Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Book: Glendon Swarthout's SKELETONS

Glendon Swarthout's SKELETONS, Double Day & Co, Garden City, New York, 1979.  This was the first and last adult mystery by Swarthout, who had already written The Shootist, Where The Boys Are, They Came To Cordura, and other fine novels.

I read it in first edition hardcover and laughed and marveled at Swarthout's quirky plot twists and word play.  It seems a bit dated now, but only because many of the things in here have been copied by others.  For instance, I believe that it was Swarthout who in this novel first coined the phrase "a pregnant pause," which has since entered common vernacular and which Wikipedia now uses to describes the comic pauses of comedians Victor Borge, Jack Benny, and Johnny Carson, among others.
Below is the epigraph from the first edition, a stylized quote from William Faulkner:
    The novel is a mystery wrapped in a kooky soap opera mixing well-researched historical western lore with madcap twists and turns, time out of time.  The protagonist is an author of children's novels trying to win back his ex-wife by solving the murder of her second husband.

It was optioned for a movie, to be directed by Wes Craven, but the deal fell through and the rights are now the property of the Swarthout estate.  Here's the opening of the novel with a couple of the finer paperback covers once advertising its motifs of skeletal time. 

I love GOOD and hate EVIL.
One thing I get a bang out of is reading aloud to a roomful of middle-aged children, ten to fourteen. I need to see how they react. What makes them laugh or cry, what grabs and engrosses them.
I was about to read a few pages, but first I had to set the stage.

“How many of you have flown?” I asked. Of the seventeen in the room, sixteen raised hands. Not surprising in New York. “Okay,” I said. “Now, how many have ever seen a fly on a plane?” Two raised hands, a few made faces. “Well, probably most of you have, and never thought about it. Next time you fly, notice. Usually you’ll see a fly or two hanging around the galley, where the stewardesses prepare meals. And why do flies fly? Why, because they enjoy travel, just as you do. And think of it--all a fly has to do is look at a schedule, decide where he’d like to go, pick his flight, fly to that gate, buzz aboard, and away he goes. No X-ray, no hand-luggage inspection. Free. And first-class, too, because the food and booze are better.
The phone rang.
I went weak. Tyler Vaught.
“Wrong number,” I said.
I hung up on her, resumed. “Excuse me, kids, just my ex-wife. Where were we? Oh yes. I suppose most of you have seen JFK. Well, the next time you go out there, go to the TWA terminal, stand in the center of the big room, and look up near the ceiling, in the northeast corner. If you have good eyes, you’ll--“
The phone rang.
“Jimmie, this is Tyler.”
“I know.”
“Max is dead.”
A pregnant pause.
“Well?” she said.
“Well what?”
“Say something.”
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”
“You bastard.”
“Tyler, what am I supposed to do? Fall apart? So the sonofabitch is dead. Good night.”
“No, wait. He was killed by a hit-and-run driver. In Harding.”
“Harding? What in hell was he doing in New Mexico?”
“Well, it’s a long story. But one night I happened to tell him about Harding--you know, my grandfathers, the gunfight, the trials, 1910, 1916, and--“
“Oh no. Not that again.”
“And he got very excited. You know Max. He thought there might be a book in it. So the next day he flew out there. That was four days ago. Now he’s dead.”
“You’re breaking my heart.”
“Jimmie, why I called. His body’s being flown in from El Paso tomorrow. Someone in the family must sign for it--airline regulations--or somebody authorized by the family, and turn it over to the mortuary. Well, his dear old parents live in the Bronx and they’re on their knees--Max was an only child. So they’ve authorized me to meet the body and sign for it tomorrow afternoon and Jimmie, I don’t think I can do it. Alone. Jimmie, will you go with me?”
“Hit-and-run, huh? Sorry I wasn’t the driver.”
“I hope they total his coffin the way they total my luggage.”
“Jimmie, I need you. I can’t--“
Adios, Tyler.”

I hung up on her again and readdressed my fidgety audience. “Where were we? Oh yes. Up near the TWA ceiling you’ll see a crowd of flies. Well, they’re the jet set, the pro international travelers--TWA goes everywhere. This crowd hangs around between flights and exchanges information on the best airlines and the best hotels and so on and the most-traveled of them all is Frisby. Frisby is a really worldly fly. He’s just returned from Italy, is recovering from jet lag, and thinking about having a look at Africa next. There’s a midnight departure from Kennedy to Nairobi via London. And as our story begins-- the pages I’m going to read to you--Frisby’s asking his friends about visas and inoculations and safaris and--“
Suddenly I didn’t feel like reading, didn’t need a roomful of kids. Tyler would call again, she never quit, and I wanted to be alone to think of different ways to say no when she did.
“Bug off, you little buggers,” I said to them. “A man’s dead and I’m not in the mood. So get lost and good-bye.”
They disappeared.
Imaginary children of course. I wish I were happily married, with my own progeny to read to, but alas, I probably never will be. Or have my own progeny. I live in an apartment on East Seventy-third, between Fifth and Madison.


This is a tag-along to Patti's Friday's Forgotten Book Series to be found at this link.

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