Imaginary homelands essa.., p.32

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 32


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  When murderers start becoming stars, you know that something has gone badly wrong. When ordinary folk queue up to submit to the diverse humiliations of game-shows just to get their five minutes in the spotlight, you realize how far the disease has spread. And when the techniques of starmaking, or image and illusion, become the staples of politics, you understand: we are all idolaters now, and there don’t seem to be many iconoclasts around.

  At least the old movie stars, flickering up there at twenty-four frames per second, were gods who knew themselves to be false. Come back, Flash Gordon; all is forgiven.



  The idea of the Star, of the human individual who radiates celestial light, is a quintessentially American one, because America is in love with light; just listen to its national anthem, star-spangled banner, dawn’s early light, twilight’s last gleaming, rocket’s red glare, was there ever such an ode to illumination? But if America sees itself as the Light Incarnate it knows, too, its Darkness, and loves its dark stars also, loves them all the more because it fears them so: Al Capone, Don Corleone, Legs Diamond and the demon-god of E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, the barbarian Arthur Flegenheimer, who stole a dead man’s name and became Dutch Schultz. A secular nation hungry for gods, America made of men like the Dutchman dark deities in whom it desperately wanted to believe, as fifteen-year-old Billy, Doctorow’s narrator, wants to believe in Schultz. But what America loves most, needs most, more than light, more than darkness, more than gods or demons, is the myth of itself. Mythical America, its writers tell us constantly, is the real America, and myth demands, among other things, that heroes fall as well as rise. Billy Bathgate is the story of the Dutchman’s long, last dive.

  It’s also the story of Billy’s rise. Billy the punk, the ‘capable boy’ who catches the great hood’s eye by juggling objects of different weight on the sidewalk outside one of the racketeer’s beer drops. Billy with the crazy mother who nailed her departed husband’s suit to the floor of her room, spread-eagled as if it were a man. Billy whose best friend is a scavenger named Arnold Garbage and who, at fifteen, takes fourteen-year-old Rebecca up to the roof of the orphanage and fucks her twice for a dollar. Billy who dreams of greatness, and pursues it the way he tells the story, in a great rush of language and scheming and love of danger and fear of death and determination to survive; and for whom his one chance of greatness lies with the Schultz gang and depends on the boss’s murderous whim. Knowing he could die at any moment, for seeing too much or learning too little, Billy seizes his chance with all the hunger of the street. ‘I think these days for the real training you got to go right to the top,’ he dares to say right into the Dutchman’s face, and gets away with it.

  He is apprenticed to the gang, and during one of the most unsentimental educations in literature he certainly sees much too much and learns plenty by way of compensation. What he sees includes the execution of the killer Bo Weinberg, whom Dutch takes out into New York harbour with his feet in a bowl of hardening cement, which slops back and forth in a ‘slow-witted diagram of the sea,’ and who goes to feed the fishes, singing ‘Bye, Bye, Blackbird’. It includes the hideous murders of a fire inspector and a union boss, killed by Schultz out of the rage of his power’s collapse. It includes the visit of the Mafia don with the drooping eye and bad skin and, later, the visit paid to Schultz by this gentleman’s employees. What he learns: how to shoot a gun, and (from Schultz’s financial genius Abbadabba Berman) the secrets of numbers, including the numbers racket, and what you feel when your god arranges to have your nose broken, and how some people feed on death, and what it means to a racketeer when the bent politicians refuse to take Schultz’s money any more (‘It is a momentous thing when the money won’t flow’), and how dying gangsters, gasping out their last words, will give up their greatest secrets if you know how to listen right. He learns how to fall in love, and, above all, how to live to tell his tale.

  Love comes to Billy in the form of Drew Preston, society beauty and tramp, inherited by Schultz from cemented Bo. Drew makes herself available to Billy as well, and although she is beautiful as all hell and the Dutchman is crazy about her and she almost splits the gang and Billy winds up saving her life at the Saratoga racetrack by an ingenious scheme involving bouquets of flowers and boxes of candy and also her husband Harvey, the fact is that she’s the least convincingly drawn character in an otherwise flawless book; she reads like she’s waiting for Michelle Pfeiffer to play her in the movie. The truth is the book does read at times too much like the movie it will obviously be pretty soon but what the hell, the story is so terrific you really don’t care to complain.

  American novelists have always been readier than their European counterparts to demonstrate that the art of literature can adopt the form of the popular entertainment without losing an iota of seriousness, and Billy Bathgate is Doctorow’s most brilliant proof of it to date. In fact, were it not as robustly vulgar as it is, it would fail as art, because Billy himself is in truth the incarnation of the street. He has named himself after Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx, ‘this bazaar of life, Bathgate’, and so it is right that he and his book should be as pellmell and clattering as that raucous thoroughfare. Doctorow’s gift for evoking the actuality of street-life is unrivalled, and he brings to vivid life Bathgate, the market street, where the barrowboys sell grapefruit and Georgia peaches, and ‘the aristocracy of the business’ have real stores selling ‘your chickens still in their feathers’, and lox and whitefish and pickles and everything else as well. And just as vivid as Bathgate Avenue is the boy who takes its name, and is like it dedicated to money, to the pursuit of money in America, and to the gangsters who are the paradigms of that single-minded and ruthless pursuit, who are its most exalted and malign embodiments, who are to Bathgate Avenue as the monarch is to the punk.

  ‘The city has always given me assurances,’ says Billy Bathgate, ‘whenever I have asked for them.’ The gangsters in Doctorow’s novel, like Jack Diamond in William Kennedy’s equally potent Legs, draw their self-belief, their sense of solidity and permanence, from the metropolis itself, which suggests that only those who can believe in the permanence of the city are able to master it; or perhaps that it’s only when you believe in that permanence that you can survive the city’s transformations, its tricksy changes of light and lethal shadowplays, because it’s belief that keeps you one step ahead, with money in your pocket and the world at your feet, until you come up against somebody who believes even harder than you.



  ‘Vietnam? Was that a war or what?’ This is Sergeant Benson speaking. She’s a character in a story by Richard Ford, and it’s not that she doesn’t know about Vietnam, it’s that she doesn’t want to know. She’s talking to a Vietnam veteran on a train. ‘You were probably on a boat that patrolled the rivers blindly in the jungle day and night, and you don’t want to discuss it now because of your nightmares, right?’ Who wants yesterday’s papers, the Rolling Stones used to ask, and that’s Vietnam: yesterday’s apocalypse.

  It’s more than a decade, now, since Michael Herr finished work on the best book to come out of the madness, and reading Dispatches again after all this time I’m struck most of all by the language in it, because Vietnam was language as well as everything else: the dead language of jargon that lay over the event and tried to conceal it, frontier sealing, census grievance, the Vietnam War will be an economy War, and one I’ve never forgotten, a US military spokesman describing a bombing raid ‘north of the Dee Em Zee’ as having ‘obtained a 100% mortality response.’ Set against that language in Dispatches is the living argot of the enlisted men, the grunts. ‘I been scaled, man, I’m smooth now,’ a black paratrooper told Herr, ‘leaving me to wonder where he’d been to get his language.’ And then there’s the third language. Rock ‘n’ roll. The sixties … its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn’t even have to fuse.

m sitting with Herr in his South Kensington apartment talking about how Vietnam was invaded by Hendrix, by Sam the Sham, by Zappa as well as soldiers, by General Waste-More-Land. He says: ‘The grunts were conscious that they were involved in a drug-and-rock ‘n’ roll extension. Most of the combatants, black and white, came from the working class. For them, the war was an extension of their street lives. Rock ‘n’ roll had a currency in those days it hasn’t had since 1970. The war didn’t survive rock ‘n’ roll, in a way.’ Those were the days of heads and freaks. And if getting high was where it was at, then Vietnam was the ultimate trip. When the grunts went into battle, Herr remembers, they ‘put their guns on rock ‘n’ roll.’

  It’s easy to say that Vietnam was bad craziness, much harder to admit that the craziness was working inside you, you weren’t just an observer. That honesty is what makes Dispatches special, what’s made it last. ‘I wanted to be intimate with the war,’ says Herr. ‘I also wanted to maintain control, as everyone does in the matter of intimacy, but I couldn’t. Circumstances arose.’ There were critical moments when he had to cross the line, pick up a gun, shoot. ‘I felt I had almost certainly taken another life to preserve my own life.’ In the book he wrote down his feelings as truthfully as he could. They included happiness. ‘I was just happy I was alive. I went through an unbelievably terrible night and when the sun came up I was still there.’ Now, ten years after the book, he is ‘essentially a pacifist.’ To take another human life was, as the saying went, a very heavy piece of karma. ‘I think that somewhere along the line it’s going to have to be accounted for.’

  Accounting for Vietnam: and yes, Sergeant Benson, there are nightmares. When he worked on Apocalypse Now, and ten years later, writing Full Metal Jacket, the dreams returned. ‘All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.’ Vietnam is a scar on the American psyche that has never been healed because ‘the proper medication was never used.’ And what’s that? ‘Meditation. The American media still deflect Americans from any true meditation about what happened there.’ No collective act of understanding is possible in such a climate; only individual acts of understanding remain. ‘I’m a hardcore Pascalian. All the suffering in the world comes from people not being able to be alone in a room.’ A classic sixties solution, maybe, for a quintessential sixties crime.

  He’s worked on two of the best Vietnam movies, doesn’t think much of the others, but way back then, in Vietnam, the movies were already a way for him to experience the war. ‘I’m a child of my time and a man of my culture. I grew up in the movies. Don Quixote experiences his travels in the language of romances. But when he dies, he knows what’s happened to him. He’s very clear. As many of us knew that the war was not a movie. It was real.’ Nowadays, though, the Vietnam movies mostly create ‘false representations. You know: wanting to look and not wanting to look. People want it authentic but not too authentic. They want their pain stirred up, but not too much, and then they want it taken away.’

  The real tragedy is that there’s ‘no apparatus to deflect the guilt of the grunts. Those guys have been set adrift. They were simultaneously so innocent and evil out there, like Alden Pyle [Greene’s ‘quiet American’]. There was no way to sort that out for them when they came back.’

  Nowadays, he resists talking politics about the war. ‘I was politicized by the war and then went to a stage beyond politics. It became critically nullified by the overwhelming experience of being there. The war was behaviour. Archetypal behaviour beyond judgement.’ But is there such a thing? Isn’t that a kind of exoneration? ‘I don’t want to exonerate them. It’s just that from the outside the war was perceived as an exclusively political event. On the inside it was fundamentally and eternally a human event. And it’s going to be a human event much longer than a political one.’

  For the grunts, there was the World, and there was Vietnam. In Vietnam, after the death of Martin Luther King, there were race riots at many American bases. But then things quietened down. ‘Men needed each other. They needed each other more than they needed their prejudice.’ In Vietnam, Herr learned that true courage was refusing to fight. ‘Once you’ve run in front of a machine-gun a few times, try facing your wife and kids.’ In Vietnam, he accepted that war was glamorous, because of its intimacy with death. ‘Nothing else can move that much adrenalin. I’m rather grateful that’s so, because now I know how to avoid that level of drama.’ Hardened foreign correspondents like Ryszard Kapuściński admit they need revolutions, wars; they’re addicts. ‘It’s wonderful of Kapuściński to know and say that. But I’m no classic war correspondent. Vietnam was a one-off. I don’t ever want to see war again, or to go back to Vietnam.’ Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there, his book ends. But these days, the World is enough.



  It is the summer of 1960 and all around the town of Great Falls, Montana, forest fires are burning. The forest wildlife flees the blaze. A bear is seen emerging from the fire, its fur blazing. A moose wanders into the main street of a small township, bewildered. The animals don’t understand the fire. Its causes are mysterious. But it changes their lives.

  Human beings are not so different. The fire changes things for them also. ‘It was sometimes a good thing to be near a thing so uncontrollable and out of all scale that you felt reduced and knew your position in the world.’ The fire draws men to fight it, and the women left behind accuse them of taking Indian women for lovers. The fire makes sudden, unpredictable changes of direction, and when it dies down to a smoulder it’s still treacherous. It can blaze up again at any moment, without warning.

  There’s a sort of fire in people’s hearts, too, and when it flares up it’s too big a thing to resist, you feel reduced. Take Jerry. He’s a golf pro who drifts into Great Falls with his wife Jeanette and sixteen-year-old son Joe. He loses his job, unjustly accused of putting his fingers in the club till, and falls into a slump, until the fire summons him to fight it. ‘I’ve got this hum in my head now,’ he says. ‘I’ve got to do something about it.’ Against his wife’s wishes, in spite of his knowledge of her discontents, he goes.

  Or take Jeanette. She’s drifted with Jerry across America. ‘We had lived in Coeur d’Alene and McCall, Idaho, and in Endicott and Pasco and Walla Walla.’ She never expected to be living in Great Falls and to see her husband go off to risk his life like a child, standing up against a blaze. Jeanette has reached the end of some sort of line. She wants better. Better turns out to be a local rich guy, Warren Miller, and in the three days her husband’s away she dresses up in her ‘desperation dress’ and goes to Miller’s house to dance a drunken cha-cha and lets him into her marital bed at night and then goes to lie with him in his pink automobile. Things are changing for her, she lets them drift into irreversibility, she runs before the flames. She does all this in a dreamy sort of way, as if it’s being done through her and not by her. ‘I’m afraid of becoming somebody else now, I guess,’ she says. ‘That’s probably how the world works. We just don’t know it until it happens. “Ha-ha”, I guess is what we should say. “Haha.”’ Here’s what Jerry says to his boy Joe when he finds out Jeanette has been stepping out on him: ‘This is a wild life, isn’t it, son?’

  It’s Joe who tells the story. And if the adults here don’t fully understand why they do what they do, half-formed Joe, on the edge of the adult world, doesn’t fully understand grown-ups, either. He is ‘in limbo, between the cares of other people with only my own cares to show me what to do.’

  Wildlife, Richard Ford’s first novel-length fiction since the magnificent story collection Rock Springs, can’t really be called an advance on that earlier volume. It’s more like a continuation of the world he built there, an America without history, peopled by men and women of small ambition, small dreams, small disappointments. The town in this book may be called Great Falls but all the falls in it, Ford makes clear, are little ones.
‘In the end, not very much happened’ is a typical Ford sentence, but the not very much that happens is so well observed, felt and described that Ford effortlessly pulls off the trick of making us think that the lives he shows us mean a great deal, while also making us remember that they don’t really mean much at all.

  Ford’s work has often been bracketed with and likened to the writing of his friend, the late Raymond Carver, and he hasn’t always benefited by the comparison. ‘Dirty realism’ is a label that contains about as much truth as you can fit on to a label, but Ford and Carver’s unlikenesses are more interesting than their similarities. The characteristic Ford tone of voice is a good deal more distanced than Carver’s was, and the people he describes are likewise distanced from their own experience, like Jerry and Jeanette and Joe, all of them doing things without quite knowing they’re going to, just waiting for things to reveal their need to be done. There’s more passion in Carver; there’s more dispassion in Ford.

  Wildlife is a fine novel by a fine writer. At times it brought to mind David Byrne’s movie about another American Nowheresville, True Stories, a movie which, like Ford’s book, observes the human animal with friendship, understanding, and an almost clinical detachment. There’s a scene in True Stories in which the people of the town take turns at a mike, singing brief verses of autobiography, trying, again like Ford’s characters, to sing themselves into existence and significance, wearing their desperation dresses. The name of the song they sing is ‘Wild, Wild Life’.

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