Wally Lamb Mines Childhood Memories For New Novel
In novels such as “ I Know This Much is True” and “ The Hour I First Believed,” best-selling author Wally Lamb explores how a traumatic incident continues to reverberate years afterward.
His new book “ We Are Water” continues in that tradition (see excerpt below). It centers around Annie Oh, an artist whose provocative work is often generated by anger at abuse she suffered as a child. Annie is also haunted by the loss of her mother and sister in a flood when she was four years old.
As Lamb tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, one of the springboards for the book was a devastating flood that he witnessed as a 12-year-old in his hometown of Norwich, Conn.
“I still have vivid memories of the roaring water rushing past and also the screams of people buried alive in a mill that collapsed” he says.
Norwich inspired another plot line in “We are Water,” as well. Lamb tells the story of Josephus Jones, a self-taught African-American artist who in the 1950s lived on the property that Annie and her husband now own.
Before Jones could attain success, he died under mysterious circumstances. As Lamb tells Here & Now, he used real-life outsider artist Ellis Ruley, who lived in Norwich and died under mysterious circumstances, as the springboard for the Jones character.
Book Excerpt: ‘We Are Water’
By Wally Lamb
I understand there was some controversy about the coroner’s ruling concerning Josephus Jones’s death. What do you think, Mr. Agnello? Did he die accidentally or was he murdered?”
“Murdered? I can’t really say for sure, Miss Arnofsky, but I have my suspicions. The black community was convinced that’s what it was. Two Negro brothers living down at that cottage with a white woman? That would have been intolerable for some people back then.”
“White people, you mean.”
“Yes, that’s right. When I got the job as director of the Statler Museum and moved my family to Three Rivers, I remember being surprised by the rumors that a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was active here. And it’s always seemed unlikely to me that Joe Jones would have tripped and fallen headfirst into a narrow well that he would have been very much aware of. A well that he would have drawn water from, after all. But if a crime had been committed, it was never investigated as such. So who’s to say? The only thing Iwas sure of was that Joe was a uniquely talented painter. Unfortunately, I was the only one at the time who could see that. Of course now, long after his death, the art world has caught up with his brilliance and made him highly collectible. It’s sad—tragic, really. There’s no telling what he might have achieved if he had lived into his forties and fifties. But that was not to be.”
I’m upstairs in my studio, talking to this curly-haired, pear-shaped Patrice Arnofsky. When she called last week, she’d explained that she was a writer for an occasional series which profiled the state’s prominent artists in Connecticutmagazine. They had already run stories on Sol LeWitt, Paul Cadmus, and the illustrator Wendell Minor, she said. Now she’d been assigned a posthumous profile of Josephus Jones in conjunction with a show that was opening at the American Folk Art Museum. “I understand that you were the only curator in his lifetime to have awarded him a show of his work,” she’d said. I’d told her that was correct. Agreed to talk with her about my remembrances of Joe. And so, a week later, here we are.
Miss Arnofsky checks the little tape recorder she’s brought along to the interview and asks me how I met Josephus Jones.
“I first laid eyes on Joe in the spring of 1957 when he appeared at the opening of an exhibition I had mounted called ‘Nineteenth-Century Maritime New England.’ It was a pretentious title for a self-congratulatory concept—a show that had been commissioned by a wealthy Three Rivers collector of maritime art whose grandfather had made millions in oceanic shipping. He had compensated the museum quite generously for my curatorial work, but it had bored me to tears to hang that show: all those paintings of frigates, brigs, and steamships at sea, all that glorification of war and money.
“On the afternoon of the opening, I was making small talk with Marietta Colson, president of the Friends of the Statler, when she stopped midconversation and looked over my shoulder. A frown came over her face. ‘Well, well, what have we here?’ she said. ‘Trouble?’ My eyes followed hers to the far end of the gallery, and there was Jones. Among the well-heeled, silver-haired patrons who had come to the opening, he was an anomaly with his mahogany skin and flattened nose, his powerful laborer’s build and laborer’s overalls.
“We watched him, Marietta and I, as he wandered from painting to painting. He was carrying a large cardboard box in front of him, and perhaps that was why he reminded me of the gift-bearing Abyssinian king immortalized in The Adoration of the Magi—not the famous Gentile da Fabriano painting but the later one by Albrecht Dürer, who, to splendid effect, had incorporated the classicism of the Italian Renaissance in his northern European art. Do you know that work?”
“I know Dürer, but not that painting specifically. But go on.”
“Well, throughout the gallery, conversations stopped and heads turned toward Josephus. ‘I hope there’s nothing menacing in that box he’s holding,’ Marietta said. ‘Do you think we should notify the police?’ I shook my head and walked toward him.
“He was standing before a large Caulkins oil of La Amistad, the schooner that had transported African slaves to Cuba. The painting depicted the slaves’ revolt against their captors. ‘Welcome,’ I said. ‘You have a good eye. This is the best painting in the show.’
“He told me he liked pictures that told a story. ‘Ah yes, narrative paintings,’ I said. ‘I’m drawn to them, too.’ His bushy hair and eyebrows were gray with cement dust, and the bib of his overalls was streaked with dirt and stained with paint. He had trouble making eye contact. Why had he come?
“ ‘I paint pictures, too,’ he said. ‘I can’t help it.’ I knew what he meant, of course. Had I not been painting for decades, more involuntarily than voluntarily at times? ‘I’m Gualtiero Agnello, the director of this museum,’ I said, holding out my hand. ‘And you are?’
“He told me his name. Placed his box on the floor and shook my hand. His was twice the size of mine, and as rough as sandpaper. ‘You the one they told me to come and see,’ he said. He didn’t identify who ‘they’ were and I didn’t ask. He picked up his box and held it at arm’s length, expecting me to take it. ‘These are some of my pictures. You want to look at them?’
“I told him this wasn’t really a convenient time. Could he come back some day the following week? He shook his head. He worked, he said. He could leave them here. I was hesitant, suspecting that he had no more talent than the Sunday painters who often contacted me—dowagers and dilettantes, for the most part, who became huffy when I failed to validate their assumptions of artistic genius. I didn’t want to be the bearer of bad news. Still, I could tell that it had cost him something to come here, and I didn’t want to disappoint him either. ‘Tell you what,’ I said. ‘You see that table over there where the punch bowl is? Slide your box underneath it. I’ll look at your work when I have a chance and get back to you. Do you have a telephone?’
“He shook his head. ‘But you can call my boss when you ready to talk, and he can tell me. I don’t know his number, but he in the phone book. Mr. Angus Skloot.’
“ ‘The building contractor?’ He nodded. The Skloots were generous donors to the museum, and Mrs. Skloot was a member of the Friends. ‘Okay then, I’ll be in touch.’ He thanked me for my time. I told him to help himself to punch and cookies, but when he looked over at the
refreshments table and saw several of the other attendees staring back at him, he shook his head.
“He stayed for a little while longer, repelling the crowd wherever he wandered, as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea, but unable to resist the art he would stop before and study. As I watched him walk finally toward the exit, Marietta approached me. ‘I’m dying of curiosity, Gualtiero,’ she said, her mouth screwed up into a sardonic half-grin. ‘Who’s your new colored friend?’
“I stared at her without answering, waiting for her to stop smirking. When she did, I said, ‘He’s an artist. Isn’t that the reason the Friends of the Statler exists? To support the artists of our community?’ She nodded curtly, pivoted, and walked away.
- Wally Lamb, novelist whose latest book is “We Are Water.” He tweets @WallyLambAuthor.
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