It's no secret at all that the protagonist in my new novel, And It Will Be a Beautiful Life, a pipeline inspector named Max Wendt, was conjured from my own background as an occasional pipeliner. (Where it all flows from there, of course, is more fiction than fact, more imagination than recitation. But stories gotta start somewhere, and as I've written before, mine start in the memory banks.)
Early on in the book, Max heads off to a job in Buffalo, N.Y., and an assignment he doesn't relish: He's asked to train a new worker on the crew, a 30-something woman about his daughter's age, and what happens from there has a great impact on Max and on her. (If you're thinking here that surely I went for the easiest of tropes, the kind of trope middle-age male writers have been committing to the page for as long as there have been pages, please consider it might have gone another way. Because it did.)
But the true love letter to Buffalo, the place and the idea, comes from a third character, Charles Foster Danforth, an odd man Max meets in his travels. The two men aren't well acquainted at that juncture, but they're working their way around each other, and Charles, via email, urges Max to show more appreciation for the places he gets to go:
Do you realize where you are? In architectural terms alone, you’re in a place that changed the game, particularly with the buildings that went up between the Civil War and what my grandfather, Preston Foster Danforth, the old scamp, called the Great War, even if that moniker was eventually usurped by a greater war that came along. (This, Max, is the folly of our human condition. We are terrific at war. We are less terrific at things that would be better for the collective us. But I digress.)
I wish I had the time to go back there. It would be charming to see you, of course, but I think I would leave you to the pig and go walk those radiating boulevards downtown (I bet you never thought of Buffalo and Paris as comparable, but there you go). I’d see the buildings of Wright, of Richardson, of Sullivan, of Mori, and my day would be spent before I even got to the art galleries or the wine—yes, my friend, the wine; you take the chicken wing, I’ll take the pinot.
I loved writing that bit. Because I love Buffalo.
I'm going back to western New York in the coming week. It's been a while, what with the pandemic and moving back to Montana from Maine amid it. The food experience there is basically inseparable from the rest of it, so much so that one of my dearest friends, a guy who grew up in Orchard Park, N.Y., calls it "a great fatboy town." I've certainly added some pounds there over the years.
But it's more than wings and hot dogs (Ted's—oh, god, Ted's) and fried bologna sandwiches and some of the best pizza you'll ever eat. Buffalo was a great notion, a triumphant city in the 19th century, the location of a shocking assassination, a place that hangs in there, that keeps punching. In my own narrow experience, few cities can match it for general friendliness—it's not uncommon for me to find myself in neighborly conversation with locals when I'm out and about; indeed, the uncommon thing is when that doesn't happen. Buffalonians persist. They push on toward better days.
It's the best we can do sometimes.
So, about the book ...
I'm doing two readings at This House of Books in Billings this Saturday, June 19. They're at 1:30 and 6 p.m., and they're the first live events at the bookstore since the pandemic began.
Billings is my home, and This House of Books is my home bookstore, and I'm thrilled to help usher live readings back into the community. We've missed them. I've missed them. It's good to be making a comeback, and I look forward to all the coming readings and plays and concerts, things I took for granted before last spring and never will again.
If you're close enough to come, I'd love to see you. The bookstore is limiting attendance at each reading, requiring masks and enforcing distancing. It's only sensible. Call if you'd like to join us.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.