Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 1 1999 6:30 PM

Stewart O'Nan

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I've got to lay out the bodies today but my jaw hurts. Something's wrong with the joint, I hope. Otherwise it's tetanus. Can't remember when I last had a shot.

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And I've got all these dead people to worry about. Burned, most of them. Fourth degree. Most people only go first, second, third, but these people ended up fourth. Temperatures about a thousand degrees. Hands and feet falling off (see, the bones are brittle in the wrists and ankles, the bones go brittle).

The rest were trampled to death, or the big poles had fallen on them. That's going to take some explaining.

It's the book I'm writing--nonfiction, a real departure. I keep figuring the truth will make it easy. I've done all the research, did it for a year, beating the bushes, doing interviews, flying into the Midwest in January and driving a rental car with a busted defroster. So I've got the goods. And pictures--damn, I've got pictures so good I don't dare show the reader.

It's about a fire that happened here in Hartford back in 1944. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's big top burned to the ground, killing 168 people.

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Don't ask how I got involved, it's one of those pointless origin stories, as dull as that writing with a pen or a pencil question. I'm stuck with the gig and I'd better like it. I do, except logistically it's a train wreck. Thousands of people, a jumbled up time line, tons of misinformation.

And now the jaw. I don't know what went wrong; maybe I slept on it funny. Every time I open my mouth or try to chew something, one side of my head hurts like a bastard. I just had a bad filling done; I hope it's not an infection or a root canal, then I'd be in deep shit.

So I've got to call the doctor and get an appointment and then bend my schedule to go and sit in the lobby with a bunch of sick kids, then do the chain-store drugstore pharmacy deal, roaming up and down the red-carpeted aisles till my antibiotics are up.

And these bodies, how gruesome do I have to be to get the horror of the makeshift morgue across without freaking out the reader? Strangely enough, it's about taste, walking that line between the amazing but stomach-churning detail and dry understatement. In fiction, depending on the book and the character's point of view, you're allowed to go totally baroque, but here the only point of view is me, your utterly fallible narrator from the future, and a missed stitch here will ruin a hundred pages of good faith.

Taste! Hell, I can't even chew. I'll start the scene then break and go get some drugs. Two hours later I'll be back at the machine.

Bless me, Ultima.