On Virginia Woolf’s Favorite Baseball Book

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.

In the John with the Mother of Mexican Poetry

May 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives.

My favorite section of this book so far is the monologue/testimony of Auxilio Lacouture, self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican poetry.”  Like most of the characters, Auxilio is apparently based on a real person, and the remarkable event in the chapter also seems to be reality-based (if not “real,” exactly).

It’s the best illustration yet that DFW was right in thinking that bathrooms are “places of mortal drama.”  (He was talking about men’s rooms, but presumably that’s all he knew, right?  I think we’re justified in extending his aphorism to the ladies’.)  Auxilio’s predilection for reading poetry in the ladies’ room in the Faculty of Literature at her Mexico City university leads to her being overlooked in the governmental massacre and takeover of the university; she spends ten days in the restroom, in a small but important act of protest — becoming “UNAM’s last redoubt of autonomy.”

Bolaño has told Auxilio’s story in more detail in Amulet.  Here, she’s given a ten-page, one-paragraph monologue, as she revisits passages of her life by revisiting her residency on the ladies’ room floor.  It’s full of fascinating things, including Auxilio’s relationship with Arturo Belano (Roberto B’s fictional alter ego), her status as both insider and outsider in Mexico, the drama of staying alive by eating toilet paper and drinking water (and writing poetry on toilet paper, and dreaming, and crying, and remembering).  Here’s one of my favorite passages, when she realizes what has happened:

So I went over to the only window in the bathroom and looked out.  I saw a soldier far off in the distance.  I saw the outline of an armored troop carrier or the shadow of an armored troop carrier.  Like the portico of Latin literature, the portico of Greek literature.  Oh, I adore Greek literature, from Pindar to George Seferis.  I saw the wind sweeping the university as if it was delighting in the last light of day.  And I knew what I had to do.  I knew.  I knew I had to resist.  So I sat on the tiled floor of the women’s bathroom and in the last rays of light I read three more poems by Pedro Garfias and then I closed the book and closed my eyes and said to myself: Auxilio Lacouture, citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.

This is a good passage to illustrate Bolano’s style: the deceptively straightforward sentences that suddenly drop into a kind of cryptic code (an “armored troop carrier” is like “the portico of Latin literature” how?), the boring factual monotone that suddenly spikes into moments of beautiful clarity and purpose, of perfect pacing (“citizen of Uruguay, Latin American, poet and traveler, stand your ground.  That was all.”), the emphasis on finding voice without idiosyncratic tics or tricks.

In fact, I think one of the most remarkable things about this book  is how Bolaño dares you to be bored — perhaps dares himself, too.  As a writer, it is remarkably hard to be content with a boring sentence; it is hard to move from sentence to sentence without trying to be beautiful or showy.  Obvious but frequently overlooked: writing boring sentences is boring, and boring is not easy.  Boring is hard.  (Personally, I’ve always had the most trouble writing the most basic transitional elements; those utilitarian sentences to move characters from one place to another, from one scene to another.  They’re just so damn boring to write!  I always fall into the temptation of thinking that they must be boring for the reader, too.)  Bolaño almost never succumbs to the temptation to be beautiful — when he does, it’s because the voice he’s taken on would see fit to do so, and he is, after all, talking about poets.  He lets the thread of his narrative pull the reader along, slowly and intermittently letting insights dawn on the reader.

The “And but so”

September 20, 2008 § 7 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

Google “and but so” and you get over 200,000 hits.  As in any Google search for something not a salable product, most of it is coincidental or indecipherable junk.  Of the first 100 hits, the vast majority of comprehensible sites are instructions for using conjunctions, and reviews of, excerpts from, and parodies of David Foster Wallace.

On the basic, sentence-by-sentence level, it’s kind of his trademark — what he’s known for.  And I think it’s most prevalent in IJ, although it pops up everywhere.  Most writers don’t have any sort of grammatical or syntactical trademark, simply because their goal is writing transparent prose.  This was not DFW’s goal, although I think he comes closest to writing transparently in this book.  (Of course, it was not Hemingway’s goal either, whatever he might have thought about it.  There are all kinds of self-conscious writing.)

DFW was obsessed with grammar, usage, sentence structure.  It was more or less second nature to him.  A lot of those pages I mentioned above dismiss “and but so” as a tic, an annoyance, or an affectation.  But I think, given his level of attention to and control of the building blocks of his work, that it behooves us to think about it when he chooses heterodoxy.  Why “and but so”? And, although I probably won’t get into it too much, why “like,” which he also uses selectively?

FIrst of all, it’s important to note that it is “and but so,” not “and, but, so.”  It’s not bifurcated in meaning, as in something like “And, but so many of us can go to the pool.”  It is a kind of unit, and perhaps in time it’ll become “andbutso,” like “insofar.”  DFW breaks it up (“but so,” “and so but,” etc.), with meaning sometimes importantly varying (see p. 77 of my 1996 Little, Brown first paperback, Kate Gompert explaining her condition — another absolutely great and heartbreaking section: ‘”And so,’ she said, ‘but then I quit.'”), but I think that it mostly indicates exactly what it should indicate: the sentence or clause it introduces is, or could be, or seems to be (probably most often the second or third) an extension of, potential contradiction of, and logical conclusion to the preceding.

Now, it’s used in dialogue, in internal monologue or ventriloquized thought, and in narrative exposition (these last two being extremely tricky to separate and define, in IJ).  I suspect, therefore, that DFW heard it in actual usage and did not simply concoct it one day in grad school as a writerly trademark, which seems to be how some of his detractors view it.  I suspect this because DFW was one of our great writers of voice and dialogue, an unjustly overlooked aspect of his work.  I’m talking about verisimilitude, not content, here.  He got phrasing, pacing, tone, and the translation of all of that into typographic symbol just right, when he wanted to, which is almost all of the time in this book.  And he would not use “and but so” in dialogue if he hadn’t heard it.  And I think he’s right; if you listen, I think you’ll hear it more than you think.

Like “like,” the verisimilitude is part of the point.  DFW’s passion for rhetoric wouldn’t allow him to write exclusively prescriptively, and we’ve already had sections of transcribed dialect and jargon.  But he also uses these words because they’re useful, and they do things efficiently that his language could not otherwise do.  (In the case of “like,” there may be a degree of having heard roughly three trillion times from older, prescriptive people how disgusting and pointless and apocalyptic its usage is for the language, and thumbing his nose at that by showing how it is used and useful, as a placeholder while thought takes place or attempts to transform itself into spoken word, or, in “they’re like,” as a casual substitute for “they thought/said/indicated,” or as a carrier of tone, although that tone is typically dismissal, condescension, or indifference, which, granted, were mostly the things DFW was fighting against in his writing.)  By and large, “and but so” is a moment of internal conflict.  It reveals confusion.  It’s a false start of language.  People aren’t quite sure what they mean, and what they meant, but they are obliged to explain.  Using it in a belletristic novel points out how difficult it is for one to know even one’s own motivations and tendencies, much less those of another, much less those of an entire cast of characters (or, in a more day-to-day sense, a whole family, a whole class of students, a whole office). Like a lot of DFW’s writing, “and but so” reveals the anxiety of being human with other humans.  It’s hard to explain something important to yourself or to someone else, hard to get it right, and for all the words he used DFW was always pointing out how the words were not quite right, or not quite enough.

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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