Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thad Carhart's "Across the Endless River"

A dual citizen of Ireland and the United States, Thad Carhart is the author of the international bestseller, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. He lives in Paris with his wife, the photographer Simo Neri, and their two children.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Across the Endless River, and reported the following:
My story in Across the Endless River proceeds with a number of different voices and narrative devices throughout: letters, journal entries, and third-person descriptions. So long as readers understand the context, my p. 99 is an interesting example of this latter form. While lacking some of the colorful details of earlier sections describing, say, the American frontier of the 1820s, or the internal voice of my characters’ correspondence, it does put forward one of the novel’s central themes: how do we make sense of worlds that we have not before known – both in the general and the particular – and how do we then adapt in order to fit in?

In this scene, it is 1824, and my nineteen-year-old principal character, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea, is preparing for a ball in Paris. He had arrived from the wilds of the American frontier only weeks before. His patron’s servant, Schlape, is trying to hurry him away from where the orchestra is practicing, but Baptiste is captivated by the waves of music, unlike anything he has heard before. The strict social code – guests do not mingle with servants and musicians – is not something Baptiste knows or cares about, but the ever-watchful servant won’t let him alone.

When he reluctantly joins Duke Paul, his patron, on the floor above, Paul is immersed in the preparations of dressing for the formal ball. This, too, is terra incognita to Baptiste, and the page ends as Baptiste observes the medals and ribbons that make up a nobleman’s dress. Another code that he doesn’t know presents itself, and he uses his wiles to understand its meaning: observe closely, ask questions, try to fit in.

Page 99:

March 1824

The musicians sat down, took up their instruments, and, at the conductor's downbeat, sounded a long full chord that thrilled Baptiste. Lost in the pure pleasure of the dance rhythms that filled the ballroom, he listened to them play several pieces. Eventually Schlape appeared at his side, a look of concern on his face. "Sir, wouldn't it be wise to take your bath and dress for the evening?"

"Yes, Schlape, of course. I just want to listen for a while." Baptiste gestured toward the orchestra.

Schlape leaned in closer and added a more insistent tone, "If you don't mind my saying so, sir, your presence makes them uncomfortable."

Baptiste was surprised. "Why, Schlape?"

The older man raised his voice a little. "These musicians are preparing a prince's ball in honor of Duke Paul. You are one of Duke Paul's friends and cannot properly be seen to consort with the servants. Your proper place is among the guests tonight."

The conductor gave them both a long glance before taking up his baton and calling the ensemble to order.

"And you?" Baptiste asked.

"I am in service, sir, and you" -- he raised his eyes to indicate the floor above where both Baptiste and Paul were housed -- "are not."

Baptiste though of the young clarinet player's diffidence. He saw that there was no use arguing, so he left the room, shadowed by Schlape, who waited on the landing while he walked up, as if to assure himself of the compliant behavior of a schoolboy.

Paul greeted him through the open door of his apartments. "There you are, my friend. Time to put on that new suit of clothes and prepare to meet Paris society."

He was standing in front of a cheval glass set diagonally in the corner of the room, adjusting his white tie and pulling his shirt cuffs down from his coat sleeves. To Baptiste, there were two Pauls, the real one seen from behind and his reflection, which nodded and talked to Baptiste as he primped before the mirror. A gold medal suspended from a broad scarlet ribbon hung around Paul's neck, and on his left breast pocket was pinned a smaller medal with the same striped ribbon Baptiste had first noticed in Le Havre.

Excerpted from Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart Copyright © 2009 by Thad Carhart. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. The above is an excerpt from the book Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.
Read an excerpt from Across the Endless River, and learn more about the book and author at Thad Carhart's website.

--Marshal Zeringue