top of page

Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Aaron Burr Leaves The Building

This week, I’d like to begin with an admission of error—no, I’m not joking. As Baby’s father says to Johnny in Dirty Dancing, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”

I misinterpreted the quote about Joel, the protagonist in First Love, seeing the dead man brought into Natchez, and that “his eyes were for something else, something wonderful.” This was not referring to the dead man’s eyes, but to Joel’s, who is studying the miracle of the vapor-shapes coming from the mouths of the living.

So, even the pros can be in error, best B.

All right, I feel much better. Today, let’s ponder the overall course of the story and conclude by thinking about the point.

What’s the point, Walter?

Hold up, “overall course?” You talkin’ story arc?

A story arc is the chronological construction of a plot in a novel or story.”

It is a description of how a story moves (or doesn’t move) through time—not so much a description of how a story handles or portrays time but more how the plot interacts with time.

In First Love, the story begins, as we have seen, with a statement that “whatever happened…in a season of dreams,” and then with a description of the unusual winter weather in Natchez, Mississippi. The time is set particularly—January of 1807—but the passage utilizes verbs in imperfect tense, implying actions in the past that have not concluded but are ongoing. Then, the language in the story focuses on the particular: Joel Mayes, a twelve-year-old deaf boy who is working at an inn at Natchez as a cleaner of boots. We are showed how Joel came to be at the inn, that his parents were lost, and the story moves back to the imperfect as Joel’s activities as a boot-black are described. Then, after a paragraph break, we are told that “a new adventure began for him.” Aaron Burr and a friend come to the inn and park themselves in the room Joel sleeps in, staying up all night, talking. Joel is fascinated with the men, particularly Burr, although, being deaf, doesn’t know what is being said. He surmises that the man is Aaron Burr, who is in the area to be tried for treason. Joel makes an internal connection in a dream-like way between Burr and Blemmerhassett, and his parents, presumably dead.

“Joel stood motionless; he lifted his gaze from Burr’s face and stared at nothing…If love does a secret thing always; it is to reach backward, to a time that could not be known—for it makes a history of the sorrow and the dream it has contemplated in some instant of recognition. What Joel saw before him, he had a terrible wish to speak out loud, but he would have had to find names for the places of the heart and the times for its shadowy and tragic events, and they seemed of great magnitude, heroic and terrible and splendid, like the legends of the mind. But for lack of a way to tell how much was known, the boundaries would lie between him and the others, all the others, until he died.”

The time that could not be known is Joel’s infancy and his lost childhood.

At the end, he observes Burr leaving Natchez at night, wearing a disguise of turkey feathers.

Is he disguised as a turkey?

Don’t think so.

Historically, we know that Burr was later captured and tried for treason. But in the story, Joel follows him out along the road, thinking that he, Joel, will not return to his job at the Inn. Finally, “he fell down and wept for his father and his mother, to whom he had not said goodbye.”

So, Joel realizes Burr is leaving, Joel leaves, and it is then that he experiences the loss of his parents. Before that, he had not mourned them, he had only experienced the tragedy in dream-like terms. It is as if Joel’s whole sojourn in Natchez was a time set apart from the rest of his life. Now, he will go on, a “woke” (if you’ll forgive me) orphan. The title, First Love, refers less to Joel’s feelings about Aaron Burr and more to those he feels for his first love—his parents. This is a story about how a random encounter with a celebrity makes time start up again for a person staggered by trauma.

It seems to me that the point of First Love is that this time set apart is a necessary step Joel has to take before he can move on from loss.

Till next time, my friends.

1 Comment

Sep 06, 2023

I always enjoy the way you incorporate humor in your writing. D

bottom of page