TLC welcomes, as our Halloween offering, the wonderful Mark Arsenault. Mark is a Shamus- nominated mystery writer, a journalist, a runner, hiker, political junkie and eBay fanatic who collects memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. His new novel is LOOT THE MOON, the second book in the Billy Povich series that began with GRAVEWRITER, a noir thriller praised for a fusion of suspense, humor and human tenderness. With 20 years of experience as a print reporter, Arsenault is one of those weird cranks who still prefers to read the news on paper. His Web site is: www.markarsenault.net
The younger of my two brothers called me from his car a few years ago and said in a hollow voice, “I’ve just been diagnosed with testicular cancer.”
The words clamped like a giant hand around my neck and squeezed. Cancer had ravaged our family for 40 years.
I had two seconds to come up with a reply, and I knew that whatever I said would set the tone for how we dealt with this news.
Using my driest voice, I deadpanned: Well, Ryan, it takes a lot of testicular fortitude to admit something like that.
My actual verbiage may have been a little less polite.
It was the rudest and most inappropriate thing in the world to say at that moment, and that was the point.
He said nothing for a second.
Then we both laughed.
Over the next few days, through a hastily scheduled surgery, the three Arsenault brothers proved Mark Twain’s observation that nothing can withstand the assault of laughter. Not even cancer.
We got Ryan through his operation with more crude testicle jokes than a busload of teenaged boys could invent in a month. We fought back, one guffaw at a time, and the disease could never catch its breath. The jokes worked for us. (When I was alone I also experimented with screaming in despair into a towel, but I preferred the jokes.)
Which gets to the point of how men talk, and why it’s difficult to make men sound natural in fictional dialogue.
The one thing I didn’t tell Ryan was: “Don’t worry, I’ll be there for you.”
There’d be nothing wrong with saying that. I might say that exact thing to a casual friend or a work acquaintance. But it would never occur to me to tell a close buddy or a brother, “I’ll be there for you.”
Why? Because men speak emotional language to each other in inverse proportion to how close they are.
Men talk backwards.
In my new novel, Loot the Moon, protagonist Billy Povich, an obituary writer, speaks with his close friend Martin about the murder of Martin’s mentor, a respected judge named Gil Harmony. To comfort his wounded friend, Billy’s first instinct is to gently tease Martin about his age:
“You know that a friend of mine is dead.” Martin stroked his beard, discovered crumbs in the whiskers, frowned and brushed them away. “Judge Harmony was my first law partner, back when I passed the bar.”
“I thought Abe Lincoln was your first law partner.” He gave Martin a sad smile.
“He came later. My original mentor was Gil Harmony.”
“I wrote his obituary for the paper,” Billy said.
“It was beautiful, so I figured it was you who did it. Did you do the obit for the kid who slaughtered him?”
Is Billy’s response appropriate? Out of context, certainly not. But in context, speaking backwards as men do, he reveals the closeness of their relationship.
Not to give away too much, but Billy agrees in that scene to investigate who ordered the hit on the judge.
And now several years after his operation, my brother—who has since become a father—is in perfect health. We still tease him about losing a testicle.