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Gordon McAlpine's "Full Circle" Library Tale

Living the Unending Story

I began to believe that my ambitions to be a “real” writer might be attainable after all.

For 20 years, novelists, journalists, scientists, historians and other public figures have delivered lectures at the Newport Beach Public Library. I learned of the series when I was invited to speak there in March 1997. That long-ago night, I read from my second novel, “The Persistence of Memory.” The room was filled with students, friends and a healthy contingent of library patrons. I had no notion that in coming years I would join the board of the library foundation, serve as its president, and subsequently meet, introduce and occasionally befriend internationally known speakers who have made something of a 1920s Paris salon of our library’s modest “Friends Room.” Now, stepping back from my activities with the foundation, I can see that spending time with these speakers not only fostered my sense of community engagement and cultural conversation but revealed to me the ordinarily imperceptible wheel of time turning, rounding out two important stories in my not-so-linear life.

On an overcast night in June 2011, a sold-out crowd made its way into the library for a lecture from the acclaimed author, war correspondent and filmmaker Sebastian Junger. I had no inkling as I introduced him that before the evening was over an important part of my life would complete a circle begun more than 30 years before. Instead, I knew only that this night was different because I had invited my 87-year-old friend and mentor Joe Bell, settling him in the front of the big, box-like room due to his diminished hearing.

Joe had been a successful magazine writer and newspaperman who was well-known locally for his then-recently retired Daily Pilot column, “The Bell Curve.” I’d met him decades before, when, as a 19-year-old, I’d enrolled in his nonfiction writing class at UC Irvine. In those days, Joe still wrote regularly for national publications and was known around campus as a demanding teacher in the style of a hard-nosed newspaper copy desk editor from a 1930s film. When he scribbled in red pencil, approvingly, on the first paper I submitted to him (“Your chances of publication depend entirely upon your choice of subject matter”) I began to believe that my ambitions to be a “real” writer might be attainable after all. Within the year, under his tutelage, I had placed my first magazine piece, allowing me to answer doubters that I was, indeed, “published.”

More articles and, eventually, books would follow. In time, our student-teacher relationship became one of friendship; our lives veered through personal and professional triumphs and losses, distracting us. Nonetheless, we never lost touch. At the time of the lecture, we still spoke regularly, though we didn’t shoot hoops at the outdoor courts near his house as we once had. Joe no longer had the strength to get the ball to the basket, though in his heyday he’d been on an Indiana state high school championship team and had remained a deadly three-point shooter well into his 80s.

Junger’s question-and-answer period ended. As the line began forming at the book-signing table, I corralled Joe and Junger and introduced them, proudly informing the more famous of the two that Joseph N. Bell had published regularly in the Saturday Evening Post back in the days when it was the premier popular magazine in America, that he’d worked in the press office of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team when Stan “the Man” Musial was knocking home runs, and that in the 1970s he’d been the first to interview Norma L. McCorvey, alias Jane Roe, of the controversial Supreme Court case. Junger greeted my friend with the respect he was due. I stepped away and snapped a picture of the two in conversation. I treasure that picture. I kept a distance, allowing them to share their stories.  Doubtless, they talked about their line of work, news reporting (being a novelist myself, I was not wholly in their fraternity). I watched my friend, his head turned slightly to one side to offer his better ear. Junger was all steely sinew and steady nerves – things that Joe had once been. The line at the book-signing table began to grow long and impatient. I didn’t care.

At last, the men shook hands. Junger started toward his book-signing.

Joe turned toward me with a calm smile.

That’s when I felt the wheel turn:

Joe Bell had introduced me to the world of professionals when I was 19. He’d made me believe I could be a “real” writer. And now I had introduced him to one of the finest of today’s journalists, the process of which, apparently, had reminded Joe that, retired or not, he was still a “real” writer too.

Something of my student days came all the way round.
It seems such wheels must complete a full revolution before we recognize that they are even there.

It is not difficult to find glowing things to say about accomplished people, but in my 20 or so introductions at the library I strived to entertain as well.

For example, to jive Billy Collins for being “merely” the former poet laureate. Or to warn the audience, “If you forget to turn off your cellphones, our speaker, James Ellroy, will have his undercover cronies from the LAPD remove you in the rough manner of ‘L.A. Confidential.’ ”
Good memories, but merely that.

One can never will or anticipate the turning of a wheel.

I met and introduced the acclaimed writer Joyce Carol Oates in April, my last introduction. A willowy woman in a large hat, her brown eyes seeming to take in more than the spectrum of light available to the rest of us, she spoke on “inspiration,” a natural topic for one of such outstanding and prolific output. After the lecture, in an informal correspondence, I described to her the premise of my new novel, “Woman with a Blue Pencil.” Intrigued, she later read a galley copy and, shortly thereafter, offered a quote about the book, an excerpt of which now appears on its cover: “‘Woman with a Blue Pencil’ is a brilliantly structured labyrinth of a novel … Gordon McAlpine has imagined a totally unique work of ‘mystery’ fiction – one that Kafka, Borges, and Nabokov, as well as Dashiell Hammett, would have appreciated.”  Having introduced so many speakers over the years, my last, Joyce Carol Oates, now introduced my new work.

360 degrees. Lovely.

Joe Bell, who by then had passed away, would have been pleased by the endorsement, perhaps perceiving a circle of his own coming full revolution, recalling the endorsement he’d given me decades before in red pencil on my first assignment.

We all turn the wheels for one another.

And the wheels are turning still, even if we hear no creaking. How well-oiled they must be!

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