The deeper I get into my latest book project—just crossed the 30,000-word mark—the more I keep digging into memories of my formative reading experiences. Doing so goes a long way toward helping me understand why I’m attracted to certain stories, and that self-awareness helps me separate the narrative wheat from the narrative chaff.
Loyal followers of this project already know what a big role Sports Illustrated played in making me want to write. I’ve recently highlighted a few stories that have always stuck with me, like Tommy Chaikin’s steroid nightmare and Billy Shaw’s self-destructive prison escape attempt. Another long-forgotten gem popped to mind the other day, while chasing after a book-related research tangent about East Germany: the tale of swimmer Jens-Peter Berndt, who decided to defect to the United States while switching planes at the Oklahoma City airport. The passage that got its hooks to me was this one—the fish-out-of-water detail really hit home for a grade-schooler who loved nothing more than hitting the Jack in the Box drive-thru with his folks:
By nature gregarious and self-confident, Berndt was ebullient as he toured the University of Alabama campus, met students, asked questions (“Which newspapers are controlled by which political parties?”), and took in a basketball game and a swim meet. While placing an order on his first visit to a drive-through fast-food restaurant, he exclaimed, “I’m talking to a sign!”
I’m talking to a sign. I still remember reading those words and realizing, for the first time ever, that I’d taken for granted the obviously ludicrous act of speaking to a slab of plastic festooned with clowns. And in some ways, I envied Berndt his innocence, the fact that he would spend the best years of his life experiencing the small pleasures of the West with virgin eyes.
I’m currently operating on the theory that there are essentially two kinds of non-fiction narratives: those in which the characters are the ones thrust into strange circumstances, and those in which the reader is the primary alien. Because of my early encounters with stories likes Berndt’s, I obviously gravitate toward the former kind of yarn. I like characters who get lost, particularly by accident rather than design.
This is Jens-Peter Brendt today, by the way. He seems to have adjusted to American life quite well. I like to imagine he’s still wowed every time he uses a drive-thru. But I know in my heart that’s not the case.