Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Which I Overcome Certain Prejudices

I’m always fascinated by the narrow line between discovering a great writer and passing him/her up with an “ehh, maybe not,” and a shrug of the shoulders.
When I was a teenager reading my way through the shelves of the Lexington library I used to run across the novels of Richard Brautigan regularly. They all had weird titles and when I looked at the inside flap there was always a complete failure by the publisher’s copy to describe or convey what in any way they novel was about. Since I liked to know what a book was about before I read it (call me spoiled), I left Richard Brautigan alone. And so his name vanished in my mind behind hundreds of other writers I did or didn’t read, and would have stayed there for good if I was not trying to recall recently what sort of books were peculiar to the 1970s. I looked to see if Brautigan was still a native of my local library (answer – sort of) and then I went to a bookstore and got 3 of his works (Trout Fishing In America, The Pill Vs. the Springhill Mining Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar) in one volume.
Brautigan’s life can be summed up in a very short narrative. Grew up poor in the Pacific Northwest. Bummed around most of his life. Drank. Went through a lot of women. Wrote short, obscure sort-of novels that even a Martian would recognize as being quintessential 1960s. Drank some more. Killed himself. His writings are full of parody and irony. His saving grace may be that, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he wasn’t in love with the sound of his own voice. His sentences are spare and focused and his images are memorable. Fantasy, magical realism and pop culture are balanced by trout fishing, camping in the hills and memories of a hardscrabble childhood. In fact, the Brautigan I’ve found in these works probably not so much a quintessentially 60s writer as a quintessentially Western writer – one far less stuck-up than Wallace Stegner. He creates a modern mythology for his land – Lewis and Clark coexisting in time with a boy watching a Deanna Durbin movie in Great Falls, Montana; a man going to a junkyard and buying a used trout stream; a backwoods outhouse mourning the man who built it.
Sometimes a writer’s reputation won’t rise until several decades after his death. I’m not sure that this will happen to Brautigan – the 60s seem increasingly to be cast as an embarrassing decade, not to be taken seriously – but if his ever does it will be because he is understood as a great modern Western writer, and not merely as someone whose work has to be explained in the context of his times.

How to See the Elephant - Part IV

Thetis finds a boatman willing to take her and Sheba downriver. They are accompanied by Mrs. Ayers, who has decided to volunteer as a nurse. Louisville is under military occupation and they are arrested by a military patrol and held at a hotel while a decision is made about what to do with them.

The sun had long since set and the hours slipped by. We had a plate of dinner in one of the hotels, served by a waiter who leaned against the wall and picked his teeth, watching us sternly. We were supposed to be seen, in a few hours, by another general. From time to time soldiers walked through the lobby, making their way to the bar with steady footsteps, only to stagger back a little while later. Once we heard gunshots in the street outside, followed by a window going up and someone calling down the wrath of heaven on the next person who made any noise. The soldiers in the bar began to improvise verses of “John Brown’s Body.” Mrs. Ayers, calm as ever, was eating with attention, as if it were her last meal. Sheba, finished, had put her head on the table and closed her eyes.
I got up and left.
I saw no other way. I knew it was wrong, unsafe and disloyal. I knew that I should trust to Mrs. Ayers to sort everything out. But I also knew that Pa was close. From the moment we had set foot on shore, from the moment I had begun to explain myself to the army, and heard about the hospital camp, I had begun to dread that my father was dying somewhere near by, and I was not there. It had been my intention from the first to find him as fast as possible, and I had been sidetracked, and now I would be punished for my neglect. I had come so far. I was so close. I could not stand to be held back by passivity and caution, by pats on the head and assurances that everything would be cleared up if I was patient. I had to go, even if it just meant walking and walking and walking until I found him. When I had left Miss Veda’s through that broken window, I had put certain things behind me for good. There was no point trying to jump back now. I had begun this adventure running through the streets of Philadelphia without thought or direction, and I would end it by doing the same on the streets of Louisville.
A drunken officer was beating on the door of the hotel, calling “Le’ me in, Sophie, le’ me in.” I opened the door and stepped over him when he fell down. Then, a moment of inspiration. His horse was tied to the rail outside. I took his gun from his holster, tucked it under my arm, heavy great thing that it was, then stepped to the rail and untied the horse. I put my foot in the stirrup and – how I did this without shooting myself I’ll never know – launched up into the saddle. The horse was a monster, far bigger than anything I had ever ridden – a blood mare, suitable for an officer. I didn’t even have to say “Get along.” I just squeezed my legs and the beast took off, with me holding the reins like I knew what I was doing, and the gun bouncing and jolting under my arm.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pageant a Triumphant Success!

I can report that my church's children's Christmas pageant this year is not that bad. I guess only a really mean person could criticize a children's Christmas pageant, but I generally have to sit through it twice and there's a lot of room, during the longer songs, for my mind to wander. Usually the Theme of the Christmas pageant is something along the lines of "Stop text-messaging, kids, because Jesus is the reason for the season!" Last year one of the stars of the show threw up (twice!) during the performance, which at least gave us something to talk about and brought back fond memories of the Beaumont Junior High School Christmas program of 1981. This year, however, marks a new era in Christmas Pageants. The pageant is well-acted, the songs are short, and the Theme is, roughly, Hawaiians Celebrate Christmas, Too, a sentiment no one can object to. So it looks like I won't mind sitting through it again on Christmas Eve. By the way, if you start crying during a Hawaiian-themed Children's Christmas Pageant, it doesn't mean you're having a nervous breakdown or anything, does it?

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to See the Elephant -- Part III

Arriving in Cincinnati, Thetis goes to a boardinghouse where she is known from visits with her father, hoping to borrow money to get a boat downriver. She finds Mrs. Ayers, the owner of the boardinghouse, mourning her son, killed at the battle of Bull Run.

“I’ve had gallons of tea,” Mrs. Ayers held up a hand. “I’ve been thinking. I shall go to Washington and find Tim’s body. After all, they might have made a mistake, mightn’t they?”
“I mean, unless someone from the family is there to identify the body, I don’t see how they could really know.”
“But…” I wasn’t sure if she thought his body still lay unburied, or if she contemplated disinterring it.
“Until I see it, no one can say for sure that it is him.”
“Yes,” I said, thinking it unwise to disagree with her, and though she hadn’t asked after Pa I began to tell her my story:
“Pa went into the Army, too. He was wounded, and now he’s in the camp hospital in Louisville – if he wasn’t captured. We’re going to get a riverboat down to Louisville to find him.”
“That’s impossible,” Mrs. Ayers said, matter-of-factly, “No boats have run for three weeks. The river’s too low.”
“Oh. None?”
Her voice lowered to a whisper again:
“It hasn’t rained since Tim died. Do you think if I went to Washington and found his body, it would rain again?”
“I – I couldn’t say for sure, Mrs. Ayers.”
“Well, Louisville’s under attack.” She had resumed a normal voice. “No riverboats will go there. They say Bragg is shelling the city. You might get a train through Indiana, but you’d have to cross the river anyway at Jeffersonville.”
I went to the window and pulled aside the curtain. It occurred to me now that something was very wrong with the picture I had seen from the window with Sheba a few minutes before. The river was a narrow strip of white-silver. No traffic stirred upon its surface.
So that was it. Mrs. Ayers was crazy with grief and Sheba did not want to go any further. I had defied my sister, my teachers, the law, and the customs of my race over four days, slept out in the open, ridden with strangers, outraged the laws of hospitality and nearly been shot for a chicken thief, only to end up stuck in Cincinnati, a hundred miles still from my father.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Then and now

I always thought of myself as a writer, but when I was younger writing wasn't something I could do every day. In fact, it was something I often put off doing. A lot. Oh, good, some time to myself...a perfect chance to get some writing done... Just let me get something to eat. No, I'm not going to put tv on. Maybe just to see the weather. I wonder if the mail's here yet. God, I've been staring out the window for 5 minutes. I better wash out my teacup. You know, I'm still hungry...

Writing was painful partly because I was intolerant of failure and of doing things over. That much I knew, back then. In that era I ran across an incident from a biography of the painter Duncan Grant. When he was in art school, his mentor told him he should paint every day -- even if it wasn't any good, just paint, in order to get into the habit of it. Of course I used this incident to beat myself up a little. And then I scoffed. That's just not the kind of writer I am. I work slowly. Yes, that's it -- slowly, but well.

Somewhere along the line, however, things changed. When I began writing "again," after a long off period (never truly off, but not really planning things), I didn't dread writing any longer. I looked forward to working, I felt confident about what was coming next in the story, and wrote pretty much anywhere I was and in pretty much any medium. If things didn't work, I went back and re-wrote them, and I was able to do it this time with tears and agita. I wish I could claim some great insight or drive for this change, but I can't. I guess it was just time and maturity. And one day I looked back and I fully understood why and how Duncan Grant painted every day and how basic such a thing is. Do I still have problems? Do I still have to sit or pace and work things out, slowly, over weeks sometimes? Yes. But I don't fear writing anymore. I don't put it off.

And this has held true, particularly in the past month, no matter if the day brings work crises, holidays, headaches, bad weather, early darkness, moments of gloom and fear -- the tumult of life that's so ugly and unruly close up. Something is written, at least a little bit, to the best of my ability.