November 29, 2022

No News from Doodlebug Island . . . by William F. Jordan

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That part of my business dealing with the publication of romance novels, biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, or family histories had been inordinately slow for so long I had begun to fear it would lead to the loss of my ability to exaggerate, embroider, lie fancifully, or invent outlandishly. At that very moment, the Reverend Wilkens stopped by to inquire whether or not I would publish his life story on which he’d been working for some time. I told him I’d consider it.
The next day he returned with a many-page manuscript, written in cursive and held together with spring clips—BIG spring clips, the kind that would fit quite nicely around a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. “I have no idea the number of words or the total volume this will amount to; perhaps, maybe after you read it, you can tell me.”
Well, I spent the rest of the day reading the Reverend’s work and decided that its lack of organization, its tortured syntax and its haphazard grammar would singly and together amount to much more than just the problem of length. The latter revolved around the mere matter of paper and ink, but to rewrite the entire manuscript would take much of my time, and I made book with myself that he wouldn’t like the result if I did.
People are funny that way. Most like their work the way they bring it in to you, and they feel resentful of any changes, refusing to believe those changes enhance or clarify in any significant way. Knowing this, I always inquire the degree to which the author wishes my involvement, and, upon being advised that the latter should be minimal, steeling myself for a barrage of double negatives; myriads of subject-verb disagreements; hordes of sentence fragments; run-on sentences past flood stage; poorly referenced pronouns; a gazillion punctuation errors; and a mountain of clichés. Even worse, the author and I are inevitably going to end up looking bad. And, while this may or may not affect the author, it will impact my business hugely and in a negative way, for if people come to believe a publisher doesn’t know his way around a grammar book, they might conclude to take their business elsewhere.
But Reverend Wilkens surprised me. He wanted his work editorially cleaned up and was willing to pay for it! So, for two solid weeks I had the opportunity to immerse myself in someone else’s life, and I learned that while the Reverend didn’t have a profound knowledge of religious history or even its dogma, he possessed a keen determination to do good for his fellow man and a compassion for mankind that helped him see beyond denomination and lineage.
“As a youth,” he wrote, “I was strongly influenced by a group called ‘Shaking Quakers’, the embodiment of whose faith lay in patience, kindness, and love. Members of the group never married, so they naturally didn’t propagate, yet their message continues to ring as true as ever.”
I discovered that the good minister—widely considered bland by fellow residents of Doodlebug—hadn’t always hewed to the tenets espoused by the Quakers and which now formed the heart of his ministry. In that same youth, he had, in a word, been hedonistic. Nothing that was ‘of the flesh’ failed to attract him; he refrained from nothing that promised personal gratification. In what could only be viewed as a confession, he described his careless dealings with truth, with the justice system, and with people.
“But I was brought up short through the loss of a friend whose death I caused. Peter Mangum was bright, witty, charming, with a brilliant future in business before him until the night I insisted that he and I crash a private party. I’d been drinking and was pretty free with my mouth; a male guest took exception, and he and I got into a knife fight. Peter rushed in to break it up and was fatally stabbed. I grew up that night, swore off all forms of evil in which I’d been engaged, and committed myself to a life of rectitude. I knew I owed Peter that much.”
Reverend Wilken’s words were sobering, and in reading them I could see that with him, as with me and many others, the idea of atonement for past thoughts or actions plays rather centrally in our life, and I earnestly hoped his years of quiet service had gained for him the expiation he sought.

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