Faber arrives at Thornton’s apartment building in Kreuzberg
It was a building like any other, all peeling plaster, peeling posters and unappealing graffiti. All of Degarmo Straße was much the same, I saw, strolling along one side then the other with an idleness hopefully befitting a local. I stopped in front of the dilapidated exterior, the plain ordinariness of the building in which he had lived so many years. Thornton’s life, led with such lazy care, had settled here, in this country, in this city, in this street, and no one knew exactly why. His final years encased in a dirty cube of concrete graffiti, alone and sick, but tirelessly writing, writing, writing. Why, I asked myself, for possibly the 900th time. A historical mystery to match the manifestly real one which was beginning to take shape around a stranger in a strange land.
Charles DeForestThornton—the biographical tapes & giving away the provisional ending!
Faber’s actions are interspersed with the initial tapes he obtained in the UK. Thornton’s voice retrace his life and works as the story progresses: beginning with general musings, during which he mentions clues (the man in the Homburg hat; Helga; etc) which Faber uses, and continuing with some thoughts on Ray Delaney, a character created by Thornton to compensate—in some ways—for his own personal failings.
However, he obtains some privately held recordings from Helga, via the Poet-Friend, and they delve deeper into Thornton’s personal history. His move as a teenager to the east coast of the USA, and his hero-worship of the film stars and styles of his youth comes into full force. He wants to be Clark Gable, even growing a pencil-moustache with a view to seducing the few young women he meets in Boston, and later, New York. He reads Chandler and Hammett, watches Bogart and Bacall, and becomes enthralled with the fantasy world created by the booming Hollywood dream factory. When he is in his late 20s, he meets a woman named Elizabeth, a minor star in a number of movies. She is a plain but pretty girl with the devil-may-care attitude of a leading lady. Around the same time, he sells his first story, a melodramatic detective tale called “The Second Murderer” to a pulp magazine.
In 1940, Thornton is 29 years old. By virtue of his British nationality, he enlists in the Canadian Army, and spends time fighting in France. He tells of the stenches, the grime, the fatigue, and the impotence of battles, choreographing death so idly that one might think it were only a film awaiting its resolution, awaiting a return to the status quo. Even to his last days, he remembers these feelings vividly, describing the strange image of a hand being wrapped in a bandage, blood flow cut off slowly but surely, leaving him impotent, unable to act. Thornton, who reaches the rank of lieutenant, is not a brave man. During one particular mission, he is blinded by smoke, its acrid taste making him gag, and his eyes water. Only to add to the confusion, his unit is ambushed, and Thornton, one of the senior officers there, fires out of fear at two figures approaching him through the haze. He collapses, blinded by the smoke, and awakes in a field hospital.
Returning to the US in 1944, Thornton is uncontrollably disillusioned. His wife Elizabeth has fallen in love and is living with another man—an actor. Thornton returns to writing, penning the first Delaney novel, entitled “Double Standard”. This tale involves the murder of a shady gangster named Nachtigall and the subsequent death of a Broadway starlet who was suspected but never convicted of his murder. Delaney eventually uncovers the truth—the starlet was not one, but two people, identical sisters who had used their double identities to cover up murder. It is moderately successful, and Thornton is able to turn to full time writing.
After a second Delaney novel, Thornton leaves the USA for Germany, living in various parts of Berlin and eventually settling in Kreuzberg. The reasons for his move come clear as Faber comes to the end of the recordings. The men whom he shot during the ambush in the war were, he finally admits, two German officers advancing through the smoke and attempting to surrender. One of the men was bleeding from the nape of his neck, from a wound in his chest, and is missing most of his left foot. The other man, grimy, sweaty, grazed and bloody, is practically carrying him with one arm over the other man’s shoulder, and one across his chest. Thornton can see their faces clearly even now, grazed and scared, just like his, the faces of comrades. No, the faces of brothers. The faces of twin brothers. Identical twin brothers.
To his final days alive, Faber learns, this one moment remained with Charles Thornton, an all-pervasive guilt which wracked him ever since. In moving to the country, and the city, from which these two brothers originated, Thornton throws himself into the midst of his guilt and anger, a self-made outsider just like Faber. And he brings with him Raymond Delaney, his character a cipher for himself made heroic, made incorruptible, brave, honest, and willing to fight to his own set of morals.
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