Friday, September 26, 2014
Jefferson Davis was in a fix.
It was towards the end of the fourth quarter already and the natives were getting restless. Bugs swarmed in the high and bright lights and the players' pads were soaked in Indian summer sweat.
Jeff saw Brenda Lee Underwood over by the south end bleachers, just above where they liked to drink beers and nip at each other most nights when football wasn't on.
That bitch was there with the prick with the Camaro from up north of county line and didn't she just love anything with pants on?
"Should've listened to Danny Joe Dean, the Highsteppers' bass player," he told himself, "when we was up at the Collection House and he said she wasn't worth the cheap dress she was burstin' out of."
Darnell Hampton was loping back to the huddle. He saw his mother standing in the north end, hands clenched in prayer, old before her time. There were others from the family and neighborhood standing frozen around her. Aunts and uncles come to see Darnell the Wonder Boy. He didn't need to look to know they'd all be praying, too. Or passed out already from the delirium of the Jaguars' pending defeat.
The football religion was strong on both sides of the tracks and both sides of the tracks were simmering in disappointment.
This was no homecoming crosstown rivalry. It was a little 'ol Catholic school you couldn't even find in the Arkansas state high school football rankings. And here were the Jaguars sputtering toward the final gun, ready to blow a shot at the perfect season in the first warm-up game.
Whitman High took a last time out. Coach called Jeff Davis to the sideline so he could draw up a play. As Jeff jogged in he scanned the bleachers and saw Danny Joe Dean giving him the finger.
Damn he loved that 'ol boy!
Coach whipped up Xs and Os that had a shotgun, a pulling guard, and a wildcat something or other. He sent Jeff back out to hunt with those words, but Jefferson Davis didn't hear a word of it. He just nodded and jogged to the huddle.
His left guard, Ralph Mazzanti looked like something come out of the meat grinder and Henderson, the right side tackle, was useless out of habit.
Jeff Davis looked at Darnell. "You hear that farm boy call you a nigger?"
Darnell looked out at the north bleachers again. The family was still praying for the Lawd to help Whitman High football win. They kept all the stories, the sad stories he had heard. Held them close and whispered them.
Uncle LeRoy was gone, because somebody had to get the chicken and ribs for after the game. That's when they would all rush back to the other side of the railroad tracks to eat and sing and be apart from everything else happening in town.
Darnell was always invited across the track on football Friday nights, but before the clock clanged twelve he was back in the low shacks, a speedy Brougham turned brown pumpkin again.
"Ain't nobody called me a nigger all night 'cause they know I will kick a lot of serious ass if that was the case."
"Like Hayl," Jeff spit. "Number 77 called you a fast country nigger."
Darnell looked into the Maria Regina huddle for a Number 77. "He's black you fool."
"So he's cool?" Jeff asked. "He can say it?"
"Mostly," Darnell practically whispered.
"It's true anyway," Mazzanti said. "The bit about bein' a fast country nigger."
"D'jou just call me a country nigger Ralph?"
"Um, not direct-like. Not like, 'You, Darnell Hampton, are one very fast country nigger as per my word, Ralph Mazzanti.' No. I was paraphrasing."
Jeff knew Ralph picked up "paraphrasing" in Miss Keating's English class, because she wore patch pocket pants and he was focused.
Henderson knew none of those boys cared if one was green and the other blue as long as they could get a miracle touchdown, so he put it out there. "Hayl Darnell, Jeff's just a little hot-and-bothered about Brenda Lee Underwood and her being with that ol' boy from Paragould."
"Henderson you are a useless piece of shit," Jeff Davis shot back.
"Maybe, but it don't change the veracity of what I said none."
Jeff knew Henderson picked up that word, "veracity," from their "principles of dairying" teacher, Doc Hotstetler. He looked over at the south bleachers again and saw Brenda Lee kiss her new beaux.
He'd like to get a gun and kill her straightaway after the game. He thought he'd do it. Get a pistol, shoot all her friends, too. End her world, that fuckin' bitch.
He was drifted back to that night in July down by the river when Tiffany James come up and told Jeff all about how sweet Brenda Lee was on him, and how she was over by the swimming hole with the rope hung on a tree.
"You know the place," she tilted her head at him and pulled on a beer. He almost didn't want to leave.
Jeff Davis went up river and he saw Brenda Lee hanging down from the rope, swinging, her cut-off blue jeans getting pulled up her butt like a hillbilly bikini and this about drove him wild. He watched her swoop out over the water and let loose, landing in the black oily splash. He licked his lips.
Then, like a kinda swamp rat, some guy's head popped up laughing. Brenda Lee squealed and made like she was trying to get out of his arms and that's when she saw him, Jeff, standing there.
"Why Jefferson Davis!" and Brenda Lee looked at him with a kind of challenge in her face, before she turned and kissed that 'ol boy that was in the river with her.
The ref came over. "Break it up," and blew the whistle, waving his right arm around like a whirlybird.
This was the moment. Jeff Davis had never given his troops the play, because he never heard it, and because of Tiffany James and that night down by the river. Same kind of night. Summer night. Bugs and gnats in the air, in your lungs.
He looked over at the bleachers. Again. Brenda Lee pulled herself out of a kiss with the Camaro kid and stared straight at him. Her face had the same challenge in it as that July night by the river. Her button nose pointing skyward.
And he was sparked. Hard. Not by the challenge of a Camaro, or a perfect season, but by the memory of that hillbilly bikini bottom.
Jefferson Davis turned to Darnell Hampton and looked at him across generations of black and whiteness and railroad track and said...
..."Go deep. I'll hit ya!"
Monday, May 26, 2014
In this musical spoken-word duet with the marvelous Omar Torrez, I recount how Vedette's father traumatizes her into becoming a truth-teller for life.
Thursday, April 24, 2014
Saturday, March 08, 2014
Whether it's a cigarette with a still-lit butt being run under a faucet, a ewe getting her throat slit, or the little pink penis of her protagonist's captor, Wyld employs her marvelous prose to drive bile from one's gut into the bottom of the throat.
There is a place for this in literature: the youth with jaundiced eye, the angry take on a world that has disappointed too early, and the newly minted among us can be particularly rabid about the letdown.
So prepare to be bit.
"All the Birds, Singing," is the story of a woman whose first steps along the path of life are the wrong ones. Very wrong. The device, employed across a number of issues affecting Jake's life, is to let on that something is amiss and keep the reader guessing until the end, which limits the breadth of review so as not to spoil the story.
In any case, the narrative will take you from Australia to England, though it may take time to sort out where you are at first, because the second device employed is the presentation of chapters with no relation to chronology, except for the stacking of issue-resolving revelations at yarn's end.
The publisher, Pantheon Books, is very excited about Wyld, "All the Birds Singing" and the advance reviews ("completely and utterly monumental") focus on the author's crisp and textured prose.
There is, floating about the Internet, a "Ten Things Writers Shouldn't Do" list crafted by American author Elmore Leonard, whose specialty was the noir/thriller mystery.
Among Leonard's scripting sins is the use of adverbs, avoiding anything but saying the subject "said" during bouts of dialogue, and eschewing long descriptions of weather, places or people that a reader can jump over without losing the narrative thread.
"I'll bet you never skip over dialogue," said Leonard, whose big idea was that novelists should avoid "self-conscious writing."
Wyld would probably disagree, because she breaks all of Leonard's rules.
And that's because there is is good storytelling and there is good "writing" with carefully crafted crevices, rises, flatlands and, yes, adverbs. Wyld has chosen this type of scribery over the keep-em-turning-those-pages approach, which is fine, with all due respect to Mr. Leonard. Readers find joy in the revelry of language, too.
Jake has got scars nasty enough to send one of her johns (semi-spoiler) heading for the exits without paying what's owed and, by golly, you will wait good and long before the writer decides to let you in on how they got there.
"Dark," "guttural," "raw": Pick your descriptive for this rural rant that does not offer up a boulevard of broken dreams so much as a gallery of damaged souls; emotional runts who make an art of barely coping.
Friday, February 14, 2014
The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) made a name for himself in the 1930s with Revolt of the Masses, a book which lamented the industrial era's effect on Western culture. It created, he said, a need for specialization which led to a stunted humanity characterized by mediocrity and the "median man' of which he observed: "This planet is condemned to the reign of the median man. As such, the important task is to elevate the median as much as possible."
Ortega abhorred the dehumanizing effects of science and its handmaiden, reason, upon the life of this world. Nonetheless, as editor and publisher of the El Sol newspaper, and as the leader of his own political party in the years leading up to the Spanish Civil War, Ortega was a logical voice in an era when violent passions would ultimately prevail. While not nearly as seminal a work as Revolt, a collection of Ortega's essays edited from El Sol, and packaged as "Estudios Sobre El Amor" (Studies On Love)(1939), is certainly his most charming. In this collection, Ortega, a professor of metaphysics at the University of Madrid, takes reason and trains it upon that greatest of human mysteries: Love.
Here are the results:
Ortega sets out, as a good philosopher, to define his concept and debunks the equating of love with happiness. "Who doubts that the lover can receive joy from the beloved? But is it no less certain that love is at times sad as death, a sovereign and mortal torture?"
He quotes the letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to her untrue seducer: "I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the desperation you have caused me and detest the tranquility in which I lived prior to knowing you."
Love's hypothetical happiness disproved with an example, Ortega bores into his subject. Love, he maintains, is incitement. "Through a pore opened by the arrow launched from an object of affection springs love, actively directing itself toward them...It flows from the lover toward the beloved -- from me to the other, in a centrifugal direction."
As an emanation toward the object, love is not unlike hate, the difference being that love flows toward its target positively, whereas hate proffers negativity. Both, however, generate heat produced in varying degrees. "All love," he notes, "passes through phases of diverse temperature and, subtly, the language of love talks of those relations which 'cool,' and the lover complains of the beloved's tepid responses, of their coldness."
The third aspect to love's definition must naturally, perhaps hopefully, take into account the point at which lover and beloved are united.
Ortega insists that love not only errs upon occasion but is essentially an error. "We fall in love when our imagination projects nonexistent perfection upon another person. One day, the fantasy evaporates and with it, love dies."
The idea, like so many around us, is born with the Greeks: Plato to be specific. Ortega points out that for Plato, all love resides in the desire to unite the person who loves to another being blessed with perfection, in the volition of our soul toward something excellent, better and superior. "Let the reader try generating a state of enchantment -- sexual enchantment -- in an object which provides not a single aspect of excellence, and see how impossible it becomes."
Sexual instinct, he points out, may preserve the species, but does not perfect it. Throw love into the sexual mix, however, and enthusiasm for that other being, for their body and soul in union indissoluble, and what you get is a gargantuan effort to improve the breed.
"With the erotic process barely initiated, the lover experiences a strange sense of urgency to dissolve their individuality into the other, and vice versa, to become absorbed by the beloved...This recalls the doctrine of the Saint Simonians, according to which, the true human individual is the loving couple."
Our world, Ortega says, is cluttered with innumerable objects whilst the field of our conscience is very limited. The details of this world engage in a kind of fight for our attention, which supplants one object with another, according to its importance. "Mania," consequently, is a condition of focus extended beyond the limits of normality. Ortega suggests that all the great thinkers have been maniacs. "When they asked Newton how he was able to discover his mechanical understanding of the universe, he responded, 'By thinking about it day and night.'"
Love, our philosopher says, works the same way, represents an anomalous focusing of attention upon another person. "It does not constitute enrichment of our mental life," he points out, "just the opposite. It grows rigid and fixed, prisoner to a single being. Plato called it Theia mania (divine mania). Nonetheless, the person enamored has the sense of life being much richer. In the reduction of their world, it seemingly grows more concentrated."
For a lover, then, the world ceases too exist, having been supplanted completely by the beloved.
Loves Fatal Machinery
Curiously, the evolution of enchantment lacks spirituality, depending as it does upon the paralyzing of our attention -- that which regulates mental activity -- leaving the lover dependent upon a series of automatic, mechanical processes. Love, Ortega reasons, is an imposition which mocks free will. The great heartbreakers know this, that once they've managed to affix someone's attention to them, total preoccupation is possible with a simple tightening and loosening of the string attached to their romantic prey.
The lover falls under a "spell," an "enchantment." These, he notes, are words which point to love's extraordinary character. We resort to religious terminology when trying to describe it.
"The curious sharing of lexicons between love and mysticism leads one to suspect common roots." For Ortega, mysticism is also a phenomenon of attention. In the mystic, "God permeates the soul to the point of becoming confused with it, or the inverse, with the soul becoming diluted in God. Such is the union the mystic aspires to. The ecstatic perceives said union as something definitive and perennial, just as the lover swears eternal love.
"Once initiated, the process of enchantment develops with an exasperating monotony," Ortega points out. "What I mean to say is that all those who fall in love do it the same way - the smart one and the dope, the younger and the elder, the bourgeois and the artist. This fact confirms love's mechanical character."
The only exception to this mechanistic rule is found in the question of precisely what attracts the attention of one person to another. Ortega does not shrink from the challenge.
Naked in Love
By demonstrating an interest in someone, we expose much of ourselves that is hidden. "In the election of his mate, the male reveals his essence, in the election of her man, a female does the same," notes the philosopher. "The type of humanity we prefer in one another being sketches the profile of our own soul. Love is an impetus that emerges from the subterranean reaches of our person, and in traveling to the surface dredges the algae and shells of our interior with it."
Ortega posits that not unfamiliar situation which pairs a gregarious woman of beauty with a man considered low and vulgar. The judgment is usually an optical illusion because of the distance involved. Love, Ortega asserts, is the business of minute detail and the fact is that, viewed from far away, authentic love and false comport themselves in a similar manner: "But let's say the affection is genuine," he asks. "What are we to think?" One of two things: Either the man is not quite so vulgar as we thought, or the woman not so select."
The great error, vigilant since Descartes and Renaissance, is that which views human being as living by the dictates of conscience, "that small part of ourselves with which we see clearly and which operates according to our will." The greater volume of our being, he asserts, is neither free nor rational. "In vain does the woman who would be viewed as exquisite try to fool us. We have seen she loves Joe, and Joe is clumsy, indelicate; caring only for the perfection of his tie and the shine to his Rolls."
Ortega argues that a man likes most women that pass within his periphery, but this instinct rarely strikes at the depths of his person. When it does, when that aforementioned emanation springs forth and toward the other, that is love. "If it is an idiocy to say that love between man and woman contains no sexual element, it is a bigger stupidity to suggest that love is sexuality. The sexual instinct has an ample sampling of objects to satisfy it, but love is exclusivity, selection."
Beauty is that which invites selection and Ortega tackles the concept with particular relish. "More than acts and words, it is best to focus on what appears to be less important: gesture and physiology. Because they are spontaneous, they permit the escape of profound personal secrets and do so with exactitude."
He says that society has its "official beauties," those whom people point to at parties and in the theater, as if public monuments, which in a sense they are. Ortega suggests that such women may pique a man's desire to possess, but rarely gain his love. Their esthetic beauty sets them apart as artistic objects and the distance prevents love.
"The indifferent find beauty in the grand lines of the face and in the figure -- in what we typically call beauty. For the enamored, they do not exist, the grand lines and the architecture of the person which beckon from afar, have been erased. For them, beauty is found in the scattered features, the color of the pupil, the curve at the corner of the beloved's lips, the tone of their voice."
Boys and Girls
Ortega believes that woman is more capable of this all-encompassing, almost mystic state of love. He argues that the feminine psyche is less concentric, more cohesive and more elastic, thus better lending itself to the singular pursuit, or attention, required for love. "The feminine soul tends to live by a single axis of attention and each phase of her life rests upon a single matter.
"The more masculine the spirituality, the more dislocated the soul, as if divided into separate compartments," says Ortega. "Accustomed to living upon a multiple base, and in a series of mental fields with only the most precarious connection, conquering the attention of one achieves nothing since the rest remain free and intact."
Ortega points out how the woman enamored is frequently exasperated by a sense that she never has the entirety of the man she loves before her. "She always finds him a little distracted, as if, in setting out for their rendezvous he has left, dispersed across the world, entire provinces of the soul."
For this reason, even the most sensitive of men is shamed by his inability to attain the perfection a woman is capable of lending to love.