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Towards the end of The 39 Steps, our dashing hero (with his equally dashing moustache) demands to know, “What are the 39 steps‽”  But before the respondent can complete his answer, he’s shot.  Not that the answer has much meaning anyway:  the 39 steps are nothing more than a Hitchcockian MacGuffin.

The MacGuffin, as Hitchcock explains, is “the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”  It’s the code for which people will kill.  It’s the computer disk that a hero must retrieve or protect.

Though the primary purpose of the MacGuffin is to drive the plot forward, I think it also serves a second, more existential role.  The MacGuffin is necessary to stave off despair.   A hero’s travails must have some external meaning (to preserve the secret British airpower, to expose the bad guys, to fall in love with the hot blond) to be consequential.  As much as MacGuffins give narratives their shape, it also gives on-screen lives their significance.

If only real life provided MacGuffins as easily.

Over this last weekend in Wilmington, there were two shootings, both unrelated, both about 10 blocks from our house.  The quality of the neighborhoods in Wilmington, like most urban cities, varies drastically from street to street.  When Matthew and I go on recycling strolls (picking up stray cans as a form of exercise), we see the differences immediately.  To our north is Baynard Boulevard, with its grand houses and manicured lawns.  Very few cans there.  But if we go south past Jefferson, the streets grow increasingly dingy.  I oftentimes see an object and think, Should I touch that without a Hazmat suit? The cans here are long 40 ouncers, with some variations of the word ‘Cobra’ or ‘Ice’ emblazoned on it (sadly, completely unrelated to the Southeast Asian aperitif of iced cobra liquor).

Our street (21st) is relatively quiet, a mix of families and younger professionals, with very few problems.  Occasionally a rumble comes down our street — a mass of youths hooting and hollering and aching for a fight, but our across-the-street neighbor, Sharon, quickly puts the kibosh on that.  Her rolling out with her wagging finger is enough to dissipate any trouble.

But these fights have their own MacGuffins (a stolen boyfriend, an insult), but the shootings don’t have a readily-available narrative.  A woman shot in the back.  An 18-year old.  A robbery, a random event; nothing is there to help make sense of the crimes.

This evening, after the sun had set and as the sky approached near dark, I took 39 steps from my street towards 31st Street, where both the shootings took place.  I only made it halfway down the block — not far enough to put myself into harm’s way, and yet not far enough to distance myself from the fear that people are killed for no reason whatsoever.

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Tonight, I read from my work-in-progress, a novel, as part of the University of Delaware English Department Reader’s Series, which is a bit of a cheat, since I’ve taught at the University of Delaware for nearly four years now.  It’s a cheat that goes both ways, however, since this reading counts as my requirement for a “public exhibition” of my work for my Delaware Division of the Arts Grant, on top of a modest honorarium.  A cross-promotional free-for-all.

None of my students showed up, not even the students in my fiction workshop, which was somewhat of a letdown.  I remember, as an undergrad at Johns Hopkins, attending at least one or two graduate student readings, and Johns  Hopkins was pretty well known for its Writing Seminar graduate program.  One male grad student read a story about surfing, with intimate details of board care with accompanying hand gestures, like Mr. Miyagi, if he had lived in Venice Beach.  The grad student looked like a surfer too:  sandy-blond hair, walnut-brown tan, even if his body shape struck me as slightly more plump than a surfer should be.  But I still have yet to read (or hear) a surfing-related story that has made me want to take up the sport, or even to take an interest in it beyond looking at trim boys in wetsuits.

Actually, that’s probably sufficient.

In any case, The Lady Vanishes proves to be relevant to my reading.  The main character of the section I read was British; and the characters in the film are quintessential British types.  My main character is gay; and if the two cricket-obsessed, comic relief bachelors, Caldicott and Charters, are not gay, then they’re at least proto-gay.  Or ultra-British, which is essentially equivalent to gay.  For heaven’s sake, they slept in the same bed together, Charters wearing only a pajama top, Caldicott wearing only pajama bottoms.

Hitchcock finds the good balance in The Lady Vanishes, with the first third of the film playing It Happened One Night-style slapstick (but with a strangling), and the rest of the film bringing the suspense (where is that little old lady?) and the thrills (shoot-out!).  After my reading, one attendee mentioned my (brief) use of humor in my piece.  Sure, I told her, I had to.   Otherwise things would get too dire and readers would slash their wrists.

But, overall, finding this balance still befuddles me.  Mass death and destruction don’t really lend themselves to the lulz.  But I think I may have discovered my solution.  I introduce a surfing scene.  Never mind that the novel takes place in northwestern India in a salt marsh.  They get typhoons, they get waves.  Someone lovingly strokes and waxes his board.  Salt water imagery, seagulls, kelp, the end.

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