It was September now, a season of rains. The gray sky above the city washed with darker scud like ink curling in a squid’s wake. The blacks can see the boy’s fire at night and glimpses of his veering silhouette slotted in the high nave, outsized among the arches. All night a ruby glow suffuses the underbridge from his garish chancel lamps. The city’s bridges all betrolled now what with old ventriloquists and young melonfanciers. The smoke from their fires issues up unseen among the soot and dust of the city’s right commerce.
Sometimes in the evening Suttree would bring beers and they’d sit there under the viaduct and drink them. Harrogate with questions of city life.
You ever get so drunk you kissed a nigger?
Suttree looked at him. Harrogate with one eye narrowed on him to tell the truth. I’ve been a whole lot drunker than that, he said.
Worst thing I ever done was to burn down old lady Arwood’s house.”
“You burned down an old lady’s house?
Like to of burnt her down in it. I was put up to it. I wasnt but ten year old.
Not old enough to know what you were doing.
Yeah.–Hell no that’s a lie. I knowed it and done it anyways.
Did it burn completely down?
Plumb to the ground. Left the chimbley standin was all. It burnt for a long time fore she come out.
Did you not know she was in there?
I disremember. I dont know what I was thinkin. She come out and run to the well and drawed a bucket of water and thowed it at the side of the house and then just walked on off towards the road. I never got such a whippin in my life. The old man like to of killed me.
Yeah. He was alive then. My sister told them deputies when they come out to the house, they come out there to tell her I was in the hospital over them watermelons, she told em I didnt have no daddy was how come I got in trouble. But shit fire I was mean when I did have one. It didnt make no difference.
Were you sorry about it? The old lady’s house I mean.
Sorry I got caught.
Suttree nodded and tilted his beer. It occurred to him that other than the melon caper he’d never heard the city rat tell anything but naked truth.
Another vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—a transition scene perhaps, but one that draws Suttree and Harrogate closer, even as it underlines their differences.
In my review of Suttree a few years back, I argued that the novel is a grand synthesis of American literature, brimming with literary allusions. I singled out Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” as the basis for a later scene with Harrogate, so I can’t help but think of Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” here.
September 1st.–Last evening, during a walk, Graylock and the whole of Saddleback were at first imbued with a mild, half-sunshiny tinge, then grew almost black,–a huge, dark mass lying on the back of the earth and encumbering it. Stretching up from behind the black mountain, over a third or more of the sky, there was a heavy, sombre blue heap or ledge of clouds, looking almost as solid as rocks. The volumes of which it was composed were perceptible by translucent lines and fissures; but the mass, as a whole, seemed as solid, bulky, and ponderous in the cloud-world as the mountain was on earth. The mountain and cloud together had an indescribably stern and majestic aspect. Beneath this heavy cloud, there was a fleet or flock of light, vapory mists, flitting in middle air; and these were tinted, from the vanished sun, with the most gorgeous and living purple that can be conceived,–a fringe upon the stern blue. In the opposite quarter of the heavens, a rose-light was reflected, whence I know not, which colored the clouds around the moon, then well above the horizon, so that the nearly round and silver moon appeared strangely among roseate clouds,–sometimes half obscured by them.
A man with a smart horse, upon which the landlord makes laudatory remarks. He replies that he has “a better at home.” Dressed in a brown, bright-buttoned coat, smartly cut. He immediately becomes familiar, and begins to talk of the license law, and other similar topics, making himself at home, as one who, being much of his time upon the road, finds himself at ease at any tavern. He inquired after a stage agent, named Brigham, who formerly resided here, but nowhas gone to the West. He himself was probably a horse-jockey.
An old lady, stopping here over the Sabbath, waiting for to-morrow’s stage for Greenfield, having been deceived by the idea that she could proceed on her journey without delay. Quiet, making herself comfortable, taken into the society of the women of the house.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s journal entry for September 1st, 1838. From Passages from the American Note-Books.
“There is a wild beast in your woods,” said the artist Cunningham, as he was being driven to the station. It was the only remark he had made during the drive, but as Van Cheele had talked incessantly his companion’s silence had not been noticeable.
“A stray fox or two and some resident weasels. Nothing more formidable,” said Van Cheele. The artist said nothing.
“What did you mean about a wild beast?” said Van Cheele later, when they were on the platform.
“Nothing. My imagination. Here is the train,” said Cunningham.
That afternoon Van Cheele went for one of his frequent rambles through his woodland property. He had a stuffed bittern in his study, and knew the names of quite a number of wild flowers, so his aunt had possibly some justification in describing him as a great naturalist. At any rate, he was a great walker. It was his custom to take mental notes of everything he saw during his walks, not so much for the purpose of assisting contemporary science as to provide topics for conversation afterwards. When the bluebells began to show themselves in flower he made a point of informing every one of the fact; the season of the year might have warned his hearers of the likelihood of such an occurrence, but at least they felt that he was being absolutely frank with them.
What Van Cheele saw on this particular afternoon was, however, something far removed from his ordinary range of experience. On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness. It was an unexpected apparition, and Van Cheele found himself engaged in the novel process of thinking before he spoke. Where on earth could this wild-looking boy hail from? The miller’s wife had lost a child some two months ago, supposed to have been swept away by the mill-race, but that had been a mere baby, not a half-grown lad. Continue reading ““Gabriel-Ernest” — Saki”
I don’t like August and I’m glad it’s over.
I only wrote a few riffs and reviews in August, failing to write at length about Gordon Lish’s Cess and Victor Hussenot’s The Spectators and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Also: Neal Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age, which I audited the audiobook of—great stuff, a novel that posits the book as a primary and insuperable technology. And some films too—Michael Mann’s Thief (amazing); Quest for Fire (why were the Baby Boomers so obsessed with cave people?); Ex Machina (a well-acted design-porn riff on Bluebeard that has no real ideas about its central theme, human consciousness).
I also watched and loved and didn’t write about the second season finale of True Detective—loved it—a tragic hyperbole, a big exclamation point, a sympathetic punchline to the season’s paternal anxieties. I found the final shot unexpectedly moving—the season’s female leads moving through the traffic of humanity, strapped with a child, knives, the future.
I riffed on season 2 of True Detective, arguing for its merits as a neon noir satire.
Ryan Chang and I talked about New American Stories, an anthology edited by Ben Marcus. We riffed on the selections, scope, and the first story, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Paranoia.”
I wrote a barely-coherent, probably incoherent review of Philip K. Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip. The sub(or is it super?)text of the review is that I am a Permanently Paranoid American.
I also wound up writing a bit on Paul Kirchner’s trip strip The Bus yesterday. For years now, I’ve run some kind of regular Sunday post to anchor the site—it was death masks for a while, book shelves after…maybe something else I’m forgetting now (?)—but running The Bus was the most fun I had.
I’m not sure what I’ll run this Sunday for a new series, but something serialish so…
Promised octopus, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi—