Brock Peters

The Historian Fragments - an Excerpt

So this is it, guys. THE NOVEL. I wrote the first draft in the spring and summer of 2012, largely at Joe Black's coffee shop, did a complete rewrite while living in France in the winter of 2013, and now I'm working through a third revision. This excerpt begins midway through the first chapter and introduces Lars, the eponymous Historian.


THE HISTORIAN FRAGMENTS

Xylography

The little red light on the voice-recorder was blinking, indicating that it was low on batteries. It sat atop stacks of notes, piled in no particular order. The cursor was also blinking, like a teasing lover, darting in and out of the glow cast by streetlamps, light dappled by the rain. Out the window the downpour had started to abate. There were empty beer bottles stacked in a pyramid beside the desk, and a half-finished martini in a mug by the keyboard. This always happened, Lars thought, as he tried to sort through the jumble of sensory input confounding his field of vision. Every time. His fingers rested lightly on the keys and he could feel them vibrating; the vibrations spread up into his arms and finally into his brain, indelibly connecting him to the machine. The blank screen was projected straight into his mind, but in the end it was all robotics. There was no way that anything original could emerge while he sat there connected, and though his fingers moved across the keyboard, there was no meaning coming out.

One time his editor had quipped, "Lars, there are nights when I stay up till three in the morning trying to figure out which pages you wrote drunk. If you're so damn good at making stuff up you should be a novelist, not a historian." She had no idea, really, Lars thought. He had a shelf that was full of his books, and each contained at least two or three pages of what were essentially alcoholic fabrications that had somehow gotten past her. Sometimes they were discovered, to much crowing and letter writing, by others working in the field. More often they remained hidden, tiny shimmering jewels that begged to be revealed.

After "Social Politics in 18th Century Denmark" won the Wilhelm Bühren Award, which was apparently a huge deal in Europe, Lars had resigned quickly from the university and holed up in his office downtown, working feverishly on his new book, leaving only to re-stock alcohol or food or to ransack this or that library, or sometimes to go home and collapse. Early that morning after having spent the night in the office without any sleep, Lars had been stricken by the precipitous fear that nobody was interested in xylography anymore, which had driven him out onto the street with his voice-recorder and his abstract, which he'd memorized verbatim. History, for Lars, was almost a masturbatory pleasure; it infuriated him that he couldn't help people to see why xylography was so much more fascinating, not to mention more important, than the latest thriller, or romance, or whatever. There were times when he would sit naked in front of the computer, surrounded by piles of heavy reference volumes, nursing a small erection as the words poured out. He would look out the window at people running around in circles down below. Hatefully he would watch them as they rushed. Bodies moving through the air from one place to another, and the biggest reverberations they could hope to leave in their entire day were the ripples in the atmosphere that shifted and collided, careening through brickwork façades and steadfast trees. How, through all of this futility, could they not be bothered about xylography?

On the nights that Lars ended up in his own bed he would fantasize about abducting teenagers from bus stops and tying them up in the basement. There he would compel them to ingest caffeine to keep them awake, and on pain of water torture force them to read John Hayward and Edward Gibbon and Howard Zinn and Josephus Flavius and Voltaire and Herodotus and Thucydides and finally, when they'd been properly educated, they would be freed. But now, the only thing they would desire in the entire world would be to stay in that very basement and read the complete works of Lars Hildebrand, from "Egypt After Alex" right through "Xylography." They would leave the basement as disciples, and spread the Good Word through the ignorant modern world in a swath of flame and passion. And Lars would look down from his third-story office and proclaim it to be good.

Lars weightily lifted his vibrating hands from the keyboard and let them hang loose at his sides for a moment, before he stood and pulled on his overcoat. He was too tired, too worn out to create new ideas. He grabbed his wallet and his keys and locked the office door behind him, descending the three flights of stairs to the ground and leaving the building through the back door. He emerged into the alleyway, which was full of rusted dumpsters and a smattering of haphazardly parked cars. It was almost midnight, and there was now a light drizzle dampening the ground and darkening the sky.

Upon emerging from the alley onto Main Street, Lars stood for a moment and watched the cars streaking by before he turned and headed east, up towards the dance bars with their glowing neon signs and further towards the porn theaters and the district where the streetwalkers hung out. There were only a few girls braving the conditions, knowing that business would be slow on a tired night like this one. Lars considered going into one of the bars for a drink but the very act of thinking about conversing with another stranger exhausted him. He peered around to see if any of the girls he knew were nearby; though he seldom engaged their services he'd gotten to know a few as a result of these late night walks, when he'd accidentally achieved that delicately-balanced BAC that allowed him to be outgoing and talkative.

Instead he kept walking down towards King Street, the last vanguard before things devolved into a mess of cheap hotels and beer stores. Turning right he passed the Overdale, a decent pub with some nice woodwork and reasonably priced drinks that had a network of slot machines and dark corners in the basement. If you ventured down there past a certain time you were likely to find a smattering of diehard elderly gamblers valiantly continuing to play despite the stifled moans of unseen grungy paramours deep in the shadows. Beyond the Overdale there lay a block of office spaces, serviced on the main level by an off-colour Vietnamese place and one of the city's most dubious sex shops, all leading up to an infamous anarchist art gallery. Lars abruptly realized that visiting the art gallery had been his goal all along.