibly.
Yale Cohn and Larry Baker (and Larry’s cat Dill) recently sat down to talk about Larry’s new book Love and Other Delusions.
YC: In a number of your books, including this one, movie theaters figure prominently. You’ve owned and managed theaters across the country. What’s magic about them, not for their fare, but as places? At least how they used to be, before they went the cookie-cutter megaplex route?
LB: When I was growing up, they literally were larger than life. Old movie theaters, giant drive-in theaters, epic pictures and movie stars who were larger than life. To see anything on a big screen made it more dreamlike, and that feeling of getting lost in a dream, I’ve never quite gotten over, and I like that feeling. In this book, I’m trying to dissect that feeling. The guy who works at the theater–when he shows her how the machines work and the switches and everything–when he reveals all that, the woman he’s trying to impress is even more impressed because it’s a magic experience. Movies are a perfect metaphor for all art: this collaborative effort that gets lost in this one piece of work that’s in front of you that reflects the work of thousands of people.
YC: Like this one, a number of your books are set in Florida, where you lived with your family for just three years. How is it that this place made such an impression on you that you’ve set so many of your novels there?
LB: A lot of it is the connection to the ocean. If I’d lived in California, I might have placed these stories on the California coastline. The important thing is it’s the coast. You’re up against land and ocean, and that’s an implicit symbolic environment that changes the story. In A Good Man it starts on the beach, that’s where Harry wakes up, in the ocean–almost like a birth scene–and at the end, he’s back in the water, going back to where he began, in the ocean. In Flamingo Rising, the drive-in is literally set on the beach, so you combine the illusion of the movies with the forces of nature. Also, St. Augustine is America’s oldest city, so you combine the ocean and history in the terms of the oldest city in America. This plays a role in three of my books, that all life–all these little lives–are part of the history of life, and it’s nice to have the oldest city in the country as the background to that.
YC: Even though a number of your books are set in Florida, I wouldn’t consider you to be a “Florida writer” or your books to be “Florida books.” There are a handful of writers which come to mind who are, who really reflect that craziness Florida is known for–and Florida is America’s repository for the batshit insane. Are writers like Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry writing about a different segment of society there, or did you just not experience it? What’s the difference between a Larry Baker book set in Florida and other writers who set a lot of work there?
LB: When I go to Florida on book tours, audiences always say “I know these people, these are great ‘Florida people,’” and yet I never see them as “Florida” characters at all. Like Harry Ducharme in A Good Man. He’s a transplant, they’re all sort of transplants. I never got a sense of Florida people as characters. These are characters I would put anywhere else, but they work with the geography of Florida. It’s the setting, not the people that appeals to me.
YC: We’ve talked before about the authors who’ve influenced you, or whose styles you’ve emulated. Do you think you’ve written enough now so that you’ve influenced others? Is there a Larry Baker Style?
LB: Nobody would ever credit me with having a unique “Larry Baker style;” I don’t have any illusions about that. This new book is an experiment for me. It’s the most–and I’m saying this in a good way–it’s the most artificial book I’ve ever written. It’s an exercise in style and technique. I finally decided to take the leap into the whole concept of the “unreliable narrator,” and then I split that narrator into two people and made them both unreliable, so a lot of people could get confused in this book. But it’s a book that really doesn’t give you sympathetic characters like in A Good Man, or Athens. You’re not going to like anybody in Love and Other Delusions, it’s going to be the style that draws you in, the technique.
YC: “Athens, America,” was set in a thinly veiled version of Iowa City, are you going to be writing about us again?
LB: “Athens” was about Iowa City. In the future, I could set a story in here, but I basically covered everything that I’ve ever wanted to say about Iowa City.
Yale has interviewed Larry Baker (and dozens of other creative Iowa City residents) on his PATV TV Show “Talking With . . .” All those shows can be watched online anytime at www.talkingwithyale.com
That day in class, Alice had looked at Danny and smiled. The head out of the shoulder image was amusing to her. But it was the opening day of her own drama, and she had a script to follow. Danny was just another member of her audience, “I would prefer diamonds, but use your best judgment.” The Dean had warned her about irony, about most students’ failure to understand it. Alice didn’t care. The Dean was her husband. He understood her, and she always assumed that he would protect her.
The woman Danny saw that morning seemed tall, but was not, with long black hair pulled tightly behind her ears and a face that was interesting but not beautiful. The individual features were unremarkable, but the sum of her face was in her eyes, and those other features, as soon as Danny got close to her, coalesced around those dark brown eyes and became a seduction. In all the years of looking at that face, Danny never saw it change, except when they were about to have sex. Eventually, it seemed as if most of their time together was a slow dance always leading to sex, so her face was not as it was when he first saw it, but more often as it was when their bodies came closer together, soon to be one.
Alice had no impression of Danny until the end of that first class. Roll taken, syllabus explained, first assignment given, she dismissed class early. As she made her opening presentation, she had walked slowly around the room, forcing her students to turn their heads and follow her, finishing her waltz at the back of the room, a few feet away from Danny.
“See you tomorrow. Reading quiz first thing. Extra points for presents. Now, go and sin no more,” she said, opening the door behind Danny and standing back as the rush began. Within seconds the only people left in the room were her, Danny, and the giant student in front of him, who was having trouble getting out of the standard-sized desk. Alice first really noticed Danny when he stood up. He was over six feet tall and had remarkable blue-green eyes. Her first impression was that he was a young man who had probably done time in the military and was starting his life over, perhaps mid to late twenties, thirty at the outside. The most incongruous part of his appearance was that his hair was too long for his face. A man his age, she thought, would look better with a good haircut, but he certainly had potential.
As Danny had stood he had taken a more direct look at her face while she was looking in the other direction. She had looked younger from a distance, and her wedding ring was obvious when she came closer.
The turning point for her, the moment Danny separated himself from the blur of her other thoughts that morning, was when he turned back to help the other student get out of his desk. He put one hand on the back of the chair to hold it in place and offered his other hand to the giant, who squirmed out and then up from his desk, grunting as he rose, his red face beaded with sweat. He thanked Danny for his help, but, seeing his teacher, he lowered his head and left the room embarrassed. Alice watched him lumber past her and then turned back to see Danny staring at her. His face was different. He was stunning. It was this moment of their history they both remembered accurately, their first private conversation.
“What do you really want for your birthday,” he had asked.
The thing that she remembered best about that moment was that she was at first speechless because she was still thinking about his helping the giant. It seemed like such a kind gesture, almost gracious, as if Danny were a servant and a lord at the same time. And she was aware that she was staring at his face, as if he had stepped off a movie screen and entered her world.
“I want to be surprised,” she finally said.
The conversation lasted twenty more minutes, the two of them not moving from that spot at the back of the classroom, in no hurry since the next class would not start for half an hour. The opening two sentences were all they remembered, but that was enough. The rest was just small talk between teacher and new student. Details to supply a context. Personal traits were revealed immediately, traits that might have required weeks or months to be revealed around someone else, someone who was a close friend, someone who could be trusted, but revealed instantaneously with each other within minutes of meeting.
As she and Danny talked that first morning, she started to think about him in ways that she had thought about other men; but then she discovered that he was eighteen, a shock to her, and disappointing because it narrowed his appeal to her. As mature as he seemed, as much of an adult as he was required to be by his home life, he was still too young. Handsome, but a child. She had made many mistakes in her life, wrong choices in men, but cradle-robbing was not on the list. Other women she knew could joke about young hard boys as perfect lovers, quickly renewable and easily disposable, but Alice had a horror of becoming a cliché.
Danny went to the Centre and sorted his feelings. In their constant self-analysis over the years, Alice most resented his refusal, or his inability, to express those feelings. When he had told her that he went to work that first day and did not think about her, her feelings had been hurt, but he was untruthful. She admitted to looking forward to seeing him again, and he had tried to convince her that he had not thought about her, so she reminded him that he had, indeed, brought her a present on her birthday, so he must have thought of her after that first day, right? Of course he had, he admitted, but not, evidently, as much as she had thought about him. The pattern was established early. She did most of the talking, and he was silent a lot, silence that she somehow interpreted as depth, but that he knew was merely insecurity. “My god, Alice,” he would tell her on his thirtieth birthday, “I was a teenager. You were a married woman with a master’s degree, my teacher. I was absolutely intimidated by you for those first few years. I thought I would bore you, and, besides, you had no problem doing most of the talking.”
But he had thought about her that first afternoon, about how nobody else in class seemed to understand her humor, how she walked, how she had stood next to him as class ended and he first noticed how she smelled. The only other woman whose smell he could remember was his mother. Hers was sweeter than Alice’s, almost heavy sweet, almost whorish, and it had never faded in Danny’s mind. Alice’s smell was lighter, virginal and sensual at the same time, if that could be a smell, but it had been enough to have him keep his notebook in front of him as he talked to her after class. He sat in the Centre later and thought about going to Sears or Penney’s after work, to the perfume counter, testing every sampler until he found the same smell, and buying her a tiny bottle. That would be the perfect gift. But his sister needed to be taken shopping for a new swim suit, he had promised her, and his father had a prescription to refill, and there was no time, as always, for Danny to shop for himself. So he improvised.
Alice stood in front of her class the next day and asked, “And my presents?” With a mute group in front of her, she glanced at Danny but he did not look back. Disappointed, she laughed, “Why is it that nobody ever believes me? Every year, the same. Oh well, I’ll just add some extra questions to the quiz.” That, they believed.
After class, Danny lingered, waiting for all the others to leave the room, including the giant, and Alice knew he had something for her. She stayed at her podium. “Mr. Shay, Mr. Shay, you’re my last hope. Bring that diamond up here.” Another moment they would remember.
He walked to the front of the room and handed her an envelope, obviously a birthday card. Inside the card were two passes to the Centre Theatre. Alice almost cried, “Oh, Danny, how did you know I love the movies?”
“Everybody likes the movies,” he had said.
“Not like me, Danny, not like me.”
Larry Baker served two terms on the City Council in Iowa City and he currently serves on the Board of Adjustment. He has published four novels and numerous short stories. His first novel, The Flamingo Rising, was a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2001.