Considering how simple the main thread of the story of Lost Everything is—a man named Sunny Jim and his friend take a boat up the Susquehanna River to reunite with Sunny Jim’s son—it’s a little embarrassing that it took me so long to figure out how to tell it. Part of this had to do with balancing the other elements of the story, which involve both war and climate change; early on, with some relief, I chucked about sixty pages of exposition when I realized I could cover the same ground in about ten. But another part of it had to do with figuring out what the book was really about: faith.
I’m not a religious person; someone described me once as a hardcore agnostic, and the label fits. I’m extremely sure I have no idea what’s up when it comes to the possible existence or nature of higher powers. So the realization that what I was writing was leading straight into questions about faith surprised me, and for a little while, I balked, looking feebly for ways to recast the story. But in time I saw that both my previous books, Spaceman Blues and Liberation, had led to this point, and I was close to finishing whatever had started in the first book. My editor has said that she now understands the three books as being on a sort of continuum. When I was done, a friend and early close reader of Lost Everything congratulated me on having written a trilogy, which is true, though I never would have thought of it that way before he said it. Perhaps because he’s a priest, he saw where I was going before I did. And it’s thanks to him that Reverend Bauxite, Sunny Jim’s friend, moved from being a pretty peripheral character in an early draft of the book to perhaps its main character: a priest who wrestles with his faith and, as my friend said, tries to do what’s right under difficult circumstances. Religious and secular people are often described as being at odds in the United States, and certainly that’s true sometimes. But I think there are also many times that our causes converge—really, whenever we act on the conviction that things have to get better even though we have no evidence for it—and Lost Everything is about people living in one of those times.
Of course, the book isn’t a treatise. There are jokes and parties, gunfights and funerals, amusement parks and cities on fire. There’s a lot of music in it, because I just can’t seem to help myself. Also, part of the research for the book consisted of convincing two friends to take an almost fifty-mile canoe trip down the Susquehanna River with me. We camped for two nights amid a swarm of frogs, saw bald eagles perched in the branches above us and mayflies rising in the afternoon. We stopped to make coffee on an island, and once, when it rained torrentially, we paddled fast for the cover of some low-hanging trees and broke out some whiskey to wait out the storm. A lot of that’s in the book, too—as much as I could get in, really, because like my friend said, it’s the end of an accidental trilogy. I’m grateful to have the chance to finish what I started about ten years ago, and am hopeful for what comes next.
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