Senator Martin Harmon is poised to claim his party’s nomination for vice president of the United States. He improved his chances dramatically by becoming the leading spokesperson for a law, the REA, designed to prevent abuses in genetic engineering; abuses that Harmon believes threaten the country and mankind. But he has a problem: the woman he loves is not his wife, and the woman who is his wife wants nothing to do with the intense spotlight that comes with a presidential campaign. As he struggles to resolve his dilemma, he must confront the consequences of the law he fought so hard to enact, for if he has won political friends with his support for the REA, he has made enemies among genetic researchers, including Max Grunfeld, an aging scientist of towering reputation whose most recent discovery will revolutionize the entire field of genetics. Events put Harmon and Grunfeld on a collision course with the highest stakes possible: human life.
In my twenties and early thirties, I asked myself a question many of you may have asked: why read fiction? Why waste precious time and energy on things that never happened, and never would? Why invest emotional energy on attachment to characters who exist solely between the moldy covers of a forgotten book? I spent my high school and college years reading histories, biographies, and “how-to” be this, that or something else. For example, at The Citadel I read Churchill’s six-volume account of World War II as a recreational diversion from the course work demanded in my political science and history classes. While studying law at the University of Virginia, I read extensively on the lives of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Gandhi. All of these serious, factoid-laden works, I told myself, were the vitamins and minerals of a healthy modern personality. My indifference to fiction at The Citadel was particularly curious because my best friend during those years (and for all these years since) was Pat Conroy, as fictional in life and work as one could find on any college campus in America. Even at age 19, Pat had read everything I had ever heard of, and his devotion to icons like Thomas Wolfe and Tolstoy bordered on worship. I remember vividly his effusion on Look Homeward Angel, a book that had profound influence on the books Pat would begin writing soon after we graduated. In deference to our friendship, I read it, but it didn’t hold for me the same power that it exerted over him. At the time I wondered why; the answer came many years and life experiences later. Like a lot of conclusions I reached as a young man, I was wrong about fiction. Fiction demands not only imagination, which I like to think I possess in modest quantity, but also empathy—the ability to project one’s self into the story in order to weep openly at the death of a character you swore could not die; to wince at an amputation where anesthetic has been exhausted; to exalt in the birth of a child to a mother who didn’t think she wanted to be one but knew with the first cry she was wrong; to feel the incipient ache of a lover on a morning both realize may be their last together. It was precisely this commodity I lacked: empathy. How does one acquire empathy or optimism or love or hope or wisdom or cynicism or any other quality he or she happens to come into the world without? Answer: live a while, and keep your eyes open. The world has a way of teaching the lessons we need to survive and thrive. To some, those lessons come early. A child bullied by a parent, as Pat was and I was not, suffers an indelible scar. Thereafter, even a glance that evokes that bullying, whether in life or in fiction, cannot fail to prompt retreat toward a corner, physical or metaphorical. A teen weak from hunger will relive the gnaw when, years later and fully fed, he or she goes on a mythic journey with desperate characters contemplating cannibalism. My personal path toward empathy came late, with the birth of my first child when I was twenty-seven. Despite being the oldest of four children born to John and Susannah Warley, my interaction with babies had been limited by my relentless focus on anything involving a ball; baseball, basketball, football, marbles, tennis. When my son Caldwell arrived, I greeted him with a mixture of awe and curiosity. Something in his utter dependence on first his mother and then on both of us touched me in a place I hadn’t been—didn’t really know existed. I began to imagine what it must be like to be helpless, as of course I had been and you have been as well. With the arrival of our second son, Nelson, in 1975, I was fascinated by physical similarities and personality differences, so pronounced at the dawn of development. Two more children followed, each with unique differentiations. Our daughter, MaryBeth, planned carefully because she was adopted from Korea, and Carter, our third son, not planned at all and the source happy irony then and now. My decision to become a lawyer was driven by ambition to enter politics. At York High School in Yorktown, Virginia, I’d been your classic fourteen year old adolescent oddity until the day a junior varsity cheerleader named BJ approached me as I emptied books from my locker, grabbed my hand (the first girl ever to do so), and assured me we were heading into a terrific year. I recently spoke at BJ’s funeral, and in my brief eulogy the memory of her hand in mine was as fresh as it had always been, and always will be. The following year, a wonderful girl named Bonnie became the focus of every conscious thought, and many dreams. She was the acknowledged queen of our class, and dating her elevated me to a status I hadn’t envisioned but enjoyed immensely. At her urging, I agreed to run for junior class president. With her legion of friends, the outcome was never in doubt, and a fire ignited that I felt sure would determine my destiny as an adult. The idea that masses of people would come together at specific polling places to officially declare by secret ballot that they favored me above all others was a jolt of adrenaline like no other. Pure ego, of course, and precisely the wrong reason to run for anything, but that simplistic insight came later. It came, in fact, seventeen years later, when I made my first and last run for public office. Virginia was then in metamorphosis from the Democratic Party of Harry F. Byrd to the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan, but this was 1975, the year after Nixon resigned, and affiliation with the Republican label was as desirable as a sexually transmitted disease. For that reason, the local Republican Party in Newport News, Virginia was ready to nominate virtually anyone willing to run who could pass a driver’s test by the third try. I ran a good race (according to many who gauged such things) but lost, as I like to say, by a narrow two-to-one margin. As my friend Conroy has so powerfully written in My Losing Season, you can learn more in defeat than in victory, and I learned a ton. For starters, I realized I was not a street fighter, and that profession demands one. For another, I learned that my wife, Barbara, feared most that I would be elected, as she dreaded intrusions that political obligations would force upon our family. Lastly, but as importantly, I learned it takes real money to play that sport. Like polo. The entire episode produced what I call Warley’s First Law of Politics: you can manage a political career and a family if you have money—tons of it. I had none. A few self-made entrepreneurs seem to have balanced elective office, family, and making a living, but exceptions prove the rule, and I’m betting that in the heart-of-hearts of those rare birds there beats doubt that they do their best at any one pursuit. At age thirty, I set aside my high school dream, my college dream, my law school dream, and contemplated the apoplectic question: what now? Epiphanies being in short supply, the answer came gradually over the next several years as I worked to build my law practice and to stay involved with a family centered around Barbara and four growing and increasingly active kids. On days when I coached my sons’ soccer teams or beamed with fatherly pride at a horse show where my daughter added to her collection of blue ribbons, I knew I had made the right decision. Our family had its ups and downs, as families do, but I consider that time the most important I’ve spent. Barbara, as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside, feels the same, and her courage has inspired us all. My youngest son played on a soccer team called the Williamsburg Wizards, and one Saturday, after a memorable game, I took him and three of his teammates to what I thought was a carnival but turned out to be an art show. When I realized my mistake, I asked myself the same question I’d asked about my career: what now? We salvaged the day with a movie and bowling, and as I drove home late that afternoon I realized I had acquired during my hours with them a pocketful of memories I didn’t want to lose. I’d done some writing as a lawyer and correspondent, but not since law school had I attempted anything lengthy, or fictional. I sat down to write an account of my special day with the Wizards, and over the next several days produced a short story I called The Dare on the Bridge. I shared it with the parents of my son’s co-conspirators, and their enthusiasm and praise fed a hunger too acute to be ignored. Later, I read in the Daily Press a brief article speculating that Abraham Lincoln had suffered from a genetic disease called Marfan’s. The subject of genetics fascinates me, and this article stayed with me for several days, including a three hour drive to a soccer tournament in Northern Virginia. Weekend soccer tournaments involve some cheering, some encouragement, and a lot of standing around, so instead of hanging out with other dads, I holed up in the hotel room to write. On the drive up I had roughed out a plot with some fuzzy characters, but sitting down with a legal pad, scrawling at the top “Chapter 1,” gave me a thrill. By the end of that weekend I had a completed chapter that I judged to be “not bad.” As fuzzy as my characters may have been at the outset, they took on definition on the printed page. I could not leave them hanging, so chapter two became an imperative. Thirty-nine chapters later, I had produced Bethesda’s Child. As close as Pat Conroy and I had been in college and through our mid-twenties, my contact with him in the 1980s had been occasional. He lived in Italy for some of that decade, and his growing literary production (and fame) kept him as busy as I was with a law practice and four children. By 1990, he had returned to the U.S. to live and write in San Francisco. I sent him my manuscript, reluctant to trade on a friendship but lost as to what to do with 535 typed pages that by then had become an obsession. Pat admitted being stunned that I had written a novel, but praised it highly and asked permission to send it on to his agent in New York. I did not linger over that decision long. Nor did I attempt to conceal my excitement when the agent called to offer representation. Pat’s contribution went far beyond what I’ve just described. He became a virtual mentor, listing the books and authors I needed to read to do serious work. And I read them: Tolstoy, John Fowles, Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Melville, Toni Morrison, and many more. In 1993, while I was on sabbatical in Mexico to write A Southern Girl, Pat sent me a huge box of books he knew I would profit by reading; Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Portable Graham Green, The Bluest Eye, and Daniel Martin, among others. His recommendations are always welcomed and never disappoint. So I return to the original question: why read fiction? Because in setting out lies it somehow edges toward truths; truths that may concern us very little when we are young but become the only ones that matter as we age. How does it do this? Magic, to be found in reading authors like Pat and those he recommends.