Heart is Where the Home Is
In San Francisco, Four Soul-Searching Characters Find They Left Their Hearts… Somewhere Else
By Jenny Kiljian
For four artists—Henry Fields, Stoker Caudwell, Jay Kard and Dixson Naturian—San Francisco looks like the mecca where they will find themselves, become revitalized, and rekindle their relationships. Yet, amidst the transience, they find themselves floating further from their goals—but closer to where they began.
The doors they use to make departures from their past are they same ones they use to return to their roots, hence the idea of Trapped Doors, which gives the impression of a threshold, of lifes liminality.
Hailing from Boise, Idaho, Henry Fields is a struggling writer in a failing marriage, who decides to move to San Francisco with his exasperated wife, Nancy, ever testing her patience as they struggle to make ends meet while he tries to finish his book. Thinking it might inspire his creativity, Henry takes a job as a cabdriver. His boss, Delmore, recognizes Henry's benign desire to find a muse, and also his indecisive nature. "No, I figure you're some month or two cabbie," says Delmore. "Once you realize you ain't getting no kick here or nothing comes from it except the money, you'll move on or back to wherever you were last. You guys are all looking to go backward anyway."
Boston, Mass., native Stoker Caudwell tries his hand at tending bar, plying others with the liquor they need to be copasetic, while he musters the inspiration to write. "I arrived in San Francisco with no skills, a damaged heart, wore youth on my sleeve like a military decoration, and thought my subconsciousness could be disinterred through writing," he says. "I figured I'd fit right into this city."
Jay Kard is the "Living Novel," having transcribed countless hours of his own dictation and recordings into 24 novels. "It's really one novel in twenty-four books," he says. "My own ego-driven legend. Like Kerouac's Dulouz legend. Same as kids building a fort and imagining war. The creation of one's own legend is human honesty." From his hometown in New Jersey, he travels to Italy, and then to San Francisco, ever recording his thoughts and subtly eavesdropping on others. He finds love with a divorcee, Daisy, one that transcends contractual obligations, but still works to overcome financial hardship and physical disability.
Dixson Naturian, an Armenian from Worcester, Mass., personifies what had been the book's original title, Gone West. A painter, he initially moves into the city, eventually settling into its outskirts from where he can easily go both to work and into the urban center. But, even with this detachment, Dixson, with his "ingrained east coast work ethic" can't enjoy the lull, and he becomes "another California casualty," first moving back East to reconnect with his heritage and family, and then with his lover, Sangiella, to Spain.
Each artist leaves his hometown, hoping that the change in scenery, the San Franciscan confluence of people and their histories, would give them the impetus to create their art. Yet after navigating each character through a Lombard Street-style array of emotional twists, author Ken Janjigian sends them back in the direction from which they came. They all end up going "home" after trying their hand at going West—and Janjigian's honest, evocative and humble approach to creating their stories makes us believe that they've chosen their paths and will be truly satisfied with their forthcoming chapters.
The women these men desire and pursue figure largely in each vignette. Janjigian writes from the perspective of the effect these women have on the male psyche, and on the roles that they fulfill for these men. He writes evocatively, without excessive melodrama.
Each novella is not unlike a diary, a soliloquy by each character, telling the reader about what led them to San Francisco and what motivated them to leave. Janjigian deftly writes internal dialogue, such that the reader is engrossed in the psychodrama of each character and each character's actions and emotions, whether misguided or successful, are palpable and resonant. Each character is a player and narrator in their own story. There are moments of sheer hilarity and others of bewilderment, and Janjigian masterfully pens these conversations, and the characters' authorial scripting of events as they are unfolding. His ear for conversation is apparent; the interactions are effortless, not contrived or stilted.
In case readers were to wonder how Janjigian concocted these vignettes, Trapped Doors comes with a disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events of the story are a result of the imagination.
Janjigian's writing career began in 1990, when halfway through a master's degree program in English, he decided to move to San Francisco. He worked in a bookstore for two of the three years he lived there. "This experience felt like getting a degree in English," says Janjigian. "I read voraciously and met many interesting eccentric San Francisco types." While in San Francisco, he wrote short stories and poetry, and toyed with the idea of writing a novel.
He started Trapped Doors in earnest in 1995, completing the first draft in 1998 and revising it several more times before sending it out to publishers in 2001. One publishing company in New York was interested, but editors decided that it needed more revisions, and Janjigian says he was satiated with the book. He began writing a draft of a second novel, and then returned to Trapped Doors and made "rather major changes."
Pocol Press, a Virginia-based publishing firm, accepted Janjigian's manuscript. The book was published within a year. "Pocol Press has been wonderful to work with. They are very supportive about new and unique voices in fiction," says Janjigian.
Now an English teacher at the Bartlett School, a private school in Waltham, Mass., and an ESL instructor at Harvard University, Janjigian is editing his second book, a full novel, which revolves around one character, an Armenian man.
Janjigian says his experiences, the conversations he heard, and the letters he and his hometown friend, Jeff Tinkham, would exchange shaped the landscape of Trapped Doors. Tinkham would later be the first person to read the book and help edit the manuscript.
Janjigian's travels led him back to Watertown, where he was born and raised. "I didn't think I'd move back to Watertown. It's ironic," he says. "It seems obvious, looking back. But, I didn't expect it at that age. It crystallized each year that I was in San Francisco that I wasn't going to end up staying there.
The city has a powerful presence. The people there are internally displaced, while so many others are physically displaced. It's a transient city—a temporary home that offers the illusion of home."
Far from that illusory atmosphere, Janjigian spent his formative years in the small suburb of Boston, with his parents and two sisters, participating in the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF) and the Armenian Church Youth Organization of America (ACYOA). His mother was the first to read Trapped Doors after it was published, and Janjigian says he was heartened by her positive reaction. "My mom really liked it, especially the part of Dixson's story where he spends time with his grandfather, because it was based on her dad, Kegham," says Janjigian. Sadly, his father was not able to share in Janjigian's success. Two years ago, a short time after the book had been accepted by Pocol Press, his father, who had been battling cancer for many years, died suddenly. They didn't have a chance to say goodbye, Janjigian explains ruefully.
He dedicated the book in memory of his late father, John, and to his mother, Alice, who continues to support his efforts and proudly attends each of his readings and book signings. Also standing by his side is his girlfriend of six months, Sharmistha Ghosh. Meeting the couple eradicates any lingering doubt that Trapped Doors has been an autobiographical exercise for Janjigian who, unlike his characters, is reveling in the stability of his relationship. "The woman I'm with now has been incredibly grounding," says Janjigian. "The place gets a lot better when you meet the right person."