LITERATURE: The Life of Geronimo Sandoval – Finale

The author, Steve Ersinghaus, as a professor of Creative Writing, naturally knows the elements of story and has seemingly adhered to the basics without falling into the trap of making them so obvious that it circles around on itself to present a formlike piece of writing.  This is what often happens when  talent or lack thereof is hidden beneath the cloak of impeccability of doing it by the book.  It’s why there’s a certain lack of something in so much of the the writing fresh out of Workshops or MFA holders; it’s proper, but it’s blah. There’s no worry of that here; Ersinghaus has the talent.

The setting of the deserts of the southwest for the major portion of the story is unsettlingly haunting.  There’s a terrible beauty to it as Ersinghaus describes it, because it holds so much of the main character’s life within it, yet keeps it secret from him.  Ham Sandoval, after schooling out east returns to the area of his birth because he feels it within him that what he seeks, a brother taken from him in youth, the answers to a madwoman’s mind, the shadow of a father, can only reside in wisps of memory here.  There is description of the land that paints an image that makes even a born New-Englander want to discover it.  And when the country is unyielding, the sun is not warming, but cruel.  Ersinghaus knows the area and has laid it out the way he feels it.

The interesting implementation of the hypertext format makes the plot depend upon the reader’s whim or skillful manipulation.  I’ve likely traveled through more than a thousand textboxes by my own two steps forward, one step back approach but the planning out of the story to make whatever path was taken work is exceptionally well done by Ersinghaus.  One thing led to another; one thing bloomed from another; one thing added to another; all working together regardless of its non-linearity of structure.  Behind the scenes, of course, there is a linear progression of story, but the reader doesn’t come up upon all thoughts and recollections in a regulated timeline.

There are several structures beneath the main story of Ham Sandoval that relate to his way of thinking, his character, and his life story.  His work in string theory affects all other aspects of his life and in his efforts to overcome and understand, his application of theory likely comforts him in making some sense of it.  Numbers can be your friends. 

Here there may be a difference of opinion as to how much you need to know about black holes and string theories and such, but being at the low end of the scale and willing to do even the slightest research I found that I still was able to completely enjoy the narrative.  I would guess that someone of Ersinghaus’ interests or knowledge would be even more fulfilled by the story, finding the information within these data bits alone to enhance it.  But I wouldn’t be put off by the technical science as even Ham appears to use it philosophically in his reflections.

The writing is superb.  My feeling at the end of my readings was one of awe because this same guy who taught me loads about writing and has inspired me has by his novel just washed away all hope for myself. There’s talent that can never be taught–the element missing in classrooms no matter what level is reached.  What I’ve learned is what I’ve learned to recognize, and that is in itself an achievement.

There are themes and motifs that even the narrator, Ham, seems to bring to the reader’s attention.  Water, certainly roads, and I would add trees and its multiple as forest or woods, and in the character, memory and loss.  Ham questions his beginnings. But what they are and how they relate to conclusion is something he only understands by the end of this portion of his story.

For conflict and tension Ersinghaus has  added many smaller confrontations to the overall arc of story that outlines Ham’s emotional and mental search for his brother. And these episodes are not without strong impact themselves.  Facing violence, crime, human suffering and political turning points show us Ham’s character even as it brings to the reader’s attention many of the  problems and heartrending tragedies of today’s society.

The novel was written and is read in the Storyspace software environment.  I’ve seen this and played with a demo, and while it evidently makes the writer’s work easier, it is a complicated looking mapping of plots at the same time it is the most organized and easy to work with.  It’s a challenge to write in, I’m sure, and one that this novel has taken to full advantage.  For the reader, unless you have the stubborn resistance of one such as I, you’ll immediately love the experience, though it clearly is not the same as reading a book.

While my opinion may have the slightest tinge of bias as the author is known to me, I have tried to be as neutral and honest in my commentary.  Steve Ersinghaus is a damn fine writer. But there’s a lot to bring to this novel, more than a student of his can bring in admiration alone. The reader of The Life of Ham Sandoval needs to be open to ideas, needs to accept what is given and needs to consider each piece of information given carefully.  He must also be willing to accept that one doesn’t negate the other if in conflict.  Both, and all, could be right.   

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