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December 20, 2008

Mark Sullivan: A New Meaning of Christmas

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Mark Sullivan, author of the upcoming novel TRIPLE CROSS (to be released in April), reminisces about a particularly memorable Christmas that perhaps laid the groundwork for him to become the kind of writer he is today.

My mother taught me to read when I was four and we didn't have a television until I was nine, so books were right up there with toys, skis and hockey sticks at Christmas when I was growing up.

I loved mystery and adventure books especially, and when I was a kid on December 25th, I got installments of the Freddy the Detective series about a pig who solved barnyard crimes, The Hardy Boys of course, Tom Swift, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, and usually, from my father's mother, a classic tale of adventure like ROBINSON CRUSOE, KIDNAPPED, or TREASURE ISLAND or KIM. These last were usually condensed and rewritten so a child of the sixties could follow the plot.

After I'd gotten my fill of the toys and games and had the chance to bomb down the side yard on my new skis or sled, I'd grab one of my book presents, sit by the fire, smell the goose my mother was cooking, open the book cover and slip away for a few hours into the new world I'd been given.

On Christmas afternoon, I met the white whale for the first time. I met Professor Moriarty for the first time on a Christmas afternoon as well. And Jack Hawkins and Long John Silver. And Friday. And Jim, Huck and Tom. And the complete story of Jesus's birth according to the gospel of St. Luke; was there ever a better tale?

The greatness of all those books aside, as I near my fiftieth Christmas, one year and two books stick out in my memory.

I was thirteen and sick as a dog. I'd gotten the flu a few days before and spent most of the holiday curled up in a blanket on a sofa between the Christmas tree and the fireplace while my brother and sister went outside to sled with the neighborhood kids.

My grandmother Sullivan had given me a collection of short stories by Joseph Conrad. My mother had given me THE DAY OF THE JACKAL by Frederick Forsyth, which had dominated the bestseller list that year.

I cracked the Conrad book first and was surprised to find it was the real stuff --- not a dumb-down version --- and I initially struggled with the language of "The Duel (A Military Tale)".

But soon, I was swept away into 18th-century France and the tale of two Hussar infantry officers, D'Hubert and Feraud, who clash with sabers as young lieutenants while a deaf gardener and a young maid watch in horror.

The first duel between them ends up with Feraud slashed up and near death. D'Hubert gets him a surgeon and he lives. Feraud recovers, and over the course of decades the duel continues in shades of psychological suspense and overt acts of non-lethal violence until they are both older, scarred men and generals. At the end, despite their supposed obsessive hatred of the other, the duelists have become so firmly intertwined in the meaning of each other's lives that they can't imagine living without the other. Indeed, they've each given the other the most "alive" parts of their existence.

It was great stuff. Up until that point, it was the best short story I'd ever read, and I fell asleep for a while pretty happy and amazed that a writer could tell such an epic story in so little space.

I woke up around noon, ate some soup, and felt sorry for myself because I couldn't be outside with the other kids who'd built a jump on a side hill and were chucking themselves off it, getting ruined but having a pretty darn good time at it.

Then I met the Jackal.

After reading Forsyth's novel for two pages I forgot all about sledding, chucking myself off jumps and ruining myself. I'd never read anything like it. The language was precise, straightforward and easy for a thirteen year old to understand, but it seemed to carry an intense amount of weight and pressure as Forsyth described the hiring of an assassin to kill French President Charles DeGaulle.

From that point forward, I felt like I was right there, hovering in the air around the Jackal as he set about preparing for the assassination. In the novel, the reader never really learns much about the killer in terms of his history. But the way Forsyth describes the Jackal --- his actions, his tics, his cold ruthlessness --- had me believing he was right there in front of me, moving through France, gathering what he would need to kill DeGaulle.

My mother called me to Christmas dinner about the time the Jackal gets his gun. I tried to sneak the book to the table, but my old man was having none of that. He snatched it away and set it on the hutch. Growing up, Christmas dinner was an affair of heavy rituals in my house. You were expected to show up in a white shirt and tie. My mother made goose, yams, and string beans with almonds. My parents shared a bottle of wine. We prayed before eating. You were expected to have thought about the gospel and the sermon and be ready to voice your thoughts after the main meal was eaten.

My shirt collar was digging into my neck. I could barely stomach the chicken broth, and wanted nothing more than to head back to the couch, when my father asked me what Christmas meant to me in light of the morning sermon at Mass.

I didn't know what to say at first, but then blurted out, "I don't know about the sermon. But this year, Christmas to me means being sick and reading about these two guys dueling their whole lives with swords and pistols, and then this other guy, the Jackal, getting hired to kill Charles DeGaulle and he gets this really cool, break-down gun made for him. And he's like this amazing shot."

My father, who is very hard of hearing, looked at me like I was some kind of imbecile. "What the hell does that have to do with Jesus's birth?" he snapped.

"I dunno," I said. "Because of Jesus's birth I get to read really good books?"

My father, who'd had a couple of glasses of red wine by then, started to redden himself, and looked ready to launch into a tirade of some sort. Then my mother held up her hands at my dad.

"He's running a fever," she said. Then she looked at me. "You want to go back to your book and your blankets?"

"It's Christmas Dinner!" my father cried in outrage. "We haven't even had pie and ice cream."

"He can't keep toast down!" she yelled back at him. Then she nodded to me. "Go on, I'll bring you something in a while."

I grabbed THE DAY OF THE JACKAL and headed back into the living room, tearing off my clip-on tie and opening my collar. The Christmas tree was glowing. The fire needed a log or two.

But all I cared about was the Jackal. I read all that evening while Christmas carols blasted from the stereo speakers so my father could hear them and while my brother and sister fought over how much candy they were supposed to have in their stockings. I didn't care.

I was in Paris, meeting this French cop who everyone thinks is kind of an imbecile, watching as he begins to suspect that someone's going to try to assassinate DeGaulle and then hovering right over his shoulder as he sets out to foil the Jackal.

The suspense was excruciating and relentless. I finished the book by flashlight under the covers in my bed around two in the morning, and fell asleep in awe of all that I'd been through in the last fourteen hours: duels, killings, an assassination averted.

I woke up the next day around noon, feeling better, hungry, and I stumbled to the kitchen table and asked my mom for breakfast. While she was cooking me some soft-boiled eggs, she looked over and asked me, "Where's your book?"

"I finished it last night," I said, perking up. "You should read it. It's like the best book I've ever read. And I read the best short story I ever read yesterday too."

"Really?" she asked.

"Yeah," I said, and then felt something come over me. "I'd like to write books and stories like that someday."

Looking back thirty-seven years, I realize I got a gift that Christmas far larger than two books that helped me through a bout of the flu. Through that story by Conrad and that novel by Forsyth I was given a glimpse of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. In retrospect that glimpse was the greatest Christmas present I've ever received.

Tomorrow, Shannon McKenna Schmidt shares a sneaky tip for buying presents for loved ones.