Location: The Stealth Protagonist–An Essay by Monty Mickelson

“’Tell me,” I said, stammeringly, for I have no voice of my own, “what does this big—er—enormous—whopping city say? It must have a voice of some kind. Does it ever speak to you?’” (1)

From The Voice of the City by O. Henry

There are singular places in North America that are almost impossible to mistake for anywhere else. The Old Cité in Quebec is such a place; ditto for the French Quarter in New Orleans, the plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Mallory Square in Key West, and perhaps a handful of others. Their distinct appeal is part visual, part sensory—a jumble of smells and sounds that both evocative and indelible. And perhaps the most dramatic distinction in each of these locales is the people: you will not find a voodoo priestess in Quebec, and in Key West you will never see a voyaguer. You will not hear the Creole dialect in Santa Fe, but you will hear a Spanish accent that is neither Mexican nor Castillian; it is the inflections of New Spain, and it has been spoken there for 400 years.

My point is that these novel locations, when folded into the plots of novels, should elevate the story in the same way that unique characters and characterizations elevate great fiction. Location can be so much more than a functional setting, more than what author Leonard Lutwack describes as a “sub-regional influence”² on character and plot. There are fine books by superb writers (Amy Hempl’s collected stories comes to mind) that offer almost no descriptive setting, that provide only cursory orientation. Raymond Chandler, one of the most famous Los Angelenos in all of literature, leaves his gumshoe cityscape almost entirely to the imagination of the reader. Sam Spade wouldn’t care about the peculiar sway of palms in the Santa Ana winds, and neither does Chandler. These authors navigate sans location, and are very adept at it.

But for another class of author, location permeates story; setting and action are symbiotic and indivisible. It’s as if the locale operates as a concurrent character, a kind of stealth protagonist. I believe that writers with a special affinity for place can use this stealth protagonist to great advantage. It seems an ephemeral concept, highly subjective, but also serves as a potent weapon in the literary arsenal. Versions of this “protagonist” premise have been widely explored by critics and academics, including Leonard Lutwack in The Role of Place in Literature:

That place may have a significant influence on a writer is incontestable, though the proposition does not hold for all writers. That a geographical region with distinguishing features may have an influence on a number of writers is less incontestable. There is little doubt about sub-regional influences, such as the Lake District on English romantic poets, Concord on American transcendentalists, New York City on the Knickerbockers; but the more extensive the region and the wider its variety of places the less precise is the line from environmental cause to literary result and the more we must call on other factors—local history and culture, dialect and folkways—to establish the regional quality of a body of literature. (2)

Lutwack is saying, in part, that the American voice and American influence on world literature is much harder to quantify and discern than one good, rattling Chicago novel by someone like Theodore Dreiser. (Or one pithy and pungent New York story by would-be Knickerbockers like O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, or Studs Terkel.) Here is what Blanche Housman Gelfant says about Dreiser’s naturalistic depictions of Chicago in The American City Novel:

Dreiser never developed a keen sensitivity to the presence and implications of urban manners, except those of fashion and housefurnishings. Perhaps this was because of a temperamental way of seeing things, but more likely it was because as a newcomer to the city, Dreiser found his attention focusing upon gross social facts new to him, such as the economic discrepancies among city people and the common drive toward material success…Dreiser’s realism consisted in an exact registering of the objective details of the setting and in the creation of type-characters who exhibited type-reactions. (3)

Type-characters exhibiting type-reactions does not generally meet my definition of setting and action being symbiotic and indivisible. Location as stealth protagonist is certainly well-served by having that newcomer’s “temperamental way of seeing things,” by focusing attention on gross social facts. Mere facts, however, do not make for a location that pervades, that fully inhabits a work of fiction. Facts and observations are more the province of the travel writer, the vagabond essayist, the bon vivant. Take, for instances, this sample of travel journalism:

The roads in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula are like plumb lines drawn the scrub jungle—as straight and featureless as Dakota train tracks. Most homes erected near the road have stick walls and thatch roofs. The villages themselves have all the hallmarks of a Third World cliché; hogs roaming the yards, shoeless children chasing emaciated dogs, ramshackle cantina signs announcing Bienvenidos! And all of this just minutes beyond Cancun’s Zona Hotelera, where the construction boom rivals Waikiki. (4)

Thus we have a serviceable, albeit vaguely jingoistic lead paragraph that promises a culture of contrasts, viewed from the window of a moving bus. You can expect, in short order, to be told something about the exchange rate and the price of things, about the level of service, and perhaps a description of the archaeological wonders that have been reclaimed from the “scrub jungle.” I know this, because I wrote this paragraph (and the ensuing, predictable story) for an in-flight airline magazine some 18 years ago. It conforms to most conventions of the genré: Prices, accommodations, attractions; a cursory portrayal of what is undoubtedly an ancient, complex, and not-easily-codified native population followed by the ringing endorsement to by all means go!

Vladamir Nabokov, in his novel Laughter in the Dark, addresses this same issue of cursory portrayals and conventions of the travel genre:

A writer for instance talks about India which I have seen, and gushes about dancing girls, tiger hunts, fakirs, betel nuts, serpents: the Glamour of the Mysterious East. But what does it amount to? Nothing. Instead of visualizing India I merely get a bad toothache from all these Eastern delights. Now, there’s the other way, as for instance the fellow who writes: ‘Before turning in I put out my wet boots to dry and in the morning I found that a thick blue forest had grown in them (“Fungi, Madam,” he explained)…’ and at once India becomes alive for me. (5)

At its best, there is both nobility and some emotional resonance to travel journalism. Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, Saint Jack) has moved between those two worlds with some facility for more than 30 years. In his collections of essays Fresh Air Friend, Theroux advocates content that is both “topographical and psychological.” In his essay, Travel Writing, The Point of It, Theroux says that astute and culturally savvy travel writers could have (and should have) predicted the social upheaval in China that resulted in the 1987 massacre in Tiananmen Square. He writes:

I have always felt that the truth is prophetic, that if you describe precisely what you see and give it life with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, not matter what the mood of your prose. (6)

Aspiring to “a prophetic truth” is a worthy goal for any journalist or fiction writer. However, journalism doesn’t have protagonists; journalism has sources, a point of view, and—most typically—a brief shelf life. An article about a place is evanescent; it is both topical and perishable, like a rumor that is quickly debunked. A travel journalist cannot (generally) become a character in a given community, toiling in the work force, cultivating friendships, navigating local statutes and customs, and perhaps the public school system in the course of raising a family. For a travel writer, there will always be that lack of assimilation, of being on the outside of an inside joke. Travelogue traffics in what Blanche Gelfant describes as “gross social facts.” And, sadly, we read see these cursory word collages in fiction all the time. An example:

Around the plaza itself, the old Spanish-Indio adobe buildings, while renovated and elegant on the inside, were studiedly ancient and crumbling on the outside. The showpiece was the original sixteenth-century Palace of the Governors. Some of the newer buildings were Territorial—remnants of the nineteenth-century Anglo takeover—and a few modern edifices in the same de rigueur style, such as the oversized new Hilton and El Dorado hotels, blocked the sunset views to the west. (7)

Author E.C. Ayers, in his novel Lair of the Lizard, gives a reasonable summary of the local architecture of Santa Fe; with a couple of inaccuracies. For instance, there is no “Spanish-Indio” school of local architecture that I know of; rather, it is called Pueblo Revival. And I’m not certain which nineteenth-century Anglo takeover Ayers is citing: New Mexico’s annexation by the Republic of Texas in 1836, annexation by Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny and the Army of the West in 1846, or a brief occupation by the confederates during the Civil War. But I quibble over this depiction because I have a dog in the fight. I have undertaken, in my master’s thesis fiction project, to add my voice to a long and distinguished list of fine writers who have set stories and novels in northern New Mexico. And although my prose will include some architectural detail, I will endeavor to humanize and populate the cityscape whenever possible.

For instance, the conformity of Santa Fe architecture that Ayers describes comes at a price; there are two design commissions operating under the auspices of city government that review (and frequently reject) development or renovation plans. These entities wield tremendous power, and they have sabotaged the career of one of my novel’s characters, Aubrey Cadeaux. For most of my story, Aubrey is basically at war with the civic authorities over his plan to develop prime foothills real estate. As a visitor, as a travel writer, I would never have discovered that conflict. Learning how Santa Fe city government operates (basically, like a Third World banana republic), came from living there for nine years. But I digress…

By process of elimination, we’ve determined what location depictions in great fiction are not: not topographical, not cursory, not a laundry list of Eastern Delights or a description of cultural contrasts. But what is it? What is this standard worth shooting for, and how does a writer know what he or she has achieved it? How do you find your equivalent of that insidious blue fungi that Nabokov describes?

Leonard Lutwack subdivides the American places that authors depict into three broad categories: America as Eldorado; America as a garden, and; America as a wilderness. Depicting America as a garden reflects an artistic choice that I would lump under a broader category of Veneration (more on this later); that is, setting stories in a context of bright promise, of limitless resources and possibility. That kind of veneration doesn’t offer the ready conflicts, strife, and obstacles that drive great plots. The idea of America as Eldorado, as Lutwack describes it, has its own peculiar narrative power:

As a generic place Eldorado had not value apart from its capability of being reduced to an abstract form of wealth by some extractive process. Land and its good are separable, and once the treasure has been extracted—whether it be gold, timber, oil or crops—Eldorado is abandoned, since there is no question of remaining in a worthless place.

By that yardstick, a typical American Eldorado book would be Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a tale of flight from Eldorado after rapacious soil management practices have left vast tracts of farmland a dust bowl wasteland. California, conversely, represents the Joad’s conception of a new Eldorado, a beguiling climate with abundant work for the able-bodied, even if that work is in an orchard as an itinerant picker.

The concept of America as wilderness offers even more dramatic potential, for it has all sorts of wonderful portent; it connotes the Unknown, the Undiscovered, and the promise of rigors that test body and spirit. Wilderness offers, in the words of Josip Novoakovich, Setting as Antagonist. Novoakovich, in Fiction Writer’s Workshop (Second Edition), cites the man-against-wilderness formula as a classic Setting as Antagonist:

The Man-Against-Nature story (in which s character struggles, usually for survival, against a natural element) depends entirely on setting….For example, in “To Build a Fire” by Jack London, a man encounters a powerful antagonist, the cold, when he hikes in the Yukon territory in the middle of winter…In subzero temperatures, being wet means freezing to death, unless you build a fire. The man falls into a spring and builds a fire, but a wind buries it in snow, and he freezes to death. After reading this story, you will remember the cracking of spittle in the cold much better than the man…The setting is the main character in the story, as grand and unforgiving as God in the book of Genesis.” (8)

In London’s short story, Setting as Antagonist is pretty much synonymous with Setting as Stealth Protagonist. Thus, we’ve departed Lutwack’s “garden” territory and entered an entirely different, yet persistently familiar literary milieu. Antagonistic settings abound in genre fiction, typified by detective stories, crime novels—heist novels, serial killer novels, noir fiction—and in much of contemporary mainstream fiction. Characters in these books live in these places in spite of themselves, in a state of surly defiance. Antagonistic settings in these stories define the character more than any backstory recitations. Here’s what I regard as an excellent example of setting as antagonist from James Elroy’s L.A. Confidential:

Up to Hollywood, a loop by Stan’s Drive-in—Christine Bergeron slinging hash on skates. Pouty, provocative—the quasi-hooker type, maybe the type to pose with a ___ in her mouth.
Jack parked, read the Bobby Inge sheet. Two outstanding bench warrants: traffic tickets, a failure-to-appear probation citation. Last known address, 1424 North Hamel, West Hollywood—the heart of Lavender Gulch. Three fruit bars for “known haunts”—Leo’s Hideaway, the Knight in Armor, B.J.’s Rumpus Room—all on Santa Monica Boulevard nearby. Jack drove to Hamel Drive, his cuffs out and open.
A bungalow court off the Strip: county turf, “Inge—Apt. 6” on a mailbox. Jack found the pad, knocked, no answer. “Bobby, hey, sugar,” a falsetto trill—still no bite. A locked door, drawn curtains—the whole place dead quiet. Jack went back to his car, drove south.
Fag bar city: Inge’s haunts in a two-block stretch. Leo’s Hideaway closed until 4:00; the Night in Armor empty. The barkeep vamped him—
“Bobby who?”—like he really didn’t know. Jack hit B.J.’s Rumpus Room.
Tufted Naugahyde inside—the walls, ceiling, booths adjoining a small bandstand. Queers at the bar; the barman sniffed cop right off. Jack walked over, laid his mugshots out face up. (9)

Jack inhabits this lurid nightscape, not because he wants to, but because his job requires it…and the story requires it. The vice cops and the vices they investigate are symbiotic and indivisible. Elroy’s tough, cynical prose style is echoed throughout the noir genre, which has been formally anthologized in Los Angeles Noir:

Los Angeles is the birthplace of noir. Maybe it’s the overwhelming shadow cast by Hollywood, the blur of artifice and reality, the possibility of shucking off the past like last year’s dress and reinventing yourself beyond your wildest dreams. Maybe it’s the desperation that descends when the dream goes sour, the duplicity behind the stunning beauty, the rot of the jungle flowers, the rip tides that carry off the unwary. Writers like James M. Cain, Nathaniel West, and Raymond Chandler understood both the hope and the horror that Los Angeles inspired, and harnessed this duality to create their masterpieces. (10)

Novelist and former crime reporter Susan Straight, writing in the Los Angeles Times Review of Books, asserts that noir writers have a style advantage, a kind of genre-driven birthright to locations as protagonist:

…noir writers are best at giving readers a landscape and a specific place to move through and characters who are vivid and helpful and odd and suspicious. Noir means that place is vital, as in where the crime occurred and how it matters… (11)

The American southwest abounds in antagonistic settings, and desert neighbor Las Vegas has provided writers with a beguiling stealth protagonist. Charles Bock, in his mainstream novel Beautiful Children, populates his book with teenage runaways whose tawdry circumstance has landed them in Las Vegas. Their hardscrabble existence may not be much different from homelessness in any American Sun Belt city. However, the prurience of Las Vegas, its transient population and shape-shifting skyline compounds the whole funhouse-gone-wrong ambience that Bock so readily exploits. Take, for instance, this drive-by travelogue of Old Vegas:

Downtown was upon them, hotels and towers packed into that dense square district, tour buses parked like gigantic, end-to-end dominos along the right side of the street…Not too many people were underneath the dome to watch—a lone woman, elderly and stooped, had put down her overstuffed shopping bags and was looking up; a pair of undefined gambling fiends were making their way around the souvenir cart. A few other miscreants were out there too, swerving and staggering, the drunken dregs, the losers and the lost and those who knew they would keep on losing but were powerless to stop themselves.

Or this meander through the city’s strip bar district:

The warm summer night would have made for a pleasant walk from the closest casinos, except most valets and front desk workers discouraged such strolls, as thugs were known to wait in the shadows. A cab ride cost five bucks, plus gratuity, but was worth it, the taxis bypassing the sheet rock suppliers, tombstone wholesalers, and construction rental agencies, and pulling up to the street’s various gentlemen’s cabarets—spots like Spearmint Rhino, Cheetah’s and Little Darlings, where dancers bared heir breasts and stripped to their panties and beer and hard alcohol were served at the bar. Taxis also stopped at aptly nicknamed spread joints, such as the Can Can Room, Déja Vu, and Crazy Horse Too… (12)

Bock’s story is (quite deliberately) a grueling emotional exercise that tested both my patience as a reader and my forbearance as a human being. But this often nihilistic, bleak narrative is very location-driven, very much a survey of a certain class of individual that you would find there Bock populates this latter-day Gomorrah with characters who are circling the metaphorical drain. Characters who confront moral dilemmas in Beautiful Children choose chaos, malice, or self-degradation nearly every time.

The Las Vegas of Beautiful Children is all about artistic choice serving the characters. Most conventioneers would not recognize its squalor. Nevada makes an appearance in my own novel, Purgatory, a rural Nevada that transitions to a string of other antagonistic, roadside settings. My protagonist, Danny Castellano, is a cynical man adrift in a cynical landscape, all rendered through his jaundiced point-of-view:

Scotty’s Junction is stranded in the 1950s—a period piece right down to the thermometer on the Coca-Cola sign. Everything is coated in this fine, fallout dust, and at night it takes on this red glow from the neon out by the road. Just gas pumps, a diner, and a toy casino. Hardly worth a piss break. But that’s mostly what blows people in the door; collect a key on a block of wood and amble around the corner. The urinals have these little plastic targets. The HOT knob is gone from the faucet. No hand towels. No soap. You figure they’re conserving water because it hasn’t rained here in two hundred years. They’re also scrimping on payroll. The same girl who deals blackjack checks your oil. She’s also the postmaster, notary, and chef. Ask her name and you’ll get a look that would freeze the Panama Canal

Cowboy truckers spread their asses over the counter stools. G.I.s pass out on their duffels while they wait for the Greyhound. Frowzy girls swing past you with a load of breakfast platters. Everybody’s chain-smoking and picking their teeth and pumping the slot machines. It’s the kind of place that does a roaring business in Tums and clip-on shades. They sell Racing Form, National Enquirer, and those air-freshener cards with pictures of topless babes. Every desert state has a Scotty’s Junction or two. Their whole scam is based on the human bladder—they’re exactly one piss break from Vegas, or Phoenix, or San Bernardino. That third cup of coffee served two hundred miles ago is all that keeps them afloat. (13)

This location—a scruffy desert truck stop—functions as an antagonist that Danny seeks to flee. However, only the “toy casino” component is specific to Nevada; the American southwest is replete with tourist traps that “scam the human bladder,” and Danny’s vocation (like that of Jack in L.A. Confidential) keeps him captive in antagonistic settings, thus, the book title, Purgatory.

Antagonistic settings go hand in glove with crime stories; which is why some novelists seek to desecrate and—occasionally—putrify what most travelers consider an attractive locale. Anyone who cherishes Paris, who has vacationed in the City of Light could never imagine the 18th century Paris depicted in Patrick Suskind’s serial killer tale, Perfume. The Story of a Murderer. Here is how the novel opens:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stanch of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stanch of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.
And of course the stench was foulest in Paris, for Paris was the largest city of France. (14)

This olfactory survey (All hail the rancid king!) presents a very specific antagonist: a location that punishes anyone who is afflicted with a truly refined sense of smell. And, in subsequent chapters, Suskind presents his deranged protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an orphan born without any innate, bodily scent of his own, but who has, by his own proclamation, “…the finest nose in Paris…I know all the odors in the world.” And as the tale develops, as Jean-Baptiste apprentices in the perfume trade, he sets himself the goal of creating the most powerful scent in the world, one that drives chaste and demure people into throes of orgiastic lust. It is only an incidental problem for Jean-Baptiste that distillation of said perfume requires him to murder young virgin women. Thus, the very air of 18th century France becomes Suskind’s stealth protagonist; a character that permeates—literally—and defines the action.

Nautical locations—especially in the northern hemisphere where winter gales and fierce waves lash at jagged coastline—are another prominent example of antagonistic settings. In her novel of Newfoundland, The Shipping News, Annie Proulx examines emotional ligatures, the ties that bind castaway lives, and the various tangles and obstacles that humans confront on their way to a (often) watery grave. One of my favorite passages in the book is a bleak and yet very nicely capsulated description of the hardships of the sea, coupled with an inventory of the kinds of men (and women) who risk life and limb to draw a living from it:

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat. Bawling into salt broth. Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones. The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down. Millennial bergs from glaciers, morbid, silent except for the waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore. Foghorns, smothered gun reports along the coast. Ice welding land and sea. Frost smoke. Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice. The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting senses to mirage and illusion. A rare place. (15)

And lastly, antagonistic settings can be particularly effective in war stories. War may indeed be hell, but the great European wars of the 20th Century were largely fought in civilized locales; pastoral France, Belgium, and Poland. Soldiers who were not in trenches could bunk in houses, villas, and even castles. There was running water in Europe; there were paved roads and modern bridges. Europe was an explicable landscape with prominent landmarks. Vietnam was the absolute opposite; a combination of rainforest, rice paddies, and third world “hooches,” it presented an impassible, inscrutable obstacle to modern warfare. (For instance, tanks and armored divisions—the stuff that made Gen. Patton’s career—were useless in Vietnam.) For a tactician, for the great military minds of West Point and the Pentagon, Vietnam was the ultimate antagonistic setting. That’s why it works so well as a stealth protagonist in the novels and short stories of infantry veteran Tim O’Brien. An example:

Late at night, on guard, it seemed that all of Vietnam was alive and shimmering—odd shapes swaying in the paddies, boggiemen in sandals, spirits dancing in old pagodas. It was ghost country, and Charlie Cong was the main ghost. The way he came out at night. How you never really saw him, just thought you did. Almost magical—appearing, disappearing. He could blend with the land, changing form, becoming trees and grass. He could levitate. He could fly. He could pass through barbed wire and melt away like ice and creep up on you without sound or footsteps. He was scary. In the daylight, maybe, you didn’t believe in this stuff. You laughed it off. You made jokes. But at night you turned into a believer: no skeptics in foxholes.”

One of the themes that O’Brien repeats throughout The Things They Carried is the hallucinatory aspect of the jungle:

And man, I’ll tell you—it’s spooky. This is mountains. You don’t know spooky ‘til you been there. Jungle, sort of, except it’s way up in the clouds and there’s always this fog—like it’s rain, except that it’s not raining—everything’s all wet and swirly and tangled up and you can’t see jack, you can’t find your own pecker to piss with. Like you don’t even have a body. Serious spooky. You just go with the vapors—the fog sort of takes you in….And the sounds, man. The sounds carry forever. You hear stuff nobody should ever hear.” (16)

Another aspect of war and combat locations worth noting is that the act of invasion, the carpet-bombings and artillery barrages can turn beguiling and otherwise idyllic places into smoldering, rubble-strewn moonscapes. Modern warfare is transformative in the worst possible way. This happened to London during the Blitz, to Rotterdam, to Dresden, and—most infamously—to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Each of these decimations went far beyond the cosmetic, the topographical. Each of these “targets” supported huge civilian populations. And because the falling bombs are random, there is a randomness to survival. And so, these beleaguered civilians would often cope by getting very blasé about the attacks, and attempting—whenever possible, to maintain social convention.

A quick story from my years as a travel writer: I was touring Antwerp, Belgium, with some other journalists. Our guide was an elderly man who had survived the bombings and German occupation during World War II. As we shuttled by van from one highlight to another, the Belgian described for us how, as a young boy, his family coped with the V-1 and V-2 buzz bombs. The Nazi buzz bombs were never tactical, they were psychological weapons; they had no pilot, and their crude guidance systems just carried them over a huge target area—say, metropolitan Antwerp—and then cut the engine. The V-1s flew low and loud; almost like a helicopter. You could hear them coming, the man explained, and when you did, everyone in the room would pick their drinks their teacups, and huddle under the hearth in the fireplace. They did this because there were no basements, and there was no underground network like London had. They did this because they had noticed, in the charred ruins of homes struck by buzz bombs, that the chimney and the stone hearth always survived. So the residents would cluster there and wait, listening for the V-1 engine to stop, and for the bomb to go into a whistling death-spiral toward earth. I cherish that image–the cringing families, teacups in hand—because it so humanizes the inhumane, it gives character and immediacy to all of those gutted European cities. It is my blue fungus of World War II.

Location as antagonist, however, has a counterpart in fiction, a place that Lutwack would describe as a garden, and I would classify location veneration. Singing the praises of a location can serve a story every bit as effectively as ridicule and squalor. In other words, your stealth protagonist need not be a vice cop’s netherworld, it need not be an obstacle to overcome, a rigor to be survived. For instance, let’s clear the air of Patrick Suskind’s Paris with the halcyon Paris from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:

If I walked down by different streets to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the afternoon I could walk through the gardens and then go to the Musee’ du Luxembourg where the great paintings were that have now mostly been transferred to the Louvre and Jeu du Paume. I went there nearly every day for the Cezannes and to see the Manets and the Monets and the other Impressionists that I had first come to know about in the Art Institute of Chicago. I was learning something from the painting of Cezanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides, it was a secret. But if the light was gone in the Luxembourg I would walk up through the gardens and stop in at the studio apartment where Gertrude Stein lived at 27 rue de Fleurs. (17)

Granted, A Moveable Feast is nonfiction, but this Paris of the late 20s presents Ernest Hemingway with an abiding, beguiling muse. And I found it an interesting revelation that an impressionist painting offered Hemingway a truth could not find in other authors. But that is just one of the hundred bounties of Paris that present themselves as a character and a backstory. In another city, another genre and another time, we find a similar pattern of veneration. New York City is a character quite indivisible from the human protagonist in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney’s tale of a young editor’s dissolute spiral into the cocaine-fueled 1980s has that same halcyon ethic that permeated Hemingway’s Paris:

On Bleecker Street you catch the scent of the Italian bakery. You stand at the corner of Bleecker and Cornelia and gaze at the windows on the fourth floor of a tenement. Behind those windows is the apartment you shared with Amanda when you first came to New York. It was small and dark, but you liked the imperfectly patched pressed-tin ceiling, the claw-footed bath in the kitchen, the windows that didn’t quite fit the frames. You were just starting out. You had the rent covered, you had your favorite restaurant on MacDougal, where the waitresses knew your names and you could bring your own bottle of wine. Every morning you woke to the smell of bread from the bakery downstairs. You would go out to buy the paper and maybe pick up a couple of croissants while Amanda made the coffee. That was years ago, before you got married. (18)

There were other yuppies in other American cities doing “Bolivian marching powder” and staying up really late in the 1980s. However, New York City is both inevitable and indivisible from the value systems detailed in McInerney’s popular novel. New York is most emphatically a stealth character in the book; providing the means, the motives, and the milieu in which Jamie Conway self-destructs. But it still qualifies as veneration because New York is a place that embraces Jamie, it’s a place he cherishes and doesn’t want to leave.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, has also been similarly elevated—venerated—by most of the novelists who situate stories there. Walter Satterthwait has written five Joshua Croft mysteries set there, but in none the books is the reader warned away, or presented with anything suggesting that Santa Fe is an antagonist. Ditto for Stuart Woods’ Santa Fe Rules, or Richard Bradford’s young adult classic, Red Sky at Morning. That beguiling red sky has fully seduced several generations of authors, beginning with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, published in 1927:

As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-colored hills lying at the foot of the mountain came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and that depression was Santa Fe, at last! A think, wavering adobe town…a green plaza…at one end a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow from it like a stream from a spring. The church towers, and all the low adobe houses were rose colour in that light,–a little darker in tone than the ampitheatre of red hills behind and periodically the plumes of poplars flashed like gracious accent marks,–including and recovering themselves in the wind…

And later in the story, in homage to the incomparable skies:

…Coming along the Santa Fe trail, in the vast plains of Kansas, Father Latour had found the sky more a desert than the land; a hard, empty blue, very monotonous to the eyes of a Frenchman. But west of the Pecos all that changed; here there was always activity overhead, clouds forming and moving all day long. Whether they were dark and full of violence, or soft and wwhite with luxurious idleness, they powerfully affected the world beneath them. The desert, the mountains and mesas, were continually reformed a recolored by the cloud shadows. The whole country seemed fluid to the eye under this constant change of accent, this ever-varying distribution of light. (19)

Cather’s rhapsodizing about Santa Fe, about the region and its splendors doesn’t diminish its importance or its impact to the reader. Death Comes for the Archbishop is the story of one man’s spiritual quest, inextricably bound to the land and the region. The location is symbiotic and indivisible from Father Latour’s personal odyssey. It is an excellent example of a positive depiction of location as character, and location’s influence on action. Latour confronts rigors in this novel; there are human and wilderness obstacles in his way; but there is also a persistent theme of samaritanism, of benevolence and self-sacrifice. Over the course of a long life spent in the remote territory, a man of God is reinforced in his faith.

Character manifest in location has never been more intimately rendered, more skillfully women into the fabric of a story than in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The grand Mississippi defines the story, shapes Huck and Jim’s perceptions of their raw, pioneer nation, and offers a vivid series of life lessons as it carries them downstream. The river is a nurturing force (offering refuge and its bounty of fish), a trickster (they miss taking a tributary in the fog), and—always—a source of entertainment. If ever there was a stealth protagonist in American literature, it is Huck Finn’s Mississippi. The preamble of Chapter 19 is widely excerpted and quoted for its poetic grandeur. But its eloquence is deceptive, for its soaring language is entirely couched in Huck’s folksy patois:

It was a monstrous big river down there—sometimes a mile and a half wide; we run nights and laid up and hid daytimes; soon as night was most gone we stopped navigating and tied up—nearly always in the dead water under a towhead; and then cut young cottonwoods and willows and hid the raft with them. Then we set out the lines. Next we slid into the river and had a swim, so as to freshen up and cool off; then we set down on the sandy bottom where the water was about knee-deep and watched the daylight come. Not a sound anywheres—perfectly still—just liked the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. The first thing to see, looking away over the water, was a kind of dull line—that was the woods on t’other side; you couldn’t make nothing else out; then a pale place in the sky; then more paleness spreading around; then the river softening up away off, and warn’t blaock anymore, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along ever so far away—trading-scows, and such things; and long black streaks—rafts; sometimes you could hear a sweep screaking; or jumbled up voices, it was so still, and sounds came so far; and by and by you could see a streak on the water which you know by the look of the streak that there’s a snag there in a swift current which breaks on it and makes that streak look that way; and you see the mist curl up off the water, and the east reddens up, and the river, and you make out a log cabin in the edge of the woods, away on the bank on t’other sde of the river, being a wood-yard, likely, and piled by them cheats so you can throw a dog through it anywheres; then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers; but sometimes not that way, because they’ve left dead fish laying around, gars and such, and they do get pretty rank; and next you’ve got the full day, and everything smiling in the sun, and the song-birds just going it! (20)


Novakovich, in Fiction Writer’s Workshop, offers a guiding formula for crafting fiction out of locations. It goes: Setting + Character = Plot. In thinking about location as a distinct character, as a stealth protagonist, I would offer this variation of the formula:

Setting Action
——— = ———-
Character Plot

Each of these elements is essential; and it is a popularly held belief that action springs entirely from character, from character motives, character flaws, and the myriad ways that people either disappoint us or restore our belief in humanity. And I believe that the thing you want to avoid, as a writer of fiction, is “type characters exhibiting type-reactions,” or fictional locales that sound like the Eastern Delights that Nabokov lampoons. You don’t necessarily have to construct an antagonistic setting, a setting “as grand and unforgiving as God in the Book of Genesis.” You can ask yourself, as O. Henry did, “What is the voice of the city? …Does it ever speak to you?” And it might not even be a city—it could be a river. But it will indeed have a voice, and out of that voice will spring specific characters whose specific actions drive the plot. The process of creating a stealth protagonist is, as I said, an ephemeral concept, highly subjective. But great writers have cracked that formula, have made that intuitive leap, and so can we.


1.) Henry, O., The Voice of the City, from Great Stories of O. Henry, Avnel Books

2.) Lutwack, Leonard, The Role of Place in Literature, Syracuse University Press

3.) Gelfant, Blanche Housman, The American City Novel, The University of Oklahoma Press

4.) Exploring the Lost Cities of the Mayan Yucatan, American Trans-Air Magazine, March, 1991.

5.) Nabokov, Vladimir, Laughter in the Dark, New Directions Press

6.) Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Friend, Houghton Mifflin

7.) E.C. Ayers, Lair of the Lizard, St. Martin’s Press

8.) Novoakovich, Josip, Fiction Writer’s Workshop, Second Edition, Writer’s Digest Books

9.) Elroy, James, L.A. Confidential, Warner Books

10.) Los Angeles Noir, Akashic Books, edited by Denise Hamilton

11.) Straight, Susan, Noir Writer Susan Straight Feels At Home in the Dark, Los Angeles
Times Review of Books, May 25, 2008.

12.) Bock, Charles, Beautiful Children, Random House

13.) Mickelson, Monty, Purgatory, St. Martin’s Press

14.) Suskind, Patrick, Perfume; The Story of a Murderer, Vintage Books, Random House

15.) Proulx, Annie, The Shipping News, Scribner

16.) O’Brien, Tim, The Things They Carried, Broadway Books

17.) Hemingway, Ernest, A Moveable Feast, Scribner

18.) McInerney, Jay, Bright Lights, Big City, Vintage Contemporaries/Random House

19.) Cather, Willa, Death Comes for the Archbishop, Knopf & Modern Library

20.) Twain, Mark, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


Monty Mickelson is a novelist and a screenwriter based in Los Angeles.  His novel, Purgatory (St. Martin’s Press) garnered a Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship.  He recently received his M.F.A. in Fiction from the University of California – Riverside.


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