It is not flesh and blood, but heart which makes us fathers and sons. —Friedrich von Schiller
Upon opening David Armand’s most recent novel, Harlow, the reader is transported into a gritty and realistic portrayal of southeastern Louisiana, to towns like Bogalusa, Franklinton, Greensburg, and Amite. This region, the toe of Louisiana, across the lake from New Orleans, is where the author was raised, and it’s from here he has mined enough material for two novels, with a third on the way. It’s his own “little postage stamp of native soil.”
Armand grew up on a farm in the small town of Folsom. Before he started writing, he worked a number of odd jobs: he was a drywall hanger, a draftsman, a dishwasher, and a press operator in a flag-printing factory. In 2010, Armand won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel, The Pugilist's Wife, and he was recently selected to attend the 2014 Sewanee Writers’ Conference. His second novel, Harlow, has drawn comparisons to some of the standard bearers of southern fiction—O’Connor, McCarthy, and, yes, Faulkner.
What strikes the reader about this book is the heart-wrenching and universal tale of its protagonist, the young man Leslie Somers, and Leslie’s search for his father and ultimately himself. Think of Oedipus Rex and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms: like Oedipus and Joel Knox, Leslie has never known his biological father and is on a quest to find him. The reader learns through flashbacks about how Leslie was mistreated by the other men in his life and how the boy's sense of emptiness and longing results from this abuse. After a traumatic duck hunting experience with one of his mother's boyfriends, Leslie retreats to his room and hides in his bed:
After he’s finished Leslie walks naked but holding his dirty clothes around himself and past Jim and into the trailer where he goes into his room and climbs into bed and cowls himself under the blankets. He is shivering and he cannot stop. He feels Jim has vanquished him now and he does not know what for.
There is an emotional resonance in this book that leaves the reader awash with feeling—one of those rare novels that speaks to universal truths while also maintaining a personal point-of-view and narrative.
First off, thanks for agreeing to speak with me, and I have to tell you that Harlow really moved me. You’ve said that this novel is largely autobiographical. Can you tell us about that?
David Armand: Sure. I don't think it's any secret by now that I never knew my biological father until I was much older, twenty-seven or twenty-eight. This left me with a sense of emptiness my whole life, as though I was missing out on something. I was fortunately raised by good folks, and I had several father figures in my life, but it just wasn't the same as I imagined what having a real father would be like. I was a little disheartened when I met my biological father and it wasn't the Hollywood reunion I had fabricated in my mind. He wasn't a bad person, but I just felt kind of unwanted. The boy, Leslie, feels the same, I think. Like me, Leslie has to deal with these feelings on his own and with his own misguided conceptions of masculinity: that being strong means being closed off from others, keeping inside how you really feel, et cetera.
I was raised with this line of thinking as well, and it's taken a lot of therapy and a lot of hard work and soul searching to change this mindset. In a way, writing this book was a part of that process for me.
I can really appreciate your openness in sharing your personal story. I think that’s what resonates in your book so much—the emotional vulnerability that comes through in the character Leslie but also even in your linguistic style, long flowing sentences tempered by a minimalist use of punctuation. Have you gotten similar reactions from other readers?
I have, actually. I was so surprised by how many people responded to this book—way more than with my first novel. I think it has a lot to do with that emotional element that you talk about. At first, I was reluctant to not only publish this book but to then speak about it at readings and in interviews. But I figured I owed it to my readers to be honest with them. This book, I should be clear, was not necessarily cathartic for me to write. I wrote it from a completely objective place, for I don’t believe that writing, or any art, should be self-expressive. First and foremost, art is our attempt to communicate with others. If you want to spill your guts on the page, I would say buy a diary. Harlow is a story about a boy in search of his father more than it is my autobiography.
Has having children of your own changed or inspired your writing or your views on fatherhood in any way?
Absolutely. I want to be the best father I can be, and I am acutely aware of the pain fathers can inflict on their children, whether it’s intentional or not. I don't think I would’ve ever written this book had I not had children of my own. I hope that my story can help one person. If it does, then I feel as if I’ve succeeded.
Well, it’s definitely helped me in some inexplicable way. I think a lot of us can see ourselves in young Leslie.
Thank you, Dixon. Then I consider my job done!
But you're not done, though, right? I read that you just finished your third novel. Could you tell us a little about that book, and does it deal in any way with father/son relationships at all?
Yes and yes. I just finished my third novel, The Gorge, which is my sort of literary take on the murder/mystery genre. There are a lot of bad guys in this book, but a really good friend of mine told me not too long ago that I should have at least one character who readers can root for. I took that advice very seriously, and so I found myself going back through the book and giving some of these horrible people poignant childhood memories of spending time with their fathers. Not only does it humanize these criminals, but it makes the reader conflicted as to how to feel about them.
I saw an interview once with Jeffrey Dahmer and his father, and I have to say that it changes the way you look at someone; they’re still guilty of committing horrible crimes, doing terrible things to others, but now they’re a human being. This is a theme I’ll probably always wrestle with and come back to in my work. Maybe one day I’ll get it just right. Until then I'll keep sweating it out.