Wild Pines is a 75,000 word literary thriller, completed by Ben during the 2017/18 Faber Academy ‘Writing a Novel’ course. It is currently seeking representation.
Wild Pines is a contemporary literary novel in which a person searches for peace but encounters secrets, pain and a troubled man who becomes an obsession. Its themes include purpose, gender and surviving in a world without work. Inspirations for the story include Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The manuscript is 75,000 words long.
Abandoning a conventional life in Britain, the protagonist heads to Wild Pines, a new-age retreat on the stunning but raw Californian coastline. Ill-equipped for this new environment, the first response is to reject it, until a mysterious man arrives, drowning under the weight of his past and a family secret he’s running from. Both seek redemption in a community whose friendly welcome conceals disturbing customs. Little is given away about the first-person narrator’s identity – not even the sex.
When a dangerous wildfire destroys all the main character’s possessions, a bond grows with the stranger and their relationship develops into obsession. This man takes an irreversible decision which sets the protagonist adrift into an odyssey through small town America in search of the man’s family. The quest for meaning in a directionless world necessitates discovering parallels in their pasts, re-examining choices they’ve made, and facing up to the resultant deceits they have each gone so far to keep hidden.
Chapter One: Arrival
You can’t help but be awestruck by the beauty of the California coastline. I don’t care how many times you’ve seen the cliffs curving, headland after headland, jutting into the ocean. I know this will be a great trip the first moment I set eyes on Ella. She is a nurse, in that LA fashion that doesn’t stop her driving a convertible nor from benefitting from the couple of facelifts she’s had in her time.
“Hop in and make yourself at home,” by which she means in the passenger seat space: every other inch of the car is stacked with her stuff. I wonder if she lives in the car, but I’m not going to ask when we’ve just met.
We’ve talked on the phone, arranging this ride-share, but this is the first time I’ve seen her in the flesh, and she me. I didn’t need to share the ride, of course, and I’m paying for the petrol so it’s not free. To be honest I wanted the company and it feels more like the traditional American road-trip this way, rather than taking a taxi. Plus, in the first few days at Wild Pines it will be nice to have at least one familiar face. We can nod to one another and smile when we pass by.
“I brought some snacks and hydration for the journey.” She leaves a moment to ensure the seriousness of her next statement is understood: “Hydration is very important.”
She tells me she’d prefer to go a longer, more scenic route, and asks if that’s okay by me. I say of course, that would be great.
“First time in California?” Her eyes assume I’ll say no.
“Yup, first time.”
“Wow.” A moment of silence, her word disappearing out the window and off behind the car. “What brings you here?”
I want to say: I’ve become that person. I told my friends the company had to call it a sacking to give me the best pay-out. That we’d agreed I’d go without working my notice period – clean break. I wasn’t good at the job. I’m never good at the job. I was found out and so I was turfed out. But nobody needs a job any more, so I’m doing what any self-respecting Westerner would do: setting off on a mission to find myself.
I do say: “Needed a break.”
I don’t know if you realise that Ella had been to Wild Pines ‘a few times in the past’ (though I learn the ‘few’ she mentioned on the phone is an understatement).
“The Therapies workshop I’m taking counts towards Continuing Professional Development, so I have to do something like this every year. And it’s deductible.”
She pulls into an open lane, swerving close to the van ahead with its tied-down logs, pulls back in front of it in one fluid manoeuvre.
She comes every year, pretty much. “It’s such a beautiful place to do my CPD. Plus it’s not an airless hotel basement where someone tells you the new way to take blood. As if veins aren’t still in the same place they’ve always been!”
I don’t say that I’d prefer a nurse who’s up on the latest needle technique over one who can re-align my chakras.
“But I’m still a late-comer to it. I wasn’t there in the sixties.”
I see a look on her face that I’m going to see a lot in my time at Wild Pines. You know the one: a look of sadness, to have missed the chance to go there when this place felt like the newest movement, the place where they knew how the next evolution of humankind would play out – or at least where it would. Or a similar look, more pronounced: the look of those who had been there, had tasted the future when it was ahead, and the awakening as it happened. Now – now they just miss that time: its innocence, its excitement.
I will discover later that this look is infectious, that you can catch this longing from another carrier. For now, though, it does nothing to diminish my excitement. I’m happy to visit even the pale shadow of this place that once attracted all the mystics and, yes, all the celebs, from a different time when celebrity meant uniqueness, rather than a packaged personality constructed from the corpse of ambition.
We stop for a loo break, and so Ella can replenish her supply of her favourite moisturiser, which she can only get from this brand of drugstore. Ah, America: where you stare down the aisles in a shop vanishing off into the distance, yet all but one outlet lacks the particular brand you like.
Onto the top of the pile in the backseat she slings the bag, filled with face-cream and more bottles of water, even though we haven’t touched those she brought with. She suggests putting on the radio. Pressed further, I admit that on this continent I can’t resist tuning into Country and Western stations, for their happy, carefree ballads – and for me, novelty. But Ella isn’t from the South or Mid-West. Not just in terms of her musical sensibilities, but also in there being clear limits to her hospitality.
“There are some CDs in the glove,” she says, and flicks her hand to let me know it’s to be found on the opposite side of the car to the one I’m used to.
It’s a choice between The Doors or Bowie, or some other bands I’ve never heard of. You’ll understand that’s because this music is recent rather than because Ella’s taste predates mine.
“Bowie?” It’s only a few years since his death-too-soon, and what better way to honour him than by blasting his music out across the bluest waves? It would be better with the top down, but I can’t imagine Ella wants her belongings flying across the road, so I don’t ask.
She nods, acknowledging this was the inevitable choice, and there we glide, the old veteran and the newbie who doesn’t know what to expect, with Bowie painting pictures of other worlds and other ways of being.
This will be the last journey I’ll make as an innocent, and before I leave Wild Pines my whole world will change.