Dead Cat Tales

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.

Dogs and Souths

July 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Dog of the South.

There is, in fact, something named The Dog of the South in the book: it’s a bus, owned by Dr. Reo Symes, who was using it as both vehicle and home until it broke down. But it plays no large part, only showing up for a few pages before Reo and Ray leave it behind and head farther south. So why that title? What else could it mean? I think, at least in part, that it’s just a provocative, mellifluous title, but there may be something more, too.

There is a dog: Guy Dupree’s chow, whose fur Guy cuts with scissors to spare him the Belizean heat. Again, not a major concern of the book, although he’s good for a few laughs.

Of course, by “dog” we could also mean hangdog, or underdog, or dirty dog (see title of post before last). So it might be a reference to Dupree, who is something of a dog: he steals his friend’s wife, car, and credit cards, and seems more or less a horrible human being. I love this description of him by Ray: “…he would always say — boast, the way people do — that he had no head for figures and couldn’t do things with his hands, slyly suggesting the presence of finer qualities.” But Dupree has no finer qualities, unless his revolutionary scheme is somehow unexpectedly brilliant.

Or there’s Ray: you couldn’t call him an underdog, since he’s a rich man’s son, but he does seem to match that phrase “beaten like a dog,” he follows the trail of Guy and Norma like a bloodhound (not a terribly skillful one, but nevertheless), and at the end he shows a dog’s persistence and loyalty, forgetting his car and nursing Norma back to health.

The “South” seems more straightforward, but there’s some complexity here, as well. The book starts in one South — the American — and ends in another — the Southern hemisphere, as well as what’s come to be known as the “global South.”

But do we ever really leave the American South? It pervades the book in interesting ways. Ray, we learn, “studied the Western campaigns of the Civil War under Dr. Buddy Casey” at Ole Miss. This, and the tapes of Casey’s lectures that Ray liked to listen to, become something of a running gag. The South’s Christianity follows Ray down to Belize: he himself is disinterested, it would seem, but Mrs. Symes insists on evangelizing to him, pestering him about the metaphysical questions he otherwise steadfastly avoids, preferring discussions of his rickety car. And then there are the natives in Belize, the blacks and Indians Ray meets.

The movie house in Belize shows a film of a Muhammad Ali fight, and the next day Ray finds his young aide-de-camp, Webster Spooner, “dancing around the tomato plant and jabbing the air with his tiny fists”:

“I’m one bad-ass nigger,” he said to me.

“No, you’re not.”

“I’m one bad-ass nigger.”

“No, you’re not.”

He was laughing and laying about with his fists. Biff Spooner! Scipio Africanus! I had to wait until his comic frenzy was spent.

When Ray finally finds Dupree, he says, “This is not much of a place…. I was expecting a big plantation. Where are the people who do the work?” (The people who do the work, it turns out, have absconded, shooting the cows on their way out.)

It’s subtle, but it seems to be there, in this and other places: this is a much more Southern book than it first seems, a thoroughly Southern comedy. And I think Portis sees some interesting connections between the South and the south below the South.

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.

Obscure Mythology

March 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.

Of course there’s no such single thing as “Southern literature.” It’s silly to think so. But the term exists to be defined by writers like Welty; she’s one of the handful of names you’d think of in connection to it.

“June Recital,” a chapter/story in The Golden Apples, is willfully confusing, dense, allusive, tragic, and obscure. It’s a humid story. It feels like it’s been infected by the fever of the boy Loch Morrison, one of its two perspective-points (along with his sister, Cassie). Although no Southern narrative should be cursed with such cliche, it is, I am afraid, Faulknerian.

There’s the mysterious, serpentine path of the narrative, the way that the perspectives taken and the things they see seem somewhat random at first, working themselves out through the course of the story until they (maybe) make sense. So here we start with Loch, in bed, looking at the “vacant” house next door, and what he sees there is presented in a way that makes you wonder whether it’s a fever dream or actually happening: the house it called vacant, it is beautifully described as blending into its foliage, becoming part of the landscape, and yet there are hints that someone lives (or at least crashes) there, and we see two young people go in and start fooling around, and then a mysterious older woman goes in and starts putting up decorations made of newspapers, and then Fur Elise gets played on the piano. And Loch’s got his own impression of what’s going on, and it’s couched in a boy’s love of mystery and adventure and action (he wonders if the old woman is going to blow the house up).

Then we switch to Cassie, and her flashbacks to piano lessons with Miss Eckhart explain things as they are, we guess. Miss Eckhart is a strange German woman, who lives in the house (which used to be the MacLain house, the town’s nobility) with her elderly mother. Miss Eckhart, it seems, is now deranged. She had loved giving lessons to Virgie Rainey, who plays beautifully. Now, years later, Virgie the teenager is upstairs in the “vacant” house with a sailor, and Miss Eckhart is downstairs playing the piano and setting things up to burn the house down, which seems awfully convenient.

But then, myths often are, in that convenience is sometimes nothing more than fate revealing itself. (And one of the characters here is named Fate, by the way.) There seem to be echoes of the Arachne myth here, alluded to (perhaps?) by the tie-dying into the pattern of webs that Cassie’s doing to a handkerchief as she remembers her lessons, and in that Virgie seems to challenge her stern teacher and Miss Eckhart, just once, plays a grand, masterful, romantic piece for them one day when it’s storming outside. And the myth of Circe and Odysseus, as well, in more obscure ways: Miss Eckhart is explicitly compared to Circe. And Miss Eckhart’s ambition seems to be to keep Virgie with her, playing the piano for her in Morgana, as Circe longs to keep Odysseus forever. But then, in another possible allusion, King MacLain, the Zeus- and Odysseus-like serial fornicator, comes home after Eckhart’s attempted arson has failed, and sees her, and denies he knew her, and there seems to be something there as well. (But then, there’s also the way that Miss Eckhart’s hair catches fire, and this seems something like the scorn of Dido for Aeneas’s rejection of her, too.)

Maybe it’s obvious that Welty is not Joyce: there’s no one-to-one mythological resetting here, there is a web of meanings and significances. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve understood “June Recital.” I suspect this is one of the key passages:

…People saw things like this as they saw Mr. MacLain come and go. They only hoped to place them, in their hour or their street or the name of their mothers’ people. Then Morgana could hold them, and at last they were this and they were that. And when ruin was predicted all along, even if people had forgotten it was on the way, even if they mightn’t have missed it if it hadn’t happened, still they were never surprised when it came.

It’s this placing of people that King MacLain, especially, seems to escape. And it’s what is escaped, as well, through the flights that Miss Eckhart and Virgie both take in their music. The perspectives of Cassie and Loch fit in here: Cassie getting ready for a hay ride that night, full of pubescent sexual intrigue, and Loch just beginning to be curious about such things, watching Virgie and her sailor excitedly. Later that night, after the hay ride, Cassie thinks of when Virgie and Miss Eckhart passed each other after they’ve left the house, and how they didn’t say a word to each other:

Both Miss Eckhart and Virgie Rainey were human beings terribly at large, roaming on the face of the earth. And there were others of them — human beings, roaming, like lost beasts.

The story’s difficult and complicated, in that necessarily unnecessary way that I, for one, think of as Southern. Mythology can be this way too, although it tends to have at least a superficial clarity: it’s only when you get below the surface that things get murky.

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