News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 15, 2011

‘The Swan’ captures imagination of 10-year-old boy circa 1957

Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star

---- — Had Kurt Vonnegut, William Saroyan, J.D. Salinger, Carlos Castaneda, Raymond Carver and James Thurber ever gathered at a writer’s workshop to co-author a short novel, the product might well have been “The Swan.”

As it is, the Hoosier-born Jim Cohee has concocted this delightful and poignant story all by himself. A mere 117 pages, “The Swan” is a funny, fantastical and touching stream of consciousness from an extraordinary 10-year-old boy. The year is 1957, the place is north-central Indianapolis, and the boy is weird and wonderful Aaron Cooper, a child who copes in imaginative ways with the pain and mystery of life, death and adults.

Aaron loves baseball, science fiction, tales of the Amazon, Audrey Meadows of “The Honeymooners,” Jack London, ice cream and visits to his grandma in Martinsville. He deeply fears The Creature of the Black Lagoon — who crawled out of the headwaters of the White River one day to take up residence in Aaron’s bedroom closet — and despises the neighborhood bully, Kong Warthead. Aaaron also has a double on another planet named — what else? — Noraa Repooc.

Time out here for context: I’ve never met Cohee. Like scores of people during my decades in journalism, he contacted me and asked if he could send along his book for my perusal. Against my better judgment (born of the desultory harvest of all those years), I said, OK. Thank heavens I did. This is one terrific first novel.

Normally, a slow reader, I flew through “The Swan.” Then I gave it to my husband, who read most of it during an Amtrak ride from New York to Baltimore, chuckling so often, he nearly got us kicked out of the “quiet car.”

The novel had the same effect on Linda Oblack, regional editor at Indiana University Press, which — until “The Swan” — did not publish original fiction.

“I was ready to reject it, but then I started reading it and I couldn’t put it down,” Oblack said. “I sat in my office and read it in one sitting. I thought, ‘We’ve got to publish this.’ It really got to me.” 

Oblack eventually persuaded her colleagues and “The Swan” became the first in an entirely new series for Indiana University Press, Break Away Books, which features fiction by writers from the Midwest.

So, who else might find the story of Aaron Cooper worthwhile?

Anyone who grew up in the Midwest in the 1950s and ’60s. Anyone who now lives in the Midwest. Anyone who ever fantasized as a child. Anyone who has parented a different-drummer child. Anyone who admires carefully crafted prose. Anyone who would like to take a short trip out of her or his own existence and inhabit the kaleidoscopic world of a strange little guy who does the best he can — as Faulkner put it — not just to survive, but to prevail.

Cohee moved at age 13 with his family from Indianapolis to California and now lives in San Francisco. After a career as an editor at Sierra Books, he retired to write fiction and to volunteer as a teacher in an inner-city Catholic elementary school.

“The Swan” is actually Cohee’s first published novel. The first he wrote (at age 60) is called “The 19 Steps to What Ever.” It was rejected 50 times, a grueling experience that Cohee said in a recent telephone interview “liberated” him to sit down with no expectations or pressure and write as he darned well pleased. Five more novels, including “The Swan,” followed.

“They’re all short,” Cohee said. “I do not want to write an 800-page Thomas Pynchon novel.”

Bless him. The world needs more 117-page adventures that make us laugh, swallow hard with emotion and, ultimately, marvel.

It was Cohee’s wife, Linda, a college reference librarian, who suggested he pull “The Swan” from his growing stack of never-to-be-submitted novels and try for a publisher. “Why don’t you send it to someone in the Midwest?” she said.

Fortunately, the book landed in Oblack’s lap at I.U. Press in Bloomington. It can be ordered online at iuporder@indiana.edu or by calling 1-800-842-6796. Book Nation in Terre Haute also has copies in the store or can order it for pickup after next month, when the bricks-and-mortar arm of BookNation will close. 

Cohee has ties to Terre Haute. His mother grew up Marion Ferguson in a house on Barbour Avenue that still stands; his grandfather owned a paint store in 12 Points. Cohee’s detailed remembrances and images of the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood of Indianapolis in which he spent his childhood could just as easily have sprung from 1950s Terre Haute — or Evansville or Lafayette, Akron, Ohio, Champaign-Urbana, Ill., or Des Moines, Iowa. Across six pages in one chapter, in fact, Cohee lets loose like an improvising jazz musician, riffing on an eclectic and evocative list of mid-20th century slang and cultural phenomena, from View-Masters and mail-order pet alligators to “The Cisco Kid” and “Atlas Shrugged.”

And yet, “The Swan” is no one’s nostalgic wallow. Rather, it’s a homemade rocket ship that may go “pocketa-pocketa” but can actually get you to Mars for a good look around. All you have to do is climb aboard and enjoy the ride.