novel

Recently Received Books

Review copies of the following books are available 

Poetry: Music for A Wedding by Lauren Clark: (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Short Stories: Monte Carlo Days and Nights by Susan Tepper. (Rain Mountain Press)

Poetry: Talking Pillow by Angela Ball. (University of Pittsburgh Press) 

Poetry: Darwin’s Mother by Sarah Rose Nordgren. (University of Pittsburgh Press) 

Stories: The Conduit and Other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner. (Rain Mountain Press)

Poetry: Weather by Kelly Cherry (Rain Mountain Press)

Historical: Nationalism In Central Asia- A Biography of the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan Boundary by Nick Megoran. (University of Pittsburgh Press) 

Memoir: Letters to Memory by Karen Tei Yamashita (Coffee House Press)

Novel: Hap and Hazard and the End of the World by Diane DeSanders, forthcoming in January: (Bellevue Literary Press)

Advertisements

The Absent

absent

.

Review by g emil reutter

 

Rosalind Palermo Stevenson’s, The Absent, brings the reader on a forty nine year journey of the life of William Wright Martin. Stevenson’s research is outstanding as the book begins and ends in Philadelphia during the late 1800s with stops in the Wild West and Southwest territories of the United States. Martin and his wife Lucie are photographers, have their own studio yet live with his mother and aunt. Lucie and William are obsessed with the art. Lucie with portraits and what the images she creates reveal about people, he with structures and space.

…what silence speaks of…there is that apt gesture of silence, the hand closed in a gentle fist, the index finger raised and placed over the lips. It’s silly to stand there, the voice says, when you can lie down and rest. Yes rest. Enough time has passed—too many days. How many. Do you remember? You look worn. You look tired. It’s time. You agree that it’s time don’t you? 

As a child, William Martin and his mother are taken west from Philadelphia by his father. There at a young age he is being taught to be man by his rough and tough father although the mother is always protective. His father hears danger and throws the boy into the bushes where Martin witnesses the brutal slaying of his father by a gang of men. His mother brings him home to Philadelphia and his life begins again. He matures into a man who lives two lives, one in the reality of who he is and the other dominated by hauntings of what he has seen. Sleep evades him although he and Lucie are close in their marriage there are somethings, as the author says, you don’t share. They work in a studio where Lucie spends most of her time as he walks and photographs Philadelphia. They spend the off time at their mother’s house where Aunt Lavina also lives. Spiritualism and bird watching dominate the house. Suddenly his marriage is broke asunder, he is at a loss for Lucie is gone. He is there but is not. A haunted man, Martin makes seamless transitions from his real life to his dream state while awake or asleep. Martin is a man of tragedy who listens to the voices that haunt him.

Stevenson has a unique ability to develop the supporting cast in this work. The ever present mother and aunt, The Fell family who work at the studio and the interactions the complex Martin has with others in Philadelphia. During his mourning for the broken marriage he travels to the Mid-West on a photographic journey to the place his father was murdered. Stevenson provides a wide cast of supporting characters both in his journey to the Mid-West and again when he is surveying the Southwest. Native Americans, cowboys, hunters even a hermaphrodite who Martin oddly bonds with. New hauntings come to him, yet when he is returning to Philadelphia from his first trip to the Mid-West he meets Dr. Stiles and his daughter Angeline at the depot. The three travel to Philadelphia on the train as the civil war breaks out. Fell continues to manage the studio and over time his daughter Lucie is assisting him. A courtship begins between Angeline and William and they soon marry and live with Dr. Stiles. The couple remain childless and the ever patient Angeline lives with his love of the ever present first wife, Lucie, in his mind. She accepts his long term physical absence from her during his trips and walks about the city, although they as a couple also walk and go on carriage rides. There is a closeness between the two that is as bonding as is the absence.

You look worn. You look tired. It’s time. You agree that it’s time don’t you? 

Martin is a photographer of the era, always aware of the light and shadows. In The Absent, Stevenson has provided the reader with images of lights and shadows, of loss and love, of violence and peace. Of the complex nature of the mind and relationships. All of the characters come to life from the page in vivid detail in the haunted mind and life of William Wright Martin.

You can find the book here: http://rainmountainpress.com/books41.html

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter

 

 

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

ray

.

Click on title for full screen view

.

Review by Ray Greenblatt
.
No, not 18th century French pornography by the Marquis de Sade. Rather, modern realism written by an Englishman. Birth in the Punjab, India, and death in Avignon gave Lawrence Durrell a breadth of experience, which spurred him to write about many different kinds of people–with a rich and diverse writing style.
.
 He could list interesting facts in a travel book, like Reflections on a Marine Venus: “The festival of Helios was yearly in September. His priest gave the name to the year. The Colossus was built in his likeness, and the coinage of the realm bore his image, while in the great yearly festival which honored his name white or tawny lambs, white rams, white horses and red honey were offered as a sacrifice; and the wrestlers, boxers and charioteers contended for a wreath of white poplar. So great were the festivals of Helios that neighboring States sent both their best athletes as competitors and their diplomatic envoys.” (45)
.
On the other hand he could employ dry humor, as in tales of the Consular Service, Sauve Qui Peut: “In the Old Days before Time Was . . . diplomacy was a quiet and restful trade carried on in soothing inanity among a hundred shady legations and embassies all over the globe . . . Minted at Eton, moulded by Balliol, and mellowed to the sunset tone of old brick by a Grand Tour, the fellow was in clover, and he knew it. Handpicked, packaged, dusted over lightly with male hormone, he was delivered to his post without a bally scratch.” (158) However, Durrell’s intent in creating Justine was much more important to him than mere fact-finding or humor and became significant to the reading public. I was most impressed by his ability to poetically describe characters and setting.
.
                                                          Major Characters
.
The novel Justine focuses on human relationships; and the focal point is the woman Justine. Two men are bewitched by her. Yes, she is beautiful, but ironically not one clear picture of her is given, since each person imagines her in a different way. Let us meet those three people all living in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, just before WWII begins.
.
Nessim is a wealthy Egyptian businessman: “He looked up at you with that pale almond face, the expression shuttered, withdrawn, almost pleading.  And yet somewhere through all this gentleness ran a steel cord, for his staff was perpetually surprised to find out that, inattentive as he appeared to be, there was no detail of the business which he did not know.” (25)
.
Eventually Nessim marries Justine: “Her love was like a skin in which he lay sewn like the infant Heracles; and her efforts to achieve herself had led her always towards, and not away from him. The world has no use for this sort of paradox I know; but it seemed to me then that Nessim knew and accepted her in a way impossible to explain to someone for whom love is still entangled with the qualities of possessiveness.” (28)
 .
Justine has had a troubled life and is constantly restless, trying to find herself in many ways. Darley, the writer who narrates the story, falls in love with her too. As in the various views of Justine, we see Darley only through others, as in a figure-ground. As Justine is headstrong and mysterious, Melissa is frail and honest.  Darley loves her also. “We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the debris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture. We had not a taste in common. Our characters and predispositions were wholly different, and yet in the magical ease of this friendship we felt something promised us. I like, also, to remember that first kiss by the sea, the wind blowing up a flake of hair at each white temple—a kiss broken off by the laughter which beset her.” (53)
 .
Cohen is an older man who, spurning his wife and children, pursued a relationship with Melissa. Here is how Darley first observed him: “I for my part could not bear to look at that heavy pock-marked face with its bestial saturnine cluster of tormented features smeared on it—could not bear to think of his gross intimacies with her: those sweaty little hands covered as thickly as a porcupine with black hair.”(20)
.
Now that Cohen is dying, Darley has another view: “The flesh had sunk down upon his cheek-bones exposing the long slightly curved nose to its very root and throwing into relief the carved nostrils. This gave the whole mouth and jaw a buoyancy, a spirit which must have characterized his face in earliest youth.” (94)
.
                                                              Supporting Characters
.
For the moment putting aside this roiling plot, what bewitches me the most is Lawrence Durrell’s powerful use of character description. Let us consider six additional but very extraordinary people.
 .
Capodistria is the man murdered for an unknown reason. “He is more of a goblin than a man, you would think. The flat triangular head of a snake with the huge frontal lobes; the hair grows forward in a widow’s peak. A whitish flickering tongue is forever busy keeping his thin lips moist. He is ineffably rich and does not have to lift a finger for himself. He sits all day on the terrace of the Brokers’ Club  watching the women pass, with the restless eye of someone endlessly shuffling through an old soiled pack of cards.” (29)
.
A French attaché Pombal is a close friend of Darley. “He sits at his desk in the Consulate-General covered by a perpetual confetti of pasteboard cards bearing the names of his colleagues. He is a pegamoid sloth of a man, a vast slow fellow given to prolonged afternoon siestas and Crebillon fils. His handkerchiefs smell wondrously of Eau de Portugal.” (18)
.
A wise man, Balthazar is the one to whom many go for advice: “He is thin, stoops slightly, and has a deep croaking voice of great beauty, particularly when he quotes or recites. In speaking he never looks at you directly . . . his yellow goat-eyes are those of a hypnotist. In not looking at you he is sparing you from a regard so pitiless that it would discountenance you for an evening.” (81)
 .
Mnemjian is not just a misshapen barber: “He is the memory man, the archives of the city. If you should wish to know the ancestry or income of the most casual passer-by you have only to ask him; he will recite the details in a sing-song voice as he strops his razor and tries it upon the coarse black hair of his forearm. What he does not know he can find out in a matter of moments.” (32)
 .
Pursewarden represents the dangers of artistic fame: “His freedom, gained through a modest financial success, has begun to bore him. He has begun to feel more and more wanting in true greatness while his name has been daily swelling in size like some disgusting poster. He has realized that people are walking the street with a Reputation now and not a man.” (102)
 .
Formerly a sailor, Scobie is now connected with the Egyptian police force: “Eyes like dead moons, a distinct curvature of the pirate’s spinal column, and a taste of quinqueremes. It was not blood which flowed in Scobie’s veins but green salt water, deep-sea stuff. His walk is the slow rolling grinding trudge of a saint walking on Galilee.  His talk is a green-water jargon swept up in five oceans—an antique shop of polite fable bristling with sextants, astrolabes, porpentines and isobars. When he sings, which he so often does, it is in the very accents of the Old Man of the Sea. Like a patron saint he has left little pieces of his flesh all over the world.” (112)
.
                                                               Alexandria: Place
.
 The city seems to be a living essence unto itself. It can influence people as well as be a projection of their personalities.  Again, Lawrence Durrell is a master of powerful description. “Never had the early dawn-light seemed so good to Nessim. The city looked to him as brilliant as a precious stone. The shrill telephones whose voices filled the great stone buildings in which the financiers really lived, sounded to him like the voices of great fruitful mechanical birds. They glittered with a pharaonic youthfulness. The trees in the park had been rinsed down by an unaccustomed dawn rain.” (182)
.
Likewise, the dusk is as significant: “The first blank lamps had begun to stiffen the damp paper background of Alexandria. The sea-wall with its lines of cafes swallowed in the spray glowed with a smudged and trembling phosphorescence.  The wind blew dead south. Mareotis crouched among the reeds , stiff as a crouching sphinx.” (83)  Mareotis is a lake just outside of the city.
.
 The darkness adds a sinister dimension to the city: “ And then add screams in the night behind other shutters in that crooked street: the bey beating his wives because he was impotent. The old herb-woman selling herself every night on the flat ground among the razed houses—a sulky mysterious whining. The soft ‘pelm’ noise of bare black feet passing on the baked mud street, late at night.” (54)
.
Each season offered a special poignancy. “I am recalling now how during that last spring (forever) we walked together at full moon, overcome by the soft dazed air of the city, the quiet ablutions of water and moonlight that polished it like a great casket. An aerial lunacy among the deserted trees of the dark squares, and the long dusty roads reaching away from midnight to midnight, bluer than oxygen.” (123)
.
“In autumn the female bays turn to uneasy phosphorous and after the long chafing days of dust one feels the first palpitations of the autumn, like the wings of a butterfly fluttering to unwrap themselves. Mareotis turns lemon-mauve and its muddy flanks are starred by sheets of radiant anemones, growing through the quickened plaster-mud of the shore.” (40) Not being a writer of limited vocabulary, Durrell employs forms of the word “phosphorescent” multiply. Perhaps Alexandria’s climate held an intangible quality which intrigued him. Physics defines the word as “emission of radiation continuing after excitation ceases.”
.
“The slither of tyres across the waves of the desert under a sky blue and frost-bound in winter; or in summer a fearful lunar bombardment which turned the sea to phosphorous—bodies shining like tin, crushed in electric bubbles; or walking to the last spit of land near Montaza, sneaking through the dense green darkness of the King’s gardens.” (126)
.
Sometimes rain is heavy; the Pharos is the lighthouse :”Today, unexpectedly, comes a squinting spring shower, stiffening the dust and pollen of the city, flailing the glass roof of the studio . . . Prodigious archery over the parks where the palm-trees have been dragged back taut; a mythology of yellow-maned waves attacking the Pharos. At night the city is full of new sounds, the pulls and stresses of the wind, until you feel it has become a ship, its old timbers groaning and creaking with every assault of the weather.” (106)
.
Or in the other extreme a sandstorm: “The harsh sobbing air dries the membranes of throats and noses, and makes eyes raw with the configurations of conjunctivitis. Clouds of dried blood walk the streets like prophecies; the sand is settling into the sea like powder into the curls of a stale wig. Choked fountain-pens, dry lips—and along the slats of the Venetian shutters thin white drifts as of young snow. The ghostly feluccas passing along the canal are crewed by ghouls with wrapped heads.” (131)
.
A fitting conclusion to these descriptions of Alexandria would be a train station at night where one vividly feels life’s arrivals and departures. “The long pull of the train into the silver light reminds me of the sudden long pull of the vertebrae of her white back turning in bed. ‘Melissa’ I call out, but the giant sniffing of the engine blots out all sound. She begins to tilt, to curve and slide; and quick as a scene-shifter the station packs away advertisement after advertisement, stacking them in the darkness . . . The shadowy figure is sliding away down the steel rails into the darkness; a final lurch and the train pours away down a tunnel, as if turned to liquid.” (91)
.
                                                               Philosophy
.
So much happens in the novel Justine to so many persons. Each person seems to have a personal philosophy of life and is apt to discuss it in the course of the book. As a conclusion to a review of a book that offers a descriptive banquet, let us touch on some key philosophical strands.
.
The concept of prayer is explored: “I caught the sweet voice of the blind muzzein from the mosque reciting the “Ebed”—a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria . . . The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words—the voice of the muzzein sinking from register to register of gravity—until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected.” (22)
 .
         Memory is a constant motif throughout the novel: “Far off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.” (206)
.
Here is a view of Art: “The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only here, in the silence of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential—the imagination.” (14)
.
However, love is what all the characters are searching for and evaluating. Some people feel that love is limited quantitatively: “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people. But it is limited in quantity, can be used up, become shop-worn and faded before it reaches its true object.” (115) This is certainly in opposition to Christian love which teaches that it can grow with usage like a muscle.
.
A danger of love is jealousy: “But here too I was sufficiently detached to observe how much love feeds upon jealousy, for as a woman out of my reach yet in my arms, she became ten times more desirable, more necessary. It was a heartbreaking predicament for a man who had no intention of falling in love, and for a woman who only wished to be delivered of an obsession and set free to love.” (69)
 .
Here is a startling analogy of how we must work our way from a physical to spiritual love: “You climb through the physical body, softly parting the muscle-schemes to admit you—muscle striped and unstriped; you examine the coil ignition of the guts in the abdomen, the sweetbreads, the liver choked with refuse . . .You are searching for a co-ordinating scheme, the syntax of a Will which might stabilize everything and take the tragedy out of it.” (124)
 .
But we must happily admit that there can be joy and awe in true love. “We did not dare to link arms, but our hands kept meeting involuntarily as we walked, as if they had not shaken off the spell of the afternoon and could not bear to be separated.  We parted speechlessly too, in the little square with its dying trees burnt to the colour of coffee by the sun; parted with only one look—as if we wished to take up emplacements in each other’s mind forever. “ (77) I have not explicated the complex plot of this novel. My intent was primarily to show Lawrence Durrell’s powerful descriptions of character and setting. Yet, in this section we can observe the moral issues with which the characters wrestled.
.
Lawrence Durrell worked in all literary genres: fiction, poetry, drama, essays;  also in letters, travel and humor. But especially in the novel he probed character and incident so deeply that in his writing career he was compelled to create multiply connected novels: two books made up the work titled The Revolt of Aphrodite; The Avignon Quintet; and The Alexandria Quartet.  In this latter series, for me, Justine fascinates and sparkles the most intensely.
.
.
Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

Publication Will Resume in January 2017

4782958610_b5ded7e172_o

 

North of Oxford is on a December break and will return in January 2017. Submissions of book reviews, commentary, interviews etc. remain open and we hope to hear from you.

Submission guidelines:

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/contact/

We wish all a fine holiday season and a great new year!

THE MANY GENRES OF CANNERY ROW

(Click on title for full screen)

can

.

By Ray Greenblatt
 .
Geoffrey Chaucer’s fifteenth century Canterbury Tales consists of various literary genres: the Quest, Fabliau, Parable, Mock Autobiography, Legend, Beast Fable, etc. John Steinbeck was a medieval scholar in his own right; at the time of his death in 1968, he was writing a modern interpretation of The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. Some critics suggest that Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat was created in a medieval vein although the characters were Hispanic. In addition to that, I have noticed that his novel Cannery Row (1945), although in prose, offers a different genre in nearly every chapter, as if he were thinking of Chaucer’s writing style.
 .
Since Steinbeck only numbers his chapters—not giving titles which could shed thematic light—my discussion will be chronological to save readers the annoyance of leafing back and forth through the book. Cannery Row is a real place along the waterfront of Monterey, California. In the Depression 1930’s many sardine fishing boats harbored in and miscellaneous people lived in the town.  Steinbeck creates Doc who was a biologist, Chong the grocer, Mack and his pals who were local roustabouts, Dora and her “ladies of the night,” etc. No one character dominates; all of them represent human aspects of Monterey.  The different genres, through which Steinbeck relates his story, add resonance to the recounting.
 .
The prologue to the novel opens with a Prose Poem: “Cannery Row in Monterey is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honkytonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses.” (1) The “stink” and “grating noise” obviously describe the sardine factories. Steinbeck is especially taken by “a quality of light” at the dawn of each day over the Pacific Ocean.  This town, where for a number of years Steinbeck first married, lived and started to publish, became “a nostalgia,” “a dream” to him as the years passed. In Monterey through the 30’s he wrote almost yearly some of his most significant works: The Pastures of Heaven (’32), The Red Pony (’33), To a God Unknown (’33), Tortilla Flat (’35), In Dubious Battle (’36), Of Mice and Men (’37), The Long Valley (’38), The Grapes of Wrath (’39).
 .
All of chapter one was a Biography of Lee Chong the grocer, being the most important person in town who deserved a biography. “The top of the glass was his desk. His fat delicate hands rested on the glass, the fingers moving like small restless sausages. A broad golden wedding ring on the middle finger of his left hand was his only jewelry and with it he silently tapped on the rubber change mat from which the little rubber tits had long been worn. Lee’s mouth was full and benevolent and the flash of gold when he smiled was rich and warm. He wore half-glasses and since he looked at everything through them, he had to tilt his head back to see in the distance. Interest and discounts, addition, subtraction he worked out on the abacus with his little restless sausage fingers, and his brown friendly eyes roved over the grocery and his teeth flashed at the customers.” (6) Lee’s grocery store was the mainstay of the town; it offered not just food but was a general store jammed with staples to which everyone came.
 .
Chapter two was a study in Symbolism, describing the essence of the men out of work in the Depression who clung together for some kind of security. “Mack and the boys, too, spinning in their orbits. They are the Virtues, the Graces, the Beauties of the hurried mangled craziness of Monterey and the cosmic Monterey where men in fear and hunger destroy their stomachs in the fight to secure certain food, where men hungering for love destroy everything lovable about them. Mack and the boys are the Beauties, the Virtues, The Graces. In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row.” (15)
 .
Chapter three is a Mystery story. William was a watchman in the town but strangely the type of person no one liked. Very depressed, William moped about spewing his feelings. He told a cook, Lou the Greek, that he felt like killing himself.  Tired of hearing his bellyaching Lou offered him an ice pick and dared him to do it: “William’s hand went out for the ice pick and he held it easily in his hand. His eyes looked deeply into the Greek’s dark eyes and he saw disbelief and amusement and then as he stared the Greek’s eyes grew troubled and then worried. And William saw the change, saw first how the Greek knew he could do it and then the Greek knew he would do it.  As soon as he saw that in the Greek’s eyes William knew he had to do it. He was sad because now it seemed silly.  His hand rose and the ice pick snapped into his heart.” (21) Could this really happen? Why did he do it? Is there a point where one does not turn back?
 .
Surrealism has been used in prose, poetry and even painting. In chapter four a boy named Andy has made fun of a mysterious Chinese man: “What happened then Andy was never able either to explain or to forget. For the eyes spread out until there was no Chinaman. And then it was one eye—one huge brown eye as big as a church door. Andy looked through the shiny transparent brown door and through it he saw a lonely countryside, flat for miles but ending against a row of fantastic mountains shaped like cows’ and dogs’ heads and tents and mushrooms. There was low coarse grass on the plain and here and there a little mound.  And a small animal like a woodchuck sat on each mound. And the loneliness—the desolate cold aloneness of the landscape made Andy whimper because there wasn’t anybody at all in the world and he was left.” (24) This is like a Salvador Dali , Giorgio de Chirico,  or  twentieth century Francis Bacon painting come to life.
 .
Steinbeck can smoothly transition from the macabre to Romance as in chapter eight the story of people living in Monterey evolves:
         “’ I like things nice,’ said Mrs. Malloy. ‘I always did like to have things nice for you,’ and her lower lip began to tremble.
          ‘But, darling,’ Sam Malloy cried, ‘I got nothing against curtains. I like curtains.’
          ‘Only $1.98,’ Mrs. Malloy quavered, ‘and you begrutch me $1.98,’ and she sniffed and her chest heaved.
          ‘I don’t begrutch you,’ said Mr. Malloy. ‘But, darling—for Christ’s sake what are we going to do with curtains. We got no windows.’
          Mrs. Malloy cried and cried and Sam held her in his arms and comforted her.
          ‘Men just don’t understand how a woman feels,’ she sobbed. ‘Men just never try to put themselves in a woman’s place.’
          And Sam lay beside her and rubbed her back for a long time before she went to sleep.” (49) Often Steinbeck’s writing consists of passages very close to dialogue in a play.
 .
Josh Billings was an American author of comedy next only to Mark Twain in the nineteenth century. In chapter twelve Steinbeck outdoes Billings by putting him—at least part of him—into a Tall Tale:
          “’ Did you embalm Josh Billings?’
          ‘Why—yes.’
          ‘What did you do with his tripes?’
          ‘Why—I threw them in the gulch where I always do.’
          They made him dress quickly then and they hurried down to the beach. If the little boy had gone quickly about his business, it would have been too late. He was just getting into a boat when the committee arrived. The intestine was in the sand where the dog had abandoned it.
         Then the French doctor was made to collect the parts. He was forced to wash them reverently and pick out as much sand as possible. The doctor himself had to stand the expense of the leaden box which went into the coffin of Josh Billings. For Monterey was not a town to let dishonor come to a literary man.” (73) Notice the humorous understatement that goes with a Tall Tale.
 .
Farce stretches a situation to the extreme mostly through exaggerating the actions of humans—and in this case also amphibians—in the frog-catching scene from chapter 15: “Every frog leaped, plopped into the pool, and swam frantically to the bottom. Then into the pool plunged the line of men, stamping, churning, moving in a crazy line up the pool, flinging their feet about.  Hysterically the frogs displaced from their placid spots swam ahead of the crazy thrashing feet and the feet came on. Frogs are good swimmers but they haven’t much endurance. Down the pool they went until finally they were bunched and crowded against the end. And the feet and wildly plunging bodies followed them. A few frogs lost their heads and floundered among the feet and got through and these were saved. But the majority decided to leave their pool forever, to find a new home in a new country where this kind of thing didn’t happen. A wave of frantic, frustrated frogs, big ones, little ones, brown ones, green ones, men frogs and women frogs, a wave of them broke over the bank, crawled, leaped, scrambled. They clambered up the grass, they clutched at each other, little ones rode on big ones. And then—horror on horror—the flashlights found them. Two men gathered them like berries.” (94)
 .
Melodrama is a counterpoint of black and white values: evil is underscored while good is idealized. In chapter sixteen a house of prostitution reveals its “heart of gold” during an influenza epidemic: “And the girls did their work and then took their pots of soup and went to sit with the Ramseys, with the McCarthys, with the Ferrias. The girls slipped out the back door, and sometimes staying with the sleeping children the girls dropped to sleep in their chairs. They didn’t use makeup for work any more. They didn’t have to. Dora herself said she could have used the total membership of the old ladies’ home.  It was the busiest time the girls at the Bear Flag could remember. Everyone was glad when it was over.” (99)
 .
On a trip Doc headed from Monterey to southern California. Chapter seventeen is a miniaturized example of the Picaresque in which the hero has many varied adventures, in this case eating: “Doc didn’t stop in Salinas for a hamburger. But he stopped in Gonzales, in King City, and in Paso Robles. He had a hamburger and beer at Santa Maria—two in Santa Maria because it was a long pull from there to Santa Barbara. In Santa Barbara he had soup, lettuce and string bean salad, pot roast and mashed potatoes, pineapple pie and blue cheese and coffee, and after that he filled the gas tank and went to the toilet. While the service station checked his oil and tires, Doc washed his face and combed his beard and when he came back to the car a number of potential hitchhikers were waiting.” (104)
 .
In chapter eighteen Doc encounters by the ocean a corpse, which transforms this chapter into a story of the Supernatural: “Between two weeded rocks on the barrier Doc saw a flash of white under water and then the floating weed covered it. He climbed to the place over the slippery rocks, held himself firmly, and gently reached down and parted the brown algae. Then he grew rigid. A girl’ s face looked up at him, a pretty, pale girl with dark hair. The eyes were open and clear and the face was firm and the hair washed gently above her head. The body was out of sight, caught in the crevice. The lips were slightly parted and the teeth showed and on the face was only comfort and rest. Just under water it was and the clear water made it very beautiful. It seemed to Doc that he looked at it for many minutes, and the face burned into his picture memory.” (109)
 .
Theater of the Absurd usually takes place on stage. However, this excerpt from chapter nineteen is a dialogue that could easily comprise part of an acted scene:
          “Dimly on top of the high mast he could see the lonely figure of the skater. He took another drink. He cupped his hand and called huskily, ‘Hey!’ There was no answer. ‘Hey!’ he called louder and looked around to see if the cops had come out of their place beside the bank.
          Down from the sky came a surly reply: ‘What do you want?’
          Richard cupped his hands again. ‘How—how do you—go to the toilet?’
          ‘I’ve got a can up here,’ said the voice.
          Richard turned and walked back the way he had come.” (115)
 .
Steinbeck sustains this light-hearted tone in the following chapter twenty which we can only call Slapstick: “The noise could be heard from the boat works to La Ida. A group of customers from the Bear Flag mistook Western Biological for a rival house and charged up the stairs whooping with joy. They were evicted by the outraged hosts but only after a long, happy, and bloody battle that took out the front door and broke two windows. The crashing of jars was unpleasant. Hazel going through the kitchen to the toilet tipped the frying pan of hot grease on himself and the floor and was badly burned.
          At one-thirty a drunk wandered in and passed a remark which was considered insulting to Doc. Mack hit him a clip which is still remembered and discussed.” (125) Considering that the plot of Cannery Row is basically planning a surprise party for Doc, this burlesque chapter is the climax of the novel.
 .
Steinbeck’s range is very broad. The Realism of works from Of Mice and Men to The Grapes of Wrath is hard-hitting. In Cannery Row he can match that style as well. From chapter twenty-one: “’ She got out of hand,’ said Mack . ‘It don’t do no good to say I’m sorry. I been sorry all my life. This ain’t no new thing. It’s always like this.’ He swallowed deeply from his glass. ‘I had a wife,’ Mack said. ‘Same thing. Ever’thing I done turned sour. She couldn’t stand it any more. If I done a good thing it got poisoned up some way. If I give her a present, they was something wrong with it. She only got hurt from me. She couldn’t stand it no more.  Same thing ever’ place ‘til I just got to clowning. I don’t do nothin’ but clown no more. Try to make the boys laugh.’” (131) Notice the realistic speech patterns: repetition, fragments, incorrect usage; but sincere emotion permeates the speech.
 .
We will conclude our discussion by using another technique that not only Chaucer but also Aesop and others have used, the Beast Fable. In chapter 31: “But as time went on the gopher began to be a little impatient, for no female appeared. He sat in the entrance of his hole in the morning and made penetrating squeaks that are inaudible to the human ear but can be heard deep in the earth by other gophers. And still no female appeared. Finally in a sweat of impatience he went up across the track until he found another gopher hole. He squeaked provocatively in the entrance.  He heard a rustling and smelled female and then out of the hole came an old battle-torn bull gopher who mauled and bit him so badly that he crept home and lay in his great chamber for three days recovering and he lost two toes from one front paw from the fight.” (192)
 .
I could offer further examples of genres used: Naturalism, Tragedy, Scientific writing, Cataloguing, et al.  John Steinbeck must have had much enjoyment employing these various techniques; and yet, they all contributed to the richness of Cannery Row. We could argue that Steinbeck’s best known books are focused on a realistic attitude toward life. However, throughout his career he was always experimenting with topics and literary approaches. From his writing of both short and long fiction, drama and non-fiction, Steinbeck went on to write a diary of his European travels after World War II in A Russian Journal (1948) and a memoir Travels with Charley (1962) which probably confirmed for him the Nobel Prize which he received just a few months after the book’s publication. Even at the time of his death in 1968, he was reentering the medieval world, always curious, always exploring.
  .
.

You can find the book here:

https://www.amazon.com/Cannery-Row-Centennial-John-Steinbeck/dp/014200068X/ref=la_B000AQ2D1I_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478913825&sr=1-7

.

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

The Poorhouse Fair

The Poorhouse Fair 2

Random House Trade Paperbacks (March 13, 2012)

Review by Ray Greenblatt

(a relook at Updike’s Poorhouse Fair)

Since John Updike’s oeuvres have come to an end, it is fitting to revisit his very first novel.  Updike was merely twenty-six when this book was published, an astonishing feat! But he had a maturity based on a number of factors.  Being a fortunate child with close parents and even grandparents living with them, Updike experienced all ages and genders.  That he had married at age twenty-one and had two children by the time he finished the novel would be further proof of his unusual worldliness.  High intelligence as shown by his summa cum laude from Harvard and a sensitivity often developed in the life of an only child equipped him to be an acute writer of sensibility.

In a question & answer session with The Paris Review, Updike stated that his book was an “anti-novel.” I agree that not much happens externally, but we have entrée into the character of several older people. The characters’ long histories come to life. I identify two major characters: John Hook and Stephen Conner; and several supporting characters: Lucas, Elizabeth, Gregg, and Mark. As they are revealed to us, Updike’s style of employing Nature illuminates them in universal terms.

Stephen Conner is the head administrator at the poorhouse. Today we might use the term “retirement community”,” but that would be misleading in terms of the social mores of the 1950’s. Conner reminds me of the young man in Updike’s short story “Lifeguard” who thinks he can save the world but only on his own terms. His major positive trait is that he loves music. “Like many humanists, Conner was deeply responsive to music. In the language of melody speeches about man’s aspirations and eventual victory could be made that explicit language would embarrass. He could not hear a dozen chords without crystals building in his head, images: naked limbs, the exact curve of the great muscle of a male thigh, cities, colored spires soaring. Man was good. There was a destination. Health could be bought.” (101)

And yet there is a negative tinge here, like a subtle coloration in a fruit of hinted decay. As a social worker Conner claims that he likes people and wants to help them. But to broadly state that people in the arts and sciences were being selfish undermines his good will. He seems to be fundamentally afraid of life. On occasion he wants to hide in his office. He was an insomniac who hated beds, saying they were possessive; hearing dislocated words as he lay there.

Further regarding the old people in his charge, he felt superior to them. At the same time he feels self-conscious in their company. He reasons that too many of the old folks have lived too long; they should make room for the rising generation. Sensing this attitude they react one day by tossing pebbles at him. He doesn’t know how to handle the situation. At first he is simply embarrassed. Then he thinks: “There was security for him in their feebleness; their memory was frail, and grasped at ancient things.  Present time to them must appear weightless, a thin edge of paper. Further he imagined their judgments of him would be clement; the past seasons had inevitably bred some degree of affection and tolerance.” (127)

John Hook was a bright and vigorous man of the astonishing age of ninety-four. He could be a composite of Updike’s father and grandfather. He stood tall and erect. His eyesight had dimmed somewhat, and his steps sometimes wobbled. But he still enjoyed a regimen of four cigars a day. He was a thinker, having been a high school teacher for many years, with a special love for Roman history and American politics. As he said, he had lasted so long that he had sadly outlived both his wife and children. And yet, he had a sense of humor. “Everyone laughed; Hook was an expert mimic. The hiss of avarice and the high-pitched musical fluting of the hypocrite had been rebuilt in their midst, and Hook’s face had submitted to a marvelous transformation, the upper lip curling back in fury, then stiffening to go with the sanctimony of the arched eyebrows.” (75)

Mr. Hook believed that in the twentieth century mankind had lost its focus. He reasoned that boredom could lead a person into trouble. He thought that on one hand he personally was over-conscientious and on the other had missed an opportunity. His sin, he felt, was that years ago he had overlooked a man who was asking for help. However, one book sustained Hook. “The Bible, its spine in shreds, from which he would read chapter of the Gospels, those springs of no certain bottom, which you never find dry.” (143)

The culminating moment of the novel, for me, is when Hook intellectually confronts Conner, who states that he does not believe in God nor the redeeming power of nature.  He says to Hook: “The truth is, Mr. Hook, that if the universe was made, it was made by an idiot . . . We are mostly monster. People speak of loving life. Life is a maniac raving in a sealed room.” (92)

Hook responds by saying that pain is part of life, not an evil. He asks where do we come from? Not hit or miss over time as science theorizes, but God created us. In addition, God can console us, he has lessons for us in life, and Nature adorns His universe. Hook concludes with: “There is no goodness, without belief. There is nothing but busy-ness. And if you have not believed, at the end of your life you shall know you have buried your talent in the ground of this world and have nothing saved, to take into the next.” (94)

As a supporting character, Lucas is a farmer, a representative of all the age-old agriculture surrounding Updike as he grew up in rural Pennsylvania. A person of the land, Lucas is direct; a few brief quotes will define him: “He studied his food, boiled potato white on the white china on the white tabletop.” (58) “Lucas’s lower lip, shaped like one of those rare berries that is in fact two grafted together, protruded defiantly.” (65) “Lucas picked up the handiest weapon, his favorite, the truth.” (66)

Lucas is now old, growing fat, experiencing pain in his ear. He does not like to touch nor be touched. He often remembers his farming days, visiting the pig barns on the poorhouse property to feed them and commiserate. He lives with his wife in the poorhouse, a rare occurrence. He has memories of his daughter once loving them when she was young; now an adult she hardly communicates. As his wife fails, he does anything he can for her like chasing their escaped parakeet somewhere in the vast building. “In his stealth he felt enormously thick, cosmically big: his shoulders were Jupiter and Saturn.” (71)

Some of these supporting characters are most effectively limned by Updike in analogy. Elizabeth Heinemann is blind. A sibyl, a confidante to whom you feel safe to speak. Thus, almost all of her descriptions are metaphorical. About her eyesight: “Her confused inner world of tilting purple tumuli, a pre-Creational landscape fairly windowed by her eyes, the navy blue of a new baby’s.” (58)

What she hears when another person speaks: “Her vowels were of different distinct colors, the consonants like leading in a window of stained glass.” (78) This leads to the sense of touch as well: “The things you see are to me composed of how they feel when I touch them, and the sounds they make, for everything has a sound, even silent things.” (79)

She has lost much of her ability to adapt to normal conversations: “There was a smoothness in the discharge of her inner accumulations that compelled the silence sacred performances ask.” (79) Her blindness has over the years brought her a kind of fulfillment: “A voice wasn’t a twisted face but something musical. I could sit in a room with my parents and feel their emotions washing my sides, and hear a thousand details in their speech they were ignorant of, and feel my being in the room turn them toward gaiety and reverence.” (80)

Gregg is the fly in the poorhouse. He is a failed old man with many years of frustrated baggage. Yet he is not lethargic; rather, he is hyperactive in anti-social mischief. I think that Updike is fascinated with this abundant but wasted energy. Quite appropriate was Gregg’s trade as an electrician. His language is continuously  foul. He appears grimy, his clothes disheveled. His emotions run hot and cold in an instant. Updike describes Gregg’s appearance a lot: “A net of dark wrinkles had been thrown across his face, and his features seemed bright things caught in this net.” (41) Then later: “Gregg’s net of wrinkles gave the impression of caging a bright and panicked energy.” (81)

With some others Gregg takes a swig of rotgut whiskey sneaked onto the poorhouse premises which abstractly capsulizes his whole life: “As in the flavor of certain vegetables acres of bland rural landscape are contained, stone houses, fields, and grassy lanes, so this rasping hard taste flowered in Gregg’s mouth into high brick blank walls, streets of pocked asphalt bleeding in summer heat, the blue glint on corrugated iron where it is not rusted orange, the sun multiplied down a row of parked cars, tangerines pyramided behind plate glass, manhole covers, filth in gutters . . . “ (84) At the end of the novel while others sleep in the middle of the night, Gregg is dancing on the lawn, singing and talking to himself.

Mark is a symbol of all John Updike knows about childhood. He had a head start since he was an only child who had to learn to entertain himself as well as get along with others. He also as a father with two young children was learning more about them every day. Mark reminds me of the young boy in the short story “You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You.” The world is wondrous for a while.

Mark—sounding so much like Updike in his autobiographical writing—“was in the process of subduing the town to memory. Finally there would be no intersection or lot where something had not happened to him” (112) Although he was still scared of the dark, he held a distinctive idea of God: “To Mark the world was a vast empty place, yet personified with a mouth and long eyes, always steadily watching him, from the air above the top of a house.” (114)

Mark has come to the poorhouse fair with his grandfather Fred. Fred’s relationship with his daughter is not distance nor death but subservience. She and her aggressive husband have moved into Fred’s house and taken over “for his own good” now that his wife is deceased. What is happening in the town is mirrored in the poorhouse. Mark can feel it. “Afraid to turn his eyes to his grandfather’s lest the old man see through their clear substance into a well of pity.” (114) The child can be father to the man. The only satisfaction Fred gets is conversing with John Hook. “Like two chieftains meeting upon the ridge that separates their armies, the two men spoke face to face in the exact center of the main path.” (123)

John Updike’s short novel of one hundred and fifty pages is equally divided into three chapters. Each chapter contains a dozen sections or more, offering glimpses of the people and events at the poorhouse fair as it moves through the day. This kaleidoscopic effect is often intensified by certain fascinating techniques.

Some of Updike’s sentences are bedrock declarations, such as what products sold best at the fair: “There was a keen subversive need, at least in the cities, for objects that showed the trace of a hand, whether in an irregular seam, the crescent cuts of a chisel, or the dent of a forge hammer.” (118) Or unique personification: “He expected at every moment the window to smack it lips and the water cooler to gurgle uproariously.” (43) Or pure fanciful imagery about a piano being hoisted to a second story: “The tapered legs tracing a fugal phrase ‘largo’ on the emptiness as the huge instrument gently twirled in its secure cradle of rope.” (16)

Late in the novel to underscore the pouring out of the long day and the jagged energy of those tending and attending the fair, Updike uses a stream-of-conscious method. First we have a passage with John Hook speaking; then later on a page of various persons at the fair speaking; finally several pages of Hook again now conversing with Fred against a crescendo of other people’s broken phrases.

One comically surreal passage stands out when a sick person in bed sees through a narcotic haze Lucas chasing the green parakeet: “The green flower had sprouted unsurprisingly; the appearance of a bear seemed to follow from that. Now the bear growled. It seemed sorry for something, but then he was sorry too, and though there was no need to say so he smiled. The bear pointed; the flower leaped; the flower skimmed over the ceiling, and at a command from the bear the door closed sharply, saying ‘Idiot.’ The bear lifted its arms and sank from view, and the flower bloomed on the bed, its bright eyes frightening.” (72)

Like a door closing, in the final paragraph the novel seems to reach closure by describing John Hook’s room at night. “The moon so feeble previously now cast shadows through the window and rendered shapes: the bent boards of the little thick Bible, the open mouth of his shoes, the hang of his vest on the hook, the ribs of caning on the seat of his one chair.” (150)  The real and tangible things in his now circumscribed life. Over and over again Updike uses Nature to intensify man’s place in the cosmos.

Reputations fluctuate. Hemingway, dead now a half-century, in the future might be known for: a book on bull-fighting or big game hunting; a few stories still unique ninety years later; or A Moveable Feast, nearly an afterthought to him. John Updike has been a factory of endeavor: two Eastwicks, three Bechs, four Rabbits just in the genre of novel. Will the multiple weights of these works dominate? Time will winnow literature, that and changing culture. Sometimes first is best; I firmly believe that The Poorhouse Fair will endure.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Poorhouse-Fair-Novel-John-Updike/dp/0345468236

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI