Nick Arvin’s most recent novel, Mad Boy (Europa Editions, 2018), won the 2019 Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction. His first novel, Articles of War (Doubleday, 2005), won the 2006 Colorado Book Award and was selected for the One Book, One Denver reading program. He lives in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.
The following is an excerpt from “Mad Boy.”
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2019 Colorado Book Awards winner for Literary Fiction
At this point in the novel, young Henry Phipps has arrived in Washington on August 24, 1814. The British are burning the federal buildings, and Henry has broken into an abandoned house, planning to steal things of value, so that he can buy his father out of debtor’s prison. Meanwhile, Henry’s mother has died, but he can still hear her speaking to him from time to time.
Henry goes to the nearest cabinet, swings the carved doors, ready to take wonderful things from their places.
Nothing. He feels along the empty dark shelves, finds only a single shard of broken crockery. He rushes on, to a tall chest of drawers, to a massive oaken desk, to the cupboards, to a wardrobe large enough to make a spacious henhouse—all empty. In the kitchen there are no pots, no pans, no silverware, no cups. Nothing on the mantle, nothing on the table, only heaps of cold ash on the hearth, and something underfoot—Henry bends to feel. Cut roses, dumped wet onto the floor, they prick Henry’s hand. He stomps them.
He runs upstairs, opens a door, finds a long, dark room. He draws a curtain from the single, small window: the objects of the room disappoint. The furniture is rough cut, and there’s a filthy rug, a bed with greasy bedding in a heap, some scattered bits of food crust, many stains, tobacco shards, and insects that scuttle away from the light. On the wall hangs an oval mirror, its silver blackening as if diseased. A set of drawers beneath the mirror hold patched trousers and shirts, a fieldworker’s smock, a brown hat shaped like the cap of a mushroom.
In the corner he finds a horsehair trunk, throws it open, finds neatly folded fabrics. He pulls these out by fistfuls: trimmed with silks, stiffened with starch, heavy with small buttons and knotted lacings, they are women’s things, nicer than anything Mother ever wore. A laced velvet vest, a silk taffeta gown, a whale bone stay, a bright yellow linen dress, a white silk chemise. Why are they here? The dress is a marvelous fine linen.
“Mother,” he says, holding it up, “do you like it?” He cannot hear her, but perhaps that is due to all of the noise in the streets. Somewhere a horse is screaming. The dress is cut for someone a little larger than himself—it slides easily over his head and his clothes. He looks in the splotchy mirror, turns left, turns right, reaches behind to fit the waist, straightens his back, sets his shoulders, rolls his eyes. Certainly it is too long, but if it were hemmed—
“Hello, my lady!”
Henry tries to jump, turn, and pull off the dress all at the same time. He briefly glimpses an extraordinarily ugly redcoat leering from the stairs before he becomes hopelessly tangled in the dress. Fumbling, blind, he cries “I’m no girl!” He twists, yanks, drags the length of the dress overhead, casts it aside.
The redcoat stands gazing at Henry with fleshy lips pinched into a bud of disgust. His ugliness is so complete, so magnificent, it makes Henry gape—a large purpling nose, cavernous pox scars in his cheeks, a weak chin that recedes to nothing, hair snowy with dander, small uneven eyes, teeth snaggled to all angles like bits of burnt wood. It is as if someone had composed a face out of butcher’s scraps.
The redcoat snorts. “You do make a miserable sort of maiden. A disappointment, aren’t you?”
“Go away,” Henry says.
“No bosom, no bottom, no girl at all. Quite disillusioning. Are you finding some charming things? All emptied out downstairs. Did you empty it? Doubtful. That way when you arrived, was it?”
“I live here,” Henry says sourly.
The redcoat laughs. “Aye. And my arse lives in a bowl full of daisies.”
“I live here!” Henry cries. It seems true enough, since he arrived first.
“That’s the reason you put a rock through a window.”
“Never liked that window,” Henry mumbles.
“So, playing dress up? What’re these nice things doing in a corner of the servant’s quarters, you suppose? Dead girl, likely. Couldn’t bear to be rid of them, put them here to be out of sight.”
“Dead girl?” Henry looks at the yellow dress on the filthy floor. Already a cockroach is exploring it.
“What’s your age? Nine?”
The redcoat grins, showing his horrifying teeth. “If you’re sixteen, then I’m already dead. Which I don’t think I am, although I did think I might die yesterday, when General Ross had us quickstepping for mile after mile through your forsaken countryside.” While he talks, the redcoat examines the chest of clothes that Henry has already explored. “Mosquitoes, flies, miserable heat. Man beside me staggered and dropped right there, dead as a spiked twelve pounder.” The redcoat pulls the drawers and spills their contents to the floor. “This after weeks on weeks inside the holds of swaying vile ships, everyone vomiting. Put us on land and away we go, marching, trotting, bodies falling dead, no pause to help them, no decent burial.” He riffles the bedding. “Meantime, General Ross on his horse like Alexander traipsing over the mountains on an elephant.” He opens the mattress tick with a knife and shakes out the straw stuffing. “Worthless,” he says, scowling. “People here live like savages.” He looks at Henry. “Now where?”
Henry, who has been watching for an opportunity to dash for the stairway, glares. “Where?”
“Yes, where next?”
“I live here,” Henry says. “This is my house.”
“Dedication to a lie is laudable only to a point, my boy. We have a city before us. There’s far more to be had than any one of us can carry. Better the two of us together than each alone, am I right? You know the country, and I know what I’m doing. We’ll make a fair split, seventy-thirty, since I am bigger. Yes?” He peers at Henry with his small, misaligned eyes.
Henry looks at the shambles on the floor. Musket shots sound in the distance. He listens for Mother—he hears something, so faint, he can’t be sure . . . Urged by an instinct or feeling—mostly the feeling that dislikes loneliness—he says, “Seventy-thirty?”
“Sixty-five and thirty-five, then!” The redcoat swings around and starts down the stairs. “I like a man who drives his bargains hard!”
Henry grabs up the yellow dress, shakes out the roaches, folds it tight, hides it under his shirt, follows the redcoat down.
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— Interview: “Mad Boy” author Nick Arvin.