Read “Trilobites,” a short story by Breece D’J. Pancake

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“Trilobites”

by

Breece D’J. Pancake


I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy, and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.

The place is empty, and I rest in the cooled air. Tinker Reilly’s little sister pours my coffee. She has good hips. They are kind of like Ginny’s and they slope nice curves to her legs. Hips and legs like that climb steps into airplanes. She goes to the counter end and scoffs down the rest of her sundae. I smile at her, but she’s jailbait. Jailbait and black snakes are two things “Won’t touch with a window pole. One time I used an old black snake for a bullwhip, snapped the sucker’s head off, and Pop beat hell out of me with it. I think how Pop could make me pretty mad sometimes. I grin.

I think about last night when Ginny called. Her old man drove her down from the airport in Charleston. She was already bored. Can we get together? Sure. Maybe do some brew? Sure. Same old Colly. Same old Ginny. She talked through her beak. I wanted to tell her Pop had died, and Mom was on the warpath to sell the farm, but Ginny was talking through her beak. It gave me the creeps.

Just like the cups give me the creeps. I look at the cups hanging on pegs by the storefront. They’re decal-named and covered with grease and dust. There’s four of them, and one is Pop’s, but that isn’t what gives me the creeps. The cleanest one is Jim’s. It’s clean because he still uses it, but it hangs there with the rest. Through the window, I can see him crossing the street. His joints are cemented with arthritis. I think of how long it’ll be before I croak, but Jim is old, and it gives me the creeps to see his cup hanging up there. I go to the door to help him in.

He says, “Tell the truth, now,” and his old paw pinches my arm.

I say, “Can’t do her.” I help him to his stool. Continue reading “Read “Trilobites,” a short story by Breece D’J. Pancake”

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A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven

The City I Dream, Victor Brauner

George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.

The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:

Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…

This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).

So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?

Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:

“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”

Continue reading “A review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven”

If civilization has an opposite, it is war (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”

It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.

From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The bold emphases are mine—mea culpa, I couldn’t help it.

“The Sister-Years,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical New Year’s tale

“The Sister-Years”

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne


Last night, between eleven and twelve o’clock, when the Old Year was leaving her final footprints on the borders of Time’s empire, she found herself in possession of a few spare moments, and sat down—of all places in the world—on the steps of our new city-hall. The wintry moonlight showed that she looked weary of body and sad of heart, like many another wayfarer of earth. Her garments, having been exposed to much foul weather and rough usage, were in very ill condition, and, as the hurry of her journey had never before allowed her to take an instant’s rest, her shoes were so worn as to be scarcely worth the mending. But after trudging only a little distance farther this poor Old Year was destined to enjoy a long, long sleep. I forgot to mention that when she seated herself on the steps she deposited by her side a very capacious bandbox in which, as is the custom among travellers of her sex, she carried a great deal of valuable property. Besides this luggage, there was a folio book under her arm very much resembling the annual volume of a newspaper. Placing this volume across her knees and resting her elbows upon it, with her forehead in her hands, the weary, bedraggled, world-worn Old Year heaved a heavy sigh and appeared to be taking no very pleasant retrospect of her past existence.

While she thus awaited the midnight knell that was to summon her to the innumerable sisterhood of departed years, there came a young maiden treading lightsomely on tip-toe along the street from the direction of the railroad dépôt. She was evidently a stranger, and perhaps had come to town by the evening train of cars. There was a smiling cheerfulness in this fair maiden’s face which bespoke her fully confident of a kind reception from the multitude of people with whom she was soon to form acquaintance. Her dress was rather too airy for the season, and was bedizened with fluttering ribbons and other vanities which were likely soon to be rent away by the fierce storms or to fade in the hot sunshine amid which she was to pursue her changeful course. But still she was a wonderfully pleasant-looking figure, and had so much promise and such an indescribable hopefulness in her aspect that hardly anybody could meet her without anticipating some very desirable thing—the consummation of some long-sought good—from her kind offices. A few dismal characters there may be here and there about the world who have so often been trifled with by young maidens as promising as she that they have now ceased to pin any faith upon the skirts of the New Year. But, for my own part, I have great faith in her, and, should I live to see fifty more such, still from each of those successive sisters I shall reckon upon receiving something that will be worth living for. Continue reading ““The Sister-Years,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s allegorical New Year’s tale”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Turkey Leftovers

From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks

TURKEY REMAINS AND HOW TO INTER THEM WITH NUMEROUS SCARCE RECIPES
At this post holiday season the refrigerators of the nation are overstuffed with large masses of turkey, the sight of which is calculated to give an adult an attack of dizziness. It seems, therefore, an appropriate time to give the owners the benefit of my experience as an old gourmet, in using this surplus material. Some of the recipes have been in my family for generations. (This usually occurs when rigor mortis sets in.) They were collected over years, from old cook books, yellowed diaries of the Pilgrim Fathers, mail order catalogues, golfbags and trash cans. Not one but has been tried and proven—there are headstones all over America to testify to the fact.
Very well then: Here goes:

1. Turkey Cocktail
To one large turkey add one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters. Shake.

2. Turkey at la Francais.
Take a large ripe turkey, prepare as for basting and stuff with old watches and chains and monkey meat. Proceed as with cottage-pudding.

3. Turkey and Water
Take one turkey and one pan of water. Heat the latter to the boiling point and then put in the refrigerator When it has jelled drown the turkey in it. Eat. In preparing this recipe it is best to have a few ham sandwiches around in case things go wrong.

4. Turkey Mongole
Take three butts of salami and a large turkey skeleton from which the feathers and natural stuffing have been removed. Lay them out on the table and call up some Mongole in the neighborhood to tell you how to proceed from there.

5. Turkey Mousee
Seed a large prone turkey, being careful to remove the bones, flesh, fins, gravy, etc. Blow up with a bicycle pump. Mount in becoming style and hang in the front hall.

6. Stolen Turkey
Walk quickly from the market and if accosted remark with a laugh that it had just flown into your arms and you hadn’t noticed it. Then drop the turkey with the white of one egg-well, anyhow, beat it.

7. Turkey a la Creme.
Prepare the creme a day in advance, or even a year in advance. Deluge the turkey with it and cook for six days over a blast furnace. Wrap in fly paper and serve.

8. Turkey Hash
This is the delight of all connoisseurs of the holiday beast, but few understand how really to prepare it. Like a lobster it must be plunged alive into boiling water, until it becomes bright red or purple or something, and then before the color fades, placed quickly in a washing machine and allowed to stew in its own gore as it is whirled around.
Only then is it ready for hash. To hash, take a large sharp tool like a nail-file or if none is handy, a bayonet will serve the purpose—and then get at it! Hash it well! Bind the remains with dental floss and serve.
And now we come to the true aristocrat of turkey dishes:

9. Feathered Turkey.
To prepare this a turkey is necessary and a one pounder cannon to compell anyone to eat it. Broil the feathers and stuff with sage brush, old clothes, almost anything you can dig up. Then sit down and simmer. The feathers are to be eaten like artichokes (and this is not to be confused with the old Roman custom of tickling the throat).

10. Turkey at la Maryland
Take a plump turkey to a barber’s and have him shaved, or if a female bird, given a facial and a water wave. Then before killing him stuff with with old newspapers and put him to roost. He can then be served hot or raw, usually with a thick gravy of mineral oil and rubbing alcohol. (Note: This recipe was given me by an old black mammy.)

11. Turkey Remnant
This is one of the most useful recipes for, though not, “chic”, it tells what to do with the turkey after the holiday, and extract the most value from it.
Take the remants, or if they have been consumed, take the various plates on which the turkey or its parts have rested and stew them for two hours in milk of magnesia. Stuff with moth-balls.

12. Turkey with Whiskey Sauce.
This recipe is for a party of four. Obtain a gallon of whiskey, and allow it to age for several hours. Then serve, allowing one quart for each guest.
The next day the turkey should be added, little by little, constantly stirring and basting.

13. For Weddings or Funerals. Obtain a gross of small white boxes such as are used for bride’s cake. Cut the turkey into small squares, roast, stuff, kill, boil, bake and allow to skewer. Now we are ready to begin. Fill each box with a quantity of soup stock and pile in a handy place. As the liquid elapses, the prepared turkey is added until the guests arrive. The boxes delicately tied with white ribbons are then placed in the handbags of the ladies, or in the men’s side pockets.

There I guess that’s enough turkey to talk. I hope I’ll never see or hear of another until—well, until next year.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Mulatto Rice

At the beginning of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie returns from the Everglades to Eatonville in ragged overalls to a gossipy and unwelcoming town. The one exception is her best friend Phoeby, who brings Janie a “heaping plate of mulatto rice.” Janie gobbles up the simple, delicious meal, even as Phoeby notes that it “ain’t so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease.” She does however concede that “it’ll kill hongry.” No doubt.

We’ve always been intrigued by mulatto rice. What could it be? Is the dish still around today, but under a new name? Although the term “mulatto” has fallen into disuse, and perhaps distaste (just ask Larry David if you don’t believe us), organizations like mulatto.org have also taken a certain ownership of it. For Hurston, mulatto rice is a positive thing. Hurston could have had Phoeby bring any number of dishes to her friend Janie, so it’s telling that she chooses “mulatto rice” as a homecoming meal. The dish represents a communion, an admixture that reflects Janie’s multiracial identity as well as her resistance to gender-typing. “Mulatto” is also probably etymologically akin to the word “mule,” and if you’ve read Eyes, you know that mules are a major motif in the story. But enough literazin’.

Down to the nitty-gritty–we made up a mess of mulatto rice tonight thanks to a recipe from The Savannah Cook Book by Harriet Ross Colquitt. Not that we found this 1933 cookbook ourselves. No, the real merit here goes to the very cool website Take One Cookbook, which explores the history and culture and sociology behind old, weird cookbooks–all while making the recipes. Colquitt’s recipe, via Wendy at Take One Cookbook (see Wendy’s versionhere):

Mulatto Rice

This is the very chic name given to rice with a touch of the tarbrush.

Fry squares of breakfast bacon and remove from the pan. Then brown some minced onion (one small one) in this grease, and add one pint can of tomatoes. When thoroughly hot, add a pint of rice to this mixture, and cook very slowly until the rice is done. Or, if you are in a hurry, cold rice may be substituted, and all warmed thoroughly together.

The rice is very easy to make and very, very tasty. We substituted green onions for a small onion, and used a hickory-smoked bacon that infused the rice with a lovely sweetness (we also included a tablespoon of brown sugar right after the tomatoes). We served the dish, pictured above, with ham steaks and fried green tomatoes with a spicy yogurt sauce. Hearty and rich and satisfying–just the sort of thing one wants to eat after a soul-searching quest (or maybe just a long day). Recommended.

Cormac McCarthy’s Turtle Soup

In Cormac McCarthy’s novel Suttree, an Indian named Michael prepares a turtle soup for Suttree. First, catch the turtle. Then, kill the turtle, making sure to discard its head–

The Indian braced his feet and swung it up dripping from the river and onto the rocks and it squatted there watching them, its baleful pig’s eyes blinking. It was tied through the lower jaw with a section of wire and the Indian took hold of the wire and tugged at it. The turtle bated and hissed, its jaws gasped. The Indian had out his pocketknife and now he opened it and he pulled the turtle’s obscene neck out taut and with a quick upward motion of the blade severed the head. Suttree involuntarily drew back. The turtle’s craggy head swung from the wire and what lay between the braced forefeet was a black and wrinkled dog’s cunt slowly pumping gouts of near black blood. The blood ran down over the stones and dripped in the water and the turtle shifted slowly on the rock and started toward the river. The Indian undid the wire and flung the head into the river . .  .

Appetizing, no? Now that you’ve thrown the bloody head in the river (or your garbage can or wherever you throw turtle heads), it’s time to dress the beast–

Suttree laid the turtle on the rock and the Indian scouted about him until he came up with a goodsized stone.

Watch out, he said.

Suttree stepped back.

The Indian raised the stone and brought it down upon the turtle’s back. The shell collapsed with a pulpy buckling sound.

I never saw a turtle dressed before, said Suttree. But the Indian had knelt and was cutting away the broken plates of shell with his pocketknife and pitching them into the river. He pulled the turtle’s meat up off the plastron and gouged away the scant bowels with his thumb. He skinned out the feet. What hung headless in his grip as he raised it aloft was a wet gray foetal mass, a dim atavism limp and dripping.

Plenty of meat there, said the Indian. He laid it out on the rock and bent and swished the blade of his knife in the river.

Okay. Now that you’ve removed the shell and gouged away the scant bowels with your thumbs, it’s time to prepare the wet gray foetal mass.

Put him in a pot and cook him slow. Lots of vegetables. Lots of onions. I got my own things I put in.

Got it? Lots of onions. Slow cook that dim, limp, dripping atavism. The fact that the Indian has his “own things” that he puts in implies a call to the reader to experiment with the recipe. And how did Suttree like his turtle?

He spooned up a piece of the meat and cradled it in his mouth to cool it. He chewed it. It was succulent and rich, a flavor like no other.

James Joyce’s Burnt Kidney Breakfast

Another entry in our ongoing series of literary recipes to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce’s Ulysses likes kidneys for breakfast. In fact–

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Okay, so there’s not much to this recipe. First, you’ve gotta buy the kidney–

A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last. He stood by the nextdoor girl at the counter. Would she buy it too, calling the items from a slip in her hand? Chapped: washingsoda. And a pound and a half of Denny’s sausages.

Then you cook it with some butter in a frying pan (don’t forget to share with the cat, and don’t forget the pepper)–

While he unwrapped the kidney the cat mewed hungrily against him. Give her too much meat she won’t mouse. Say they won’t eat pork. Kosher. Here. He let the bloodsmeared paper fall to her and dropped the kidney amid the sizzling butter sauce. Pepper. He sprinkled it through his fingers ringwise from the chipped eggcup.

Then take your lazy adulterous wife her breakfast that you’ve lovingly prepared for her (she’ll need her strength for later). Oh, and don’t forget about the kidney that’s still cooking for you (unless you’re making some kind of subconscious symbolic burnt offering or something)–

—There’s a smell of burn, she said. Did you leave anything on the fire?

—The kidney! he cried suddenly.

He fitted the book roughly into his inner pocket and, stubbing his toes against the broken commode, hurried out towards the smell, stepping hastily down the stairs with a flurried stork’s legs. Pungent smoke shot up in an angry jet from a side of the pan. By prodding a prong of the fork under the kidney he detached it and turned it turtle on its back. Only a little burnt. He tossed it off the pan on to a plate and let the scanty brown gravy trickle over it.

Enjoy with gravy, toast, and a cup of tea–

Cup of tea now. He sat down, cut and buttered a slice of the loaf. He shore away the burnt flesh and flung it to the cat. Then he put a forkful into his mouth, chewing with discernment the toothsome pliant meat. Done to a turn. A mouthful of tea. Then he cut away dies of bread, sopped one in the gravy and put it in his mouth. What was that about some young student and a picnic? He creased out the letter at his side, reading it slowly as he chewed, sopping another die of bread in the gravy and raising it to his mouth.

He sopped other dies of bread in the gravy and ate piece after piece of kidney.

Herman Melville’s Whale Steaks

In Chapter LXIV of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Stubb, second mate of the Pequod, demands whale steaks for dinner. He’s not happy with how the cook has prepared the steaks though, complaining they are too tender and overdone — his taste is closer to the sharks who are making a racket outside the ship–

“Cook,” said Stubb, rapidly lifting a rather reddish morsel to his mouth, ” don’t you think this steak is rather overdone? You’ve been beating this steak too much, cook; it’s too tender. Don’t I always say that to be good, a whalesteak must be tough? There are those sharks now over the side, don’t you see they prefer it tough and rare? What a shindy they are kicking up! Cook, go and talk to ’em; tell ’em they are welcome to help themselves civilly, and in moderation, but they must keep quiet. Blast me, if I can hear my own voice. Away, cook, and deliver my message. Here, take this lantern,” snatching one from his sideboard; ” now, then, go and preach to ’em! “

Stubb then instructs the cook on the best way to prepare whale steaks, a process involving a hot live coal. Oh, and he likes his fins pickled and his flukes soused–

“Well then, cook, you see this whale-steak of yours was so very bad, that I have put it out of sight as soon as possible; you see that, don’t you? Well, for the future, when you cook another whale-steak for my private table here, the capstan, I’ll tell you what to do so as not to spoil it by overdoing. Hold the steak in one hand, and show a live coal to it with the other; that done, dish it; d’ye hear? And now to-morrow, cook, when we are cutting in the fish, be sure you stand by to get the tips of his fins; have them put in pickle. As for the ends of the flukes, have them soused, cook. There, now ye may go.”

Roberto Bolaño’s Brussels Sprouts with Lemon

In Roberto Bolaño’s sprawling opus 2666 (specifically, in “The Part About Fate”), founding member of the Black Panthers/cookbook author Barry Seaman offers the following recipe during a lecture at a Detroit church–

The name of the recipe is: Brussels Sprouts with Lemon. Take note, please. Four servings calls for: two pounds of brussels sprouts, juice and zest of one lemon, one onion, one sprig of parsley, three tablespoons of butter, black pepper, and salt. You make it like so. One: Clean sprouts well and remove outer leaves. Finely chop onion and parsley. Two: In a pot of salted boiling water, cook sprouts for twenty minutes, or until tender. Then drain well and set aside. Three: Melt butter in frying pan and lightly sauté onion, add zest and juice of lemon and salt and pepper to taste. Four: Add brussels sprouts, toss with sauce, reheat for a few minutes, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges on the side. So good you’ll be licking your fingers, said Seaman. No cholesterol, good for the liver, good for the blood pressure, very healthy.

Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry’s antipodal odyssey of despair

Most of Malcolm Lowry’s dense, depressing novel Under the Volcano takes place over the course of November 2nd, 1938, the Mexican Day of the Dead. Like a reticent, dour Virgil, Lowry guides the reader through the day’s tragic arc, floating between the minds of his novel’s three protagonists: Geoffrey Firmin, his half-brother Hugh, and Geoffrey’s estranged wife Yvonne. Geoffrey is British Consul to Mexico — ex-Consul, really, as British-Mexican relations sour against the backdrop of Spanish fascism and the rise of nationalism in Mexico — but he is almost always referred to as “the Consul,” a blackly ironic title. See, the Consul bears little authority aside from an extreme expertise on how to stay drunk (or “drunkly sober un-drunk”) 24/7. He’s ambassador to bar stools, a manager of mescal and little else (certainly not his own life; certainly not diplomatic affairs). The Consul is a wreck, an alcoholic to put Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s (and even Bukowski’s) alter-egos to shame.

After a first chapter that seems to derail all but the most patient readers, the narrative conflict arrives when Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac, Mexico, a year after leaving (and divorcing) the Consul. She arrives to find the Consul (“Geoffrey,” as he’s called when the free indirect style inhabits her mind) drinking whiskey in a hotel bar in order to sober up (yep). It’s not immediately clear why Yvonne has returned to the Consul, but it seems that she hopes to save him from drowning in a drunken downward spiral. As the pair walks to the Consul’s house, they pass numerous advertisements for a boxing match; a child’s funeral proceeds down the avenue. These motifs of fighting, death, and futility permeate the novel.

During the walk we learn that Yvonne is not the only one concerned about the Consul’s health; his (much) younger brother Hugh has come to stay with him in the hopes of sobering him up. (Hugh employs a revolting and unsuccessful “strychnine cure”). That Hugh has also returned doubly complicates the plot. Much of Under the Volcano remains implicit, unnamed, hinted at, and this seems especially true of the implication that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with Hugh in the recent past (this implication may have been stated conclusively at some point in the novel, but I’ve only read the book once, which is perhaps like not having read it at all). What’s certainly clear is that Yvonne cheated on the Consul with a French filmmaker, Jacques Laruelle, a man whom the Consul, through sheer bizarre coincidence (but of course it isn’t sheer bizarre coincidence), spent a childhood summer with, an experience which bonded them as brothers in an Edenic holiday that eventually (inevitably) soured.

Despite her infidelities, Yvonne is generally present (I choose the verb “present” over “presented as” to highlight Lowry’s impeccable Modernist style) as a sympathetic character. Still, it is hard not to identify with the Consul (with “Geoffrey,” I suppose, if we are going to be familiar), the dark soul of this novel, and his complicated, painful feelings for Yvonne form the core of Volcano’s tragedy. He longs for her, pines for a complete life with her, yet resents her, cannot forgive her, hates her. For what? For leaving him. For betraying him. But perhaps foremost, he despises her inability to understand his alcoholism (he is particularly upset when she refuses to share a morning libation with him when they meet for the first time in a year). I’ll quote a passage at length now, one that showcases Lowry’s free indirect style, and one that reveals the strange indignities of the Consul’s sense of his own alcoholism. For context, dear reader, you must only know that Yvonne has suggested that she and the Consul might make long-term plans when he is sober “in a day or two”—

The Consul sat perfectly still staring at the floor while the enormity of the insult passed into his soul. As if, as if, he were not sober now! Yet there was some elusive subtlety in the impeachment that still escaped him. For he was not sober. No, he was not, not at this very moment he wasn’t! But what had that to do with a minute before, or half an hour ago? And what right had Yvonne to assume it, assume either that he was not sober now, or that, far worse, in a day or two he would be sober? And even if he were not sober now, by what fabulous stages, comparable indeed only to the paths and spheres of the Holy Cabbala itself, had he reached this stage again, touched briefly once before this morning, this stage at which alone he could, as she put it, “cope,” this precarious precious stage, so arduous to maintain, of being drunk in which alone he was sober! What right had she, when he had sat suffering the tortures of the damned and the madhouse on her behalf for fully twenty-five minutes on end without having a decent drink, even to hint that he was anything but, to her eyes, sober? Ah, a woman could not know the perils, the complications, yes, the importance of a drunkard’s life! From what conceivable standpoint of rectitude did she imagine she could judge what was anterior to her arrival? And she knew nothing whatever of what all too recently he had gone through, his fall in the Calle Nicaragua, his aplomb, coolness, even bravery there—the Burke’s Irish whiskey! What a world! And the trouble was she had now spoiled the moment.

The “fall in the Calle Nicaragua” the Consul references is quite literally a drunkard’s blackout (followed by the aforementioned fortifying whiskey, courtesy of a tourist), but it — falling — is perhaps the dominant motif in a novel crammed with motifs. In allegorical terms, if we want to ruin a good book (I don’t recommend this, of course), Volcano is pure Faust-stuff: end of innocence, fall of man, intractability of the human condition, ethical peril, moral inertia. While the Consul’s fall dominates the novel, Lowry brings this decline into dramatic relief in a late, climactic episode when his (anti-)heroic trio encounter a dying (dead?) man on the side of the road. Hugh tries to help, but the Darwinian venality of Mexican commonplace law makes his attempt impotent. Yvonne and the Consul are basically paralyzed.

Hugh’s attempt to save the man is a desperate call to action, an endeavor to perform some good in a world dominated by war and fascism. Hugh’s character fascinates. We learn of his past in one of the novel’s most intriguing episodes, a mini-bildungsroman that finds young Hugh working in the merchant marine as a calculated ploy to lend romance to his persona — he longs to prevail as a songwriter. He returns to find that no one cares about — has even heard — his guitar compositions; his publicity stunt fails. Although Hugh is only twenty-nine, he already seems himself as a failure, a fallen hero; he obsesses over the Battle of Ebro, daydreaming of helming a ship laden with hidden arms that he will deliver to the Loyalists who oppose the Fascists. Hugh’s greatest pain — and perhaps (only perhaps) Lowry’s greatest cruelty — is the awareness that the idealism of romantic heroism is intrinsically bound to a kind of selfish egoism. Hugh, perhaps with the visceral signal of his half-brother as a kind of radical prescience, can already see his own fall; his parts in Volcano are in a sense a constant meditation on falling. Hugh tries to save the dying man on the road, the cold double of his brother, whom he also tries to save — and yet it is all to little avail.

In Lowry’s world, in the volcano-world, there is only expulsion from the Eden. Lowry spells out this theme near the middle of his novel in a strange episode. The Consul wanders into his neighbor’s garden and reads a sign —

¿LE GUSTA ESTE JARDÍN?
¿QUE ES SUYO?
¡EVITE QUE SUS HIJOS LO DESTRUYAN!

The Consul stared back at the black words on the sign without moving. You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy! Simple words, simple and terrible words, words which one took to the very bottom of one’s being, words which, perhaps a final judgement on one, were nevertheless unproductive of any emotion whatsoever, unless a kind of colourless cold, a white agony, an agony chill as that iced mescal drunk in the Hotel Canada on the morning of Yvonne’s departure.

Significantly, either the sign is posted with improper punctuation, or (and?) the Consul’s translation is wrong — in either case a meaningful misreading occurs. We later receive the “proper” version of the sign: “¿Le gusta este jardín, que es suyo? ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan! – “Do you like this garden that is yours? See to it that your children do not destroy it!”  The Consul’s first reading is a corruption, a cruel misreading that questions humanity’s right to happiness, and, tellingly, he connects the sign to the end of his relationship with Yvonne. The second version of the sign, while still foreboding, perhaps signals a kernel of hope in Lowry’s bleak work — the idea that a garden might be preserved, might be tended to; that children might be raised who do not kill, cheat, steal, rape, enslave, or otherwise prey on each other. Still, Lowry refuses to imagine what such a world might look like for us. Did I mention that Volcano is really, really sad?

For all its bleak, bitter bile, Volcano contains moments of sheer, raw beauty, especially in its metaphysical evocations of nature, which always twist back to Lowry’s great themes of Eden, expulsion, and death. Lowry seems to pit human consciousness against the naked power of the natural world; it is no wonder then, against such a grand, stochastic backdrop, that his gardeners should fall. The narrative teems with symbolic animals — horses and dogs and snakes and eagles — yet Lowry always keeps in play the sense that his characters bring these symbolic identifications with them. The world is just the world until people walk in it, think in it, make other meanings for it.

In many ways, Under the Volcano is an antipodal response to Joyce’s Ulysses. Both novels stream through a number of consciousnesses over the course of one day; both novels invert and subvert mythical frameworks against diurnal concerns; both novels point to the ways that the smallest meannesses — and kindnesses — can color and affect our lives. And while there are many divergences (chiefest, I believe, the spirit of redemption in Ulysses that seems entirely absent from Volcano), the greatest similarity may be their difficulty. Simply put, Lowry, like Joyce, throws his readers into the deep end. The first chapter of the novel inhabits the mind of Jacques Laruelle and takes place exactly one year after the events of the rest of the novel. It is both overture and context for all that follows, and yet it is radically alienating; indeed, it only fully makes sense after one finishes the novel and goes back and reads it again, realizing it is the rightful coda, the sad epilogue of a sad story. Lowry leads with his conclusion, show us the fall-out up front, the splinters and shards of the narrative to come. Picking up these pieces is hardly easy and never joyful, but it is a rewarding experience. Very highly recommended.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept ran a version of this review in March of 2011; we run it again in honor of The Day of the Dead]

Wherein I suggest Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666

The Self Seers (Death and Man), Egon Schiele

I. Here’s my thesis:

Dracula is a character in Roberto Bolaño’s dark opus 2666.

Specifically, I’m suggesting that Dracula (like, the Count Dracula) is the unnamed SS officer in “The Part About Archimboldi” who hosts a strange party in a Romanian castle.

II.  I’m willing to concede that my idea is probably full of holes and more than a little silly, but I think there’s some textual support for such a claim.

III. I’ve already suggested on this blog that 2666 is full of lycanthropic transformations, and in that earlier essay, I linked werewolves to vampires (using the work of mythologist Sabine Baring-Gould).

I also suggested on this blog that 2666 is a dark ventriloquist act, full of forced possessions and psychic hauntings.

It’s a work of mesmerism and transformation—vampire powers. Dracula showing up is a winking sick joke, a satire.

IV. In his post “Castle Dracula” at Infinite Zombies, Daryl L. L. Houston connects the many strands of vampirism that run through 2666, suggesting that “Bolaño is using the vampirism in the story, and Dracula in particular, to tie together some of the threads he’s been unwinding pertaining to insiders and outsiders, parasitism and consumption of people, and a sort of larger parasitism of nations.” Hence Aztec blood rituals, the Holocaust, the murder of helpless, marginalized women in Santa Teresa . . .

V. Okay, so back to that thesis. Let’s start with the first appearance of the unnamed SS officer:

At midmorning they came to a castle. The only people there were three Romanians and an SS officer who was acting as butler and who put them right to work, after serving them a breakfast consisting of a glass of cold milk and a scrap of bread, which some soldiers left untouched in disgust. Everyone, except for four soldiers who stood guard, among them Reiter, whom the SS officer judged ill suited for the task of tidying the castle, left their rifles in the kitchen and set to work sweeping, mopping, dusting lamps, putting clean sheets on the beds.

Fairly banal, right? Also, “midmorning” would entail, y’know, sunlight, which is poison for most vampires. Let me chalk this up to the idea that the SS officer is inside the castle, which is sufficiently gloomy and dark enough to protect him (I’m not going to get into any vampire rules that might spoil my fun, dammit!). In any case, hardly noteworthy. Indeed, the SS officer—a butler commanding house chores—seems hardly a figure of major importance.

VI. Next, we get the Romanian castle explicitly identified as “Dracula’s castle” and meet the actors for this milieu:

“And what are you doing here, at Dracula’s castle?” asked the baroness.

“Serving the Reich,” said Reiter, and for the first time he looked at her.

He thought she was stunningly beautiful, much more so than when he had known her. A few steps from them, waiting, was General Entrescu, who couldn’t stop smiling, and the young scholar Popescu, who more than once exclaimed: wonderful, wonderful, yet again the sword of fate severs the head from the hydra of chance.

(I love Popescu’s line here).

VII. Our principals soon take a tour of castle and environs, led by the SS officer (boldface emphasis is mine):

Soon they came to a crypt dug out of the rock. An iron gate, with a coat of arms eroded by time, barred the entrance. The SS officer, who behaved as if he owned the castle, took a key out of his pocket and let them in. Then he switched on a flashlight and they all ventured into the crypt, except for Reiter, who remained on guard at the door at the signal of one of the officers.

So Reiter stood there, watching the stone stairs that led down into the dark, and the desolate garden through which they had come, and the towers of the castle like two gray candles on a deserted altar. Then he felt for a cigarette in his jacket, lit it, and gazed at the gray sky, the distant valleys, and thought about the Baroness Von Zumpe’s face as the cigarette ash dropped to the ground and little by little he fell asleep, leaning on the stone wall. Then he dreamed about the inside of the crypt. The stairs led down to an amphitheater only partially illuminated by the SS officer’s flashlight. He dreamed that the visitors were laughing, all except one of the general staff officers, who wept and searched for a place to hide. He dreamed that Hoensch recited a poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach and then spat blood. He dreamed that among them they had agreed to eat the Baroness Von Zumpe.

He woke with a start and almost bolted down the stairs to confirm with his own eyes that nothing he had dreamed was real.

When the visitors returned to the surface, anyone, even the least astute observer, could have seen that they were divided into two groups, those who were pale when they emerged, as if they had glimpsed something momentous down below, and those who appeared with a half smile sketched on their faces, as if they had just been reapprised of the naivete of the human race.

Bolaño concludes the crypt passage by highlighting an essential ambiguity that courses throughout the entire “Castle Dracula” episode, a strange axis of horror/humor, romance/banality. What has been revealed in the crypt? We don’t know, of course, but our surrogate Reiter allows us access to a few visions of what might have happened, including terror and fear and cannibalism. (He employs Hawthorne’s escape hatch too—it was all a dream).

The Knight of Death, Salvador Dali

VIII. Then, supper time:

That night, during dinner, they talked about the crypt, but they also talked about other things. They talked about death. Hoensch said that death itself was only an illusion under permanent construction, that in reality it didn’t exist. The SS officer said death was a necessity: no one in his right mind, he said, would stand for a world full of turtles or giraffes. Death, he concluded, served a regulatory function.

Clearly it’s easy to link any of the dinnertime comments about death to Dracula, but note that the SS officer’s idea that death is a “regulatory function” is terribly banal, is quite literally regular—this idea contrasts with Hoensch’s more poetic notion that death is an illusion (an illusion that the SS officer, if he is in fact Count Dracula, would realize in a perfectly mundane way that foreclosed the necessity of metaphor).

IX. Dinner conversation turns to murder—obviously one of the central themes of 2666:

The SS officer said that murder was an ambiguous, confusing, imprecise, vague, ill-defined word, easily misused.

Again, ambiguity: on one hand, sure, an SS officer’s job was in large part about coordinating and executing mass murder. At the same time, we might appreciate that murder is a vague term if people are one’s lunch.

X. Then conversation turns to culture:

The SS officer said culture was the call of the blood, a call better heard by night than by day, and also, he said, a decoder of fate.

I’m pretty sure that this was the moment I started entertaining the fancy that the SS officer might be Dracula.

XI. Popescu the intellectual also seems to reconsider the SS officer:

The intellectual Popescu remained standing, next to the fireplace, observing the SS officer with curiosity.

XII. Then, they finally riff on Dracula. Significantly, the SS officer believes that Dracula is a good German (bold emphasis mine):

First they praised the assortment of little cakes and then, without pause, they began to talk about Count Dracula, as if they had been waiting all night for this moment. It wasn’t long before they broke into two factions, those who believed in the count and those who didn’t. Among the latter were the general staff officer, General Entrescu, and the Baroness Von Zumpe. Among the former were Popescu, Hoensch, and the SS officer, though Popescu claimed that Dracula, whose real name was Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, was Romanian, and Hoensch and the SS officer claimed that Dracula was a noble Teuton, who had left Germany accused of an imaginary act of treason or disloyalty and had come to live with some of his loyal retainers in Transylvania a long time before Vlad Tepes was born, and while they didn’t deny Tepes a real historical or Transylvanian existence, they believed that his methods, as revealed by his alias or nickname, had little or nothing to do with the methods of Dracula, who was more of a strangler than an impaler, and sometimes a throat slitter, and whose life abroad, so to speak, had been a constant dizzying spin, a constant abysmal penitence.

The SS officer is the noble Teuton. More importantly, we get language that connects Dracula to the murders in Santa Teresa, most of which are stranglings; we also get the idea that Dracula has had a “life abroad”—one outside of time—a life that might see his spirit inhabit and ventriloquize an industrial city in the north of Mexico. (Or not. I know. Look, I’m just riffing here).

We also get the idea of an abyss (this is the structure of 2666), as well as the idea of Dracula as a penitent of sorts.

So, let us recall that early in “The Part About the Crimes,” detective Juan de Dios Martinez is searching for a criminal dubbed The Penitent who desecrates churches and has committed a few murders in the process. He goes to psychologist Elvira Campos for help:

Sacraphobia is fear or hatred of the sacred, of sacred objects, especially from your own religion, said Elvira Campos. He thought about making a reference to Dracula, who fled crucifixes, but he was afraid the director would laugh at him. And you believe the Penitent suffers from sacraphobia? I’ve given it some thought, and I do. A few days ago he disemboweled a priest and another person, said Juan de Dios Martinez.

This is the first mention of Dracula in 2666, and he’s explicitly likened to the Penitent; later, as we see above, Dracula will be explicitly linked to penitence.

(I’m not suggesting that the Penitent is Dracula traveled to Mexico to piss in churches. What I want to say is that Dracula’s dark spirit ventriloquizes the text of 2666).

(I’m also suggesting, again, that 2666 be read intertextaully).

Riding with Death, Jean-Michel Basquiat

XIII. Our other principals continue to discuss Dracula, but I won’t belabor that discussion (I’d prefer you, dear reader, to return to the text).

I will summarize though: Popescu sees Dracula in nationalistic terms (“a Romanian patriot” who repels the Turks), and General Entrescu goes on a long rant about heroism and villainy and history, culminating in a lengthy digression on Jesus Christ (recall now that Entrescu will be crucified JC-style by his men).

One aside on the SS officer bears mentioning: we learn that “the fastidious SS officer” is the most sober conversant as he “scarcely wet his lips with alcohol.” (Because he’s a vampire who prefers blood! Muahahahaha!)

XIV. Fast forward a few hours. Our man Reiter, among fellow soldiers, sets out to explore the secret crannies and passageways of Castle Drac and play voyeur:

The room they came to was empty and cold, as if Dracula had just stepped out. The only thing there was an old mirror that Wilke lifted off the stone wall, uncovering a secret passageway.

Dracula’s spirit leaves the room, creating an opening, behind the ever-symbolic mirror. (Muahahahaha!). (2666: Mirror, tunnels, chambers, labyrinths).

They enter the passageway and come first upon our supposed Dracula, the SS officer:

And so they were able to look into the room of the SS officer, lit by three candles, and they saw the SS officer up, wrapped in a robe, writing something at a table near the fireplace. The expression on his face was forlorn. And although that was all there was to see, Wilke and Reiter patted each other on the back, because only then were they sure they were on the right path. They moved on.

XV. Dracula, the epistolary novel. Count Dracula, troubled writer of letters, will author the following scenes, his spirit ventriloquizing the principals all: Here, we find Reiter and his homeboy Wilke, lurking in a secret passage, jerking off to werewolf-cum-Jesus-Christ-figure Gen. Entrescu screwing the lovely Baroness Von Zumpe and reciting poetry (emphasis per usual mine):

Then Wilke came on the wall and mumbled something too, a soldier’s prayer, and soon afterward Reiter came on the wall and bit his lips without saying a word. And then Entrescu got up and they saw, or thought they saw, drops of blood on his penis shiny with semen and vaginal fluid, and then Baroness Von Zumpe asked for a glass of vodka, and then they watched as Entrescu and the baroness stood entwined, each with a glass in hand and an air of distraction, and then Entrescu recited a poem in his tongue, which the baroness didn’t understand but whose musicality she lauded, and then Entrescu closed his eyes and cocked his head as if to listen to something, the music of the spheres, and then he opened his eyes and sat at the table and set the baroness on his cock, erect again (the famous foot-long cock, pride of the Romanian army), and the cries and moans and tears resumed, and as the baroness sank down onto Entrescu’s cock or Entrescu’s cock rose up into the Baroness Von Zumpe, the Romanian general recited a new poem, a poem that he accompanied by waving both arms (the baroness clinging to his neck), a poem that again neither of them understood, except for the word Dracula, which was repeated every four lines, a poem that might have been martial or satirical or metaphysical or marmoreal or even anti-German, but whose rhythm seemed made to order for the occasion, a poem that the young baroness, sitting astride Entrescu’s thighs, celebrated by swaying back and forth, like a little shepherdess gone wild in the vastness of Asia, digging her nails into her lover’s neck, scrubbing the blood that still flowed from her right hand on her lover’s face, smearing the corners of his lips with blood, while Entrescu, undeterred, continued to recite his poem in which the word Dracula sounded every four lines, a poem that was surely satirical, decided Reiter (with infinite joy) as Wilke jerked off again.

I contend that the poem is the work of the SS officer, psychic mesmerist, the poet Dracula, a poem no one in the scene can understand, a dark satire that might also be a war poem or a love poem or an elegy, but definitely a dark satire, written in violence and sex and blood, a poem that ventriloquizes not only Entrescu, phallic delivery device, but also the baroness, and also Reiter and Wilke. And perhaps the reader.

XVI. Where to go after such a climax? Maybe point out that Dracula infects Reiter and Wilke, of whom we learn:

Some of their battalion comrades dubbed them the vampires.

(But better to return I think to our strange figure, the SS officer).

XVII. Here, his last appearance:

The next morning the detachment left the castle after the departure of the two carloads of guests. Only the SS officer remained behind while they swept, washed, and tidied everything. Then, when the officer was fully satisfied with their efforts, he ordered them off and the detachment climbed into the truck and headed back down to the plain. Only the SS officer’s car—with no driver, which was odd—was left at the castle. As they drove away, Reiter saw the officer: he had climbed up to the battlements and was watching the detachment leave, craning his neck, rising up on tiptoe, until the castle, on the one hand, and the truck, on the other, disappeared from view.

Dracula stays in Dracula’s castle; his spirit, his seed, his blood seeps out.

[Ed. note: This post was originally published in 2012].

“The Man with the Pumpkin Head,” a very short story by Robert Walser

Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle and unsettling short story, “A Village After Dark”

There was a time when I could travel England for weeks on end and remain at my sharpest—when, if anything, the travelling gave me an edge. But now that I am older I become disoriented more easily. So it was that on arriving at the village just after dark I failed to find my bearings at all. I could hardly believe I was in the same village in which not so long ago I had lived and come to exercise such influence.

There was nothing I recognized, and I found myself walking forever around twisting, badly lit streets hemmed in on both sides by the little stone cottages characteristic of the area. The streets often became so narrow I could make no progress without my bag or my elbow scraping one rough wall or another. I persevered nevertheless, stumbling around in the darkness in the hope of coming upon the village square—where I could at least orient myself—or else of encountering one of the villagers. When after a while I had done neither, a weariness came over me, and I decided my best course was just to choose a cottage at random, knock on the door, and hope it would be opened by someone who remembered me.

I stopped by a particularly rickety-looking door, whose upper beam was so low that I could see I would have to crouch right down to enter. A dim light was leaking out around the door’s edges, and I could hear voices and laughter. I knocked loudly to insure that the occupants would hear me over their talk. But just then someone behind me said, “Hello.”

Read the rest of Kazuo Ishiguro’s story “A Village After Dark” at The New Yorker; you can also hear Ben Marcus read and discuss the story on The New Yorker’s fiction podcast.

 

Brown and the Farrier | A menacingly comic vignette from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian

A self-contained episode from late in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; this little vignette captures the book’s strange mix of menace and humor:

Noon he was red-eyed and reeking before the alcalde’s door demanding the release of his companions. The alcalde vacated out the back of the premises and shortly there arrived an American corporal and two soldiers who warned him away. An hour later he was at the farriery. Standing warily in the doorway peering into the gloom until he could make out the shape of things within.

The farrier was at his bench and Brown entered and laid before him a polished mahogany case with a brass nameplatebradded to the lid. He unsnapped the catches and opened the case and raised from their recess within a pair of shotgun barrels and he took up the stock with the other hand. He hooked the barrels into the patent breech and stood the shotgun on the bench and pushed the fitted pin home to secure the forearm. He cocked the hammers with his thumbs and let them fall again. The shotgun was English made and had damascus barrels and engraved locks and the stock was burl mahogany. He looked up. The farrier was watching him.

You work on guns? said Brown.

I do some.

I need these barrels cut down.

The man took the gun and held it in his hands. There was a raised center rib between the barrels and inlaid in gold the maker’s name, London. There were two platinum bands in the patent breech and the locks and the hammers were chased with scrollwork cut deeply in the steel and there were partridges engraved at either end of the maker’s name there. The purple barrels were welded up from triple skelps and the hammered iron and steel bore a watered figure like the markings of some alien and antique serpent, rare and beautiful and lethal, and the wood was figured with a deep red feather grain at the butt and held a small springloaded silver capbox in the toe.

The farrier turned the gun in his hands and looked at Brown. He looked down at the case. It was lined with green baize and there were little fitted compartments that held a wadcutter, a pewter powderflask, cleaning jags, a patent pewter capper.

You need what? he said.

Cut the barrels down. Long about in here. He held a finger across the piece.

I cant do that.

Brown looked at him. You cant do it?

No sir. He looked around the shop. Well, he said. I’d of thought any damn fool could saw the barrels off a shotgun.

There’s something wrong with you. Why would anybody want to cut the barrels off a gun like this?

What did you say? said Brown.

The man tendered the gun nervously. I just meant that I dont see why anybody would want to ruin a good gun like this here. What would you take for it?

It aint for sale. You think there’s something wrong with me?

No I dont. I didnt mean it that way.

Are you goin to cut them barrels down or aint ye?

I cant do that.

Cant or wont?

You pick the one that best suits you.

Brown took the shotgun and laid it on the bench. What would you have to have to do it? he said.

I aint doin it.

If a man wanted it done what would be a fair price?

I dont know. A dollar.

Brown reached into his pocket and came up with a handful of coins. He laid a two and a half dollar gold piece on the bench. Now, he said. I’m payin you two and a half dollars.

The farrier looked at the coin nervously. I dont need your money, he said. You cant pay me to butcher that there gun.

You done been paid.

No I aint.

Yonder it lays. Now you can either get to sawin or you can default. In the case of which I aim to take it out of your ass.

The farrier didnt take his eyes off Brown. He began to back away from the bench and then he turned and ran.

When the sergeant of the guard arrived Brown had the shotgun chucked up in the benchvise and was working at the barrels with a hacksaw. The sergeant walked around to where he could see his face. What do you want, said Brown.

This man says you threatened his life.

What man?

This man. The sergeant nodded toward the door of the shed.

Brown continued to saw. You call that a man? he said.

I never give him no leave to come in here and use my tools neither, said the farrier.

How about it? said the sergeant.

How about what?

How do you answer to this man’s charges?

He’s a liar.

You never threatened him?

That’s right.

The hell he never.

I dont threaten people. I told him I’d whip his ass and that’s as good as notarized.

You dont call that a threat?

Brown looked up. It was not no threat. It was a promise. He bent to the work again and another few passes with the saw and the barrels dropped to the dirt. He laid down the saw and backed off the jaws of the vise and lifted out the shotgun and unpinned the barrels from the stock and fitted the pieces into the case and shut the lid and latched it.

What was the argument about? said the sergeant.

Wasnt no argument that I know of.

You better ask him where he got that gun he’s just ruined. He’s stole that somewheres, you can wager on it.

Where’d you get the shotgun? said the sergeant.

Brown bent down and picked up the severed barrels. They were about eighteen inches long and he had them by the small end. He came around the bench and walked past the sergeant. He put the guncase under his arm. At the door he turned. The farrier was nowhere in sight. He looked at the sergeant.

I believe that man has done withdrawed his charges, he said. Like as not he was drunk.

 

The Hobbit reconsidered as a picaresque novel

Making a weekend trip from the east coast of Florida to its Gulf shores, my family and I listened to Nicol Williamson’s early 1970s recording of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Williamson’s recording is rich and expressive, his command of each voice bringing Tolkien’s characters to life.

I first heard Williamson’s recording over twenty years ago on a series of LPs that I checked out from the library. I had probably already read The Hobbit half a dozen times by then, but Williamson’s sonorous voice—along with the music and audio production effects—added another layer to Middle Earth.

My daughter, five, already familiar with the 1977 Rankin-Bass film, had no problem keeping pace with the story (although she occasionally asked me to pause for clarification on a few finer points, such as the delicate distinctions between goblins and trolls, or just who exactly is this guy Bard who shows up all of a sudden?) My favorite part of the entire weekend was my two year old imitating Gollum, sniveling a sinister, “My precious!” while squinting gleefully.

There are few books I’ve read as many times as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy: I read it countless times between the ages of 11 and 15, read it again as an undergrad, then read it again–twice, I’m not ashamed to admit—when Peter Jackson’s adaptations came out. However, despite reading The Hobbit repeatedly as a kid, I’ve never really gone back to it. It traffics in a gentle folklore that seems out of square with the epic mythmaking in The Lord of the Rings, and I think that I was always unsettled by a certain discontinuity between the two books that was easier to ignore if I never went back to The Hobbit.

Memory has a way of eliding details, and books are especially susceptible to this wearing down and smoothing out. So, I remembered The Hobbit as a quest, a miniature epic with Bilbo Baggins leaving the comforts of home to find treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. I remembered Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves invading Bilbo’s tidy hobbit hole; I remembered trolls who turn to stone; I remembered riddles with Gollum and a ring that turns its wearer invisible; I remembered Mirkwood and barrels and the mountain lair of a dragon. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Five Armies, where the enormous eagles literally swoop in and save the day, deus ex machina style.

Listening to the unabridged audio, I was struck by just how much had escaped my memory: I barely recalled the spiders of Mirkwood or the talking ravens or the part where the wargs tree the dwarves. I had completely forgotten the shapeshifter Beorn, a creature straight out of Scandinavian myth.

One of Tolkien’s original illustrations for The Hobbit

What I found most strange in revisiting The Hobbit though was its radical compression, its tendency and willingness to pivot sharply, to cast its characters about or trample them under (metaphorical and sometimes literal) foot, or throw them in dungeons or barrels or some other danger.

Whereas The Lord of the Rings progresses from the folkloric feel of The Shire through to the high-adventure sweep of Icelandic saga and ultimately to a King Jamesish condensation of near-pure archetypery (and back again, of course), The Hobbit showcases a rambling, flowing, discursive, “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rhythm.

In short, The Hobbit, as it turns out, is a picaresque novel.

And just what is a picaresque novel, and why is The Hobbit one?, you may or may not ask.

Michael Seidel offers a clear definition in his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (an excellent picaresque, by the way):

. . . the tradition of Continental picaresque, or rogue, literature . . .  became popular throughout Europe with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in Spain. Picarós and picarás are orphans, vagabonds, desperadoes, and reprobates trying to manipulate the conventions of a world largely determined by established family and class connections. . . . Picaresque fiction is the story of outsiders trying to get in, and the fortunes of the protagonist often depend on adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior as picaresque characters become who they need to be to survive.

The Hobbit is very much the story of the topsy-turvy turns of Bilbo Baggins’s identity. At the adventure’s outset, he’s a respectable—comfortable—Baggins of Bag End. Not the sort of fellow who goes on adventures. And yet he’s enlisted by Gandalf to serve as burglar for the expedition, a picaró in the making who steals a purse from a troll and never looks back.

It’s not just Bilbo’s various thefts, but also his “adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior” that marks him as a picaró. His scheming is evident repeatedly in the novel, whether he’s riddling with Gollum or Smaug, devising a breakout from the Elf King of Mirkwood’s dungeon, or playing the long con against the parties involved in the Battle of Five Armies. He echoes Gandalf in this way, whose talents seem to veer more toward trickery and cunning than dazzling spells or marvelous magic.

Bilbo’s picaresque turns of fortune and turns of identity are neatly summarized in a late exchange with yon dragon Smaug, who immediately calls him out as a picaró:

“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon. “You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”

“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”

“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”

“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I am chosen for the lucky number.”

“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”

“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”

“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.

“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.

“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”

But imagination is of course the primary tool of the picaró, and Bilbo is no slouch: The Hobbit condemns evil, greedy Smaug when it shows the rewards of letting “your imagination run away with you.” Indeed, the entire novel is a running away, a constant deflection of stable identity, as Bilbo twists and turns his way back to The Shire.

And what happens to Bilbo? What happens to that once-stable, once-comfortable identity? We learn at the novel’s end about the queering of his identity—

. . . he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind.

So! Queer, strange Baggins the  picaró embraces his “Took side,” his disreputable adventuring side. And still the narrative comes to a lovely cozy warm respectable ending, Bilbo’s identity transformed, sullied, illuminated, and enlarged by his picaresque adventure.

And the picaresque? Well, maybe I’ve stretched its definition a bit simply because I’m so fond of picaresque narratives these days. Maybe I’ve simply revisited a childhood classic and imposed a new viewpoint upon it. (And maybe years and years from now I’ll revisit it again with grandchildren, and find something new and different there as well. I hope).

I think what I enjoyed most about The Hobbit this time was hearing the rambling discursiveness of it all—here we have a narrative that understands the perilous and precarious position of the storyteller, he or she who might lose the thread—or worse, lose the audience!—at any damn time. So keep the story sailing, shifting, rambling out into new moods, modes, movements.

Seidel gives us a lovely definition of picaresque above, but can’t do better than Ralph Ellison who, in describing his modernist classic Invisible Man, offers us a description of the picaresque as “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”

And this is the power of The Hobbit—which is to say the staying power of The Hobbit—its ability to evoke the imaginative force of one damned thing after another sheerly happening for generation after generation.

[Editorial note: Biblioklept originally published this review in October of 2012. I’m rerunning it today in honor of The Hobbit’s 80th anniversary. My daughter is five years older, and has since read the book on her own. She loves it.]

“Game” — Donald Barthelme

“Game”

by

Donald Barthelme


 

Shotwell keeps the jacks and the rubber ball in his attaché case and will not allow me to play with them. He plays with them, alone, sitting on the floor near the console hour after hour, chanting “onesies, twosies, threesies, foursies” in a precise, well-modulated voice, not so loud as to be annoying, not so soft as to allow me to forget. I point out to Shotwell that two can derive more enjoyment from playing jacks than one, but he is not interested. I have asked repeatedly to be allowed to play by myself, but he simply shakes his head. “Why?” I ask. “They’re mine,” he says. And when he has finished, when he has sated himself, back they go into the attaché case.

It is unfair but there is nothing I can do about it. I am aching to get my hands on them.

Shotwell and I watch the console. Shotwell and I live under the ground and watch the console. If certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys in the appropriate locks and turn our keys. Shotwell has a key and I have a key. If we turn our keys simultaneously the bird flies, certain switches are activated and the bird flies. But the bird never flies. In one hundred thirty-three days the bird has not flown. Meanwhile Shotwell and I watch each other. We each wear a .45 and if Shotwell behaves strangely I am supposed to shoot him. If I behave strangely Shotwell is supposed to shoot me. We watch the console and think about shooting each other and think about the bird. Shotwell’s behavior with the jacks is strange. Is it strange? I do not know. Perhaps he is merely a selfish bastard, perhaps his character is flawed, perhaps his childhood was twisted. I do not know.

Each of us wears a .45 and each of us is supposed to shoot the other if the other is behaving strangely. How strangely is strangely? I do not know. In addition to the .45 I have a .38 which Shotwell does not know about concealed in my attaché case, and Shotwell has a .25 caliber Beretta which I do not know about strapped to his right calf. Sometimes instead of watching the console I pointedly watch Shotwell’s .45, but this is simply a ruse, simply a maneuver, in reality I am watching his hand when it dangles in the vicinity of his right calf. If he decides I am behaving strangely he will shoot me not with the .45 but with the Beretta. Similarly Shotwell pretends to watch my .45 but he is really watching my hand resting idly atop my attaché case, my hand resting atop my attaché case, my hand. My hand resting idly atop my attaché case. Continue reading ““Game” — Donald Barthelme”