Apprentice writers, when asked about what prompts them, often say it's the desire to "find my voice." Me, it's the last thing I want to find. I write fiction to escape my own solipsisms, break loose from my introspective moorings, spend some exhilarating time outside my Hamlet-like jailand I do this by inhabiting, in the hours I spend at my desk, another human's sensibility, another human's heart.
In pursuit of this, I often need to borrow their language, their words, their voice. This sometimes involves a subtle linkage of my writing style and the mood of the characterthe "voice" of the character, while present, is very restrained. But often the voice becomes much bolder and more explicitthe author writes in the oral "voice" his or her character would use if they were sitting next to us on an airplane orespecially!in a bar. The novelist becomes a ventriloquist, exceptand this happens only when the character is fully imagined, fully empathized withthe roles quickly become reversed, and, when the writing goes really well, you feel like decisions about language are being made by your character for you, and your job merely becomes that of taking down the dictation.
Gordon Weaver is a master of this kind of ventriloquism and empathy. He combines an uncanny ear for dialogue with a knowledge of arcane American slang that I've envied for years, and combines this with a musical sense of spoken language's rhythm and beat that gives his fiction a jitterbugging kind of bounce and drive. Reading Weaver, you become intoxicated with the protagonist's voice, his style of talking, to the point you hardly care what he's talking about, as long as that voice goes on. The voice confides to us, whispers, curses, laments, bitches, wisecracks, agonizes, belches, opinesand the more he does this, the more we want him to continue forever.
Some years back now, Weaver wrote an underground classic that deserves to be much better known, The Eight Corners of the World, wherein for 381 wondrous pages of absolute brilliance he inhabits the body, heart and mind of one Yoshinori Yamaguchi, a Hollywood-loving Japanese exchange student, half-hearted spy, witness of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima, and, after many adventures, the rich retired king of karate movies, looking back now on his picaresque life. It's absolutely convincing and real, though written in a pidgin-English, pidgin-Japanese no one on earth ever spoke. My own reaction, after reading it yet again, is how much fun Weaver must have had in writing itto change his nationality and age that way, to fly back in time, to let a different voice than his, a realer voice than his, pour through his fingers onto the page.
And now, with the novel-in-progress we have before us, Weaver is up to this kind of magic again, this time diving even deeper into the past to find a voiceWill Kempe's, the cocky Elizabethan hoofer, the man who is too good to waste his time with Shakespeare and goes out on his own. He's a character only Weaver could make real, and if he has to bend the rules of strict historical diction around to do it, all the better for Kempeand all the better for us. It's the showman in Kempe that Weaver responds to; you have the feeling Kempe is talking to us in elaborate and showy fonts, now bold, now italicized, with circus scrolls and gothic flourishes, and exclamation points all over the place, as he shouts, whispers, cajoles, pleads, and, ulimately, demands and soon wins both our attention and our sympathyand this from 500 years away.
Writing to find your voice? Perhaps it isn't a cliche after allbut only if you accept a paradox that is easily misunderstood. Weaver, once again, has found his voice as a novelist, and it's a tribute to his remarkable talent that this voice is Kempe's.
For some, this novel-in-progress excerpted here will be an exhilarating introduction to Weaver's fiction, but for those of us lucky enough to have read his work for many years now, it reconfirms his status as one of the boldest, most imaginative writers now working.
W. D. Wetherell is the author of many books,
most recently A Century of November.