Return to the Madlands follows Arlo in the final chapter of the Mire Man Trilogy and brings to a close Arlo Smith’s wild and messy journey. What was your inspiration for the wild journey you take readers on in this novel?
Trilogies, by definition, usually sum everything that has transpired throughout the course of the story, if not most everything up in the final entry, and while that was of course my drive for finishing the story, it wasn’t necessarily the inspiration behind it. I once considered not writing it at all, and simply leaving the ending to Book II the way it was, sort of like a… “…and he got away” type of ending. Maybe it was out of greed on my own part that I wrote a Book III, because I wanted more of the character, I wanted him to engage more in the world around him at a different time of his life. I wanted Arlo Smith to finally be presented with the fact that death is in his, quite possibly near, future, and what that would mean for him in terms of deciding which one of these new, completely unprecedented paths he would take. I wanted Arlo to be presented with a final choice concerning Constance, and work in also the idea that there are no actual “final choices” in life, or at least there doesn’t have to be. And I think that reflects in a few of the supporting characters throughout the book.
Arlo often meets many interesting people on his travels. Were there any characters that you especially enjoyed writing for?
Arlo’s father, most definitely, considering the parallels of their individual existences and their already established roughness in what they think/thought of each other. I toyed with the idea of writing more for Arlo’s father in a separate novel, or short story, and even considering throwing in a twist at the end of “Madlands” that tied Arlo’s father to a character in a past novel of mine. There’s so much time that has passed since Arlo’s father left him until now, so much history and mystery that anything could have happened. I like to think though that sometimes it’s best to leave the mystery as it is; the idea of ascertaining the truth is not always as romantic as wallowing in the unknown.
Arlo meets his estranged father and forms a tentative relationship. Why was this event important to Arlo’s development?
Arlo’s chaos stems from his youth, and by extension if unintentional or not, his father had a hand in that. At this point in time, Arlo and his father, one has always assumed the worst had happened to the other, and in some ways, assumed they had been dead. So when they finally reunite, neither one of them wants to part with those assumptions because those beliefs have become such an essential part to their existences, that any interruption in said life has the potential to cause an insanity-driven rift. Neither Arlo or his father, in the beginning, wants anything to do with the realization that they are both still alive in the world. But as the story progresses, through intended subtlety and background “what-if’s”, Arlo’s father and Arlo himself in their own way begin to wonder if their reunion is fate, and even if it isn’t, why would that stop them from taking a chance at rewriting their futures?
How do you feel now that the Mire Man Trilogy is done? Did you accomplish everything you set out to?
I think I’ve said what I set out to say. The story’s been told and I don’t have any intentions of returning to Arlo’s world. That doesn’t mean any of the other supporting characters may or may not get a spot somewhere down the line, though it’s mostly unlikely. For me, “The Mire Man Trilogy” is a brief glimpse into the mind and heart of a people-watcher; someone who enjoys the company of people only as much as he can tolerate them. It’s a story within a story within a story within a story, and it could be that, more or less, to anyone who reads it. And even though it was me who wrote the story, I’ll never look at a glass of whiskey or listen to a piece by Miles Davis the same way again. People have said to me that they could never expect Arlo to have a happy ending, and maybe they’re right. I like to think of the ending of the trilogy as a reminder that it’s not important whether or not you leave the world on a happy note, but rather you instill in the people around you, and the people you’ve crossed paths with, some measure of self-inquiry, instead of simply letting the world and everything that it could be, slip through their fingers. Finding life’s answers isn’t as important as never giving up the search for them.
What is the next book that you are writing and when will that be available for readers?
Currently, I’m working on another volume of poetry and short stories alongside a novel. My fourth volume of poetry/short stories is titled “Slaughterhouse After-Party” and the novel is tentatively titled “He Showed Me All the Neon Tombstones and Together We Embraced the Abyss”, which is written in episodic form, in that each chapter deals with a different story in the life of the main character, who writes obituaries from the point of view of the deceased. Every chapter has to deal with a different client/family. The main character also has horrible anxiety and depression, for which he takes medication for. That medication has had a strange side-effect in that it more than occasionally causes him to hallucinate a version of himself, calling himself Chauncey, speaking in an English accent, with skin painted over its entirety, a deep, royal blue. Chauncey basically exists with the intention of mocking or critiquing every move the main character makes. So there’s some psychological bafoonery at play, along with the melancholy, always-present scent of death. Neither of these two books will be available for a while…maybe not for another year or two, depending on the stability of my own particular sanity.
A decade or so following the events of “Paradise City”, Arlo Smith finds that he is still somehow clinging to life. Fueled by the revelation that Constance may also still be alive and waiting for him somewhere out in the world, Arlo Smith, now feeling older than ever, decides to make one last stand against himself. Obliging to the last wishes of a recently-deceased love one, and perhaps succumbing to his own obsessions, Arlo embarks on an open road quest one last time in hopes of finding what he’s been searching for since that fateful day near the end of his high school years. What he discovers is an unexpected , and obligatory companionship with his estranged father, self-exiled in a lonely Nevada town, and more revelations that could either cement his perception of his very existence, or tear it down completely, rendering him beyond saving. Feeling the promise of death in one direction and the lure of Constance in another, Arlo is forced to decide to stay or leave… to obey the itching bones of his lusts, or to do what is right… and finally put to rest what may have started him on his path to damnation all those years ago.
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Arlo is on a journey across the country to find Constance, a long lost love. Throughout his trip, the reader is treated to his interactions with random individuals, many of whom this reader wishes he could know more about. However, the brief glimpses are more than entertaining. The owner of a motel and the story behind his sword on display, the female police officer who pulled Arlo over for swerving while driving, and Lenny, the former man of faith who shoots a gas station iguana, they all help Arlo along on his journey. Aside from the cast of supporting characters, Arlo is also dealing with his health. With the years of whiskey catching up to him, it made this reader wonder if he would survive long enough to find Constance.
This story is more like a collection of stories, rather than a novel with a driving plot line. While Arlo is technically on a journey that has a defined ending, the real value of the text comes from the small stories that Arlo collects from the people he meets along the way. Many of them share experiences that give the reader plenty to think about, but too many of them are too ready and willing to give “advice”. Most readers will anticipate this pattern of meeting, backstory, lesson. Because of this pattern, many of the lessons lose their weight due to the seemingly formulaic inclusion. If these lessons had been blended into the story with a bit more tact, then they would have a stronger impact.
Regardless, there is still some beauty in watching Arlo learn from these characters. Many of them are from walks of life that do not get much respect in our society. Hookers, drug addicts, hitchhikers. All of these people are human, and they have experiences that Arlo asks about. When he asks, and if the character responds, then the reader is treated to some of the most well-thought lessons in our society
Overall, the novel is entertaining. Arlo is a main character that everyone loves to hate, with his poor decision making skills and general negative views of the world around him. His interactions with the side characters tell a different story, though, and we get to see him grow as a person because of them. Perhaps it is a wisdom that has come with the aging of his character, but Arlo’s transformation from the previous entries, and even from the beginning of this entry, is something to behold.
Pages: 302 | ISBN: 1530041619
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Bar Nights by Dave Matthes is the first book of the Mire Man Trilogy, a chronicle of the life of Arlo Smith. Arlo comes home from work to find his wife and another man in the throes of passion on the kitchen counter. He decides that’s as good as a divorce decree, packs a bag, and walks out. In the driveway, his daughter and her boyfriend spark his rage, and he trashes the young man’s car with a baseball bat before he leaves. Arlo drives until his car breaks down, walks to a roadside bar, and stays. The owner, Vance, hires him as the janitor and gives him a tiny apartment above the bar.
Arlo doesn’t want to start over. His soul is already crushed by his former life and marriage, and in this bar, ironically named Purgatory, he has the freedom to be as drunk and indolent as he cares to. His only pleasure is in music. While he gets drunk in his apartment, the piano player downstairs fills his room with music. almost every night. He clings to the music but doesn’t want to meet her. When they do meet, she becomes the catalyst that forces him to face his life, his lies, and the hell he created along the way.
The plot of the story is simple, but there are so many nuances that I’d compare it more to Jazz than literature. Some of the barflies that come and go are character studies of people on the edge, or close to it, and reflect Arlo and Vance’s personal demons. The flow of the chapters adds texture and rhythm. The language is lyrical, sometimes pulling me out of the narrative just to appreciate the prose. Finding these gems was something I enjoyed while reading the novel.
Outside my window, the snow fell like the ash from a volcano…. I remembered looking out my window on Christmas morning as a child, and seeing the snow…. Little moments like that stole me from time to time. Burps and hiccups of nostalgia. A staple of regret temporarily sewing the rips and tears shut.
The author uses chapters in an unorthodox way, some as short as two words. Sometimes this works beautifully, but on occasion, a chapter seems more like a side note, or stray thought. I felt that the novel was repetitive in places, revisiting events and even phrases a few too many times, but in retrospect, some of that was clearly intentional. Addicts can be stuck on emotions or trauma, and that broken-record effect gave more realism to the characters.
Arlo is locked in a vicious cycle of self-hate, addiction, and depression that is reflected in the people he meets. Through Arlo’s eyes, we meet the patrons at the bar, his interactions with them colored by his personal misery. He’s afraid to meet Constance, the piano player, for fear that his illusions will crumble. Of course, fate intervenes, and he finally meets her by accident. They’re not in love, but they need each other to get through the desperation of their lives. Constance shoves him toward rehab, trying to save his life before he kills himself or becomes just like all the other drunks at the bar called Purgatory. Even that irony isn’t lost on Arlo.
This is a book for adults, as the language and situations are not for readers who are easily offended. It’s an examination of addiction and desperation that doesn’t sugar-coat anything. The author doesn’t spare any of the senses on this dive into skid row, and I could see, feel, and smell every detail. If you like Bar Nights, also pick up Paradise City, the next book in the trilogy.
Pages: 209 | ISBN: 1506198961
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