Creative Writing

The Most Unique Thrill Ride in the Park: A Review of Tim Bryant’s BLUE RUBBER POOL, including an Interview with the Author

JT Harrington, the protagonist of Tim Bryant’s offbeat novel Blue Rubber Pool, is world weary but not particularly wise. He is, though, savvy about survival on the “Money Trail,” the seedy south-of-the-border domain of gun runners, drug dealers, money launderers, hit men, government–sponsored mercenaries, and prostitutes.

Through a plot that spirals in and out of a variety of locales, we encounter a wide-ranging cast of characters—most of them sleazy, unhinged, or both—who are at ease “letting their demons run free.” The versatile mind behind this wickedly twisted roller coaster ride turns out metaphors as effortlessly as a seasoned grill cook flips eggs. One can’t help but suspect that our multi-faceted protagonist is an extension of his creator or perhaps an alter ego.

JT has recently married Marianne, a Southern belle from rural South Carolina, but the lifestyle she represents is a sharp departure from the one he’s lived for years on the Money Trail. Indeed, he and Marianne are “opposites balanced on the fulcrum of time and place.” The tension between these two, their pasts and their divergent lifestyles, is what keeps the novel from ripping apart at the seams.

When they meet, Marianne is vacationing on a small island off Hilton Head. JT, having been at sea for a while, has briefly docked, readying for re-launch and a return to risky business in and around Honduras. He is salty, sweaty, and grease smeared from boat maintenance; she is prim, pretty, and innocent in a white sun dress. Her nails are painted, and as she politely nibbles a sandwich with pinky extended, JT’s eyes find “Goodness where before they were lost in Evil.” He watches spellbound as she expertly shucks oysters between delicate sandwich bites. Smitten by her proficiency with the shucking knife, he falls in love, fancying himself her protector, and follows her to her landlocked home in rural Jonesville.

JT’s love of sailing and beaches inspires him to tow his forty-foot ketch to the cow pasture adjacent to Marianne’s family farm where he plans to build a new life, securing the boat on jacks and living in it until his new dwelling—a beach house on stilts—is completed. He hopes Marianne will find it cozy, that it will be their little love nest, but she prefers the comfort of her parents’ big house. His new life becomes fraught with other frustrations: intruding cows, obnoxious turkeys, snakes, an overabundance of country radio stations, the unease of Marianne’s family and neighbors over his pretentious arrival, rednecks, and general boredom.    

He develops a coping mechanism that includes floating in a blue rubber swimming pool picked up at the local Big Lots, booze, full-auto target practice with a duct-taped Uzi, Led Zeppelin, and weed. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s losing his edge. Soon, without even trying (or trying not to), he finds himself back on the Money Trail.  

His life has become a tug-of-war between opposing desires. On one hand there’s comfort and safety in a pastoral setting with a beautiful woman who is “part rose petal on a church pew, part Hemi-powered oyster eater”; the competing impulse is toward the rush of adrenalin that rises out of being in the middle of—facilitating, even—major deals, minor uprisings, and military coups while sailing between Caribbean islands and sea ports or trekking through Central American jungles infested with deadly beasts and humans. One lifestyle provides peace and health, the other excitement and big paydays. 

Built upon this see-saw, the narrative comprises an assortment of bizarre situations, flashbacks, and plot twists that illustrate the concept of being caught between two extremes. JT Harrington is—miraculously, after the hard knocks he experiences all along the money trail—a living, breathing, dazed-and-confused enigma seeking resolution. He discovers, though, that reconciling his past with the present and finding an inhabitable space between requires perhaps more fortitude, cleverness, and courage than he can muster.  

One thing’s for sure, though: on the money trail it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad. This never mattered much for JT before Marianne. Now, looking through a different colored lens, he’s presented with new possibilities, but in order to reinvent himself, he must conquer old habits and disentangle himself from former connections that are as twisting and binding as the kudzu surrounding his cow pasture. We eagerly join JT on his adventures to discover whether or not he is up to the task.

Our compulsion continues as we delight in the intrigue, liveliness of language, colorful characters, dark humor, and harrowing action. For the thrill-seeker residing in all of us, Blue Rubber Pool provides the giddy catharsis of a twisting, plunging ride on the amusement park’s most unique roller coaster. Board at your own risk. Once the ride starts, you won’t be able to get off.

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Tim Bryant agreed to answer a few questions regarding his background, style, influences, process, and life in general. What follows will provide insight for anyone interested in novel writing and how life experiences affect the creative process:

RY: The narrator of your novel displays a love of the sea and sailing. The details indicate that you may also have these proclivities. Do you currently own a boat? What are the most enjoyable aspects of sailing? Feel free to share some of your sailing adventures.

TB: Sailing kept my soul from hardening regardless of hard times and hard people around me. I started as a grade-schooler. Heading out alone with nobody stipulating a direction or timetable made the world open up a zillion times its size—bringing a sense of freedom to an otherwise very claustrophobic childhood. As the boats got bigger, the lakes became oceans and more and more things of nature were revealed to me: its currents and tides, its fishes and animals, its changing moods of weather—things I might have missed otherwise. At the same time, I became aware of sailing as a transactional intersection of wind, water, and Man. I became more in touch with our ancient great-greats—the first who went out beyond sight of land and yet looked up at the same stars and moon as me. Although I’m presently boatless for several reasons including a bad injury, I see waves every time a breeze stirs the field grass at Pineapple Hill, my beach house in a cow pasture in rural South Carolina.

RY: You seem to know a great deal about espionage and intrigue—government sponsored and otherwise—in Central America. Is this knowledge based on experience, thorough research, or a combination?

TB: I was asked this in a writers’ circle once. I froze up for a second until a Dali across the room caught my eye. “It’s the same as that,” I replied, pointing to the framed print. “How much of that is real?” There’s an awful lot of truth in Blue Rubber Pool yet not an ounce of stolen valor. It was written as a love story. A not-so-righteous guy meets an über Godly girl. Tranquility conflicts with chaos. Trust sumo wrestles skepticism. Baggage aches to be jettisoned to enable pursuit of that genuine soul mate. When it was written, I was living in a lava lamp situation, a kaleidoscopic mid-life melt down combining PTSD with a long lost bag of weed and Led Zeppelin cassette, clients across several area codes, some with Uzi-carrying bodyguards, some requiring I own guns too. I was miles from open water— feeling claustrophobic again. My purchase of that kiddie pool was either a symbolic return to the serenity of the womb or last ditch attempted baptism. I rode that pool float every day for most of a summer—writing in the mornings about trying to save myself in the afternoons.

RY: Is becoming a novelist a recently acquired aspiration or a long-harbored one? Who or what was responsible for starting you along this path? Do you have advice for others interested in taking up this pursuit?

TB: I discovered writing for fun—I’ve always called it “recreational” writing—approximately the same time I started sailing. Writing brought sailing’s same sensations of freedom, hope, and adventure. Nobody controlled my thoughts or the enjoyment of exploring them. I could create new worlds all my own in poems or short stories. My English teachers encouraged me while math teachers punished me with Fs. It was a good cop, bad cop thing that pushed me into a habit of writing a bit here and there no matter where I was in my experience of being alive. Initially this was done late at night but eventually it became a very early-in-the-day thing in which I wouldn’t punch my time card until clearing my head of what ever needed out and onto paper. Now, living on a small farm with just a puny vineyard and a few peach trees to tend to, I’m able to give it a more serious go. I’m committed to publishing at least five novels. It has to be that many. After that, maybe I’ll buy a motorcycle. As for advice to other writers starting out, the best thing I ever heard was simply “to be a writer, one must write!” Tinker with it as much as you can and wherever it leads in search of your truest writing voice. Do it for your own satisfaction and if you get a bad critique don’t fold up like a dying spider.

RY: The protagonist of Blue Rubber Pool, JT Harrington, is a risk-taking adventurer, complex and slightly unhinged. How are JT and Tim Bryant similar? Different? Are any of JT’s traits based on other characters either real or fictional?

TB: Well, in the sense that Blue Rubber Pool is a blurred memoir, JT and I are pretty much the same guy blurred into one. We both have love/hate relationships with the world around us. We’ve both moved a lot yet never felt at home. We’re both tired of looking over our shoulders or way up ahead, on guard for the next sucker punch. Same as JT, I want peace and quiet now. Clarity between good and evil. A better sense of how God and faith figure into all that. No wonder JT and I both seem unhinged, we’re in a desperate state of spiritual overhaul. JT and I are both like an armadillo—rolling up into a protective ball to protect what’s inside, spirits seeking grace. This is explored in my other manuscripts too. I’m in a very intense phase of life. George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord or Al Green’s Take Me to the River are my sound track now and they play on continuous loop. That’s great. But there’s also paranoia and distrust at play. It’s a hit-the-brakes-while-also-hitting-the-gas situation of believing there is a reason for the universe but not trusting Man to explain it.

RY: Please name a book or two that made lasting impressions on you as an author? Can you think of certain titles that would be generally beneficial for aspiring writers?

TB: In my teens and early twenties, I discovered John Irving’s easy going writing voice and ability to conjure up oddball situations bordering on the absurd. I also liked Jack Kerouac for his improvisational writing style. Whatever stream of consciousness he laid on the page stayed on the page without losing its honesty through rounds of revision. I liked James Michener’s willingness to take his own sweet time getting a story going—sometimes starting at the Beginning of All Beginnings: a tiny shrimp-like life form washes ashore then through a gazillion years evolves into humans. I liked Hunter S. Thompson’s cynicism, Charles Bukowski’s rugged reality, and how Williams Carlos Williams, a busy doctor, took snapshots in skinny snippets that would fit on his tiny prescription pad. Of course, Pat Conroy will always be a favorite—not only as a Southern voice but for stories as hard as they are soft. I’m probably still into writing because these and other authors gave me a satisfying place to start. Musicians and painters get hooked the same way. Blues led to rock. Politics led to abstract expressionism in the visual arts. We are all the sum result of our experiences. It would be dishonest to ignore them.

RY: Describe your methods for making a novel. Do you plot heavily with outlines, diagrams, and note cards; or do you simply give your characters free rein, allowing the narrative to develop organically? Please describe any hybrid or unique techniques that you employ.

TB: There’s a thumb drive at Pineapple Hill with four novel-length manuscripts stored on it and there’s a box in a closet with other bits and pieces of a fifth. None of these began with a goal of going hundreds of pages long. They evolved from an hour or so of jotting down whatever came to mind, perhaps a vague sensation snagged out of the air, the spark of a memory or even a long ago dream, a déjà vu that stayed on then wanted out. If it seemed interesting enough, I’d pick it up the next day and the next until, after five to ten pages, if I still had interest, I’d take a break to consider a possible path for the long haul. Usually, this involved roughing out a brief synopsis—no more than a few paragraphs—and then a few ideas—just bullets—about the characters. For instance, what they look like, what motivates them, and what their role might be. Then I jump back in to see if it feels right. If it does, I stop again to graph the story arc and create a mind chart showing key variables. Ready-made templates handed out by grade school teachers are good for this—I like their simplicity. Then I dive back in, periodically assessing my progress and correcting course as needed. Because I have no formal training, I had to learn the hard way that planning helps capture opportunities for a better story while saving on revisions later. That said, I keep planning at a minimum. One writer I know has spent literally years mapping out her novel. She gets no joy from just writing for the fun of it.

RY: What about your current projects? What sort of fictional gems might your readers expect from you in the future?

TB: Well, as mentioned, there’s four manuscripts on a thumb drive and bits of another in a box.

Of these, Blue Rubber Pool, is published with enough bits left over to get a sequel going later. It’s one of four connected stories. Not a series per se. More like a collection. As if the same soul quantum-leaped into different men in different mid-life implosions, each face-planting into his own fears and regrets same as I did that summer.

Birdwatching on Edisto, for instance, is about an Atlanta advertising executive who divorces, loses his job, and must move back in with his elderly mother on the South Carolina sea island where he was born and raised. It’s a fun story about familial responsibility, Southern traditions, and island life. I’ve turned down two contracts on it recently because I’m new to this and there’s a lot of scams going.

Also set in the Charleston area is The Stained Glass Mustang about a sales and marketing guy who drives drunk, kills a kid, and loses everything (job, wife, home, friends, etc.). He lives alone at a crappy marina. His only client is a dishonest, belligerent con man. He’s close to getting fired until his estranged father leaves him a muscle car painted up with images from Christianity. It’s a bit dark and full of symbolism. Great fun to write. This one had a publishing contract too but the pandemic screwed it up.

The one I’m working on now, Old Hotel by the Sea, is about a mailbox salesman—he specializes in the type used at apartment complexes and business parks—who accidently kills his fifth wife during their honeymoon. He plans to commit suicide at the place where he met wife number one but things keep getting in the way. Not as dark as it sounds. Lots of moving parts built in. A great project for this winter. I’m halfway through the second draft.

As you can see, I evidently can’t say enough about my mid-life crash and burn. I enjoy messing with it as a cat messes with a cockroach. The world is so simple and yet also ridiculously complex. That’s the God in it, I believe, and all around us saints are like shepherds. Established saints but also new ones, unknown—saints in the making—at war with evil behind the scenes, cleaning up the sins we leave like footprints. Large and small.

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