In Chuck Palahniuk’s writing memoir: ‘Consider This: Moments in my writing life after which everything was different’, he talks a lot about Tom Spanbauer. As well as being his mentor and friend, Spanbauer also coined the term ‘Dangerous writing’; a minimalistic approach where writers are encouraged to ‘write from the body’ in order to express painful personal truths. As you would expect then, ‘Now is the hour’ is not just a work of fiction, but one that brims with realism, meaning and feeling.
Spanbauer’s writing style is different to the average bean. At first, it put me off. I imagine this is because of the fact that I’ve studied Palahniuk’s style alongside his, and knowing the deliberate intent behind his stylistic choices was initially off putting (though apparently not as much as his earlier novels which are even more stylized). However, after settling into the storyline itself, I found my mind opening up to a new narrative-style which actually delivered a more compelling and ultimately beautiful reading experience.
‘Now is the hour’ is set in 1967, and opens on a highway with Rigby Klusener, seventeen years old, with a suitcase and a flower behind his ear, trying to hitch a ride to San Francisco. We know he’s left behind a pregnant friend, his best four-legged friend and that he has a broken heart. We realise that this is almost the end of the story, and there’s much to learn about why Rigby is there, and how he got to this point. Spanbauer takes us right back to Rigby’s childhood, to one afternoon where he looks at an average shadow on the ground and sees something new – something magic, something “differnt” – and we move forward with him from there.
It has all the hallmarks of a stereotypical coming-of-age story – a young boy is brought up in a highly-religious and dysfunctional family, and must go through the necessary emotional growth to see that the world is different, more magical and vastly more multi-faceted and complicated than he was taught. But this one feels different – both for the insight you’re given to Rigby’s internal monologue, the playful language and the exploration of other themes like racism, sexuality, death, violence and religion. We feel transported into Rigby’s head, and he is an intensely likeable protagonist who tries to do good and who we desperately want to prevail.
Some of the minimalist language and plot styling that Spanbauer uses in his text is:
Compelling questions at the start to answer
We’re immediately wondering who Rigby is, why he’s running away, where he’s running from and to, what he saw in the kitchen that broke his heart before he left and what happened with the Parmesan cheese?
Every way the character describes the world must describe the character’s experience.
Spanbauer is less likely to give specific time passing, or height or anything that is not the character just experiencing the world in the way that it matters to them. Using explanations like: “Two cigarettes ago” rather than twenty minutes ago.
Creating tension in dialogue
Minimalist writing advice is that you should always be raising the tension until something breaks in the last act. You should never answer a question with dialogue without first delivering a little tension, and having characters avoid the answer if possible. Spanbauer includes less dialogue than usual, and Rigby is usually being spoken to, rather than speaking out (except at the end), but this tension is delivered in physical gestures too.
What’s your clock and where’s your gun?
From the very start, we know that Rigby has run away, so the rest of the book is leading up to that inevitability. We also know that all the biggest moments of his life seem to revolve around Parmesan cheese, and so we’re waiting for that. As the story goes on, we acknowledge the smaller smoking guns within secondary plot lines, of Sis’s pregnancy, of Russell’s short life, and of his mother’s mental health issues.
Physicality (internal for Rigby and external for other characters)
Spanbauer is all about the physical gestures. Rigby is constantly communicating the reaction of his body to the reader – whether that be his “helpless arms”, his arms and legs shaking in the drive-thru, his intense feelings when around boys he fancies, his squirming stomach. We know every feeling as our own because it is made so relatable. He also concentrates on the physical appearance of other characters, pointing out the constancy of his mother’s “rough, red farm hands, her cut-to-the-quick fingernails”, and the lines which appear around her mouth over time from gritting her teeth. We see everything.
He also talks about “You can always tell how you’re feeling by how your shadow looks”, which to me indicates a nod to internal feeling being made manifest externally. He sees this in his family, his neighbours, and himself.
Includes rituals, rules and prayer
Palahniuk in particular is a big fan of creating rituals for your readers to get hooked on – microsocieties with hierarchies, liminoid gatherings etc. Spanbauer does this more innocuously, with religious and family rituals playing a large part – reciting prayers at dinner, showing his father’s ritualistic working behaviour. But this novel doesn’t have rules to follow – rather it shows that the rules should be broken.
Nods to other forms of media
At one point, Rigby steps outside himself and remarks in a particularly stressful scene: “If it was a movie, the camera would go spinning around and around me.” I feel like the nod to this other type of media shows both a level of forward-thinking on Rigby’s part, but also a nod from Spanbauer about the drama of that particular moment and how we all come to imagine ourselves in a movie from time to time.
Lists of food or objects
Lists help to set and ground a scene. Spanbauer doesn’t just do this once, but over and over again, assumedly to show the monotony and ‘rigidness’ of the environment Rigby is growing up in. For example: “On the table was the same four slices of roast beef. The same bottle of Heinz 57 ketchup, the mashed potatoes in the green bowl, the orange gravy boat, the canned peas in the blue bowl, the butter plate, and the bread plate with four slices of Wonder Bread on it. The salt and pepper shakers the shape of milk cans.”
Breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader
Close to the start of the novel, we’re addressed like a friend and told: “I’m sorry it’s too hard. I can’t talk about that right now. I’ll have to tell you later. I won’t forget. I promise.”
This manages to simultaneously show us the kind of character Rigby is, while also peaking our interest. What on earth could be that bad? There are other points where he foreshadows to us too: “I’ll tell you about the photograph and the wadded-up piece of paper and the dollar bill later.”
Repetition, repetition, repetition
This element was what initially took me out of the book. Now that I’ve finished, I realised the experience – towards the end, I could preempt what was being said, I could finish the sentence before I read it and that made me feel part of something – more involved in the story itself. It also does a wonderful job of showing the moment at which things stop being ‘the same’ and they change for the worse/better.
So many phrases and themes are repeated – his mother’s eyes going between gold and green, the use of the word “differnt” and “Oh my heavens pretty woman so far” which was initially used by his best friends, Mexican employees Flaco and Acho, and then is later adopted by Rigby himself – showing the movement from his parent’s language in his mouth, to his friends.
Write the truth
Spanbauer sticks to the truth, offering us a very deep and detailed understanding of the characters. As a teenage boy naturally exploring his sexuality, there are long chapters on his brief obsession with masturbation, something which is strictly taboo for the church. It could also be seen as taboo in your average novel, but in keeping true to the experiences of a teenage boy, it’s included.
‘Now is the hour’ is a whopper of a text, at 459 pages. The only reason I’m docking it to four stars is because I felt like it went on for around 100 pages too long. If someone was less captivated by the writing style, they could have lost interest way earlier – I stuck around of course but as a reader, I was delivered the answers to my questions by the penultimate chapter and to me, the very last one felt fairly moot, and the plot point that it serves, while heartwarming, doesn’t actually feel necessary to the arc of Rigby’s character development.
That said, I absolutely loved the experience of reading this book and enjoying the poetic language used by Spanbauer to explore love and all its contradictions. I would highly recommend this beautiful novel.