"Twilight of the Drifter" is a crime story with southern gothic overtones. It centers on thirty-something Josh Devlin, a failed journalist who, after a year of wandering, winds up in a Kentucky homeless shelter on a wintry December. Soon after the opening setup, the crosscurrents go into motion as Josh comes upon a runaway named Alice holed up in an abandoned boxcar. Taken with her plight and dejected over his own squandered life, he spirits her back to Memphis and his uncle's Blues Hall Cafe. From there he tries to get back on his feet while seeking a solution to Alice's troubles. As the story unfolds, a Delta bluesman's checkered past comes into play and, inevitably, Josh finds himself on a collision course with a backwoods tracker fixated on the Civil War and, by extension, the machinations of the governor-elect of Mississippi. In a sense, this tale hinges on the vagaries of chance and human nature. At the same time, an underlying force appears to be driving the action as though seeking the truth and long awaited redemption. Or, to put it another way, past sins have finally come due in the present..
Genre: “A laudable crime thriller with a Southern setting”—Kirkus Reviews
Publisher: Sunbury Press; released in January 2012
Shelly Frome is a member of Mystery Writers of America, a professor of dramatic arts emeritus at the University of Connecticut, a former professional actor, a writer of mysteries, books on theater and film, and articles on the performing arts appearing in a number of periodicals in the U.S. and the U.K. He is also a film critic and a contributor to writers’ blogs. His fiction includes Lilac Moon, Sun Dance for Andy Horn, Tinseltown Riff and the trans-Atlantic cozy The Twinning Murders. Among his works of non-fiction are the acclaimed The Actors Studio and texts on the art and craft of screenwriting and writing for the stage. Twilight of the Drifter, his latest novel, is a southern gothic crime-and-blues odyssey.
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When I was a little kid, I often heard mothers say, “We’re out in public. Don’t make a scene.” At first, I thought it meant, I want you to behave yourself or I will tell your father. Or, Please, I’m only going to ask you once. Don’t embarrass me. Later on, it seemed some parent in question was saying, Don’t you dare do anything to draw attention to us. Later still, I began to wonder what it would take to not only draw people’s attention but to sustain it. What could the child do besides acting out? Which, by that point, had become so predictable in shopping centers everywhere that it just didn’t play. No longer was repression and strict behavior part of our cultural landscape.
Interesting enough, after years of acting, teaching, directing and playwriting, each time I tackle a novel I have to confront this same problem. I still marvel over Brando’s performance in the movie On the Waterfront when, for instance, disregarding what Budd Schulberg had written in the script, he picked up Eva Marie Saint’s delicate white glove. They were outside in the freezing cold in a park not far from the
The noted movie director Robert Altman was fond of saying that every time the actors did what they were told—said what they were supposed to say, followed the stage directions to the letter—he had no movie. It was only the happy accidents that made the storyline work. It was because of something other, some elusive ingredient that any given scene sprang to life. And, inevitably, those were the moments that moviegoers remembered.
So here I am, approaching another scene in a new novel I’m writing. As far as I know, Jed, my wayward central character, who is in deep trouble, is about to approach Babs, a power supply store owner, for some information. The scene falls flat because each character is doing exactly what I expected. It’s only when I have Babs wheel out a reconditioned DR brush cutter trying to deflect that things start to happen. The more she attempts to pawn it off on him, placing it between Jed and herself, the more obstacles Jed has to navigate around literally and figuratively. And the more Babs finds little devices to ward Jed off, the more the scene starts to percolate.
It wasn’t the answer. It was only part of the improvisational process. To put it another way, What’s it going to take to “jack this up” to use novel guru Larry Brooks’ unfortunate phrase. (An expression he kept using during his Story Engineering sessions at a recent writers conference in
I myself would rather ask, What will make this encounter reverberate and propel the story on? How can I make a scene?
Wolf Creek was silent again, shrouded and hidden away in the fading early December light.
Then the cracking sound of wood as the old hunter’s blind gave way somewhere in the near distance, a sudden scream and a muffled thud. The cracking sound was not nearly as sharp as the first gunshot or the second, the scream not at all as piercing as the first cry or as grating as the moans that followed and faded.
The coonhound took off immediately, ignoring the touch of frost in the creek water, the obstacle course of fallen tree limbs and bare forked branches, the muddy slope and the snare and tangle of vines and whip-like saplings. Within seconds, the hound was bounding higher until he came upon a prone scrawny figure totally unlike the one that had just fallen on the opposite bank.
Sniffing around, barking and howling, the hound snapped at the flimsy jacket and bit into it. As the scrawny little figure began to stir, he tore into the sleeve, ripping it to shreds and barked and howled again, turning back for instructions. The sight of the skinny flailing arms sent the coonhound back on its haunches—half guarding, half confused as it turned around yet again, looking down the slope to the creek bed, still waiting for a signal.
Presently, a tall, rangy man made his way across the same obstacle course, long-handled shovel in hand. But he was only in time to catch sight of a girl clutching her head, staggering away from the scene through the tangles and deepening shadows. Then again, it could’ve been a boy for all he knew, but he settled on a girl, a flat-chested tomboy, more like. Casting his gaze up to the snapped rungs of the tree-ladder, he spotted the broken edge of the rotting hunters blind some eight feet above where she could’ve seen everything.
The coonhound began circling around him, displaying the shards of material dangling from his jaw. Instinctively, the man rushed forward. Then he thought better of it as his overalls got snagged in the brambles. From the look of things, the girl was probably dazed and confused and wouldn’t get as far as the dirt drive, if that.
Wrong guess. The slam of a hood as the flat-bed’s worn V-8 motor fired-up, the grinding of gears and the familiar whine and squeal of tires signaled the tomboy was away and well out of reach.
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