Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Character sketch: Gary K.

Gary K. thinks he's a pirate. Well, maybe not really, although no one is absolutely certain. Least of all Michael Reed, who chose Gary as his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor eighteen years earlier.

Gary is a successful engineering professor at Bradley University, the same school where Matt Folds teaches religion and theology. In keeping with AA's longstanding tradition of using only last initials to help preserve the anonymity of its members, Gary's last name is never mentioned in The Devil You Don't Know. I'm not exactly sure why I chose to do that, other than it rang true to me.

Gary is one hell of a smart man. He'd have to be, I presume, in order to be a college-level professor of engineering. He's also quirky. Really quirky. He's so odd that book editor Staley initially had reservations about him. She felt that no one could be that damned weird in real life.

I didn't have the heart to tell her he's modeled -- quite faithfully, I might add -- on someone I know very well in real life. He's not only real in my mind, but he's damned important to me, to Michael Reed and to the plot itself.

He's my wife's second favorite character, after Kris Reed. (And that's no surprise, since Kris is modeled quite faithfully on my wife.) Of course, my wife also likes the real life "Gary," too.

In the evenings, Gary likes to dress in black leather, don a bandanna and a paisley eye patch and cruise around on his purple Harley, which he lovingly calls Barney. After the cartoon dinosaur, you see. Ahem. He also likes to talk like a pirate and pretty much calls everyone Matey.

Now keep in mind that Gary is based on a real person. I happened to be at that person's home last night for our weekly Monday man date (saw The Hangover. Loved it!) and the real Gary (no, that's not his name) took us out into his garage to show us his new Nazi helmet with the deer antlers attached and a pair of black leather shoulder pads that he proudly stated makes him look just like Mel Gibson's character in Mad Max. He actually wears this stuff when he rides his Harley.

The guy is totally hilarious and worthy of inclusion in any novel. Trust me on this. He's also intelligent and has a heart of gold. He would do anything for anyone. He's that kind of guy -- in real life and in the book.

And he likes cigars! And he's a real engineer.

There's so many great scenes featuring Gary that I had a hard time picking one for this sketch. I chose the following (which occurs about a third of the way into the book) because I think it shows both his quirky personality and his good heart.



“So you’re coming back to AA meetings, huh?” Gary K. asked, forking a mass of runny eggs into his mouth and chasing it with a soggy piece of toast. A gelatinous glob of yolk had dribbled down onto his graying goatee.

“It couldn’t hurt,” Michael said, debating whether he should tell Gary about the yolk glob, which hung ensnared in his beard like a bug in a spider’s web. He couldn’t take his eyes off of it.

“No,” Gary agreed. “It sure couldn’t. So what’s up with you?”

“Where do I start? Not that you’d believe a word I’d say.”

Gary sat his fork down and looked at his sponsee with his uncovered eye. “Try me, Matey.”

They were having a late breakfast at Denny’s the morning after the local news fiasco. He’d called his sponsor the night before, and suggested they get together for the first time in more than two months. Gary had agreed instantly, but had so far said nothing about the hottest story to hit Peoria in some time.

“You don’t watch the news?” Michael asked. “Or read the newspaper?”

“You mean this rag?” Gary asked casually, pulling a folded copy of the Times-Standard from his leather jacket pocket and tossing it onto the cluttered table. Michael could just make out the phrase Peoria’s young Messiah? in the front-page headline. “That’s a very flattering picture of you, Michael. Your hair’s a little grayer these days.”

Goddamn it, Gary,” Michael said, slamming his coffee cup down. “Is everything a big joke to you?”

“Not everything,” Gary said evenly. “For instance, getting drunk isn’t very funny, is it, Matey?”

“So you know about that,” Michael whispered.

“I didn’t until just now,” Gary said. “I’m sorry, Michael.”

“I’m sorry, too,” Michael said, staring glumly into his coffee mug. He could feel tears brimming in his eyes.

Why did I wait so long to call him?

“Well, it’s water under the bridge now, Matey,” Gary said, digging back into his breakfast. On the floor directly behind their booth sat a green plastic Christmas tree, its tiny white lights blinking mechanically. “The important thing is, you made it through alive and you called me. Now you’ll need to decide if you want your sobriety more than you want your next drink.”

“But what about all of this shit?” Michael asked, waving a hand at the newspaper.

“Yeah, that’s a bit of a mess,” Gary said. “You want to tell me how you got involved in it?”

He told his sponsor the whole story and when finished he looked up, half expecting Gary to laugh in his face.

He didn’t.

“So what do you think this kid wants with you?” Gary asked, finally dabbing at his goatee with a napkin.

“I wish I knew,” Michael said. “It just doesn’t make any sense. And if it is true, why in the hell would God want me for anything?”

“Why not you?” Gary asked, sitting back and folding his hands in front of him. “I mean, he chose you to find sobriety all those years ago. And that, my man, is a gift. And you know it.”

Michael was stunned. “You mean you actually believe all this?”

“Of course I believe it,” Gary said. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because it sounds ludicrous? Because I sound like I’ve completely lost my fucking mind?”

Gary laughed and lit a cigarette, squinting with his one visible eye as the smoke curled upward.

“Look Matey, it’s like this. Me and God, we’ve been buddies for a long time,” Gary said, leaning forward on his elbows. “I’ve learned over the years that He can and will do any damned thing He wants. To anyone He chooses.”

“Even my minister is a bit skittish about all this,” Michael said. “It’s as though he’s as afraid to believe it as he is not to believe it.”

“There’s a big difference between me and your minister,” Gary said. “I don’t let religion fuck me all up. I’m a spiritual guy and I believe in God for one simple reason: He saved my life. So when you tell me He’s sent his kid here again to save the world, or whatever it is he’s doing, I don’t ask how that’s possible. I ask what I can do to help.”

IN REAL LIFE: I managed to slog through twelve pages of revisions today, including a couple of scenes that required some major surgery. For those of you keeping count, that's seventeen chapters down and ten to go! I'm also going to do something a bit different today. I'm going to write two character sketches, this one and one for Zachary Fine. That means I'll be down to three after that -- Michael Reed, Miriam Crane and Jordan Crane. I'll likely do Miriam and Jordan as one sketch, for reasons that I hope will become clear as we go along. That way, I can finish these up this week and get back to whining about my personal and writing lives.

COMING TOMORROW: See the post directly above this one. :)


  1. I like this character, he adds a lot of color mentally. The egg yolk in the goatee is a great visual and I could really picture the two of them sitting there at Denny's. Great work, Terry!

  2. Maybe I'm biased because I get it, I don't know. I love this guy, probably because I know a few similar to him.

    P.S. Sorry I'm late and yes, of course you can use that picture.

    Truth be told, I thought of you when I saw it. Wah ha ha ha! It seems like it might be your sense of humor. ;)