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Summer reading: A sneak preview of Adam Sternbergh’s new novel, The Blinds

Summer Reading

No return

'If she could get him out of here, she would. It's time. It's long past time.' Our summer reading series continues with an excerpt from Adam Sternbergh's new novel, The Blinds

She's old enough, at 36, to remember flashes of other places, other lives, but her son is only eight years old, which means he was born right here in the Blinds. She was four months pregnant on the day she arrived, her secret just starting to show. If the intake officer noticed, he didn't say anything about it as he sat her down at a folding table in the intake trailer and explained to her the rules of her new home. No visitors. No contact. No return. Then he taught her how to properly pronounce the town's official name – Caesura, rhymes with tempura, he said – before telling her not to worry too much about it since everyone just calls it the Blinds.

Caesura.

A bad name, she thought then and thinks now, with too many vowels and in all the wrong places. A bad name for a bad place but, then, what real choice did she have?

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Reclining now at 2 a.m. on the wooden steps of her front porch, she pulls out a fresh pack of cigarettes. The night is so quiet that unwrapping the cellophane sounds like a faraway bonfire. As she strips the pack, she looks over the surrounding blocks of homes with their rows of identical cinder block bungalows, each with the same slightly elevated wooden porch, the same scrubby patch of modest yard. Some people here maintain the pretense of giving a shit, planting flowers, mowing grass, keeping their porches swept clean, while others let it all grow wild and just wait for whatever's coming next. She glances down the street and counts the lights still on at this hour: two, maybe three households. Most everyone else is sleeping. Which she should be, too. She definitely shouldn't be smoking.

Well, she doesn't smoke, she tells herself, as she pulls a cigarette free from the pack.

After the intake officer explained to her how things would work in the Blinds – the rules, the prohibitions, the conditions, the privations – he asked her to choose her new name. He didn't know her real name and, by that point, neither did she. He passed her two pieces of paper: a list of the names of famous movie stars and a list of ex-vice-presidents. "One name from one list, one name from the other," he told her. She scanned the lists. She didn't remember much about who she used to be, but she had a feeling, deep down, that she wasn't an Ava. Or an Ingrid. Or a Judy, as much as she loved Judy Garland. That much she remembered.

"Did you do this, too?" she asked the officer, more as a stalling tactic than anything else.

"Yes, ma'am. That's the rules."

"So what did you choose?"

"Cooper."

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"Like Gary Cooper?"

He nodded.

She laughed. "Of course you did." She pointed to a name far down among the movie stars. "How about Frances Farmer? I'll take Frances. Fran for short."Iv

The officer wrote the first name down on her intake form. "You'll need a last name, too," he said, and gestured to the sheet of vice-presidents. She looked it over, then picked the first name she saw, right at the top.

"Adams. Fran Adams."

The intake officer wrote her full name on the form.

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"You got a first name, Cooper?" she asked him.

"Calvin. Cal for short. Or so I imagine. We'll see what sticks."

The officer signed the paper, held a hand stamp over it, then paused. "You sure you don't want to go with Marilyn? Audrey? Something more glamorous? They're all available."

"I like Frances. Frances was Judy Garland's real name. Frances Gumm. I like that."

The officer nodded, stamped her paper, then slipped it into a folder.

"Welcome to Oz, Frances," he said.

On her front steps eight years later, under a sky saturated with stars, Fran Adams wedges the unlit cigarette between her lips. She enjoys this drawn-out moment – the delicious anticipation that, in many ways, is better for her than the smoking itself. She leans forward, producing her lighter from a pocket, resting her bare forearms on her knees. She's still wearing the same jeans she wore during the day, and the same old plaid shirt worn loose over her sleeveless undershirt. She looks down at her slapped-together outfit, which taken together screams hot weather and housecleaning, which pretty much describes the day she's had. Pretty much describes the past eight years. If it weren't for Isaac, she'd have run already. Or so she likes to tell herself.

No visitors. No contact. No return.

With her sleeves rolled up against the stubborn night that's stayed just as warm as the day, she glances, unthinking, at the series of numbers tattooed like a delicate bracelet across the back of her left wrist.

12 5 0 0 2 412 14 9 11

No idea what it means. No idea how it got there. She can recall some ragged snippets of her previous life, childhood mostly, but she doesn't remember that. All she knows is that the tattoo predates her time in the Blinds, since she rode into this place with the numbers already etched on her wrist. No one else here has the numbers – she knows; she's checked. And she long ago gave up trying to decipher whatever coded message the tattoo's trying to send her. As far as she's concerned, it's just a souvenir of some past adventure she forgot she took, some past mistake she forgot she made. It belongs to someone else, some previous woman, not Fran Adams, who's only eight years old, after all.

Fran Adams, born eight years ago, just like her son.

She finally lights her cigarette and listens happily to the pleasing hiss of the first long drag. The paper flares in a vibrant circle, then withers. This is all she wants right now, right here. The crinkle of cellophane, the sour taste of the cotton filter, the sniff of butane, that first crackle of paper, then the fragrant heat blossom in the fragile bellows of her lungs. In the stifling night, she loves this lonely ritual. She loves it so much, apparently, that she'll kill herself a little bit every day just for another chance to experience it.

If she smoked.

Which she doesn't.

Starting tomorrow.

She takes another long drag.

Then she stubs the cigarette out and brushes the ashes away, worrying Isaac might see the faint guilt rings of burn marks lingering on the painted steps in the morning. She flicks the spent butt in the bushes, far enough away that she can always blame it on a passing neighbour if Isaac finds it. He's still young enough that she can continue to pretend he doesn't know all the things he's clearly starting to understand.

If she could get him out of here, she would. It's time. It's long past time. If she had somewhere else to take him. If she had any idea what was waiting for both of them out there. Or who.

But she doesn't. So they stay.

She thinks about all the people who've arrived since she first came. She was in the first batch, the original eight, but there's been two or three new people who've come every few months ever since. She heard that four people arrived just today, the bus rumbling in after dark. Two women and two men. Of course, she can't help but speculate on what they did and how they wound up here. That's the kind of gossip people here tend to traffic in. Especially her next-door neighbour Doris Agnew, who always seems to know what's going on, gossip-wise. When she told Fran that she'd heard Sheriff Cooper was thinking of organizing a field trip outside the facility, just for Isaac, to a movie, in a real-live movie theatre, Fran hadn't believed it, didn't dare to, but that rumour turned out to be true. The sheriff assured Fran it would be safe, but knowing what had happened to that poor boy years ago, and his mother, when they both left, Fran couldn't help but panic. Watching Cooper's truck leave with Isaac inside, his face pressed against the passenger-side glass, waving back at her, looking both lost and excited, was the worst and best she's felt since the day she arrived here.

Just come back, she said to no one, as the truck trundled off in a shimmer of dust, and the entry gates closed behind it.

He came back. He's growing up. And now he's seen the outside world. It was all she ever wanted for him, until it actually happened.

She stands up and wipes her hands on her jeans. Two drags. That's all she allows herself. The second drag is always a disappointment anyway, just an unsatisfying echo of the first. But she always takes that second drag, just to be sure.

She lingers a moment longer on the steps, savouring the silence, then starts to head inside, to shower off the smoky smell, and that's when she hears the shot.

A single gunshot. Far away but loud enough to startle her.

In the movies, people always mistake other things, like firecrackers or a car backfiring, for gunshots. But in real life, in her experience, no one ever mistakes a gunshot for anything other than what it is.

That's one thing she remembers from her previous life.

That a gunshot sounds like nothing else.

And even at this early hour, up and down the rows of houses, lights go on.

Excerpt from The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh ©2017. Published by Ecco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.


A Q&A with Adam Sternbergh

This excerpt introduces readers to the Blinds, a place that seems to be part sanctuary, part prison. What else can you reveal about it?

At its essence, the Blinds is a human experiment built around a simple question: What makes you who you are? Is it the sum of all your past actions – or the product of your next decision? The town's residents are all either heinous criminals or witnesses to horrible events who've been stripped of their worst memories and given a chance to start again. But experience can imprint on you in different ways. Just because something is forgotten doesn't mean it's gone.

Fans might have expected a third Spademan novel, but this definitely isn't it. What motivated you to head out in a new direction?

I'm very keen to write a third Spademan novel, but the idea at the centre of The Blinds got its hooks in me and just wouldn't let go. Plus, after spending two books in the world of Spademan, which is rooted in a claustrophobic, dystopian New York, I wanted to try something more expansive, in every sense: From the prose style (not nearly so spare) to the POV (third person limited) to the wide-open plains of Texas where The Blinds takes place.

In the same way Shovel Ready and Near Enemy oozed elements of classic noir novels, The Blinds seems to be paying homage to westerns. What do you admire about the genre?

The funny thing is, I hated westerns growing up – because I thought of westerns as being about John Wayne, cowpokes and campfires, and spurs that jingle-jangle-jingle. It took me forever to realize that many of my favourite things – from Star Wars to Cormac McCarthy to the TV series Firefly to a recent film like Hell or High Water – are basically westerns in disguise. As a mythology, the western has proved incredibly flexible and resonant – this notion of frontier characters forming an improvised morality in the context of an institutional ethical breakdown. It's no surprise to me that the western is having another moment. In America right now, it definitely feels like we've entered a new and unsettling frontier, where we're trying to figure out what the rules are, who will follow them, and how exactly we can go forward.


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