A Deeper Look At Outside In…Plot

the_heros_journey1This is another installment in my “A Deeper Look” series peeling back the layers of Outside In to better understand the meaning of the setting, themes, characters, plot, and style.

The path of the lead character twenty-eight year old teacher Brad Shepherd in Outside In is Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey of departure, initiation and return. Brad did everything he was supposed to: he graduated from university, got a teaching job, coached after school, even attended graduate classes in the evenings. But after the overdose death of a student on the parent’s pain medication in Brad’s classroom, the parents sue and the school district lets Brad go to mitigate the lawsuit.

By losing his job and everything he had been working toward for the past ten years, Brad loses his sense of identity and induces what psychologist Erik Erikson referred to as a Quarter-Life Crisis, triggering doubt of the life decisions made and the steps to take going forward and inducing feelings of betrayal, isolation, and loneliness. This loss of self and the resulting confusion sends Brad away from his home in St. Louis to Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie to rediscover who he is and hopefully return with what matters in life.

On his journey, Brad encounters many new experiences and people, often centering around alcohol, drugs and sexual experimentation, which are meant to represent updated  trials in Campbell’s monomyth. Working as bouncer at a popular island nightclub, Brad initially loves his new carefree lifestyle and friends, like Astrid, a hopeful Norwegian waitress, Cinch, an affable party boy and local drug dealer, Haley, a forlorn, alcoholic bartender, and Caldwell, a mysterious, mandolin player. Not always the best influences, these new friends represent opposing points of a compass pulling Brad in different directions, and he becomes more lost than ever.

It is often unclear in Outside In who the antagonist is that is preventing Brad from achieving his goal of a rediscovered self. Is it these supposed friends leading him down a destructive path for their own gains, is it life itself that he is battling, or is it himself and his own internal demons that thwart his quest? The uncertainty regarding the true enemy in the modern search for self is shown in the story when Brad visits Perry’s Monument and hears the famous quote Oliver Hazard Perry sent after winning the the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” and he muses how we wishes he could meet his true enemy.

The events and actions of Outside In intentionally wander and unfold in a way to represent the lost and searching aspect of the characters. The characters talk more about passion and living life to the fullest rather than doing anything except escaping to whatever to whatever vice is available. To watch the flawed characters make the same self-destructive choices time after time can be quite frustrating, but it is meant to represent the excess and instant gratification so prevalent in contemporary society and elevate the discussion of addiction and self-medication. Before judging the characters, actions or events, take the time to peel back the layers and examine what they might mean in the context of your own inside and outside worlds.

Stay connected to this website or follow me on Facebook @ByCooper, on Twitter @ByCoop, or on Instagram @dougiecoop for more deeper looks at aspects of Outside In.





A Deeper Look At Outside In…Setting

Put-in-Bay Aerial Photo

Much of what appears on the surface of Outside In is a mask concealing a much deeper and sometimes opposite meaning. Although some of the events are similar to those in my life, everything that happens in Outside In is there for a reason and has many layers of meaning. Setting Outside In at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in the middle of Lake Erie might seem to those who know about my background as a connection to my roots. But despite growing up merely fourteen miles away from the island in the Lake Erie coastal town of Port Clinton, I never spent much time at Put-in-Bay in my formative years except for twice. The first was a sixth grade safety patrol spring field trip rewarding us for our service in which I remember only the waves being so high on the ferry ride back, I questioned I would ever leave firm ground again. The second was a rainy, chilly day after high school when a girlfriend and I snuck over to her family’s summer condo to be alone without the fear of parents pulling in the driveway and sparking the frantic search for clothes followed by the transparent facade of composure that nothing was going on when they entered.

Not until I left Port Clinton for college at Miami University, came back to teach junior high math for a year, then left again to teach in St. Louis, and I had the serendipity of connecting with a bunch of Put-in-Bay workers on a trip to Key West that I found my way back to South Bass Island. Despite my mathematics background, I guess I never learned the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It was during the several summers I spent there while teaching in St. Louis during the school year that the contrast, mystery and beauty of the island resonated with me. I remember standing on the porch of the Round House, the very one described in the story, as golf carts buzzed by and people flowed through the park with the lake shimmering in the background that I thought, This would be the perfect setting for a literary novel.

Using an island as a setting in a novel is nothing new. The unique attributes of isolation, finite resources, and the influence of water have made islands a popular choice in novels ranging from Robinson Crusoe to Treasure Island to Lord of the Flies. Islands are recognized as a microculture and place for escape, transformation, or sometimes even exile and punishment. The archetype of the island is one buried deep in the psyche often representing the earth’s mandala and a symbol of unification of self. In Outside In, South Bass Island plays all these parts at times. But more than just a backdrop of where the action happens, the island serves as another character in the story, one that inspires, guides, challenges, and even levies consequences.

But why this island? Why choose to set the story at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in Ohio? Two unique factors set this island apart from all others and make it the perfect setting for a story about a teacher, who is fleeing from the haunting death of a student due to a drug overdose, becoming lost in a haze of excess and instant gratification. These attributes are, one, the contrast to the classic Manifest Destiny theme and, two, the Battle of Lake Erie history. By starting the journey of the protagonist in St. Louis, known as the Gateway to the West, but rather than forging west in search of a better life, he delves deeper into the middle of the country, it is a direct contrast to the concept of Manifest Destiny. With minimal external unexplored land and frontier remaining, the character’s path represents the need to look deeper in oneself to find the answers to problems and that dreams don’t lie on the horizon; they lie within.

The Battle of Lake Erie history, however, is the main reason why South Bass Island was chosen over all others. It was there that Oliver Hazard Perry led a decisive naval battle in the War of 1812 which secured the North shore for the US forces and established peace between US, Canada, and Great Britain. Commemorating the victory, which celebrated its bicentennial on September 10, 2013, stands the world’s tallest Doric column at 352 ft (107m) known as Perry’s Monument. The monument, which is the setting of many scenes in the novel, serves as a protective and comforting figure. It represents the conflict that took place there so long ago with Perry sending his famous message to William Henry Harrison following the battle, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”, but it is also symbolic of the inner struggles the characters are having and contrasts the difficulty in the modern search for identity of knowing exactly who the enemy is.

Stay connected to this website or follow me on Facebook @ByCooper, on Twitter @ByCoop, or on Instagram @dougiecoop for more deeper looks at aspects of Outside In.

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