Monday, June 30, 2014

Just Simple

One day a couple of years ago, I was haying a field on the hillside across the valley from the hillside I live on. An old geezer, whose house was similar to a shack, owned the field. But the shack stood in the middle of a beautiful, well tended garden. There was a curious blend of vegetables and flowers, as if he could not figure out which he wanted to grow, and decided to throw in some of both. Perhaps he did not want to decide, that being part of his simple life, not to debate this or that when either would be to the good. He kept the grass around the house and garden nicely mowed, if not pristine. Certainly he was in no hurry to give the house and grounds a manicure. Wouldn’t that be too complicated? The house stood in front of the trees on the western edge of the field, a good place in Maine for both summer and winter. In summer the house was in the shade all afternoon, while the large garden in front of the house, would remain in the sun all day. The other smaller gardens were a bit closer and to the south of the house so that they would enjoy shade in the afternoon, nice for those beans and a good number of fern and flower plants. And, of course, in the winter the thick woods to the north and the west were a protection against the blunt, frozen westerlies that afflict the mountains and foothills for day after day in late winter. An ample chimney stuck out of the steel peaked roof, but the house was not much for size and a bit discomforted at the windows and doors. Still overlapped pine boards sided the house, and the eves and edges were straight and plumb. Already, and this early in haying, there looked to be five cords of bone dry hardwood, most of it ash, stacked nicely but left uncovered for sun and wind to dry as the old folks used to do in the summer in days past. On the whole the house appeared such that it might put up with a Maine winter. As I worked, I took repeated side ward glances to refresh my mind for thinking about it. Oh yes, it occurred to me to look for an electric line. There it was. But on the whole hard to imagine a simpler arrangement. Took me two days in marvelous early summer weather to bale that field. I saw the old fellow. Don’t disappoint me by wondering if he owned a Victorian Mansion in the flatlands and used this as a summer get away. Apparently not. I never did ask. He seemed happy to get his field mowed and didn’t say much. He wore green working man’s khaki, like they do up here, a wide brimmed tan hat to keep the sun out of his eyes, the garb of a monk of the woods. He was a pale faced old codger. By god, he must lead a simple life, I thought. No funny business, no popup toaster. My personal fantasy was that he had a place in the corner of the house to kneel and pray. Or maybe he did his sacraments kneeling beside a blossoming Cauliflower. From the looks, the old man was hard on weeds as saints on sinning. He seemed surely a bachelor. Never a woman or a visitor popped in, at least that I noticed.

Later on my friend Bob showed up to help me load the trailer. Bob wondered if he did not winter in Florida. We debated the possibilities of a winter in that house. Bob doubted the house would have stood up. Bob also craved a simpler life. But in the middle of his craving, after a divorce, Bob married again. He and I are about the same age, but I don’t know about divorce. I think of loss, giant sums of money gone to the wind in exchange for a new woman, maybe, not that much different than the old one.

“Why does he need a house?” Said Bob. “An RV will do. Get sick of one place, drive to another. You sit too long, things are bound to get fouled up.”

“What do you do with the garden?”

Bob’s opinion was that when you got married, because you couldn’t help it—getting married seemed like the natural thing to do—the simple life went out the window. He thought that even that house, or whatever it was, was too big, too complicated. One thing though, no visitors. Having visitors was the sure sign of a woman instructing the premises.

“Yes, a good RV would be the way to go,” Bob said.

Though Bob dreams of a simple life, like me he has never managed to get there. He seems to prefer sleeping with somebody. But you look at it objectively and suddenly it seems scuzzy, I mean not the married life but the life of a monk in the trees. The monk’s life may be nice for a man and God, but I am blowing in the wind about it. What does it all mean? Does God reward such things? Maybe the fellow has done his best in the real world, and decided to retire after his time, before he will become ill and make a damned fool of himself. How can that be wrong? But why should a retirement end up THERE? Old folks still should have a thing or two to say and do. But on the other hand if you want to go deep, somehow you have to limit the distractions. Best wear down the distractions—and the abstractions!—before you make the philosophy. When you live in the west reaching shadow of Mount Tom, and you go into the garden in the morning, after a few hours, maybe you will come back to the house proffering more than an armload of vegetables, rather a thought, something to write down and put away to document a life that must before long end in dust. An idle hour sitting under a shade tree beside the garden; the full moon in the summertime heat gleaming over the fresh mowed grass; snow whirling in the blue norther’s gale; a long walk through the damp spring woods to gather Fiddleheads for dinner; an entire evening solitary awaiting the shrill whistle of a thought in the silence of dusk. A simple, complete thought ever come?

After finishing loading I went up to the house. I asked him if everything was all right, and I wondered about coming back next year, or later on for second crop.

“Sure,” he says.

“Thanks,” I said.

There being between us an unspoken agreement not to talk too much, I left, thinking he might one day become more friendly. But we never did speak. The next year no trespassing signs up everywhere. Private property. Bob said the old man had died. Never did get a chance to ask him if he had decided anything living that simple way he did. Wonder if it might have been that he had to.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Tough Landladies are Best

    Jimmy Freeman always felt in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts a certain remote magic that was hard to explain.  There were lots of bars in the neighborhood, there were numerous strange stores, an organic grocery, for instance, in the cellar of one of the buildings.  In Central Square there seemed to be everything you'd want or could think of, so there was something for an outsider like Jimmy.  The closest other place to that feeling was Newbury Street in Boston.  And, of course, at this time in the morning, Massachusetts Avenue and the big sidewalks were bustling.  Big crowds were energetically popping out of the underground T station, busses stopping and people coming and going.  Where were the people coming from, where were they going?  Famous Harvard Square was just up the street.  Jimmy had worked in a couple of the restaurants in Harvard Square.  He had wasted many an afternoon looking through boxes in the used book stores.  He was just old enough to stop in a bar and drink beer.  But Jimmy preferred Central Square to all other places.  Each time he went to Harvard Square, he went through Central Square.  In Central Square there were educated middle class people living beside regular factory workers, real people, all shapes, sizes, colors.
    This day Jimmy and Neal took their time walking through Central Square.  Jimmy stood in a quiet corner in the shadows near an alley thinking about work.  Neal, a huge, majestic Great Dane, Jimmy's friend, Roger's, dog, sat on haunch having his thoughts, too.  Roger hired Jimmy to walk Neal during the week days.  Jimmy wasn't a big fan of work in the first place.  He just did it in order to avoid being hungry.  But as he considered the subject of work he wondered how it had come to be that work was so boring.  Most jobs even simple jobs, while you were doing the job, there was no time to do anything else.  But here with Neal, you could walk, mind that everything was going okay, and while you were at it, there was always time to think about whatever you wanted to think about.  Jimmy was always feeling his mind wandering.  It was hard for him to fix his mind on any one thing for any length of time.  He was thinking about somebody behind him like a shadow who had a notion of what Jimmy should do with his life but the shadow had not revealed it to Jimmy yet.  He often pondered this mysterious thought.  And then he was thinking about walking onward to Harvard Square where he might visit his favorite used book store, whose owner and chief employee, an enthusiastic dog lover, would be overjoyed to see Neal, because he often had a big, sweet Doberman around.  Jimmy liked to talk about dogs with him while he was looking through the shelves, and digging into the unsorted boxes of books stacked up everywhere.
    "I think I know where there's a pal for you to hang around with for an hour or so," Jimmy said to Neal.
    "We're talking four legs?"  Neal wondered.
    "Why not?"
    "Thanks, pal.  No offence, but that would be almost too good to believe."
    So Jimmy and Neal were taking a break from their walk, enjoying their thoughts and soaking up the mild hard working vibes that prevail in Central Square when two shots rang out.
    Jimmy knew instantly that these sounds were gun shots, not a motor backfiring, not anything else.  When he was little he had lived with his grandfather on a working farm, so he knew gunshots.  Then two shrouded ski-masked men ran out of the bank across the street, and they jumped into a car and sped off toward Harvard Square and took a hard right a couple of blocks up the street.  Just as the car was disappearing around the corner, a third shrouded ski-masked man came out of the bank.  He seemed astonished that his fellow patriots had already taken off.  He was standing alone; people who happened to be passing by were giving him plenty of room.  Then he was standing completely alone, nobody nearby, nobody looking at him, a mushroom on a stump in a field of daisies.  He stripped off his ski mask, his robbers' shroud, kicked them under a car parked empty at the curb, and then proceeded to slip into thin air.  A cop car pulled up to the bank, siren blazing, another and another, and cops jumped out and ran into the bank.  This while Jimmy and Neal were trying to follow the stranded bad guy slipping up Mass Ave toward Harvard Square.  He walked peacefully, and a block away he turned as if by magic into a tourist just passing through, and he crossed the street, retraced his steps, coming back toward Jimmy and Neal, who were watching him approach in all good curious seriousness.  Now a crowd was gathering along the street nearby the cop cars.  The emergency medical truck loudly pulled up also.  And the ex-bank robber couldn't have been cooler, more casual as he wafted his tall scrawny body along the sidewalk toward Jimmy.  Then almost brushing shoulders with Jimmy he turned sharply and walked into the shadows of the alley, sat down on a trash can and sighed.
    Jimmy looked at Neal.  Neal looked at Jimmy.  Both of them turned around, wandered into the shadows.  Jimmy sat down on a trash can opposite the man.
    "Wow, did you see that?"  The man said. "Somebody tried to rob a bank."
    "We noticed."
    "I think I'll hang around here for a little while, if you don't mind."
    Jimmy shrugged.
    Then the man's eyes fell upon Neal.  "Say, that's some fine looking dog."
    "He's something isn't he?"  Said Jimmy.
    So the robber stared into a contemplative shadow, woke up abruptly and said.  "When the crowd clears I'll move along.  That's one thing about me, I've never liked crowds very much.  Most everything I've tried to do in my life worked out fine so long as nobody was around.  I guess that is the opposite of how just about everybody else does things.  The less people know about what I'm doing, the better I like it.  So what are you guys doing today?"
    "Oh, just out walking.  That's Neal," Jimmy said, nodding.  "He's taking care of me."
    The man stood up, took a look around the corner, squinting.  "I imagine.  A fellow shouldn't get into trouble.  You eventually go away on a long vacation just to relax and think about things.  Lord knows, the wonderful fellows you run into."
    "I've often thought," Jimmy replied, "going to jail would be an interesting thing to get into, I mean just for the experience.  Course, you have to do something wrong, usually, don't you?  I don't know about doing something wrong."
    "I think so, usually, unless you get framed.  You'll learn a lot.  They are wonderful fellows in jail.  Next thing you know, they are hanging around for a lifetime."
    "So what happened in the bank?  I hope nothing too serious.  I mean, we heard the shots, but nobody got killed, I take it?"
    "You saw me come out?"
    "Well, what are you gonna do about it?"  He wondered, calmly.
    "I don't see any big reason right now to do anything immediately.  I don't think anybody saw you leaving in the mix up.  So you've got a little time to figure out your next move."
    The man laughed.  "What would you know about anybody's next move, kid?"
    "Well, you must have a next move, right?"
    The man was laughing outrageously now.  "Next move?  Convince you to put on my clothes and go to jail for me?  How does that sound?"
    "What happened in the bank, mister?"
    "Nothing much.  No big time serious stuff that I know of.  Lord knows what the other muck-a-lucks were doing while I was looking around for the money.  I got into a big stash, and we were outside our time frame.  So they left.  I've got at least twenty-five grand on me."  So the man eyed Jimmy and Neal in silence.  Then he perked up, "Say, wonder where you live?  Maybe we could make a deal."
    Jimmy giggled, "There are about a dozen good reasons why that can't happen not the least of which is you'd never get past the landlady."
    "Really?  You don't know me, I guess.  Wouldn't you like to have a couple of grand in your pocket right now?  Tell me where the place is, stay away for say two days, and I'll be cleared out, and you'll never hear a thing about it."
    "One question I would like to ask is, how did you get into this fucked up situation, I mean what happened?"
    "It occurred to me early on that thieving works, or I wanted to make it work.  It's just like anything else in life.  There's a notion behind it, and then you try to make it work.  I can't tell you exactly when the notion came to me or why, it just did."
    "So it always worked out so well it never occurred to you to stop?"
    "There were exceptions.  But why stop?  You've gotta be positive about these things.  So what do you say?  Three grand?  I've gotta get on the move now.  Once I'm in the subway, I should be able to get clear for awhile.  Then I need to hole up, and with any luck...they'll be chasing the other guys, then...I'm not in too bad shape."  He thrust out a jumbled up wad of bills.  "Sure?"
    Jimmy knew that in just five seconds he could change his life forever.  Neal growled softly.
    He was a handsome, soft-voiced fellow, slick and he had a persuasive way about him.  Jimmy knew that he could go off the grid for the next six months, or at least all summer till winter.  The big woods of northwestern Maine near the Canadian border had been calling to him lately.  It was a woods he knew well.   Or he could hide out in the Boston Public reading room for a couple of days.  And then carry on.
    "What's the matter, kid?  They're all small bills."
    "The matter is that you'd never get past the landlady..."
    "Oh, some old woman.  She'll never know anything."
    There were some old women who were landladies and there was Mrs. Wheeler.  That's who Jimmy thought about, he thought about Mrs. Wheeler.  Jimmy didn't think of any moral principles or theories why he couldn't get mixed up in this, not the law or the way society was put together.  He thought about how Mrs. Wheeler had helped him out getting a library card and he didn't want her to be angry with him.  As silly as that sounds, that's the way he felt about it.  There wasn't any principle to observe and obey.  Just Mrs. Wheeler and the fact that she had just got over being angry with him for something he had done and he did not want her to get angry at him again.
    "Besides, why should you ever have to see her again?  Even if she does happen to spot me, which I would be stupid to let happen.  Give me the key and take the money and run.  Come on, last chance, I've got to go."
    Neal picked up, rolled eyes, turned around a couple of times, head to tail, dropped down, yawned and curled up and eyed Jimmy amused, as if to say, "Come on, Podnah, you can't figure this one out?"
    Jimmy thought: somehow this seems so far away from everything that is real!  And the more I think about it the less real it seems.  Of course, that's the way it is with your errors, you don't run into these situations every day so they never seem quite real.  They seem more real the more often you run into them.  He quickly calculated how long he could hang out in the big woods on three grand.  Then suddenly he decided that he didn't want that, he didn't want to hide out, he wanted to figure out something to do.  It just made more sense.  That was as far as he got with it.  It just made more sense to worry what Mrs. Wheeler would think.
    "Okay," the man said, who had just robbed a bank, but who didn't look like you'd think an evil person would look like, who didn't look like anything different.  "Now's my chance.  Gotta go."  Then he was gone round the corner toward the subway station.
    In those few seconds Jimmy had become bathed with sweat.  His face was red and bloated.  Neal mirthfully eyed him and said, "Please don't bother to tell me that was hard."
    "That was hard, I wish I knew why.  If ever there was a ditch to jump in, that was it.  And where were you, good buddy?  Where were the acrobatics, the run around?"  When Neal was trying to get Jimmy's attention, he often jumped up and did crazy run arounds.
    "Why?  You didn't need me, and there was no hope for that guy.  He was in way too deep."
    "Isn't it awful to think that you might get stuck on something that is no good for you?  I mean the idea of it, and not be able to let it go?"
    "That's why dogs say their prayers, you know, 'deliver me from evil'.  Any dog will tell you, sometimes you can't do it alone."
    A few minutes later Jimmy managed to calm himself, and he said in a soft voice, "Let's get out of here."  He thought he might be able to walk it off but he never did.  Not in his whole life.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Data Lies and Longings

I have not been reading two books lately. One is Mimesis by Eric Auerbach, the other is Philosophical Writings of Peirce. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) was a very great American Philosopher, perhaps the greatest American philosopher who ever lived, at least in my opinion. Though ignored in his life time, exiled by academia, nowadays he is much studied. Societies have been named in his honor. Great scholars have turned their attention to him and his ideas have been much debated and written about. Eric Auerbach wrote his famous book in Istanbul. The fact that it is a classic book as is Peirce's book above means nothing to my purpose here. But neither of these two books, though I have owned them for a year, have I read at all, which has caused me to think a lot about why you read one book and ignore another. Or why you do read one author and do not read another.

Both of these books include classic writings by timeless authors. They are books demanding any student's attention. Scholars and learned men and women, and people like myself who aspire toward wisdom will be reading these books years, maybe centuries, from now. Both have the science imparted to people who have studied long and hard and who have given to their study reasoning. I wonder if either of them thought of their study as work? I remember Balzac complaining about work. His only complaint was why he was so often disturbed from it! I doubt that what he was doing with such obsessive concentration he personally would think of as work. The reader might think of the reading as work, especially if assigned as school work, or the reader of Balzac, though enjoying the reading of his own free will, might think of Balzac's oeuvre as works. But I wonder if Balzac himself would be inclined to think of himself as a worker doing work. Ditto, I believe, Auerbach and Peirce. And why should study of any great author be listed in the category work?

When the head is as if mesmerized by a startling phrase and evidence of unlikely or novel comprehension and insight, how can that be work? Work has more to do with the humdrum and the routine than the novel and the startling. The books above may be termed by some, not me, as difficult, or hard reading. Peirce may at times be hard to make sense of, but why should that be a reason not to read his book? If a poet, for instance, like Elliot, is difficult to get through at times, you insult yourself if you say, "Oh, I don't feel like wading through that right now." Who would not be embarrassed to think such a thought? I know it will be my pleasure at some time to study both these books in order to shamble down the path toward wisdom. But not now.

So I might as well admit what I have been reading, if only to get it over with promptly. Instead of these worthy authors above I have been reading a book not by a great novelist or even a great writer, but by a wandering writer and singer of songs, Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory.

The book has the advantage of not being on the list of assigned reading in school. It's a gift to lovers of books that comes without elaboration. Being non-academic in style, it won't stand still in a handbasket of overwriting but forges onward energetically in disinterest of tenure and do re mi. Woody was pure, a free spirit. Where do people like that come from?

It's just a book. You might call it a novelistic dramatization of an autobiography. Woody was a prolific writer of songs and poems and stories, and then in New York in the 40's he wrote this book. It was edited quite a bit, I think the word was "heavily". The Okie twang got lacquered over by the New York types, though not buried. It's still there, sort of. (My personal research has not turned up a printing of the original manuscript before they got to it. Go here for some good sounding twang. Its total lack of falseness eases the spirit.) Every sentence in the book has the zest of sensual detail that is truthful sensual detail. This is one book whose narrative style does not depend on abstraction. Woody is Woody. Although the author might say the Woody in the book is an abstraction about Woody Guthrie, in which case Woody would not be Woody Guthrie, I do not think that he would say any such thing. Too complicated, for one. When authors tell stories and fill books with them, it is their choice to write about what really happened, or not. In fact an author may write about what really happened all the while denying it and still write a good book. A book of stories may not have anything at all to do with objective data. Just so happens I am in the mood for objective data.

Suppose the story is about a subjective, highly personalized environment, a world somewhere between data (science) and faith that the author happens to be interested in. This world might be meaningful to someone else than the author, or it might be worth nothing at all, no matter how lovingly tragic or comic. So what do I mean by this and who cares? If you like a book, it keeps you busy and involved for x number of hours that could have been miserable otherwise, who cares whether it is truthful? That's like saying horses shouldn't race because racing is bad for horses. You'll still read literature whether it is a commotion and a big argument with God or not, and if you do make it, you'll make it because you hope it contains original thinking, and that is, after all, the golden fleece. Bound for Glory has made me think about this more than any other book of the twentieth century. Just a damned little autobiographic book about barefoot boy growing up in Oklahoma. Woody Guthrie was a pure font of drinkable water rising from the stones such as has not been found since the holy days. And about time America knows it. You don't have ta go to Europe for wisdom.

Now, ten years ago I read this book without much interest the same as I read other books without much interest. So what happened? Did I grow up, or did I grow down? The same thing happened between me and another great writer, Isaac Babel. I somehow ended up with Red Cavalry when I was still in high school, didn't think much of it for almost thirty years, then the book suddenly swelled over me. Red Cavalry is a war book, but Bound for Glory is not necessarily a war book. Another book I like a lot is Ceremony of Innocence. But the book is written by a person, Timothy Victor Richardson, I know pretty well, though not as one knows a friend, still I dare not say how great I think the book is. But I can say I am looking forward to reading it many times again before I die. I ran across it by happy accident. Usually I am not lucky. Someday I will quit writing but for now what's wrong with writing? Maybe a race horse can't race but he can't quit either, and so what is it to you, mister?

This is what I think. I think there is in literature a battle between concrete data and abstraction. Sometimes the battle goes one way, sometimes another. Lots of times dead bodies litter the battle field and one side or the other is retaking ground that has been lost and won before. Some times are for philosophy and criticism like the above, Auerbach and Peirce. They know plenty of raw data, don't get me wrong, but they "style" it in generalization. That is: certain effects which are predominant characteristics of the data are fused in the abstraction process in such a way that the data is generalized. The result is a re-creation of the data into a less personal and more understandable form. Nobody is lying. Anybody can tell a lie. Talking heads are everywhere, and you know them by the glitter in their teeth. Nobody who cares about the written word can possibly use words to lie with. They may approach the words differently, as if with a different battle in mind, but it is a killing task to use them for other than truth.

It goes along through history that a story is a fascinating lie. And only lies are entertaining. The theory goes that if a story was a bare recital of straight facts, then it would be uninteresting. Suppose I say "I want to define pride." A guy I know is acting like a know it all for some reason. And I go on to give numerous examples of actions that seem to show that he is prideful when in fact he has nothing to be prideful about. His attitude is incorrect and I can prove it by describing his beliefs and his actions. I don't have to say anything. Just describe and continue the story. So if I see that as my job, sketch along the lines of a scientific (characterizing) study, where are the lies? Since I am as I am going along dealing at all times with scientific exposition of factual data along the lines of a preconceived demonstration, then how can anyone say I am lying? I first describe the issue, then I describe both factual data and, perhaps some imaginative data, all the while adhering to the prescribed circumference of my study, where is the lie? Even imaginative data cannot be considered to be lying if it is in the middle of the theme. The trouble is how the hell do you define a theme? I have been trying for the last 40 years to come up with an obsessive idea, for example "What is freedom?" In other words, what does it mean to be free? Also I have wanted to place the one idea against the other and allow them to fight each other to the death in even, fair battle. But I have never been able to proceed that way. For instance: I am thinking about a sketch in which a woman goes to a mental hospital to take her daughter out on an outing. They finally stop at a fair and they proceed to have a good time with each other playing fair games. The mental hospital is such a place where you wonder what they have in mind, as mental hospitals often are. The mental hospital is eerie, and the daughter doesn't like it and the mother doesn't like it, and even the boyfriend is wondering what he is doing there, as they bring the kid back. But ultimately I do not know what that means. It is not enough to start from square one and proceed along without a meaningful direction. Artists are artists because they hate lies, and they understand what nobody else does.

Art is full of portents, not lies. What I really want to do, whether in reading or writing, is get into something that will stand me for a long time. But why wouldn't any story do; as long as you are taking the time to think. But there is thinking and there is thinking. Isn't there? Salinger's thinking was good for a time, now Woody Guthrie's thinking is better. I got tired of Holden, don't think any longer he is quite real. Plato was all right, he stood me for a long time. Job was worth thinking about. Thinking about what is for supper is not the same as thinking how there can be error in a world made by a God who is supposed to be perfect. Sometimes I have characters at the edge of my brain, just behind the eyes. I swear they are more real than the real persons I know, but do I have the right to treat them as real? I don't know. Then it will be a lie, and how many times have we been through this territory? A thousand? You have to rise above all this doubt. Reaching for beauty and wisdom is not like reaching for a tasty lunch. Or even searching out the character of the fool who lives next door. I give up. Who the hell wants to spend the rest of his life writing about some figments of his imagination? Bullshit can't be how it goes. Don't seem like to me Woody ever even thought these dark suspicious thoughts. They must come from Europe or somewhere.

You read one book and not another, whether right or wrong, because it fulfills a longing. Best stay open minded then, because longings shift like the wind.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Jimmy Freeman

This is part of a chapter from my new novel Jimmy Freeman.  To see the rest of the chapter, go here.

       They left the Dover Street work-a-day together.  A half-dozen ragged men.  They were being sent out to do scab work.  Sullivan Square printing was on strike.  They knew that.  About the same time as these men were changing to the orange line for the ride up to Sullivan Square station, there was a kid, Jimmy, a baby who didn't know anything, skipping down the steps into the subway at Park Street.  He stood on the orange line platform waiting for the train to Sullivan.  Jimmy figured he'd be a little early, and he'd wait beside the elevated station at Sullivan and run across the Dover Street guys, then they could all go in to work together.  But, it just so happened he met up with them at Park.  As the train was rolling in, the man they called Alley spotted him standing on the platform.  "Oh no.  There's the kid. Jimmy.  Bet he's goin' with us."  Alley and Gene laughed, "Oh no," they said.  Alley ran to the car door and stuck his hoary black head out and shouted for him.  Jimmy dashed the short way to the door and jumped inside the car.
     "What you doin' working out of Jobs?"  Alley said.  "You'll never get anywhere working out of Jobs.  We been working out of Dover lately.  Manpower is down."
     "It's an easier walk from where I live, is all," Jimmy said.
     So everybody was doing good but the men were not happy about scabbing.  Something about the kid, though.  Wasn't he a kid though?  He was constantly hanging around snooping, his weird black eyes studying everything.  Now the men had to put up with him, too, besides the scabbing.  Okay to run into him though.  What was the kid doing?
     "Oh, studyin on Carl Marx at the library," he says.
     Oh God.  Nobody wanted anything to do with him.  He was smiling and happy as if he was half drunk.  They shook their heads knowingly.  They didn't think the kid was long for this world.  He was too damned skinny, for one.  Karl Marx for another.
     Now Alley was good at taking directions.  The men depended on him to lead them straight.  Jimmy did too; he fit right in under Alley.  Alley had been a Marine.  He had been in Korea and got discharged in '64, and he was trying to find a new way.  He had been a Marine for twenty years, so he didn't have to work but he worked because he wanted to.  He was too young to sit around and do nothing.  According to Alley the Marines were some bunch, a team, and he couldn't think of anything happening while he was in, living that life, that he was ashamed of.  "Tell me that happens every day.  You're not happy.  Why should you be," Alley liked to say to Jimmy, or anybody else who would listen.  "But you get out of bootcamp and them boys call you a Marine, and you will be happy."  Alley missed the Marines; but he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in a bar.  But he didn't know where he wanted to spend the rest of his life.  "In my day," Alley said. "That," he tapped the center of his chest with a fist, "was a fightin machine."
     The other guy, Gene, had been a school teacher.  He took a leave for a year but he didn't know why.  He didn't try to explain it to anybody.  It wasn't the drinking.  Sometimes he stood for a long time on a street corner wondering.  Maybe he was sick of being a school teacher.  He wasn't sick of the kids.  He didn't know what he was sick of.  Lots of people thought he was just a drunk wasting his life.
     Alley, Gene and the crazy kid, Jimmy, had often gone on jobs together.  Neither Gene nor Alley wanted to see the kid get hurt, so they prepared the way, in a manner of speaking, and quietly improved his chances.  Especially at the carpet cleaners where one of the delivery drivers, a big black dude, was extremely impatient with that sort of thing.  They were afraid crazy kid would get beat up, and they didn't want that.  But the other two drivers at the carpet cleaners thought Jimmy was funny.  What the hell, he pitched in, was careful about moving the furniture, and so they put up with the other stuff.  Jimmy didn't realize that some of the stuff he did was kind of weird.
     Gee, wasn't he a little weird, though?  Yesterday, Juan thought so, and today Alley thought so.  One time at the carpet place he jumped out of the truck while it was still moving, of course, which he did often, and he did this waddle thing with stiff legs, a waddle jump thing, and he waddled up to this old lady to help her cross the street, Boylston, it was.  She didn't know what had happened, she looked startled but Jimmy calmed her down, and soon she was smiling--you couldn't help but smiling--and he was directing traffic as they crossed the street.  Stuff like that--all the time.  And he carried on about love and beauty.  Weird stuff.  Time for him to become a man.  People put up with you acting like a boy only just so long.  But nobody wanted to see something bad happen to him.
     But they weren't going to the carpet cleaners on this day.  They wished they were.  They were going out to Sullivan Printing as scabs.  Sullivan Printing was on strike.  It had been in all the papers.  Alley and Gene knew they'd have to bust through the picket line.  Maybe the others didn't know what that meant.  Maybe they did know.  But the men were on edge.  Even the kid knew what was going on.  But he was fluttering through life like an angel.  Poor lucky Jimmy, thought Alley and Gene.
     Jimmy thought a lot of Alley and Gene and he liked to keep track of their doings.  They had become friendly in the last few weeks that they had been sent out on jobs together.  They got paid every day and after work they often went to the bar to cash their checks and they sat drinking together.  They tended to sit and wonder about why they felt like they should work, why they felt like they should do anything.
     "I don't have to work," Alley said.  "But I work anyway."
     "I don't know why I work," Gene said.  "I already paid the landlady for this week.  I've got fifty dollars saved up."
     "Wha'cha workin for? That's better than most.  Rich people might not have fifty dollars saved up.  They're rich because they owe everybody.  I sometimes feel sorry for them.  I do things for them for free, I feel so sorry for them."
     "Dunno," Gene said.  "I got something to figure out, and I can't figure it out just sitting."
     "Dunno." Gene shrugged.  "If I knew I'd figure it out."
     "Me, I got the Marines.  I liked the Marines but 20 years is enough.  You belong to something, they give you plenty to do.  And not much figuring.  Join the Marines!"
     "Yeah, but now you don't know what you're gonna do, so you're stuck with the figuring that you didn't do before."
     "You're kidding me."  Alley laughed.  Alley noted that Gene was often very scientific.
     Jimmy's eyes and ears sucked up this information like a magnet.  He loved to hang around with them and hear what they were thinking about.  He was sure that he'd use it all someday for one reason or another.  They sure made it clear what happened when you let drink get the better of you.  Or they might shoo him away like a pest.
     Alley and Gene talked on this subject for a long time.  How do you figure something out you don't know exactly what it is?  But you know you can't figure it out just sitting.
     And as Alley and Gene headed out to be scabs, they were really thinking.
     "What difference does it make?" Gene wondered, "whether we are scabs or not?"
     "I dunno," says Alley, "but it does."
     "Make money.  I gotta pay the landlady again."
     "What about the fifty dollars?" Alley said.
     "Ah hell, it's just money in case I don't want to work any more for two weeks."
     It may seem laughable to some people, but not to Jimmy, the orphan.  He had never had it explained to him why anyone who had plenty of money should work so hard to make more.
     Alley had been married for a long time, he was still married, though his kids were all grown up and he did not live with his wife right now.  He gave her money from his Marine's pension.  He lived on money from the work-a-day and he did garage work and he liked to work with the horses at the Downs.  His wife was not even mad at him.
     Gene was married, too.  His wife was a principal in Medford grade school system.  She was fine without him.  But the two boys were still teenagers, and that was a humiliation to Gene, that he was not being a father to them.  He had not been able to explain to his wife anything.  He had just gone away without explaining.  All during his life he had gone on long visits in the big woods.  This way why Jimmy related to Gene especially.  When he had loved his wife and worried about his boys becoming worthy adults, they sometimes went into the woods together.  And then the big woods got too hard so he moved to Boston.  He was fine with both places, but he couldn't be both places at once.  He thought his wife was way too high for him, he thought of her differently now than he used to, and he lost touch with her and so they moved apart.  He didn't know what happened, it was puzzling; Gene just ceased to want to live the way his wife wanted to live.  He remembered being ambitious, but somehow he got lost.  What was the good thinking about it?  But he couldn't stop thinking about it.  Even his sons did not seem like his sons.  You never heard a peep from them and they studied in school and got A's all the time.  He felt more real to himself when he was with this weird bunch of bums in Beantown, Dover Street, USA, nothing and nowhere.  Young Jimmy boy included.
     Alley missed his Marines, he shoulda carried on for another ten, just waiting for another war which was brewing up in Vietnam they say, where men, some of them Marines, was the rumor, were already fightin and dying.   Fighting and dying.  Alley talked about boot camp all the time even with crazy kid.  Once the drill team got their hands on him, they'd straighten him right out.  Alley and Gene felt very protective of Jimmy.  There he was hustling a young girl on the train.  They stayed a long way away, but it was kind of funny.  Nobody knew where he came from.  Ah, it was a struggle, life.  And now they were heading to bust through a picket line.
     "I don't like this," Gene said.
     "You kidding.  I wish I could be like him." Alley nodded toward Jimmy, who was too busy being a boy to think about what was about to transpire.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What is StoryNoir?

StoryNoir is not about technique: rhyme, meter, grammar. Rather it means mood. Mood is a unity. You get to mood through philosophy and diction. You get to philosophy and diction by listening to the inner voice as intensely as you listen to the outer voice. You learn to listen to the inner voice by finding it. The inner voice comes from thinking about everything, and then coming to an understanding with what you think about most. The only way I know how to do that is by ransacking autobiography until some pattern emerges. I think Pound, for example, put himself into the insane asylum in order to squeeze out of his life what he would not have the time to think about. It was a dark, living death but it allowed him to find the mood, the timeless darkness, leading to his voice. In the Cantos are incomparable passages. The voice is rich and deep. (see here) The voice is that of a great thinker poet.

Art is about mood. Who knows the dictionary meanings of words? Who knows all the subtleties of grammar? What about rhyme and meter? There is speculation enough about them to fill a thousand books. What is form and style? I believe that certain people are born with a certain rhapsodic pressure that issues from them along the lines of form, and even they would be hard pressed to define it. Most of the time form is an arrangement. But to a few in every generation there is an intense pressure to weave darkness and light into a pattern. You can master style to a certain extent. Technical happenings (events?) are not meaningful till they participate in the unity, which is a memorable mood. Long after the words are forgotten the mood is still present.

What is the mood then that is behind StoryNoir? Now, every time I try to define this word I end up with six more words equally hard to define. What is this business of definition anyway? Is it really something a grown man should occupy himself with? If you don't attempt to define terms, then how can you accurately communicate them? If you cannot communicate a meaning, that is to say the understanding is a private event beyond or outside communication. Words are worse than slippery. And putting them together so that they are capable of meaning something seems arduous. But thinking it can't happen except through a sort of miracle is obnoxious to StoryNoir.

The word discipline comes up quite often in StoryNoir. It takes quite a lot of discipline to stick to the gritty. You have to master the art of brevity by eschewing the ear. You have to distill reality first before you can be brief about it. When I say distill I mean generalize. StoryNoir is the art of generalization. And out of generalization comes the mood that is StoryNoir.

This would be StoryNoir: that life is somber, dark, brief. You are in luck when there is love. But everything about it depends on fortune, whether good or bad, and there is very little chance to adjust for reasons of a future about which there is no certainty. However there is a monolith which if one is enabled to participate in it can provide insulation from fortune. There is an elite who have the "keys" to this monolith. I myself have been somewhat insulated from fortune by a small sum of money, a hedge against the disasters of the near future. That was all luck. Nobody earns anything. They are lucky or not.

  • Brevity

    One word is always better than two. And so on. StoryNoir does not allow dialogue to be written by ear. It has to be hardboiled and clean, not repetitive. This word discipline comes up every now and then. No need to write a book when a blog will do. If two words are used when one will do, the second word is bullshit.

  • Losers

    StoryNoir is about people who can't win they lose so much. They have forgotten how to learn how to win. So they let anybody and everything roll over them. Fighting back attracts tanks.

  • Loyalty

    StoryNoir is about being loyal because the grave will come soon enough and then you will be alone forever. There is no hurry to be alone. You don't need two sinks in the bathroom to get along.