Sunday, July 23, 2006

Defining Character

In the accidental, round-about way that I seem to find books these days--a little like following unexplored tributaries, not quite knowing where they'll lead--I found Paul Acampora's new novel, Defining Dulcie.

In this case, the tributary led to a new collection of stories, Every Man For Himself, edited by Nancy Mercado (an excellent collection of stories about being a guy), and one of the stories was Acampora's remarkable "No More Birds Will Die Today."

The emotions stirred by his story were still rippling days later. That's when I knew I had to go back to the library to check out his new novel.

Defining Dulcie is all about, well, defining 16 year-old Dulcie, only Dulcie's search for identity isn't apparent at first glance. That's because the story opens with a scene that describes a death in the family--in this case Dulcie's father, a janitor at the local high school, who mistakenly mixes together toxic chemicals and kills himself.

Ordinarily, when I find such a scene at the start of a story, I tend to expect the story that follows to explore grief... and the character's recovery. But Dulcie's story is full of surprises, and one of the surprises is that it isn't so much an exploration of grief as it is a search for her true home and place in the world.

Her father's death may have set the plot in motion, but it's a plot that concerns itself with Dulcie defining herself in his absence, not about her grief per se. So, it's not the mourning process that Acampora explores but how Dulcie comes to a new understanding of where she belongs.

What's interesting about how Acampora sets up the plot is the way Dulcie, who is literally yanked out of the world that she's known all her life, has to find a way back to what she knows in order to come to a new understanding of herself.

It's her mother who decides that they should start a new life (literally "re-defining" themselves) in California, and who insists that Dulcie leave Connecticut, where she feels most herself (and closest to Dad), and accompany her on the long drive across the country.

To get back home, Dulcie steals Dad's truck from Mom and begins the cross-country journey in reverse on her own. This adventure, along with the life that Dulcie begins to make for herself in Connecticut with her grandfather and an unexpected new friend, is what shapes Dulcie's search for identity.

Throughout this unusual coming-of-age tale Acampora deftly weaves Dulcie's memories of Dad with her insights into her current dilemma with Mom and her concerns about her future, deepening our understanding of her character as the journey unfolds, defining her with each new revelation about what she needs to become herself.

At the start of the story, Dulcie's confused, at sea, unconnected without Dad... and must find a way to connect herself to his memory, as well as to others. The move (and Dad's death) displaces Dulcie's sense of self, stretching her sense of connection with herself and her past, forcing her to ask such soul-searching questions as:

* How does the loss of Dad change who I am?
* And who, exactly, am I?
* And where do I belong now that Dad's gone?

These are questions that any writer might ask his or her characters while exploring their inner lives: Who am I? And how does the loss of someone (or something) that I love change me? And where, ultimately, do I belong?

But by the end of the story all of the invisible lines in Dulcie's life that connect her in mysterious ways come together:
I tilted my head and imagined my nose about even with the Triple J. I stretched out my left hand and pointed toward Mom and Roxanne in California. My right hand held an invisible line that went straight to Frank's house. If my feet were connected to wires, long rays could stretch from me all the way to Sister Clare or to the Kansas Fainting Goat Farm. Somewhere, there was a line to the pink cemetery stones too. All these things were connected to me, and for one brief moment I was at the center of things--my town, my story, my self.
Dulcie's found her place, her self. She may still feel unsure of where all the lines lead, but she can feel them nonetheless:
I thought again about all the lines, real and imaginary, that surrounded me. I was not sure whether they were strands in a giant web or huge broad strokes in a picture so close to my face that I could not see it clearly.
And it's sensing the map of her life as it might unfold along these invisible lines that's enough for her (and the reader) at this moment in her life.

Defining Dulcie is an impressive debut, as well as an excellent novel to study for learning how to develop a character with depth. Take a look. You'll have lots to thank Acampora for.

For information about Paul Acampora, check out his website and his blog

1 comment:

jo'r said...

I, too, get a sense of dislocation when an opening situation has been enough to get me invested in a story as a reader, but then the author seems to veer off into a different kind of story. Sometimes an author gets me hooked again before I set the book aside, but sometimes not. For this book, which I haven’t read yet, maybe Paul wanted to set the background and move us into the motivating psyche of his character, Dulcie, before launching into the real story of her coming-of-age. Although you came to like the story, and I suspect I will, too, it may be possible that it would have had a stronger structure if the father’s death had been referred to later in the real story, as related to some incident or frame-of-mind besetting Dulcie along her way.

I think both writer and reader might be best served when the heart of the real story is set in motion in the opening lines—not always easy to do, but worth trying for. We’ve talked in emails about an author/teacher who has covered this ground, Bill Johnson (“A Story is a Promise”), and I revisited his site,, to see what is the latest he might have on this. He has a rather good essay, “Unfolding a story from the first sentence,” which uses the opening pages of a story by that master storyteller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, titled “Meshugah,” to illustrate this point. Check it out. Onward.

I noticed the 4000 count marker for number of site visitors. Congratulations on putting up such a good site for writers and readers.