The Comedy of Voice and Punctuation

June 29, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Reading next: Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

Well, here’s something completely different. Jaime, my wife, has been a big fan of Portis for some time now. She’s been telling me to read DOTS every month for years now. I finally succumbed, since I’m trying to sprinkle Southern lit into my reading more regularly and it seemed like a good summer book and a good travelling book. (Which it was: a good laugh on an airplane never hurts, and it was appropriate to read about the Texo-Mexican scrublands while flying over the Southwest. Although, if we were to emulate the experience of the book, one of the engines would have started shaking and fallen off.)

And it’s true: Portis is funny as hell. Also, funny about hell. I don’t think Ray Midge’s descent into Belize is exactly a Dantesque journey — I’ll write about this hopefully tomorrow: I think the journey is something of a way to comment on the place departed, the American South — but, nevertheless, things do get a bit hellish now and then.

Gross over-generalization time: It’s harder to write fictional comedy in the first person than the third. No fair counting romans a clef or autobiographical stand-in narrators. Is that obvious? I don’t know, but I hadn’t really thought about it until reading this book. Third person allows for authorial interpolations on all characters, a focus on details those in the story cannot notice or would not mention, an “impartial” scene setting, and, most importantly, a shifting viewpoint, the ability to capture reactions and relationships in ways an author cannot when bound to a single, involved narrator. All of this is the very stuff of humor, setting up both the narrator and his or her readers to feel the superiority to the subject on which so many jokes are based. I can’t imagine A Confederacy of Dunces from the point of view of Ignatius or any other character, for that matter: it is too important to see them all bouncing off of each other, their personalities too strong to allow any of them to dictate the narrative.

Portis doesn’t give himself this luxury. He writes from the point of view, not just of the main character, but of a fairly… um… idiosyncratic main character. He’s something of a drifter, returning to school again and again to start one or another career path, only to lose interest or his nerve. He’s dependent on his fairly wealthy father for money. He’s a military history buff who refuses to read fiction.

And, while educated, he’s not your typical narrator who’s smarter than everyone around him. He’s a schlub from Little Rock, with few skills and fewer prospects. He’s no writer. While there’s much of the comedy of situation and personality in this book, many of the laughs — for me, anyway — come from Ray’s voice and even the punctuation Portis chooses, especially the exclamation point.

I suppose the word for Ray’s narration is deadpan, although I’ve never heard a completely satisfying definition of same. It’s true, though, that his narration betrays little emotion much of the time. But it’s more the juxtaposition of disparate modes or levels of language that he uses that tickles my funny bone. Rather than piling on snippets, here’s a longish section which encapsulates much of what I find funny in the book’s language:

In South Texas I saw three interesting things. The first was a tiny girl, maybe ten years old, driving a 1965 Cadillac. She wasn’t going very fast, because I passed her, but still she was cruising right along, with her head tilted back and her mouth open and her little hands gripping the wheel.

Then I saw an old man walking up the median strip pulling a wooden cross behind him. It was mounted on something like a golf cart with two spoked wheels. I slowed down to read the hand-lettered sign on his chest.

JACKSONVILLE

FLA OR BUST

I had never been to Jacksonville but I knew it was the home of the Gator Bowl and I had heard it was a boom town, taking in an entire county or some such thing. It seemed an odd destination for a religious pilgrim. Penance maybe for some terrible sin, or some bargain he had worked out with God, or maybe just a crazed hiker. I waved and called out to him, wishing him luck, but he was intent on his marching and had no time for idle greetings. His step was brisk and I was convinced he wouldn’t bust.

The third interesting thing was a convoy of stake-bed trucks all piled high with loose watermelons and cantaloupes. I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that the bottom ones weren’t being crushed under all that weight, exploding and spraying hazardous melon juice onto the highway. One of nature’s tricks with curved surfaces. Topology!…

“Hazardous melon juice” is one of the funniest noun phrases I’ve ever read.

It’s funny after that, too, but one must stop somewhere. Part of what’s funny here is embedded in the fact that Ray never reads fiction, I think: the telegraphed statements — “I was amazed.” — add some unquantifiable comedy, but make sense only for someone who’s not very comfortable with personal narrative. The fact that he was an engineering student also plays into that last paragraph. Ray’s character can seem like a loose bag of experiences and quirks, sometimes, making him into a savant of sorts. But it pays off in narration like his waving at a Jesus-freak and contemplating the freak’s chances of busting. And I’ve always been a sucker for a blend of meticulous detail and technical language with laid-back qualified “maybe” and “some” sentences.

Then there’s that exclamation point — “Topology!” These exclamations recur throughout the book, and they’re almost always funny, and they almost always crack me up when I think of them delivered in a Southern manner, with an Arkansas accent. It’s realistic, I guess I’m saying: funny because it’s true. Another funny moment comes in a bar in Laredo, when Ray explains his method of avoiding germs on bar glasses. “A quick slosh here and there and those babies are right back on the shelf!” These moments of excitement or intensity are often ironically funny, although I never get the sense that Portis condescends to his narrator. I think a large part of their effectiveness is simply due to the fact that there is very little else in the way of punctuation, besides periods: simple sentences, few commas, certainly no colons or semicolons or question marks. The surprise of those exclamations, frequently fragments, somehow heightens the humor.

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