A review of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, Ishmael Reed’s syncretic Neo-HooDoo revenge Western

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Ishmael Reed’s second novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down tells the story of the Loop Garoo Kid, a “desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.”

The novel explodes in kaleidoscopic bursts as Reed dices up three centuries of American history to riff on race, religion, sex, and power. Unstuck in time and unhampered by geographic or technological restraint, historical figures like Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, John Wesley Harding, Groucho Marx, and Pope Innocent (never mind which one) wander in and out of the narrative, supplementing its ironic allegorical heft. These minor characters are part of Reed’s Neo-HooDoo spell, ingredients in a Western revenge story that is simultaneously comic and apocalyptic in its howl against the dominant historical American narrative. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is a strange and marvelous novel, at once slapstick and deadly serious, exuberant in its joy and harsh in its bitterness, close to 50 years after its publication, as timely as ever.

After the breathless introduction of its hero the Loop Garoo Kid, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down initiates its plot. Loop’s circus troupe arrives to the titular city Yellow Back Radio (the “nearest town Video Junction is about fifty miles away”), only to find that the children of the town, “dressed in the attire of the Plains Indians,” have deposed the adults:

We chased them out of town. We were tired of them ordering us around. They worked us day and night in the mines, made us herd animals harvest the crops and for three hours a day we went to school to hear teachers praise the old. Made us learn facts by rote. Lies really bent upon making us behave. We decided to create our own fiction.

The children’s revolutionary, anarchic spirit drives Reed’s own fiction, which counters all those old lies the old people use to make us behave.

Of course the old—the adults—want “their” land back. Enter that most powerful of cattlemen, Drag Gibson, who plans to wrest the land away from everyone for himself. We first meet Drag “at his usual hobby, embracing his property.” Drag’s favorite property is a green mustang,

a symbol for all his streams of fish, his herds, his fruit so large they weighed down the mountains, black gold and diamonds which lay in untapped fields, and his barnyard overflowing with robust and erotic fowl.

Drag loves to French kiss the horse, we’re told. Oh, and lest you wonder if “green” here is a metaphor for, like, new, or inexperienced, or callow: No. The horse is literally green (“turned green from old nightmares”). That’s the wonderful surreal logic of Reed’s vibrant Western, and such details (the novel is crammed with them) make Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down a joy to read.

Where was I? Oh yes, Drag Gibson.

Drag—allegorical stand-in for Manifest Destiny, white privilege, capitalist expansion, you name it—Drag, in the process of trying to clear the kids out of Yellow Back Radio, orders all of Loop’s troupe slaughtered.

The massacre sets in motion Loop’s revenge on Drag (and white supremacy in general), which unfolds in a bitter blazing series of japes, riffs, rants, and gags. (“Unfolds” is the wrong verb—too neat. The action in Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is more like the springing of a Jack-in-the-box).

Loop goes about obtaining his revenge via his NeoHooDoo practices. He calls out curses and hexes, summoning loas in a lengthy prayer. Loop’s spell culminates in a call that goes beyond an immediate revenge on Drag and his henchmen, a call that moves toward a retribution for black culture in general:

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

So much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is turning all experience into art. Reed spins multivalent cultural material into something new, something arguably American. The title of the novel suggests its program: a breaking-down of yellowed paperback narratives, a breaking-down of radio signals. Significantly, that analysis, that break-down, is also synthesized in this novel into something wholly original. Rhetorically, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down evokes flipping through paperbacks at random, making a new narrative; or scrolling up and down a radio dial, making new music from random bursts of sound; or rifling through a stack of manic Sunday funnies to make a new, somehow more vibrant collage.

Perhaps the Pope puts it best when he arrives late in the novel. (Ostensibly, the Pope shows up to put an end to Loop’s hexing and vexing of the adult citizenry—but let’s just say the two Holy Men have a deeper, older relationship). After a lengthy disquisition on the history of hoodoo and its genesis in the Voudon religion of Africa (“that strange continent which serves as the subconscious of our planet…shaped so like the human skull”), the Pope declares that “Loop Garoo seems to be practicing a syncretistic American version” of the old Ju Ju. The Pope continues:

Loop seems to be scatting arbitrarily, using forms of this and that and adding his own. He’s blowing like that celebrated musician Charles Yardbird Parker—improvising as he goes along. He’s throwing clusters of demon chords at you and you don’t know the changes, do you Mr. Drag?

The Pope here describes Reed’s style too, of course (which is to say that Reed is describing his own style, via one of his characters. The purest postmodernism). The apparent effortlessness of Reed’s improvisations—the prose’s sheer manic energy—actually camouflages a tight and precise plot. I was struck by how much of Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down’s apparent anarchy resolves into a bigger picture upon a second reading.

That simultaneous effortlessness and precision makes Reed’s novel a joy to jaunt through. Here is a writer taking what he wants from any number of literary and artistic traditions while dispensing with the forms and tropes he doesn’t want and doesn’t need. If Reed wants to riff on the historical relations between Indians and African-Americans, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to assess the relative values of Thomas Jefferson as a progressive figure, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to attack his neo-social realist critics, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to critique the relationship between militarism and science, he’ll do that. If Reed wants to tell some really dirty jokes about a threesome, he’ll do that. And you can bet if he wants some ass-kicking Amazons to show up at some point, they’re gonna show.

And it’s a great show. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down begins with the slaughter of a circus troupe before we get to see their act. The real circus act is the novel itself, filled with orators and showmen, carnival barkers and con-artists, pistoleers and magicians. There’s a manic glee to it all, a glee tempered in anger—think of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, or Thomas Pynchon’s zany rage, or Robert Downey Sr.’s satirical film Putney Swope.

Through all its anger, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down nevertheless repeatedly affirms the possibility of imagination and creation—both as cures and as hexes. We have here a tale of defensive and retaliatory magic. Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down is the third novel of Reed’s novels I’ve read (after Mumbo Jumbo and The Free-Lance Pallbearers), and my favorite thus far. Frankly, I needed the novel right now in a way that I didn’t know that I needed it until I read it; the contemporary novel I tried to read after it felt stale and boring. So I read Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down again. The great gift here is that Reed’s novel answers to the final line of Loop’s prayer to the Loa: “Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.” Like the children of Yellow Back Radio, Reed creates his own fiction, and invites us to do the same. Very highly recommended.

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Map of Days (Beautiful book acquired, 2.04.2017)

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Robert Hunter’s graphic novel Map of Days is new from Nobrow. It’s gorgeous.

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I’ll write a proper review soon, but for now, here’s Nobrow’s blurb:

Richard can’t stop thinking about the clock. He lies in bed each night listening to its tick-tocking, to the pendulum’s heavy swing. Why does his grandfather open its old doors in secret and walk into the darkness beyond?

One night, too inquisitive to sleep, Richard tiptoes from his bed, opens the cherry wood door of the grandfather clock, and steps inside. There, in a strange twilight, he sees the Face the Earth, locked forever in a simulated world, where green things seem to grow in the semblance of trees and plants, from unreal soil…

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A review of Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

Read Robert Louis Stevenson’s weird fable “The Yellow Paint”

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Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, John Singer Sargent, 1885

“The Yellow Paint”

by

Robert Louis Stevenson


In a certain city there lived a physician who sold yellow paint. This was of so singular a virtue that whoso was bedaubed with it from head to heel was set free from the dangers of life, and the bondage of sin, and the fear of death for ever. So the physician said in his prospectus; and so said all the citizens in the city; and there was nothing more urgent in men’s hearts than to be properly painted themselves, and nothing they took more delight in than to see others painted. There was in the same city a young man of a very good family but of a somewhat reckless life, who had reached the age of manhood, and would have nothing to say to the paint: “Tomorrow was soon enough,” said he; and when the morrow came he would still put it off. He could have continued to do until his death; only, he had a friend of about his own age and much of his own manners; and this youth, taking a walk in the public street, with not one fleck of paint upon his body, was suddenly run down by a water-cart and cut off in the heyday of his nakedness. This shook the other to the soul; so that I never beheld a man more earnest to be painted; and on the very same evening, in the presence of all his family, to appropriate music, and himself weeping aloud, he received three complete coats and a touch of varnish on the top. The physician (who was himself affected even to tears) protested he had never done a job so thorough.

Some two months afterwards, the young man was carried on a stretcher to the physician’s house.

“What is the meaning of this?” he cried, as soon as the door was opened. “I was to be set free from all the dangers of life; and here have I been run down by that self-same water-cart, and my leg is broken.”

“Dear me!” said the physician. “This is very sad. But I perceive I must explain to you the action of my paint. A broken bone is a mighty small affair at the worst of it; and it belongs to a class of accident to which my paint is quite inapplicable. Sin, my dear young friend, sin is the sole calamity that a wise man should apprehend; it is against sin that I have fitted you out; and when you come to be tempted, you will give me news of my paint.”

“Oh!” said the young man, “I did not understand that, and it seems rather disappointing. But I have no doubt all is for the best; and in the meanwhile, I shall be obliged to you if you will set my leg.”

“That is none of my business,” said the physician; “but if your bearers will carry you round the corner to the surgeon’s, I feel sure he will afford relief.”

Some three years later, the young man came running to the physician’s house in a great perturbation. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried. “Here was I to be set free from the bondage of sin; and I have just committed forgery, arson and murder.”

“Dear me,” said the physician. “This is very serious. Off with your clothes at once.” And as soon as the young man had stripped, he examined him from head to foot. “No,” he cried with great relief, “there is not a flake broken. Cheer up, my young friend, your paint is as good as new.”

“Good God!” cried the young man, “and what then can be the use of it?”

“Why,” said the physician, “I perceive I must explain to you the nature of the action of my paint. It does not exactly prevent sin; it extenuates instead the painful consequences. It is not so much for this world, as for the next; it is not against life; in short, it is against death that I have fitted you out. And when you come to die, you will give me news of my paint.”

“Oh!” cried the young man, “I had not understood that, and it seems a little disappointing. But there is no doubt all is for the best: and in the meanwhile, I shall be obliged if you will help me to undo the evil I have brought on innocent persons.”

 

“That is none of my business,” said the physician; “but if you will go round the corner to the police office, I feel sure it will afford you relief to give yourself up.”

Six weeks later, the physician was called to the town gaol.

“What is the meaning of this?” cried the young man. “Here am I literally crusted with your paint; and I have broken my leg, and committed all the crimes in the calendar, and must be hanged tomorrow; and am in the meanwhile in a fear so extreme that I lack words to picture it.”

“Dear me,” said the physician. “This is really amazing. Well, well; perhaps, if you had not been painted, you would have been more frightened still.”

“The Scorpion,” a strange fable by Paul Bowles

“The Scorpion”

by

Paul Bowles


An old woman lived in a cave which her sons had hollowed out of a clay cliff near a spring before they went away to the town where many people live. She was neither happy nor unhappy to be there, because she knew that the end of life was near and that her sons would not be likely to return no matter what the season. In the town there are always many things to do, and they would be doing them, not caring to remember the time when they had lived in the hills looking after the old woman.

At the entrance to the cave at certain times of the year there was a curtain of water-drops through which the old woman had to pass to get inside. The water rolled down the bank from the plants above and dripped onto the clay below. So the old woman accustomed herself to sitting crouched in the cave for long periods of time in order to keep as dry as possible. Outside through the moving beads of water she saw the bare earth lighted by the gray sky, and sometimes large dry leaves went past, pushed by the wind that came from higher parts of the land. Inside where she was the light was pleasant and of a pink color from the clay all around.

A few people used to pass from time to time along the path not far away, and because there was a spring nearby, those travelers who knew that it existed but not just where it was would sometimes come near to the cave before they discovered that the spring was not there. The old woman would never call to them. She would merely watch them as they came near and suddenly saw her. Then she would go on watching as they turned back and went in other directions looking for the water to drink.

There were many things about this life that the old woman liked. She was no longer obliged to argue and fight with her sons to make them carry wood to the charcoal oven. She was free to move about at night and look for food. She could eat everything she found without having to share it. And she owed no one any debt of thanks for the things she had in her life. Continue reading ““The Scorpion,” a strange fable by Paul Bowles”

FALLOUT PROTECTION FOR…

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My wife’s grandmother recently passed away and my wife took a bunch of her old photos and papers, including this DOD pamphlet from 1966. The scan above is the back cover/front cover. Here’s the first inside page, with a cheerful note from LBJ:

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Here’s my favorite section:

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Huck — Eli Gabriel Halpern

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Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art (Ishmael Reed)

I the Father which wert in heaven conjure and command thee

O Legba master of the crossroads to connect this cowboy’s circuit to Guinea and summon forth:

Cousin Zaka who will parch their fields and slaughter their livestock and make their herd winding up the Chisholm stumble into a Twilight Zone

O Gu rust their fire firearms and cause their horseshoes to slip off the animals’ hooves

O Judas Iscariot who ratted on the Ghoul give me the treachery to turn this town upside down and spill evil from all its pockets

O Jack Johnson give me the power to rise for the bell until Yellow Back Radio is down for the count

O Doc John, Doc Yah Yah and Zozo Labrique Marie Laveau the Grand Improvisers if I am not performing these rites correctly send the Loa anyway and allow my imagination to fill the gaps

O Mack Hopson blood of my blood teach me the secret of the 12 rabbits and the cheesecake

O Baron-La-Croix grip Drag Gibson so that every other day last rites will be requested

O Johnny of the delicate feet

Red-Eyed Ezili

Marinette of the dry arm send the dead swiftly to make my vengeance so complete and artsy craftsy that I though an amateur will be admired by houngans the world over

O General Dig, bury Drag Gibson in the stomach of swines next to George allace

O Black Hawk American Indian houngan of Hoo-Doo please do open up some of these prissy orthodox minds so that they will no longer call Black People’s American experience “corrupt” “perverse” and “decadent.” Please show them that Booker T and MG’s, Etta James, Johnny Ace and Bojangle tapdancing is just as beautiful as anything that happened anywhere else in the world. Teach them that anywhere people go they have experience and that all experience is art.

A hoo doo spell/curse/prayer from Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.

Le Guin/Abish/Farber (Books 2.03.2017)

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I picked up this handsome hardback collection of early Ursula K. LeGuin stories last Friday when I went to my local used bookshop. I was there looking for something else.

I wasn’t looking for stories by Walter Abish (and I can’t remember how or why I picked this up, but I read part of it in the store…I mean I can’t recall why I was in the “A’s” for Atwood or Abish):

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And I wasn’t looking for essays by Jerry Farber (this weird mass market paperback was crammed into a completely wrong section—misshelved as if someone was trying to hide it. The font on the spine prompted me to pull it out, and I knew that the guy had written “The Student as Nigger”….I started reading “Why People Love Capitalism” and decided to pick it up):

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What I was looking for was Paul Bowles’s novel The Sheltering Sky, which is prominent on my to-read list after devouring The Stories of Paul Bowles. But I simply couldn’t come to terms with these covers:

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I mean, look, I know I shouldn’t care about the cover, but these are dreadful, and it this point if I’m going to own a paper book, it needs to have some aesthetic merit. Aesthetic merit like the cover for this collection:

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(I didn’t pick it up because the seven stories are in The Stories of Paul Bowles).

A last thought on covers:

“There’s quite a bit of schmaltz in Lincoln in the Bardo.”

Caleb Crain reviews George Saunders’s first novel Lincoln in the Bardo

First paragraph:

George Saunders’s new novel—his first, after four collections of short stories and a novella—takes place in the afterlife. Or rather, it takes place in the “bardo,” a term that Saunders has borrowed from Buddhism for what might be called the “justafterlife”—the interval between a ghost’s separation from its body and its departure for whatever comes next. As in The Sixth Sense and other movies and television shows, the ghosts imagined by Saunders linger in our world because they either don’t know they’re dead or aren’t yet resigned to leaving. “You are a wave that has crashed upon the shore,” they are told by browbeating angels who visit intermittently, but they refuse to listen.

Crain doesn’t exactly eviscerate Lincoln in the Bardo in his review (which also situates the novel in context with Saunders’s previous stories and essays), but he does make a strong case for passing on it.

A review of Robert Coover’s excellent new novel Huck Out West

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In the final lines of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our narrator-hero declares: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

We have here the signal trope of so much American literature—escape. Escape into the wild, the unknown, the expanse: the Territory. Ishmael goes to sea, Young Goodman Brown wanders into the woods, Rip Van Winkle retreats into the mountains. American literature loves to posit Transcendental escape, and with that escape, a utopian promise, a chance to reinvent “sivilization.” As the poet-critic Charles Olson puts it in the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here.”

The other side of the utopian facade is much darker: westward expansion, continentalism, war, violence, extinction agendas, and the exploitation of all things mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Manifest Destiny. Olson noted that American space might be large, but it was “Large, and without mercy.” Manifest Destiny offered nineteenth-century Americans an illusion of mercy, a mimesis of meaning, a rhetorical gloss to cover over predation, violence, and genocide. Manifest Destiny was a story to stick to, a story with a purpose, good guys and bad guys, and an ethos to drive a narrative. Through such a narrative, Americans might come to see their nation allegorically maturing, coming of age, expanding freedom. Manifest Destiny offered a narrative of a nation growing, a narrative that made space for itself via the violent erasure of native peoples.

Robert Coover’s new novel Huck Out West is very much about storytelling and maturation–about how we attempt to give meaning to the passing of time. Sure, it’s a yarn, an adventure tale that answers happens to Huckleberry Finn after he’s lit out into the Territory. But it’s also a story of what it means to grow up, essentially asking whether such a thing is even possible. “It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up,” Huck remarks in the novel’s second chapter. Ever the misfit, Huck cannot square the evil around him with the dominant social narratives that would try to justify injustice. He can’t stick out a story. This is a character who has always preferred immediate truth.

Consider a few early lines:

Tom is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next, and sometimes it does. For me it ain’t like that. Something happens and then something else happens, and I’m in trouble again.

Like Twain’s original novel, Huck Out West is also a picaresque, albeit one in which the main character repeatedly wonders how to stitch together the seemingly random episodes of his life into a meaningful narrative. Huck’s life is essentially picaresque, and without Tom Sawyer around to rein the episodes together into a story, Huck’s left with “something happens and then something else happens.” Here’s a picaresque passage that summarizes Huck’s “adventures” in his new milieu:

I wrangled horses, rode shotgun on coaches and wagon trains, murdered some buffalos, worked with one or t’other army, fought some Indian wars, shooting and getting shot at, and didn’t think too much about any of it. I reckoned if I could earn some money, I could try to buy Jim’s freedom back, but I warn’t never nothing but stone broke. The war was still on, each side chasing and killing t’other at a brisk pace clean across the Territory, and they both needed a body like me to scout ahead for them, watch over their stock at night, pony messages to the far side of the fighting, clean their muddy boots and help bury the dead, of which there warn’t never no scarcity, nuther boots nor dead.

Variations of these scenarios, as well as flashbacks to earlier episodes mentioned here, play out as the early plot in Huck Out West; Huck’s only real aim is to “buy Jim’s freedom back.” Jim’s been cruelly sold as a slave to a tribe of Indians by Tom Sawyer. Tom Sawyer is a fucking asshole.

But Tom is Huck’s main partner, or “pard” in Coover’s Twain’s vernacular. And don’t worry, Jim (Huck’s other pard) ends up okay. We meet him again, along with other members of the old gang, including Becky Thatcher, who’s fallen on harder times, and Ben Rogers. Ben has graduated from his youthful playacting in Tom Sawyers’ Gang to armed robbery as a member of a real gang. Huck Finn accidentally joins up. The scene plays out as one of many dark repetitions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ends in violence.

Huck Out West is a violent novel, and reading it helps to foreground the violence of Twain’s original novel. In his 1960 study Love and Death in the American Novel, critic Leslie Fiedler highlighted the horror of Twain’s novel, horror which hides in plain sight:

Huckleberry Finn, that euphoric boys’ book, begins with its protagonist holding off at gun point his father driven half mad by the D.T.’s and ends (after a lynching, a disinterment, and a series of violent deaths relieved by such humorous incidents as soaking a dog in kerosene and setting him on fire) with the revelation of that father’s sordid death. Nothing is spared; Pap, horrible enough in life, is found murdered brutally, abandoned to float down the river in a decaying house scrawled with obscenities. But it is all “humor,” of course, a last desperate attempt to convince us of the innocence of violence, the good clean fun of horror.

In Huck Out West, no amount of humor can convince us—and, significantly poor Huckleberry—of the innocence of violence. There is no consolation in Manifest Destiny, only genocidal violence. Take the following passage, for example, in which Huck, conscripted by a malevolent general (well, colonel really—but who hasn’t told a stretcher every now and then?) to break horses for the U.S. Army, witnesses the massacre of an Indian tribe:

What happened a few minutes later come to be called a famous battle in the history books and the general he got a power of glory out of it, but a battle is what it exactly warn’t. Whilst me and Star watched over the spare horses, the soldier boys galloped howling through the burning tents and slaughtered more’n a hundred sleepers, which the general called warriors, but who was mostly wrinkled up old men, women, and little boys and girls. I seen eyes gouged out and ears tore off and bellies slit open with their innards spilling out like sausages.

The language of Huck Out West, here and elsewhere—full of missing scalps, ears, limbs, etc.—often veers closer to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian than Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

As ever, Huck’s sense of justice simply does not square with the narrative (“history books”… “power of glory”) that others will shape from the raw predation he’s witnessed. He’s unable to connect the letter of the law to its spirit—or rather, he plainly sees that the letter is used to gloss over an evil, evil spirit. He’s still the same kid who, in the moral climax of Adventures, elected to “go to hell” rather than see Jim enslaved again.

Anyone familiar with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will also know that the novel’s ending is an incredibly problematic vaudeville of cruel comedy. Tom Sawyer pops back into the narrative, overwhelming whatever spirit of growth and maturity Huck achieved in the novel’s climax. The pair undertakes a series of cruel jokes on Jim. Their play is, to invert Fiedler’s terms above, a showcase for the violence of innocence, the horror of good clean fun. Critics over the years have either had to brush away the novel’s final chapters, or to try to reconcile them in some way. More germane is the viewpoint of one of Paul Bowles’s narrators (undoubtedly Bowles himself), who, in the short story “Unwelcome Words” laments: “I’ve often wished that someone would rewrite the end of Huckleberry Finn.” Coover provides a rewrite, in a sense: A fuller, more mature revision, one that takes Tom and Huck out of their adolescence into full-blown, inescapable adulthood—a revision that requires Huck resist the cruelty of both Tom and the “sivilization” he represents.

“The Amazing Tom Sawyer,” as various characters call him in Huck Out West is an awful evil instigator: a con-man, a fake-lawyer, a demagogue of the worst stripe. He’s always been this way, but we failed to notice, perhaps, enthralled by his confidence game. And what American doesn’t love a confidence trickster? Hell, Tom had kids lined up to pay him to whitewash a fence.

Tom pops in and out of Huck Out West with a jolting, picaresque force, and in some ways the central plot of the novel revolves around his partnership with Huck—a partnership that requires Huck buy into Tom’s nihilism. “Ain’t nothing fair, starting with getting born and having to die,” Tom scolds Huck. Huck is right though: It isn’t fair. In this case, Huck is protesting the “largest mass hanging in U.S. history,” the execution of over three dozen Sioux Indians in Minnesota in 1862.

Tom dresses up his core nihilism in any number of narratives. The great lie of all these narratives is, of course, the idea that Tom’s various predatory schemes are actually founded in justice, in some kind of manifestation of destiny. Tom sells the narrative to the people he’s conning. For him, maturation is nothing more than progressing, perfecting, and extending the long con on any rubes he can sucker. He dresses up the tribalist demagoguery he uses to sway the herd in romantic legalese, but at heart he’s a brute.

Huck’s maturation is more profound. He understands, spiritually if not intellectually, that he needs to get away from Tom Sawyer and his tribe “sivilzation.” Huck addresses Tom late in the book:

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Coover provides a salient contrast to Tom Sawyer in a character of his own invention, a young Lakota Huck calls Eeteh (he can’t pronounce the full name). Eeteh is a holy fool who tells (and perhaps invents) stories of Snake, Raven, and Coyote—trickster tales and origin stories. Eeteh’s storytelling seems to point in a different direction than Tom’s tall tales. Eeteh describes the trickster and hides a kernel of wisdom in his tales; Tom’s stories are tricks on fools, signifying nothing. Significantly, Eeteh is something of an outcast among the Lakota. He understands Huck in ways Huck doesn’t understand himself:

Eeteh says that both of us growed up too early and missed a lot, so really didn’t grow up at all, just only got older. I says that’s probably better’n growing up and Eeteh was of the same opinion.

Huck and Eeteh have both, through their unique early upbringings (or lack-there-of), missed the “sivilizing” influences that would bind them into a dominant social narrative. Coover’s insight here is that “growing up” doesn’t necessarily mean “growing wise,” and that the old often hide their foolishness and venality behind empty stories.

But Coover’s storytelling is marvelous, rich, full. He colors brightly Huck’s moments of epiphany. In one prominent example, Huck Finn the horsebreaker takes (what I’m pretty sure was) mescaline at the behest of the Lakota tribe that temporarily adopts him. He breaks a wild horse, his metaphorical trip literalized in a wild gallop through American history and geography:

We was pounding over a desert, but when I peeked again we was suddenly splashing through a river, then tromping a wheat field, and next on the grasslands, scattering herds a buffalos and yelping coyotes. I had to scrouch down when he run through a low forest, not to get scraped off, then pull my knees up as we raced through a narrow gorge. We hammered in and out a mining and cow towns, Indian camps and army forts.

Huck’s apotheosis is real—for him, anyway—but the Lakota still enjoy a laugh at his expense, just as they have with inside outsider Eeteh. Tribes of any stripe are a nightmare to try to escape from.

And hence the final moments of Huck Out West recapitulate the final lines of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck and Eeteh—do I give away too much, dear reader? Very well, I give away too much—Huck and Eeteh dream of new frontiers and new freedoms. On the eve of the American centennial anniversary, the pards venture to fresh Territory. As they set out, Eeteh spins a final tale. In this tale, Fox and Coyote create a new being with “two members” made from pre-existing elements:

 

So they made a new cretur out a parts borrowed from Whooping Crane, Prairie Dog, Mountain Goat, Rainbow Trout, Turkey Vulture, Jack Rabbit, and Porkypine.

“That must a been something to see!” I says. “A cretur with two members, joined up from a crane, prairie dog, goat and trout, plain stops me cold in my tracks, never mind the rest!”

Eeteh says he’s really glad he didn’t try to tell me about Coyote in the Land of the Dead.

“Ain’t that a story about afterlife soul creturs? I thought you don’t take no stock in souls.”

Eeteh sighed and says that’s just what he means.

The final moments of Huck Out West reinvent Huck’s dream of synthesis at the beginning of Twain’s Adventures: “In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better,” Huck tells us in that much older novel.

And even if Huck digs the swap and the flow of the new, he still can’t fully puzzle out Eeteh’s headscratcher. Our boy Huck never was one for narrative. “I was plumb lost,” he admits in the next line, before signaling the new Territory all storytelling opens: “I reckoned we could start over at the campfire tonight.” Tell the story again, tell it new.

So what does Eeteh’s story mean? Is there a rejection here of metaphysical meaning, of, like, a soul? I don’t know but I don’t think so. Perhaps Eeteh’s evoking here something closer to what Emerson called the Over-Soul (“We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles…but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul”).

But is “Over-Soul” just another simple gloss, a sturdy but rusty nail to hang a narrative on—like “Manifest Destiny”? Coover’s Huck ends his narrative by admitting, “I was lost again,” which seems like a more than fair metaphor for America, if that’s how we’re to take the novel. (There are plenty of other ways to take it: It’s very funny, and the prose is amazing—I mean, here’s a novel that could’ve fallen into the trap of becoming some bizarre bad fanfiction, but Coover’s too good. The novel is aesthetically marvelous. I hope I’ve shared enough samples here to convey that to you, reader).

If Huck is lost again, he has a few solutions, the first one being to “muddytate” on the problem (with some whiskey, some fish, and the company of his pard). And so Huck the escape artist recalls here at the end of his narrative the other paradigm of American literature: the lazing loafer, the shirker, the dreamer. And what is dreaming but the richest form of escape? I think of Walt Whitman leaning and loafing at his ease observing a spear of summer grass, Ishmael’s sea-dreams, Rip Van Winkle dozing through the Revolutionary War… If Huck Out West posits a utopian escape, it’s an escape through imagination, and it’s an escape utopian only in its rejection of all social order outside of a single “pard.”

But ultimately, I don’t think Huck Out West wants its readers to escape from history, from American history, from the ugly awful violence of Manifest Destiny. Rather, I think the novel calls its reader to look anew through the eyes of our naive experienced insider outsider paradox of a hero, Huckleberry Finn—to look afresh at the Big Narrative that has dominated our society, and to decide whether or not it’s something we want to recapitulate—or something we’d be better off reimagining. Huck and his one pard—there is no utopia outside of a pair, it seems—might get to escape into the sunset, but the rest of us are stuck here. Let us all muddytate and then do better.

 

Girl Reading at Window — Henry Moore

Girl Reading at Window 1977-8 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

Americans love being conned (Ishmael Reed)

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It was Bo Shmo and the neo-social realist gang. They rode to this spot from their hideout in the hills. Bo Shmo leaned in his saddle and scowled at Loop, whom he considered a deliberate attempt to be obscure. A buffoon an outsider and frequenter of sideshows.

Bo Shmo was dynamic and charismatic as they say. He made a big reputation in the thirties, not having much originality, by learning to play Hoagland Howard Carmichael’s “Buttermilk Sky” backwards. He banged the piano and even introduced some novel variations such as sliding his rump across the black and whites for that certain effect.

People went for it. It was an all the newspapers. He traveled from coast to coast exhibiting his ass and everything was fine until the real Hoagland Howard Carmichael (the real one) showed up and went for Bo Shmo’s goat. He called him a lowdown patent thief and railed him out of town. You would think that finding themselves duped, the impostor’s fans would demand his hide. Not so, Americans love being conned if you can do it in a style that is both grand and entertaining. Consider P.T. Barnum’s success, Semple McPherson and other notables. A guy who rigs aluminum prices can get himself introduced by Georgie Jessel at 100 dollars a plate but stealing a can of beer can get you iced.

So sympathetic Americans sent funds to Bo Shmo which he used to build one huge neo-social realist Institution in the Mountains. Wagon trains of neo-social realist composers writers and painters could be seen winding up its path.

From Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, which I am loving the hell out of.

Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid (Ishmael Reed)

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Folks. This here is the story of the Loop Garoo Kid. A cowboy so bad he made a working posse of spells phone in sick. A bullwhacker so unfeeling he left the print of winged mice on hides of crawling women. A desperado so onery he made the Pope cry and the most powerful of cattlemen shed his head to the Executioner’s swine.

A terrible cuss of a thousand shivs he was who wasted whole herds, made the fruit black and wormy, dried up the water holes and caused people’s eyes to grow from tiny black dots into slapjacks wherever his feet fell.

Now, he wasn’t always bad, trump over hearts diamonds and clubs. Once a wild joker he cut the fool before bemused Egyptians, dressed like Mortimer Snerd and spilled french fries in his lat at Las Vegas’ top of the strip.

Booted out of his father’s house after a quarrel, whores snapped his heels and trick dogs did the fandango on his belly. Me called him brother only to cop his coin and tell malicious stories about his cleft foot.

Born with a caul over his face and ghost lobes on his ears, he was a mean night tripper who moved from town to town quoting Thomas Jefferson and allowing bandits to build a flophouse around his genius.

A funny blue hippo who painted himself with water flowers only to be drummed out of each tribe dressed down publicly, his medals ripped off.

Finally he joined a small circus and happily performed with his fellow 86-D—a Juggler a dancing Bear a fast talking Barker and Zozo Labrique, charter member of the American Hoo-Doo Church.

Their fame spread throughout the frontier and bouquets of flowers greeted them in every town until they moved into that city which seemed a section of Hell chipped off and shipped upstairs, Yellow Back Radio, where even the sun was afraid to show its bottom.

The opening paragraphs of Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down.

Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses (William H. Gass)

Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses. Our enemies are always spying, undermining, arming, plotting, seizing the high ground, inventing new horrors, inventing flashier weapons. This mole, or that rat, is smarter than we ever”“imagined, and it is working day and night against us—cunning and conniving—out of sight, in secret—because beneath deep undergarments it holds a gun, a knife, a bomb, or a book full of dreadful ideas. We must monitor our phones, watch our neighbors—note, film, record, trace, follow, measure every movement, scrutinize every public meeting, overhear every private one, rifle records, ponder every purchase, search through garbage, twist dumb tongues till they scream with the pain of prying pliers.

Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions: there is Mother’s heart you mustn’t break or Father’s hopes you dare not dash; there are the reprisals taken by society because you sniffed when you should have sneezed; there are all those looks delivered like blows from someone sitting on his high horse and wielding his scorn like a whip. It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.

Of course, what we believe is important, but that we believe it freely, that we can speak of it openly, that we fear neither disapproval nor contradiction, is essential to the humanness of our being. This freedom—if it is to be freedom and not another fraud—comes at a cost. It is a cost that those who have rarely been free are often reluctant to pay, because they are as unused to the presence of liberty in others as they are of freedom when granted to themselves.

We can be real only when others are allowed to play their radios. It’s odd, but our liberty lies in the liberty of our neighbors. They will be rude; they will cross the street against the light; they will eat offal; they will entertain tyrants at tea; they will be tasteless; they will be other; they will be … That’s it … they will be. They will speak strangely, dress oddly, live quaintly, worship a deity they found in a dime store. Worse: they won’t like Bach or Henry James. Worse: they will live like gnats in annoying clouds. Worse: for us they will have no particular esteem. Worst: they will want us to be nice to them, share our rights, give them room. Worse than worst: they will deny us our desires if they can; they will blame us for their plights; they will give evidence, everywhere, of the same mean-spirited insecurities that have soiled our souls from our birth.

When we deny to others their interior life, we deny ourselves all knowledge of it.

From William H. Gass’s essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These.” Collected in Life Sentences.

Tribes. They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born (From Coover’s Huck Out West)

“Palling around with injuns, Huck, is right down dangersome. You can’t trust ’em. Remember what happened to them poor emigrants we met when we first come out here. You’ll get your throat slit before you know it. And it ain’t right. There’s a war on.”“We made the war, not them,” I says, recollecting what Dan Harper said. “We been bullying in and taking away everything they s’posed was their’n. They’re only just defending theirselves.”

“Well, from where they set, Huck, they got a point. But we ain’t them. We got to stick with our own tribe, even if they ARE all lunatics. If we don’t, we’ll end up crazier’n any of them. You remember that poor preacher up in Minnysota? Even if he was maybe right, his rebel notions was turning him plumb loco, and in the end they probably got him lynched by his own congregation. These lands is become our lands, that’s the story now, and it’s only got just one ending. There ain’t nothing them hoss-tiles can do about it, nor not you nuther.”

“Tribes,” I says. “They’re a powerful curse laid on you when you get born. They ruin you, but you can’t get away from them. They’re a nightmare a body’s got to live with in the daytime.”

Dialogue between Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from Robert Coover’s 2017 novel Huck Out West.

 

Thomas Pynchon sends his regrets to Donald Barthelme for missing the Postmodern Dinner

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A 1983 letter from Thomas Pynchon to Donald Barthelme.

Superlibrarian Jessamyn West shared Pynchon’s letter to Barthelme on Twitter yesterday and then posted it on her wonderful Donald Barthelme appreciation page.

Pynchon here is ostensibly apologizing for missing Barthelme’s so-called “Postmodern Dinner” in New York.

In his 2009 Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection from novelist Walter Abish:

Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.

Daugherty continues:

Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”

Okay.

Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”