Synopsis – The Fear of Being Eaten – A Biography of the Heart
This is the simple love story of a combat veteran who, upon return home from active duty in a rifle company stationed in Vietnam, finds himself wandering in the forgotten world of his own youth – a world that has become foreign to him after only months of intense jungle warfare.
From the low wetlands of Southeast Asia to the high deserts of Nevada, The Fear of Being Eaten – A Biography of the Heart is the real life story of a nineteen-year-old kid’s efforts to simply be young, with all that entails: to have choices, to set goals, to live, to love, to create.
While in Vietnam, Tommy Middleton, a squad leader in a rifle company, becomes obsessed with the idea of being eaten alive as he sees it all around among the animals and insects during the long hours between firefights. He tries to picture how it must be to know you are inside another creature’s gullet, heading for the stomach. When this horror becomes too intense, he controls himself by imagining the face and form of a Mrs. Rhondda, the kind, beautiful, accessible dancer who lived across the street from him in North Las Vegas during his early youth and adolescence. Each night, a dream recurs – an image of rolling grassland, bathed in the amber glow of the setting sun, with Jackie Rhondda seated on a hay wagon, reaching down to help him up and sit beside her and listen to her low, soft voice.
In a running gun battle, he is severely wounded, medically discharged from the army and sent home. After four years trying to adapt to normal life back home in Las Vegas (taking up his old job, attending university to earn a degree to enable him to “do something noble” with his life) Tommy slowly becomes hooked on drugs as a way to manage his sleep and heavy workload. He becomes disgusted and horrified by nature television programs that depict animals devouring one another, having long since become convinced that such behavior is the root of all evil. One afternoon, while in a stupor, he hears what he thinks is his girlfriend Livy’s best friend Tina, watching such a program. He apes into her empty bedroom and slices up a bed pillow, thinking it is Tina, cutting himself in the process, spattering blood on her shredded bedding. Terrified by what she finds upon her return home, Tina moves out and tries to convince Livy to leave with her. The latter decides to stay with Tommy not only because she loves him but because she feels responsible for having encouraged him in the use of pills to manage his time.
One evening, while celebrating the end of the Vietnam war he overdoses on LSD and becomes convinced that his furniture is trying to devour him. He runs from the house into the desert, screaming in terror. A highway patrolman discovers him exhausted, kneeling at the base of a sand dune near the side of the road.
Tommy spends a month in a psychiatric ward where he begins to experience the cathartic practice of journal writing. Upon release, he finds a world grown cold – an empty house, Livy gone and a terror inside of backsliding into drugs. With only a small amount of money in savings, Tommy packs a small bag, including the journal he has started filled with insightful characterizations of extraordinary people he has known and wanders north toward Reno, on a lark to see something a recently deceased friend had described during a noisy party – how snowflakes may be seen fluttering down from the windswept peaks like a silvery curtain even on a sunny summer’s day. Along the way, his decrepit car breaks down and he is forced to hitchhike. In Reno, his money gone, his clothing a wreck Tommy is unable to find employment and finds himself homeless.
One cold winter’s night, after months on the streets, Tommy is spotted by Mrs. Jacqueline Rhondda and her friend, Mary Stewart who are in Reno on business. Astonished and saddened by his dissipated condition they take him to their hotel room. That night Jacqueline Rhondda, now widowed with two young children, confesses her longstanding love and affection for Tommy. She invites him to come and join them in Ely to help with a ranch she has inherited. They hadn’t seen one another since his first days back from Vietnam, a warm encounter that had left the two bereft.
Ashamed and overwhelmed by the sudden tenderness shown him Tommy bolts from the hotel. Back on the streets he tries to process the encounter, stunned that Jackie would still harbor such affection even in his present state. He resolves that if he is to accept her invitation he must reach her home in Ely under his own power. On his trek east across Nevada, along US Highway 50, he nearly dies of exposure and is given shelter by a couple who, having read his journal notes while he was unconscious, recognize not only his ability as a writer, his gift for creating complex characterizations but, most especially, what they see as a latent optimism regarding humankind. They invite him to stay at their remote prairie home and take a small cabin which is part of their artists’ retreat atop a barren mesa where they encourage him to try his hand at fiction writing and also to complete his journey home to Jackie.
But, after a year’s faithful vigil, Jackie Rhondda has all but given up ever seeing Tommy Middleton again.
While this may be end of The Fear of Being Eaten, it is not the final chapter of A Biography of the Heart.
Take a copy and read through to the end.