1 Neil Young, “Ohio”
I sit on the porch of the Empire House, an eclectic homespun restaurant hidden in the farmlands of upstate New York north of Oneonta where the earth settles into a deep bowl of green. It is 7:30 p.m. on a late July evening. I’m covered in sweat and smell of horse. The temperature in the car on the drive to the restaurant from the barn had hovered at eighty-five or above.
The old farmhouse in Gilbertsville, New York, is packed with locals sipping mojitos. Fresh mint overflows from tall glasses. On the corner of the veranda, a young barefoot couple plays acoustic guitar and sings in harmony. It’s live music night. This is small-town America. And this is the only restaurant in it. Everyone’s come out to hear the young couple sing. A white-haired woman in a sparkly hat made to look like a cake with seven candles still burning on it sits at one of the round tables on the porch watching her daughter take to the microphone. Eventually the woman’s husband gets up and sings his wife a song he’s written for her birthday. Their daughter stands in front of him holding the score. He’s not much on the guitar—“My fingers are bleeding!” he calls out—but his voice is steady. The song ends a cappella. He surrenders the guitar to his lap, looks his wife in the eyes and sings to her: “Every day of my life you’re my joy.” There’s not a dry eye in the crowd.
The owner of the Empire House is Iranian by way of California. “I don't mention that word [Iranian] much around here,” he says to us under his breath. His Filipina wife works in the kitchen and makes the freshest Baja fish tacos east of Phoenix. I watch as they serve the local farmers and hippies in the breeze of their porch—the owner in his friendly blue-and-white checked shirt, left partly unbuttoned at the top to reveal a neckline of surfer necklaces and west coast charms. I wonder if any of the employees who work here are undocumented. I worry that, under the next administration, depending on who is elected, they might find themselves back in countries in which they were not born and scarcely belong.
When our tacos arrive and our glasses are refilled, the young couple is back at the microphone covering the type of old seventies standbys the crowd knows by heart. I hear the low, clear strum of a familiar Neil Young song from Harvest . “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming. We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the calling. Four dead in Ohio.”
Young wrote “Ohio” in response to the Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970, after looking at photos of the dead students in Life magazine. They’d been shot by the National Guard during what was meant to be a peaceful protest of the war. The song was banned from playlists because of its “anti-war” and “anti-Nixon” sentiments.
In the liner notes of Decade , Young offers the following reflection: “It’s still hard to believe I had to write this song. It’s ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the most important lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.
David Crosby cried after this take.”
When the couple singing on the porch of the Empire House gets to the refrain “soldiers are cutting us down,” a chill descends my body. It’s the bloodiest summer in recent history and the most conflict-riddled I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. The shooting at Pulse; two more innocent black men mowed down by law enforcement. The shooting of five cops in Dallas and three more in Baton Rouge. Abroad, a young man who pledged allegiance to ISIS drove a cargo truck over the bodies of eighty-four men, women, and children. Women were said to have thrown their babies over fences to get them out of harm’s way. I woke to a push notification from The New York Times that five more were dead in Munich, Germany. It is hard not to feel as though the world is collapsing. The UK has left the E.U. in what journalists glibly call Brexit. Turkey is in the midst of a national coup. A leading journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was just shot dead in Ukraine.
Two weeks ago a businessman from New York got up on a stage to a fleet of cheering Americans and made a speech that, for many, recollected the Nixon era Young sung about. When this businessman-turned-presidential nominee said, “I am your voice,” the crowd cheered raucously. As I sit at the Empire House it is not lost on me that perhaps he was speaking for some of the farmers and old-timers and even young people around me in this small town. Others are surely lefties like me. And yet here we all are tapping our feet to Neil Young. Our eyes still wet from the man’s song to his wife.
I, too, like Young, once sat down with the cover of a magazine and wrote a song. Though my magazine was Time and not Life , and my song turned into a novel whereas his turned into a national anthem.
2 Time magazine, 1991
When I first began my novel, White Nights in Split Town City , I went on eBay and ordered a back issue of Time magazine from January 28, 1991. It was about Operation Desert Storm. Though I remembered its outbreak from my childhood—the images of a far-off desert on the television screen at all hours of the day—I wanted to read about it. How had it been reported? What had the nation said? I’d been eleven at the time. I saw oil drums burning on the news and heard of men coming home with “Gulf War Syndrome,” a disease I worried about catching. The conflict and the fear of “infection” now bookends my novel and becomes something with which the mother in the story—a woman living in rural isolation who fancies herself a would-be newscaster—is obsessed.
Operation Desert Storm was the beginning of the war that would go on to plague my generation. It, too, started during one hot, violent summer.
I researched. I watched the first President Bush’s speeches on YouTube, scribbling down lines in my notebook already littered with words like warning , nostalgia , Nature , materiality , transparency , engagement , memory , initiation , extrapolation , acknowledgement , vellum . The most prominent transcription in my notebook reads: H.W. Bush Speech to the Nation Jan 16, 1991, Iraq Invaded . At the top of the page: Look at instead of through in my shaky red pen. “This will not be another Vietnam,” the president promised that evening. He quoted Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” He promised American viewers we would live in “a world where the rule of law, not the law of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations.” He said, “We will not fail.”
Trump in Cleveland stump speech: “I will restore law and order to our country.” “I will win for you.”
In the 1991 issue of Time, one photo struck me in particular. It is a full-page color spread of a middle-class American family in Langley, Virginia, staring at the television.The article below it reads:
Americans showed a sudden elasticity of attention span; in bars and pool halls and college common rooms, the television stayed tuned to the news. For the next several hours an entire nation watched anchormen, caught in history’s ambush, struggling to tell the story without knowing yet just what it was. There was no time for anything else. In New York City during the next twelve hours, one person was murdered; a typical night brings at least five dead. Police speculated that even the killers were watching the news . . .
Crowds and players at the Orlando arena gathered to watch Magic play the Chicago Bulls observed a moment of silence, perhaps conscious that this did not seem to be a time for games. MTC played peace songs from the 60’s, while KAZY, the hard-rock station in Denver, switched to round-the-clock news. In Manhattan, the crowd in Times Square spread like paint beneath the illuminated news ticker above 42nd street, as bulletins on the attacks marched around the building above their heads, one word at a time. Everywhere the reports could not come fast enough. There was national craving for news, despite the saturation of coverage and the frustration at the thinness of reports.
The “Letters to the Editor” section of the Time issue is titled in yellow helvetica: “War in the Gulf.” One reader writes in: “Although I am thirteen years old and live a world away from U.S.S.R., I am concerned about the food shortages there.” John J. McDonald of Lavallette, New Jersey, writes in reply: “For seventy-two years the Soviet people and their communist overlords have brought untold misery and suffering upon humanity. Now the guise of ‘perestroika,’ this ‘workers’ paradise,’ this ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ comes begging. Let them starve! We owe them nothing. We need to take care of our own homeless and hungry.”
In a letter on the same page titled “The Importance of Homes,” Allen Platt of Philadelphia writes: “If we view ourselves only as disparate individuals seeking rootless self-realization, home is nowhere. Considering the psychological afflictions and effects of homelessness, I hope that people today will be less self-addicted and understand that the time has come to tend our gardens even after the expulsion from Eden.”
In the “Letter from the Editor” in the upper righthand corner at the start of the magazine: “When air-raid sirens howled Thursday night in Jerusalem, bureau chief Jon Hull and his wife Judy donned gas masks. Moved to a sealed room, they quickly placed their fifteen-month-old son Dylan in a small plastic tent designed to protect infants from chemical poisons.”
The title story, several pages in, is emblazoned in a puritan white: “A Storm Erupts.” It says: “Everyone expected this war. Its started on schedule. The reporters were as ready as the warriors.”
In another article entitled “So Far, So Good,” George J. Church reports: “George Bush felt compelled to issue another warning against public euphoria. Said the president: ‘There will be losses. There will be obstacles along the way. And war is never cheap or easy.’” This is printed next to a full- page color photo of an American air-raid pilot giving the thumbs up sign from the cockpit of his plane loaded with 550 pounds of bombs.
But perhaps most emblematic of all is an article titled “Bush’s Biggest Gamble.” Dan Goodgame quotes a Bush aide: “A successful outcome to this war will give us all sorts of opportunities—first of all national confidence, which is key to economic recovery. We can end the post-Vietnam syndrome that fears involvement abroad. We can have confidence in our diplomacy, our technology.” The article concludes with this striking pre-internet image: “During his morning stroll, he [President Bush] carried a hand-held television to follow live reports from the gulf. And later when TV aired the first footage of successful U.S. air raids, Bush jabbed his index fingers at each target on the screen as though silently declaring “Gotcha.”
3 White Nights
A question I am frequently asked now as the novel is born into the world is this: What of the title? What is a “white night?” Where is “Split Town City?”
A white night is one spent awake, sleepless. (It is also a term used by coke addicts to describe nights of strung out disaffection.) For purposes of this book, it is a psychological term reflected by the father who often can’t sleep and goes out on his porch to scream, a sound a neighbor mistakes for coyotes baying into the night.
One May morning this spring, as I was driving through the Catskills to teach, a song came on the local radio: Carly Simon’s “Better Not Tell Her.” I found myself humming the lyrics. The song details the heartbreak of an ex-lover singing to her boyfriend not to tell his wife of their passion: “Leave out the white nights,” she croons. “The moon in my window.”
In that moment, a thirty-five-year-old professor driving to teach an early class on a college campus not unlike Kent State, I flashed back to a ten-year-old version of myself sitting shotgun in my mother’s silver Honda Civic, the windows rolled down in the early nineties summer heat. Together, we belted out Carly’s lyric imperative at the top of our voices. Not yet knowing what was meant by this, I pictured a white night lit up by the moon.
On the porch of the Empire House, listening to the barefoot couple strum the first chords of Neil Young’s “Ohio,” I can finally define for my adult self what a “white night” is. It is the anxiety of 1970 in the wake of the Kent State Massacre. It the summer of the violence of 2016. It is the feeling of a restless nation on the brink of an election, one left wide-eyed with fear.
As a writer with a first book, so many of the questions I am asked seem to revolve around voice. That word from Trump’s stump speech. I am your voice . Just this morning I received an email from an interviewer: “How did you nail it down [your voice]?” he said. “That fleeting thing.” I think about the crowd on the porch of the Empire, the young couple singing protest songs from the seventies, I can’t help but feel as though that moment was an odd synergy of past and present. And as I look over my “sources” for the novel—from the child writing into that 1991 issue of Time to Carly’s crooning—I realize what Didion means when she says this in “The White Album”: “We look for the sermon in the suicide , for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
The more singular the author’s voice becomes, the more collective the writing feels. In White Nights, my character, Jean, acts as a witness to that summer, surveying her one small town. This act of witness and surveillance—her private observations—multiplies outward, becoming the lens through which the reader surveys a nation. There is, in politics as in writing, the seductive idea that an “I” can somehow transcend the “we.” I am your voice. The truth, however, might be the opposite.
When I returned from the Empire House that night, I found myself reliving the last page of my novel, which includes a transcription from the TV news reporting on the outbreak of the Gulf War that January night of my childhood.
Jean’s parents have left her alone to attend a funeral. Jean, then twelve, stands in her house and watches the war erupt. Peter Jennings is delivering the nightly news on ABC. “It is not whether the war will start,” he says, “but when.” The segment is then interrupted by a reporter on the ground in Baghdad:
“It’s perfectly quiet here,” said the correspondent on the television. In his golf jacket, he looked as though he were going on vacation, somewhere warm. “No activity whatsoever,” he reported. “Looking out from the hotel where most of the foreign journalists are kept, the lights of the city are still on. You can see to the horizon. Taxi drivers are asking passengers nearly $200 to drive to the Turkish border.”
“A sign of the times,” Jennings said.
I pictured reams of taxis crossing a long drawn-out desert. Their thick yellow paint brocading the dry wastes of air like a fleet of canaries flown south for the winter. The war began. Large green areas that looked not unlike the fireworks on the Fourth of July set off from the town green. “Lit up like Christmas trees,” the correspondent on the ground described it.
The screen went dark. I switched to another station. “You have no idea how good it is to hear your voice on this remarkable night,” I heard a young news correspondent say. “I’m going to go to the window so that our viewers can stay as much in touch with the scene as possible. I’ve just seen a blue flashing light down on the streets below. You can hear what I can hear, I imagine. More of that eerie silence from before the attack began.”
“Is everything OK with you and the crew?” the man in the suit on the screen said.
“We’re a little excited,” the disembodied voice of the reporter in the Baghdad hotel laughed.
“You’ve had a lot of experience being under attack in Vietnam and other places,” the anchor said.
I couldn’t believe Mother wasn’t there. I stood in the darkness of the living room and stretched toward the ceiling, trying to occupy as much of the house as I could. “Where are you?” I said aloud. “Where is anyone?”