The Smallest Color in Counterpoint Paperback, available now
From Publisherís Weekly
September 10, 2001
THE SMALLEST COLOR
Bill Roorbach. Counterpoint, $25
(336 p) ISBN 1-58243-152-3
Roorbach has quietly built a stellar reputation based on short fiction(Big Bend, winner of the Flannery O'connor Award) and nonfiction (Writing Life Stories, Summers with Juliet), but has escaped wider notice -- perhaps because he hadn't produced a novel. Now he has, and it's a good one. Coop Henry is a former Olympic skier, a man steering his way through what most would call a good life -- he's a coach with the U.S. Ski Team; has a smart, beautiful wife, Madeline; and lives along a Colorado river straight out of a magazine spread. Problem is, the hazy days of the late '60s keep coming back to him, especially the summer of 1969, when Coop was 15 and his older brother, Hodge, and underground radical, disappeared forever. Coop knows that Hodge is dead, but exactly how that death occurred overwhelms Coop with the past, even as his current life disintegrates. Complicating things, he has kept the news of Hodge's death from his parents for 30 years, telling them that Hodge is hiding from the FBI. It's hard to know who's a better creation: Coop, a thoughtful man in search of wholeness or Hodge, all charisma and violence, "someone who'd get in bed with your girl." Roorbach is equally at home among the ski bums of the present day and the hippie bums of a previous era, especially those who wanted to "Stop the War" by starting their own. This is a piercing novel, one that perfectly captures the seismic upheaval of the end of the '60s (Oct)
Forecast: A long list of blurbers -- Colin Harrison, Rick Moody, Richard Russo, Antonya Nelson and Melanie Rae Thon among them -- attest to Roorbach's popularity in literary circles. His first novel may win him a wider popular readership.
THE SMALLEST COLOR
Coop Henry's terrible secret about his older brother, Hodge, is eating up his life. In Bill Roorbach's extraordinary first novel about two brothers--one alive, one presumed missing--the thirty-year secret that has kept Coop bound in silence is threatening to burst.
What really happened to Hodge Henry in the summer of 1969, the last time he was seen by his parents? Coop certainly knows, but has managed to keep up a decades-long charade that has fooled everyone. But the effort has had a cost. His marriage is faltering. His coaching job with the US ski team is in jeopardy. And when his mother threatens to hire a detective in one last, vain attempt to retrieve her missing son, Coop begins to crack.
Added to the pressure on Coop is a budding relationship with Veronica, one of Coop's skiers. She's young enough to give Coop pause, compelling enough in mind and body to convince him to act, even if it means losing his job, his home, and his secret.
The Smallest Color is the story of Coop's attempt to remember the past, that devastating summer of 1969 when everything seemed possible, when his brother, the brutal Hodge Henry, was still alive. Like Philip Roth's Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral, Roorbach's The Smallest Color explores the sixties when radical acts threatened to destroy a domestic bliss we may have had no claim to. Alternating between then and now, the two brilliant cables of the novel interweave the past and present into a portrait of time itself in this unforgettable story of brotherly love and loss.
"The energetic rhythm of Roorbach's language, by turns wry and lyrical, captures the confused rush of being young, of suddenly doing instead of watching. And Roorbach vividly dramatizes the adult embarrassment of cracking up. Roorbach doesn't simply shuttle us between Coop's current unhappiness and his teenage secrets. He heightens the novel's suspense in both the past and the present, varying the chapter lengths, tightening the circle as violence sparks. Without giving too much away, there is a bombing, some shooting, and an appalling sense of dread. In such scenes Roorbach has few equals, even among veteran suspense writers. But this mastery of suspense is just one of the talents he uses to construct a novel that instantly demands your attention and holds it until the surprisingly sweet conclusion."
--The Boston Globe
"Bill Roorbach knows that the most terrible of secrets are the ones we hold most tightly to ourselves, no matter what the cost. He knows also why men love women, why women love men, why families grieve yet endure, and why the past is very much part of the present. He is a wise and beautiful writer and The Smallest Color marks his debut as a novelist we must read." Colin Harrison
"I've admired Bill Roorbach's voice for a long time. He is a writer who is full of compassion and warmth for his subjects, and he's funny as hell too. We're lucky to have new work from him." Rick Moody
"It's been a while since I read a novel as greedily as [this]. Full of dark suspense, wonderfully playful writing and people worth worrying yourself sick over, it's a richly satisfying read." Richard Russo
"A gripping novel about the unhealed wounds and unfinished business of the sixties. It has the energy and pacing of a thriller--but Bill Roorbach's writing is also notable for its warmth, its sensitivity to women, and its irresistible bad boy charm." Joyce Johnson
"[A] fast-paced, funny, dark first novel ... Gradually, the entwining tales join--strands of the present and past, the 45- and the 15-year-old, time and memory, the '60s and the '90s, sadness and anger and love and guilt, are woven into whole cloth." Judith Long, Newsday
"[A] deeply felt debut novel ..." Kera Bolnick, Bookforum
"[A] superb first novel ..." Anna Mundow, The Boston Globe
"Roorbach has quietly built a stellar reputation based on short fiction and nonfiction, but has escaped wider notice -- perhaps because he hadn't produced a novel. Now he has, and it's a good one ... This is a piercing novel, one that perfectly captures the seismic upheaval of the end of the '60's." Publishers Weekly
"Roorbach effectively juggles a number of themes in a slyly composed whodunit that's also a paean to burying the bones of the past ... Roorbach builds an engaging portrait of the '60's, it's free-love and drug experiments, the naÔve innocence of some and the restless violence of others ... Well-drawn characters and a topical theme make this a lively read." Kirkus Reviews
"Both unsettling and powerful ... A compelling coming-of-middle-age novel." Connie Fletcher, Booklist
"This first novel brilliantly and compassionately recalls the turbulence of the Sixties as well as the violent yet idealistic fringes of the antiwar movement." Library Journal
THE SMALLEST COLOR is your first novel, and it's pretty ambitious in that it has numerous, fully fleshed-out characters, and two story lines intertwined-Coop's past and present. There are also numerous settings: Colorado, Seattle, Chicago, Maine, Montana. How did you come to write this story?
The places are important, yes. I've lived most of those places, and visited the others for long stays. In high school, for instance, I visited my uncle for whole summers in Montana. I grew up in Connecticut, exurban New York. Went to college in Ithaca, New York, Ithaca College. After that I played in bands (piano), traveled all over, north and south, east and west, Europe, and bartended various places, including those 70s discos, and even worked briefly on a cattle ranch. And the past is a kind of place, too. My own past includes coming up through high school really angry about what was going on in Vietnam, that our fathers thought that was all right, and really scared of the draft, scared of being square, too, uncool. There was something traumatic about the whole sixties milieu, something unsaid about both the hippie thing turning yippie and that so-called war. Both were scary as hell. And both ended up changing the world utterly, though I fear now that some of the good changes are coming undone. I came up a little younger than the main sixties players-I graduated high school 1971, tended to romanticize every aspect of what the big kids were up to, but still, I was in it, tend to think of the sixties as ending with Nixon's resignation in 1974. And even in the weirdest moments, the people around me were great. Such characters, such good hearts, such bad news at times. Such terrific, independent, daring women. I did things I don't even want to think about any kid of mine doing. Young people are always in danger, but were more so then, I think. There was a kind of naivete that was part of the hippie thing. We took up with anybody who seemed to offer an answer. We took up with anybody who seemed to have a question. A lot of trauma in there for people, both national and personal. A certain amount for me. Some you keep paying for. Time is a kind of place too-that stretch of time between then and now which is the heart of this novel. I couldn't let go of it. THE SMALLEST COLOR is the result of all that. It's true that fully half the book takes place in the present, far from the turbulent sixties, thirty years distant, in fact.
In the end, isn't THE SMALLEST COLOR really about the here and now?
It's a book about healing, as much as anything. Coop at forty-five years of age carries around this terrific sadness and guilt and fury, also fond memories, nostalgia-all this must be released, and when it is, watch out! This is no ordinary mid-life thing-Coop's been living with this devastating secret. When it starts to boil, everything Coop holds dear is threatened, and has to change if he is going to find peace, forgive himself, forgive his parents, find their forgiveness, move on. Plus, the poor guy falls in love like he hasn't since that intense summer of 1969. Sex is back, desire. His heart is full once again. He's that kid again. So it's a happy story, too. The summer of 1969 takes on mythic proportions for Coop, just as it has for many people who were young during that time. In many ways it was the best and worst time of Coop's life, with the specter of Vietnam always looming in the background.
What were you doing during that year? Did you have to face the prospect of going to Vietnam?
I was Coop's age. Like Coop I was in that first awful draft lottery. I had a bad number, too, long story. In high school, we took part in the moratoriums, going door to door asking people to ask for peace. Stuff like that. Trying to save the country, for sure, but trying to save your own ass, too. Great demonstrations, where you felt you could actually change things, and where you had a blast, met self-possessed women, met cool guys. This sense of power came home, too, the idea that we didn't have to do what our parents and gym coaches and principals said. That year I spent time in Montana--a powerful visit. First love, first horses, open spaces, that kind of thing. Some cowboys a little older caught up to me and dragged me through the park in Helena by my feet for being a hippie, though I didn't think of myself that way. It was the hair. I escaped and actually ran to the police station. They weren't inclined to help, but knew my uncle and called him. You were always fighting then, getting in scrapes. Using jazzman lingo-groovy, far out. Smoking pot, tripping. One's parents never knew about it. Meanwhile, the moon landing and Woodstock and Altamount, all this great music, all this new art in new forms. Freedom was the issue, for Blacks, for women, for kids, actually a very conservative notion. And Vietnam was a terrific specter. It still scares me, really, that people in power could be capable of such stupidity (and if not stupidity, then evil). But kids fought back, sometimes going too far, and often being just as stupid (or evil) as the people they railed against. But kids fought back and eventually prevailed. I didn't end up in Vietnam, but I ended up damaged anyway. I put some of this in the book.
You've now written an award-winning collection of stories (BIG BEND), a very successful memoir (SUMMERS WITH JULIET), and a nonfiction book about writing (WRITING LIFE STORIES).Did the novel offer any different challenges? Any ideas on what you may work on next?
The novel was much harder than the previous books. In fact, two of them I wrote while working on the novel. You have to keep the story alive and fresh in your head for years, and don't really see it whole for the longest time. I knew it was almost ready when I could start thinking of the whole thing at once, could go through the chapters in my head. It's a big shape, this novel, and just great to see it between hard covers. What's next? I'm always working on ten things at once. Next, I think, will be a nonfiction book, nature writing-I'm a real boy in the woods, and this will be a look at the stream behind our house here in Maine. And then another novel, maybe reaching a little further back in time than this one. I'm already more-or-less started on both.
You deal with some of the heady idealism espoused during the 60s in THE SMALLEST COLOR. Sexual liberation for one, which Coop embraces whole-heartedly with Tricia and Bailey, then wavers over when Hodge enters the picture and further "liberates" these young women. Another is violent revolution vs. peaceful protest.What is it as that draws you to deal with these moral dilemmas in your writing?
I think it's still important stuff. And come on, any fifteen or sixteen year old boy embraces sexual liberation. I still think it's a good idea. Plus, of course, the women in THE SMALLEST COLOR liberate themselves, and are fully people in little need of the nonsense of men. These are powerful women, women who know their strength. They just happen to like these guys. All the good moral dilemmas are still with us, have always been. Maybe we talk more now and with less embarrassment about what really matters, and that's a legacy of the sixties. And peace, peace is a good ideal. But one renounces violence, then finds one's self being attacked. Tricky stuff. All the big idealists had it right, of course--Jesus, Buddha, Ghandi, Socrates. The best of the hippies just wanted to live what they'd learned in Sunday school and philosophy class, what they saw was little practiced by their parents and leaders. The worst of the hippies wanted powers of their own, with no responsibility, and this led to disasters both political and sexual.
You're recently a father for the first time. This book explores the heartbreak of both children and parents who become estranged from one another.Does having your own child change your outlook on this?
While she's a baby it's easy to say no to this question. But ask again in 14 years.
We always like to ask if there any writers or artists who have been particularly important to you as a writer.And since you were a musician for a number of years, can you tell us a little about your music, and who you listen to nowadays?
So many writers. All the good ones, and that means hundreds. I read as much as possible, sometimes as much as a book a day. With the baby I guess my favorite is GOODNIGHT MOON. Before Elysia came along I might have started the discussion with George Eliot and just gone on and on. And on. My wife is a painter, and visual art is important in our lives. I love a day looking at paintings, hanging around in someone's studio. I still play piano. One of my projects is a kind of performance called "I Used to Play in Bands." I used to play in bands. That's a plaintive middle-aged kind of thing to say, isn't it? Goodnight stars.
Now in Paperback
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(Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Prize for Short Fiction)University of Georgia Press, 2001, paperback: Counterpoint Press, 2003
Houghton Mifflin, 1992. Paperback: Ohio State University Press, 2000.
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