March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
Finished: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.
Reading now: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.
I’m not sure quite where You Know Me Al stands these days. It was both wildly popular and critically acclaimed in its time (shocking fact: Virginia Woolf somehow loved or pretended to love this book — look it up, there’s an easy-to-find blurb), then became one of those last-generation books that no one actually reads, and now — is it a semi-forgotten classic? A bestseller that’s found its way to the appropriate level of public awareness? I suppose it’s something like a cult classic now, though even when I lived in Chicago pretty much no one I knew had read or even heard of it. But I suppose book cults must be the smallest cults of all. We’re not talking Jesus and Mary Chain here. We’re not talking Lebowski.
But there’s a little of YKMA‘s DNA in Lebowski as there is in all American satire, all American humor. The book’s a transcription of the letters home of Jack Keefe, young pitcher for the White Sox, to his “old pal” Al of Jack Keefe. It’s rife with misspellings, malapropisms, double negatives, horrible grammar. Jack’s dumb. And an asshole. But he’s an entertaining asshole, an asshole on many levels and in many different ways. I love it when he’s both too clever by half and obtuse, as in this passage:
Bodie and Schalk was on when I come up in the 5th and Hill hollers to me and says I guess this is where I shoot one of them bean balls. I says Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you. You see what I was getting at Al. I was insinuateing that if he beaned me with his fast one I would not never know nothing about it if somebody did not tell me because his fast one is not fast enough to hurt nobody even if it should hit them in the head. So I says to him Go ahead and shoot and if you hit me in the head and I ever find it out I will write and tell your wife what happened to you. See, Al?
Thinking of Hill, the pitcher, trying to sort all of that out on the mound cracks me up.
Al ends up being a fascinating character in absentia, because you end up just itching to see the other side of the correspondence: does he realize what a jerk Jack is, even to him? Is he just that loyal, or is he as dumb as Jack (or dumber) to keep bailing him out with loans and running errands for him back in his hometown? Does he take offense to Jack’s apparently unintentional but really mean slights of Al’s wife Bertha, or not even notice them? I like to think of Al as the good angel to Jack’s bad: taking care of his family, loyal to his friends and teammates, overlooking the human foibles, errors, and monstrosities of his pal in favor of remembering good times they’d shared.
Lardner clearly knew baseball from his sports writing, and he doesn’t let management off altogether: Charles Comiskey, the real-life owner of the White Sox, is a character here, and is treated as no saint when it comes to taking advantage of the onerous contracts of the day. And in the end, when Jack is talked into an around-the-world tour of exhibition games with the White Sox for nothing but living expenses, we see the other side of the equation of Jack’s naivete and idiocy: businessmen taking advantage of it for material gain.
You Know Me Al has an infrequently cited subtitle: A Busher’s Letters. Partly I suppose this is a matter of branding, because the first section appeared in the Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Busher’s Letters Home” and subsequent chapters appeared as stories there, as well. But partly it’s Lardner’s sly dig at Jack Keefe, the titular busher (baseball slang: one who is or belongs in the bush, or minor, leagues). In terms of talent, Keefe turns out to have enough to win a lot of games for the White Sox (assisted, surely, by pitching during the end of the “dead ball” era when 1-0 scores were a regular occurrence) and back up his incessant braggadocio, which surprised me. But he’s forever a busher in his contempt for his teammates, his utter lack of self-awareness, his naive belief in his omnipotence and omniscience. He’s a rube, and an American archetype.
July 26, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau, translated by Barbara Wright.
Reading next: Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
Raymond Queneau is the reason I want to learn to read French. I will read anything he wrote. Coming across Witch Grass a few years ago was like finding an unexplored tropical island. (Of course, he’s a legend in Europe; so maybe it was more like a native of an unexplored tropical island discovering the existence of France.)
Loving Raymond Queneau means loving Barbara Wright, who translated much of his work into English. Translating Queneau, who thrives on puns, portmanteau words, idiomatic and colloquial expression, and literary allusion, is impossible in some respects (hence the desire to learn French). So Wright (who died earlier this year) is something more like a co-author, or adapter. Interestingly, she says in her introductions to both We Always Treat Women Too Well and Witch Grass that, with Queneau’s blessing, she would insert her own allusions to English literature and English idiomatic renderings to correspond to Queneau’s untranslatable French equivalents. Without looking at her papers (at Indiana’s Lilly Library), we can’t know what delightful quirks of language are hers and which Queneau’s. (Something to do if I ever find myself in Bloomington.)
All of that being said: what the hell is We Always Treat Women Too Well? Not having delved into 1940s French pornographic pulp fiction, I can only take the word of some person named Valerie Caton when, in the introduction, she insists that this work is only masquerading as pornography; that it is actually a parody of the kind of book published by Editions du Scorpion, and not itself pornography. Now, while there’s clearly a parody happening here, this is also fairly disingenuous, especially since the book was published under the pseudonym Sally Mara, by a publisher of “erotica” and straight-up porn. It was a joke, certainly, but a joke the original audience was not in on.
However, it is fairly amusing to imagine pervy French dudes trying to get their postwar jollies from this deeply weird book. Maybe the bar was just set really low for titillation; like I said, I just don’t have comparables here. (The book was not a success. Shocking!) There’s certainly kinky sex and gory violence and nymphomaniacal behavior; but there’s also typically Quenovian (?) etymological wordplay, hilariously tangled and repetitive dialogue, deliberate anachronism, philosophical subtext, scholarly footnotes by the book’s imaginary translator (from the imaginary English original of the imaginary Irish lass Sally Mann) Michel Presle, and, throughout, allusion and homage to and satire on Ulysses.
So, yes: the book is really a perverse joke, on many levels, and I can imagine Queneau making himself giggle throughout. He loved Joyce: it must’ve given him great delight to write the stream-of-consciousness monologues of Gertie Girdle, using the ladies’ room as Irish rebels take over the post office where she works, alluding to both Leopold Bloom’s own use of the w.c. and Molly Bloom’s grand soliloquy. And to give the subordinates of his band of IRA fighters names of tertiary Ulysses characters and/or similar alphabetic structure: Gallager, Kelleher, Callinan, Dillon, Caffrey (the consonant-vowel-double consonant pattern). And to make the rebels’ battle cry “Finnegan’s wake!” And to invert the repressed sexuality of Joyce’s Dublin, to give a crazy plot to the prurient urges of that book’s characters.
Valerie Caton argues in the introduction to this edition (the 1981 New Directions paperback) that Queneau intended the scenes of sex and violence to be “disquieting and absurd,” and that the book is an act of “literary sabotage” upon the fascism inherent in both black humor and pornography. Sure, if you’re reading it as pornography; if “disquieting” means you can’t get off. I’m sure it was an act of sabotage upon some of its initial readers. (In this sense, it’s kind of a book meant to be left unread: did Queneau really expect his porno readers would do anything but toss the book aside?) Maybe 60 extra years of hilarious violence and kinky sex both literary and cinematic have jaded me beyond the point of being “disquieted” on any deeper level by some s&m action (note the initials of Sally Mara). But the book also seems like a goof, plain and simple: “why not write a porno set in Joyce’s Dublin?” I can definitely say it’s the funniest book I’ve ever read that also features a coital dismembering.
April 12, 2009 § Leave a comment
Just finished: The Bible Salesman.
The first Flannery O’Connor story I ever read was “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” I was nineteen. It pretty much made my head explode. I’d also read King Lear around the same time, and I remember thinking about how the story reminded me of the play. That same angry comedy of horrors; a similar sense of staring into a void; in both, an existential struggle with God or our sense of him. The theatre of the absurd, on a country road, with a sociopath called the Misfit.
What’s “funny” in this story, as in much of her work, is rather savage and wicked. O’Connor had a sneer behind an awful lot of her laughs. Most of the comedic work is done by the two children, John Wesley and June Star, who are little caricatured monsters: reading their comic books, jaded and utterly bored with their world, they mock everything in sight. They only come alive when their car wrecks. “‘But nobody’s killed,’ June Star said with disappointment…” Their true kin is the Misfit, with his classic closing statement: “It’s no real pleasure in life.”
The Bible Salesman has given me a good reason to revisit this story, a source for Preston Clearwater, and “Good Country People,” a source for Henry Dampier (but which contributed to Clearwater, too, it would seem — there’s something of the Misfit in this story, too). To be honest, I’d forgotten all about “Good Country People,” which features a nihilistic Bible salesman who seduces a PhD in philosophy, only to steal the lonely woman’s wooden leg. (Well, when I put it that way, the story sounds completely insane, but it’s great.)
Henry in TBS is a nice inversion of Pointer, the Bible salesman in O’Connor’s story. While we start out with some doubts about Henry — he writes letters pretending to be a circuit preacher to get free Bibles which he then sells — he grows on us, and we see the goodness and sincerity mixed up with his attempt to make a few bucks. We also follow his struggles to make sense of some of the complications and confusions in the Bible, and his struggles with faith. On the other hand, Pointer (a pseudonym) begins with a measure of our trust, posing as a nice, naive young man, but he takes advantage of Joy’s own pose of worldly wisdom and existential ennui to allow her to think that she has seduced him. In the end, he says to her, “you ain’t so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!”
The comparison between the two is nicely encapsulated by Edgerton’s use of three of the important objects in O’Connor’s story. Pointer displays for Joy like “offerings at the shrine of a goddess” a dummy Bible hiding a whiskey flask, a deck of pornographic cards, and a box of condoms. The objects reveal his selfish nihilism, the dead end of humanity he represents for O’Connor. Henry also has a flask, an “exotic” deck, and some condoms — “preventatives,” he calls them. But they’ve lost their ugliness, and gained a context. We know that Henry is not posing as naive, but actually is: a virgin, curious, and young. The flask and condoms are used, lovingly, only after Henry has discovered in the Bible that extramarital sex is hardly the universally condemned sin his upbringing led him to believe: if it’s good enough for Abraham, why wouldn’t it be good enough for him?
Some of my favorite passages in this book are Henry’s attempts to read the Bible, baffled right off the bat at the contradictory accounts of the creation in Genesis. In the truly lovely epilogue of the book, he reads an updated American translation, and finds his way to an understanding and appreciation of key passages of Ecclesiastes and Psalm 23. It is not a stretch to call this understanding existential; and it seems to me to chart a middle path between the nihilism and uncompromising Christianity present in Flannery O’Connor’s work.
Henry’s sense of engagement, of wanting to understand something that does not make sense but which has always been presented to you as infallible truth (and which you, Henry, have yourself been presenting as the most important thing money can buy), also seems something of an attempt on Edgerton’s part to redeem the vapidity, materialism, and nihilism in O’Connor’s work — what she was bucking against with her stories in the ’50s. Perhaps there are good country people, after all.
April 11, 2009 § 1 Comment
Now reading: The Bible Salesman, by Clyde Edgerton.
Reading next: Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.
Here’s a koan for ya: is a story about a dead cat told in 2008 the same story it would’ve been in 1950?
I ask because there’s a story about a dead cat in The Bible Salesman — a very funny story, or more to the point, a tale, or a yarn. Without giving too much away, it involves the young protagonist, the Bible-selling naif Henry Dampier, finding himself trying to bury a soft-hearted housewife’s cat without her seeing the gruesome end to which it came. It is, at least so far, the most memorable scene in the book.
One way of answering this dead-cat-tale question is to ask whether you think a book set in 1950 but written in the 2000s could be the same as a book set in 1950 and written in 1950. I think most of us would agree that it could not: the context and the audience have changed drastically.
I wonder what this means for Southern humor, and for this book specifically. Comic writing is my favorite subgenre of the Southern tradition: Twain (if you consider him Southern), Portis, J. K. Toole, Flannery O’Connor, more recently Jack Pendarvis. Comedians of character, situation, and tone, usually in that order, with the exception of Pendarvis, who’s mostly a comedian of wordplay and surrealism.
(Wait: did I just call Flannery O’Connor a comic writer? I’m going to talk about O’Connor in my next post, since her works are the wellspring for this one — but yes, her works do have their own idiosyncratic humor.)
However, we associate the Southern school of humor most with the homespun yarn — the porch-rocking-chair story. The dead-cat story fits in very well in this tradition. I appreciate Edgerton maintaining that tradition in this book, which displays fascinating streaks of light (or at least light-seeming) comedy mingled with darker passages of religious and social thought. But I wonder if it is something of a museum piece — is it telling that the book is set in the 1930s to 1950s, and not in the present day? Is it possible for a work of dead-cat tales to be set in the present-day South? Is it, in a word, nostalgic?
I think there is something sweetly nostalgic about this book, although it’s too serious (and too well written) to dismiss it as nostalgia through and through. (Of course, there’s also something decidedly unsweet about works that look back and laugh on the Jim Crow era, although in Edgerton’s defense, it’s hardly fair to force every Southern book to be about racial discord, especially in books about the poor, white, rural South.) In interesting ways, the work discusses the encroachment of mass media, “progress,” and homogenized culture on the rural South — some of the same things that are very interesting undertones in O’Connor’s best stories. I wonder about “preservation” of regional culture in a region that has undergone such massive and ongoing development, has taken in so many new ethnic groups, has cultivated so many new industries.
Last week I attended the Conference on Southern Literature in Chattanooga, and many of these same thoughts went through my head. Everyone seems to be wondering whether there is a there in the South anymore: whether the designation “Southern” is still necessary to signify distinctive literary, popular, and social cultures. I guess I am just trying to figure out if there’s anything distinctively Southern in a writer like Pendarvis, with his gonzo narratives and sense of the humor of wacky narration — or whether “Southern” humor is now relegated to looking backward, to telling tales about a culture that used to be.
January 27, 2008 § 1 Comment
Shall be the title of my first album, should I magically become a musician.
Now reading: Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
About halfway through this book, and the title of this post is the line that made me laugh out loud on a flight from NYC in a plane full of grumpy New Yorkers. It’s a transcription of the beginning of a fake verse inserted as Ezekiel 48:5 by a disgruntled typesetter for “the London publishing firm Bilton and Scaggs” in 1651–thereafter known as the “Buggre Alle This Bible.” (It’s funny because it’s true: bibliographers and collectors do tend to refer to weird variants like this by whatever glaring error identifies the variant.)
What made me laugh out loud, I think, was the combination of archaic spelling and type (Gaiman and Pratchett insert the “f” for “s” in the appropriate places) with the anonymous typesetter’s old-timey insults. What is it about 17th-century spelling that makes the funny funnier? For some reason “Buggre Alle this” strikes me as much funnier than “Bugger all this.” Somehow it helps me imagine this young man longing to be outdoors, putting together his type in a fit of extended pique–then to imagine the look on Master Bilton’s face when confronted by the first angry buyer. It doesn’t hurt, I suppose, to imagine a dry British voice in your head while you’re reading, as I find myself doing throughout this book. I’ve seen Gaiman read in person and I find his voice creeping in during the funnier bits.