Friday, July 4, 2014

A Tale of Two Body Types

Only the two longest of 55 chapters in "The Leather Man," a 282-page novel, run to 10 pages. Chapter 6 is one of them, and the reason is Quintus LeClaire, one of the most interesting characters in modern fiction. In high school he sets records for rushing yardage and touchdowns in the fall and for sprint times in the spring. and still finds time to get top grades in Latin and the physical sciences. The Louisiana native seems destined to star for LSU until _ in a typically rash, teenage moment fueled by his parents' divorce and his father's deteriorating health _ he joins the Marine Corps in the run-up to Vietnam. His rationale is simple: Play for the Quantico Marines, answer a call to arms, and then return to college.

A few years later, LeClaire is in jail in Canyon City, Idaho, where he runs afoul of the law after a flashback aboard a bus. He has physical scars left by bullet wounds in his shoulder, chest and leg and psychological scars from more than a year of firefights, losing friends and watching his youth fade away.

That's the setting for Chapter 6. The other person in the clean but dingy interrogation room is Canyon City police chief Sam Moody, who gets a predawn call on a Sunday morning to come in and question what he believes to be a "wild man on the bus."

Moody's first surprise is LeClaire's impressive bearing, even in handcuffs. He notices the detainee's powerful build and soon realizes his prisoner is uncommonly intelligent. Once LeClaire begins to share details of his past, which includes receiving medals for bravery in combat (proven to the ever-cautious police chief by showing him his scars), Moody concludes that the ex-Marine deserves something better than jail time and tells him he won't be charged. Then Moody, himself a combat veteran from an earlier war whose own future as a football lineman vanished when he opted to serve his church as a missionary and then was drafted into the Army, surprises LeClaire with a question: Has he ever played football?
That's a question I can handle, LeClaire thought, feeling relief that took him back to Breaux Bridge and its crawfish etouffee, mocha-faced bayous and brown pelicans.
A lively conversation ensues, with LeClaire discussing his football exploits. He answers a question by saying speed is his greatest attribute as a ball carrier, plus the fact that he doesn't fumble. It's music to the ears of Moody, accustomed to the lead-footed, turnover-prone halfbacks at nearby Canyon State College. Moody has sublimated his love of the sport through his friendship with Ben Steinbrecher and other Canyon State coaches by acting as an unofficial talent evaluator and scout for the program, and, after questioning whether LeClaire plans to return to Southeastern Conference country, asks him if he'd like to look at a local campus which might be "a good place for a young man trying to get his life back together." LeClaire says he wouldn't mind hanging around town for the breakfast Moody offers to buy him.

The chapter is full of bright, thought-provoking passages and original figures of speech, starting with LeClaire's stream-of-consciousness instructions to himself when Moody opens the interrogation:
Don't give them any way in, he reminded himself. He didn't want to talk about flares so bright they imprinted on your retinas, about the stench of cordite and roasting flesh _ canine, porcine or human, take your pick _ and fear palpable enough to leave claw marks on your nervous system, combat coming at you like the maw of an alligator.
When Moody asks what caused the ruckus on the bus, LeClaire replies:
"I rode all the way from Louisiana. I've been kind of irregular with the sleep, and then as soon as we got north of Utah I went out like a light. That's some sparse country out there. Those ... sagebrush? They could make the Himalayas look monotonous. Anyway, I fell asleep and had a bad dream, and I guess I scared some passengers. By the time I woke up your guys were all over me."
By the end of the chapter Moody's mood has improved. What began as a work day on the one day he usually counted as a day off has turned into a chance to get in touch with his buddy about someone who might help the team.


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