Clark’s Quiet Masterpiece

At the beginning of last trimester, I decided to teach a class centered around Walter van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. My motives were, above all, selfish. I had read the novel once before and found it so impressive that I had barely put it down before it began gnawing away at my thoughts and demanding closer inspection. First published in 1940, The Ox-Bow Incident arrived on the heels of the early successes of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan and it is very much a novel of the pedigree represented by their work. Its prose is plain and laconic. Its characters are sharply defined. Their interactions lead them to articulate and debate the moral dilemmas that would otherwise amount only to subtext, and the dramas that develop between them are staged so precisely, yet with aspirations to realism so insistent, that the absence of ragged edges underscores the artificiality of the whole. When appreciated as a novel of this sort, The Ox-Bow Incident must be hailed as one of the very best. As much as its artifices may constrain it, its characters and their dramas remain electrifying from the first page to the last. But its sophisticated approach to the demands and limits of its genre was not what appealed to me when I first read it. I couldn’t say exactly what it was that appealed, but I could sense that it was something else, some textual undercurrent, some motivational force that propelled the whole thing along. When I decided to teach it in class, then, I set aside several weeks in which to read it closer, page by page, to find out what that something was. Continue reading

Papa as a Young Man

In December 1919, the young Ernest Hemingway confessed his fledgling literary aspirations in a letter to his sister Ursula. “You know,” he gushed, “I really do think that I will be a heller of a good writer some day. Every once in a while I knock off a yarn that is so bludy good I can’t figure how I ever wrote it. … Everything good takes time and it takes time to be a writer, but by Gad I’m going to be one some day.” Still only twenty years old, and without a single publication to his name, Hemingway’s hubristic visions of future glory have turned out, in hindsight, to fall short of the mark. He became much more than just “a good writer” churning out vaguely entertaining literary amusements. He became one of the most stylistically radical writers of his age and one of the greatest in the American pantheon. Continue reading

Leaking Out of the World

I worried about my father. Throughout his illness (that is the word that now, for the first time, came to my mind, and it shocked me and suddenly made me frightened), he had remained kind and remote toward me, as he had always been, but I had lately noticed him looking at me with a sort of wistfulness, as if he were not looking at me, but at a drawing or photograph of me, as if he were remembering me.

It seemed to me as if my father simply faded away. He became more and more difficult to see. One day, I thought he was sitting in his chair at his desk, writing. To all appearances, he scribbled at a sheet of paper. When I asked him where the bag for apple picking was, he disappeared. I could not tell whether he had been there in the first place or if I had asked my question to some lingering afterimage. He leaked out of the world gradually, though. At first, he seemed merely vague or peripheral. But then he could no longer furnish the proper frame for his clothes. He would ask me a question from behind the box on which I sat shelling peas or peeling potatoes for my mother, and when I answered and received no reply back, I would turn around, to find his hat or belt or a single shoe sitting in the door frame as if placed there by a mischievous child. The end came when we could no longer even see him, but felt him in brief disturbances of shadows or light, or as a slight pressure, as if the space one occupied suddenly had had something more packing into it, or we’d catch some faint scent out of season, such as the snow melting into the wool of his winter coat, but on a blistering August noon, as if the last few times I felt him as another being rather than as a recollection, he had thought to check up on this world at the wrong moment and accidentally stepped from whatever wintry place he was straight into the dog days. And it seems that doing so only confirmed to him his fate to fade away, his being in the wrong place, so that during these startled visits, although I could not see him, I could feel his surprise, his bafflement, the dismay felt in a dream when you suddenly meet the brother you forgot you had or remember the infant you left on the hillside miles away, hours ago, because somehow you were distracted and somehow you came to believe in a different life and your shock at these terrible recollections, these sudden reunions, comes as much from your sorrow at what you have neglected as it does from dismay at how thoroughly and quickly you came to believe in something else. And that other world that you first dreamed is always better if not real, because in it you have not jilted your lover, forsaken your child, turned your back on your brother. The world fell away from my father the way he fell away from us. We became his dream.

Another time, I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in a window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of the other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father’s, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father’s fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull — no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.

Paul Harding
Tinkers

Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand

[George Armstrong] Custer’s ‘Last Stand’ is now one of the most thoroughly analysed events in American history. How, then, can anyone hope to say anything new about it?

[Nathaniel] Philbrick does not endeavour to extend the boundaries of such well-trodden territory. He knowingly offers no significant new findings that might revolutionise our understanding of Custer’s fate but attempts, instead, to reconsider the causes and consequences of Custer’s Last Stand. “Custer’s smile,” he writes in his preface, “is the ultimate mystery of this story, the story of how America, the land of liberty and justice for all, became in its centennial year the nation of the Last Stand.” Ostensibly, then, Philbrick intends to examine what Custer’s Last Stand has come to mean to America (or at least non-indigenous America) and why it enjoys such ongoing cultural resonance, although, early in his examination, he adjusts course to reconsider the Last Stand in a way that deconstructs Custer’s character and thus destroys his cultural legacy.

My review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn appears in the latest issue of Limina.

A Questionable Haziness

“What we need here is a montage, music over. How she: talked to her father and xxxx and xxxxx—

“xx,” he said.

“xxx,” she said.

How she:

How she did this and why she did that and what the music was when they did x and x and xxx—

How he, and also she—”

So begins chapter nineteen of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights. “The above are notes I made in 1995 for a novel I published in 1996,” Didion explains. “I offer them as a representation of how comfortable I used to be when I wrote, how easily I did it, how little thought I gave to what I was saying until I had already said it. In fact, in any real sense, what I was doing then was never writing at all: I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying.” The symbols that anticipated words to come were not random, she says, but were “arranged in specific groupings. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.”

“I supposed th[e] process [of writing over the arrangements] to be like writing music,” Didion continues. “I have no idea whether or not this was an accurate assessment, since I neither wrote nor read music. All I know now is that I no longer write this way. All I know now is that writing, or whatever it is that I was doing when I could proceed on no more than ‘xxx’ and ‘xxxx,’ whatever it was I was doing when I imagined myself hearing the music, no longer comes easily to me. For a while I laid this to a certain weariness with my own style, an impatience, a wish to be more direct. I encouraged the very difficulty I was having laying words on the page. I saw it as evidence of a new directness. I see it differently now. I see it as frailty.” Continue reading

Green Hair and Nose Bones

Literary rejoinders don’t often appear as bluntly as this one in Philipp Meyer’s American Rust.

From Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, published in 2005, the soft-spoken Sheriff Bell wallows in soul-searching nostalgia as he approaches retirement:

I think we are all of us ill prepared for what is to come and I dont care what shape it takes. And whatever comes my guess is that it will have small power to sustain us. These old people I talk to, if you could of told em that there would be people on the streets of our Texas towns with green hair and bones in their noses speakin a language they couldnt even understand, well, they just flat out wouldnt of believed you. But what if you’d of told em it was their own grandchildren? Well, all of that is signs and wonders but it dont tell you how it got that way.

From Meyer’s novel, published in 2009, here’s Glen Patacki, chief of police in Buell, Pennsylvania, indulging in nostalgia with the world-weary sergeant Bud Harris:

“You should have been here for the seventies, Bud. The department was buying new cruisers with Corvette engines maybe every three years. And then came the eighties, and then it wasn’t just that we lost all those jobs, it was that people didn’t have anything to be good at anymore. … We’re trending backwards as a nation, probably for the first time in history, and it’s not the [fault of the] kids with the green hair and the bones through their noses.”

Meyer’s novel is pretty clearly a response to McCarthy’s, an attempt to provide a corrective to Sheriff Bell’s assessment of what ails the United States. Continue reading

Discernment

It is true that you get accustomed to money very quickly, that the miraculousness of the idea of it wears away and it becomes unremarkable. … Around the neighborhood it became clear that I had money. I bought whole packs of Wings cigarettes and not only smoked them continually but was generous with them. In the pawnshop on Third Avenue where I went for the glasses I found a reversible satin team jacket, black on one side, and then you could turn everything inside out and presto it was a white jacket, and I bought that and strutted in the evenings in it. … So I was wearing that and with my cigarettes and new sneakers and I suppose my attitude, which I might not be able to discern in myself but which must have been quite clear to others, I represented another kind of arithmetic to everyone on my street, not just the kids but the grown-ups too, and it was peculiar because I wanted everyone to know what they figured out easily enough, that it was just not given to a punk to find easy money except one way, but at the same time I didn’t want them to know, I didn’t want to be changed from what I was, which was a boy alive in the suspension of judgment of childhood, that I was the wild kid of a well-known crazy woman, but there was something in me that might earn out, that might grow into the lineaments of honor, so that a discerning teacher or some other act of God, might turn up the voltage of this one brain to a power of future life that everyone in the Bronx could be proud of. I mean that to the more discerning adult, the man I didn’t know and didn’t know ever noticed me who might live in my building or see me in the candy store, or in the schoolyard, I would be one of the possibilities of redemption, that there was some wit in the way I moved, some lovely intelligence in an unconscious gesture of the game, that would give him this objective sense of hope for a moment, quite unattached to any loyalty of his own, that there was always a chance, that as bad as things were, America was a big juggling act and that we could all be kept up in the air somehow, and go around not from hand to hand, but from light to dark, from night to day, in the universe of God after all.

E.L. Doctorow
Billy Bathgate