Scribbling Again

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The Simpsons: David Foster Wallace

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And a reference to the boat in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again.

Analysis of Barry Hannah’s “Water Liars”

Airships begins with Hannah’s most famous short story, Water Liars. The day after his thirty-third birthday, our protagonist learns that his wife had been lying about her sexual history and reveals that her and her husband’s histories are “exactly equal” (4). The main character goes fishing with a friend to get over it. Like most writer from the American South, Hannah brings Christianity into his work either as a current that runs through the story, or as a detail lending a note of authenticity to Hannah’s chosen place. Here’s it’s a mixture of both. The main character points out that Jesus of Nazareth died at thirty-three, and that the speaker “had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in [my] life” (3). The religious parallels continue when he says “It hurt me to think that in the era when there were supposed to be virgins she had allowed anyone but me, and so on” (4). This quotation throws doubt onto the Christian narrative our speaker tries foisting on himself the comparison to Jesus. After all, “there were supposed to be virgins” [italics mine]. His Christian narrative needs a figure suggesting Mary the Mother of Jesus. According to Christianity, Mary conceived and birthed Jesus without sexual intercourse. Our protagonist uses this as a way to try and elevate his wife, to make her more in touch with the divine and morally clean. The preconceived notions here are standard patriarchal fare, like the idea that sex is immoral, especially for women, or that our protagonist is upset that he wasn’t the first and only one to have sex with his wife. This snippet exposes some of the cracks in the speaker’s narrative while simultaneously undermining the patriarchal control forwarded by fundamentalist Christianity. But I want to focus more on Hannah’s use of Christian and religious imagery to handle the specificities of the story, rather than expand it into cultural critique.

The Christ comparisons go further than hopeful thinking. The entire story concerns our protagonist coming to terms with the past, his and his wife’s past. In Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth is viewed as a sacrifice for humanity’s past sins against God. The story evokes the iconic image of Jesus’ sacrificial death in its last sentence “We were both crucified by the truth” (7). This appears after our protagonist and his friend arrive at the lake and hear a true story among the old men who drink on the pier and tell lies all night. “[A] new younger man” (6) tells the story of how he and a friend went fishing on the lake and started to hear strange noises. They thought it might be Yazoo, an Indian king who supposedly haunts the lake, but it turned out to be the storyteller’s high school daughter having sex with an older man. One old man sums up all the others’ responses quite well, “My Gawd, that’s awful,’ said the old geezer by the rail. ‘Is that the truth? I wouldn’t’ve told that. That’s terrible” (6). In contrast, our protagonist likes this man and bonds with him the whole weekend. This storyteller is the other man “crucified by the truth” (7) in the final sentence. This reveal ties in with the metaphysical narratives referred to throughout the story.

In addition to the imagery pertaining to Jesus, Water Liars also contains references to ghosts, especially king Yazoo. Of course this summons up Flannery O’Connor’s famous quote “the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Like the Biblical imagery, these ghosts suggest our protagonist’s past and his wife’s hidden sexual history. Farte Cove, the lake’s location provides both stories about ghosts and the partying and sexual escapades of local high school students. This pairing lends a metaphysical horror or potential harm that might come to these men if they dabble in their loved one’s, specifically their daughters and wives affairs. Our protagonist points out the double standard that his own history doesn’t bother him or his wife, but her sexual experiences bother him (4). More interesting is the way the story trespasses against Christianity’s dogma that mostly deals in absolutes and rigid descriptions. After all, both the protagonist and the man who upsets the crowd at the pier become Christ martyred by reality. This blends the nature oriented, less exclusive, and decisive teachings displayed in the Native American religious traditions with the more ideological and categorical driven patterns of thought in Christianity. I’ve wrestled with this story for a long time now and it seems I’m interested in different things each time I write about it. Thoughts?

Barry Hannah: Water Liars

When I am run down and flocked around by the world, I go down to Farte Cove off the Yazoo River and take my beer to the end of the pier where the old liars are still snapping and wheezing at one another. The line-up is always different, because they’re always dying out or succumbing to constipation, etc., whereupon they go back to the cabins and wait for a good day when they can come out and lie again, leaning on the rail with coats full of bran cookies. The son of the man the cove was named for is often out there. He pronounces his name Fartay, with a great French stress on the last syllable. Otherwise you might laugh at his history or ignore it in favor of the name as it’s spelled on the sign.

I’m glad it’s not my name.

This poor dignified man has had to explain his nobility to the semiliterate of half of America before he could even begin a decent conversation with them. On the other hand, Farte, Jr., is a great liar himself. He tells about seeing ghost people around the lake and tells big loose ones about the size of the fish those ghosts took out of Farte Cove in years past.

Last year I turned thirty-three years old and, raised a Baptist, I had a sense of being Jesus and coming to something decided in my life—because we all know Jesus was crucified at thirty-three. It had all seemed especially important, what you do in this year, and holy with meaning.

On the morning after my birthday party, during which I and my wife almost drowned in vodka cocktails, we both woke up to the making of a truth session about the lovers we’d had before we met each other. I had a mildly exciting and usual history, and she had about the same, which surprised me. For ten years she’d sworn I was the first. I could not believe her history was exactly equal with mine. It hurt me to think that in the era when there were supposed to be virgins she had allowed anyone but me, and so on.

I was dazed and exhilarated by this information for several weeks. Finally, it drove me crazy, and I came out to Farte Cove to rest, under the pretense of a fishing week with my chum Wyatt.

I’m still figuring out why I couldn’t handle it.

My sense of the past is vivid and slow. I hear every sign and see every shadow. The movement of every limb in every passionate event occupies my mind. I have a prurience on the grand scale. It makes no sense that I should be angry about happenings before she and I ever saw each other. Yet I feel an impotent homicidal urge in the matter of her lovers. She has excused my episodes as the course of things, though she has a vivid memory too. But there is a blurred nostalgia women have that men don’t.

You could not believe how handsome and delicate my wife is naked.

I was driven wild by the bodies that had trespassed her twelve and thirteen years ago.

My vacation at Farte Cove wasn’t like that easy little bit you get as a rich New Yorker. My finances weren’t in great shape; to be true, they were about in ruin, and I left the house knowing my wife would have to answer the phone to hold off, for instance, the phone company itself. Everybody wanted money and I didn’t have any.

I was going to take the next week in the house while she went away, watch our three kids and all the rest. When you both teach part-time in the high schools, the income can be slow in summer.

No poor-mouthing here. I don’t want anybody’s pity. I just want to explain. I’ve got good hopes of a job over at Alabama next year. Then I’ll get myself among higher-paid liars, that’s all.

Sidney Farte was out there prevaricating away at the end of the pier when Wyatt and I got there Friday evening. The old faces I recognized; a few new harkening idlers I didn’t.

“Now, Doctor Mooney, he not only saw the ghost of Lily, he says he had intercourse with her. Said it was involuntary. Before he knew what he was doing, he was on her making cadence and all their clothes blown away off in the trees around the shore. She turned into a wax candle right under him.”

“Intercourse,” said an old-timer, breathing heavy. He sat up on the rail. It was a word of high danger to his old mind. He said it with a long disgust, glad, I guess, he was not involved.

“MacIntire, a Presbyterian preacher, I seen him come out here with his son-and-law, anchor near the bridge, and pull up fifty or more white perch big as small pumpkins. You know what they was using for bait?”

“What?” asked another geezer.

Nuthin. Caught on the bare hook. It was Gawd made them fish bite,” said Sidney Farte, going at it good.

“Naw. There be a season they bite a bare hook. Gawd didn’t have to’ve done that,” said another old guy, with a fringe of red hair and a racy Florida shirt.

“Nother night,” said Sidney Farte, “I saw the ghost of Yazoo hisself with my pa, who’s dead. A Indian king with four deer around him.”

The old boys seemed to be used to this one. Nobody said anything. They ignored Sidney.

“Tell you what,” said a well-built small old boy. “That was somethin when we come down here and had to chase that whole high-school party off the end of this pier, them drunken children. They was smokin dope and two-thirds a them nekid swimmin in the water. Good hunnerd of em. From your so-called good high school. What you think’s happnin at the bad ones?”

I dropped my beer and grew suddenly sick. Wyatt asked me what was wrong. I could see my wife in 1960 in the group of high-schoolers she must have had. My jealousy went out into the stars of the night above me. I could not bear the roving carelessness of teen-agers, their judgeless tangling of wanting and bodies. But I was the worst back then. In the mad days back then, I dragged the panties off girls I hated and talked badly about them once the sun came up.

“Worst time in my life,” said a new, younger man, maybe sixty but with the face of a man who had surrendered, “me and Woody was fishing. Had a lantern. It was about eleven. We was catching a few fish but rowed on into that little cove over there near town. We heard all these sounds, like they was ghosts. We was scared. We thought it might be the Yazoo hisself. We known of some fellows the Yazoo had killed to death just from fright. It was the over the sounds of what was normal human sighin and amoanin. It was big unhuman sounds. We just stood still in the boat. Ain’t nuthin else us to do. For thirty minutes.”

“An what was it?” said the old geezer, letting himself off the rail.

“We had a big flashlight. There came up this rustlin in the brush and I beamed it over there. The two of em making the sounds get up with half they clothes on. It was my own daughter Charlotte and an older guy I didn’t even know with a mustache. My own daughter, and them sounds over the water scarin us like ghosts.”

“My Gawd, that’s awful,” said the old geezer by the rail. “Is that the truth? I wouldn’t’ve told that. That’s terrible.”

Sidney Farte was really upset.

“This ain’t the place!” he said. “Tell your kind of story somewhere else.”

The old man who’d told his story was calm and fixed to his place. He’d told the truth. The crowd on the pier was outraged and discomfited. He wasn’t one of them. But he stood his place. He had a distressed pride. You could see he had never recovered from the thing he’d told about.

I told Wyatt to bring the old man back to the cabin. He was out here away from his wife the same as me and Wyatt. Just an older guy with a big hurting bosom. He wore a suit and the only way you’d know he was on vacation was he’d removed his tie. He didn’t know where the bait house was. He didn’t know what to do on vacation at all. But he got drunk with us and I can tell you he and I went out the next morning with our poles, Wyatt driving the motorboat, fishing for white perch in the cove near the town. And we were kindred.

We were both crucified by the truth.

Tom Robbins: “I am in a state of grace”

“From Whitman to Steinbeck to Kerouac, and beyond to the restless brood of the seventies, the American road has represented choice, escape, opportunity, a way to somewhere else. However illusionary, the road was freedom, and the freest way to ride the road was hitchhiking. By the seventies, so many young Americans were on the road that hitchhiking did take on, Julian to the contrary, characteristics of sport…’When I was younger, before this layoff that has nearly finished me, I hitchhiked one hundred and twenty-seven hours without stopping, without food or sleep, crossed the continent twice in six days, cooled my thumbs in both oceans and caught rides after midnight on unlighted highways, such was my skill, persuasion, rhythm. I set records and immediately cracked them; went farther, faster than any hitchhiker before or since. As I developed, however, I grew more concerned with subtleties and nuances of style. Time in terms of m.p.h. no longer interested me. I began to hitchhike in something akin to geological time: slow, ancient, vast. Daylight, I would sleep in ditches and under bushes, crawling out in the afternoon like the first fish crawling from the sea, stopping car after car and often as not refusing their lift, or riding only a mile and starting over again. I removed the freeway from its temporal context. Overpasses, cloverleafs, exit ramps took on the personality of Mayan ruins for me. Without destination, without cessation, my run was often silent and empty; there were no increments, no arbitrary graduations reducing time to functional units. I abstracted and purified. Then I began to juxtapose slow, extended runs with short, furiously fast ones — until I could compose melodies, concerti, entire symphonies of hitch. When poor Jack Kerouac heard about this, he got drunk for a week. I added dimensions to hitchhiking that others could not even understand. In the Age of the Automobile — and nothing shaped our culture like the motor car — there have been many great drivers but only one great passenger. I have hitched and hiked over every state and half the nations, through blizzards and under rainbows, in deserts and in cities, backward and sideways, upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber. There is no road that did not expect me. Fields of daisies bowed and gas pumps gurgled when I passed by. Every moo cow dipped toward me her full udder. With me, something different and deep, in bright focus and pointing the way, arrived in the practice of hitchhiking. I am the spirit and the heart of hitchhiking, I am its cortex and its medulla, I am its foundation and its culmination, I am the jewel in its lotus. And when I am really moving, stopping car after car after car, moving so freely, so clearly, so delicately that even the sex maniacs and the cops can only blink and let me pass, then I embody the rhythms of the universe, I feel what it is like to be the universe, I am in a state of grace.” (45-7)

From Tom Robbins’ Pynchon approved novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.

Earl Sinclair Performs Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize”

Some Quotes from “The Art of Flight” by Sergio Pitol

“Memory works with the same oblique and rebellious logic as dreams. It rummages in dark holes and extracts visions that, unlike those of dreams, are almost always pleasant. Memory can, at the discretion of whoever possesses it, be colored by nostalgia, and nostalgia produces monsters only by exception. Nostalgia lives off the trappings of a past that confronts a present devoid of attraction. Its ideal device is the oxymoron: it summons contradictory incidents, intermingles them, causes them to merge, and brings order in a disorderly way to chaos.” (63)

“Now, more than forty years after that incident, he’s content with merely acknowledging the event. He tries to examine the circumstances, to elaborate a few hypotheses. Why was that rite of initiation bathed in horror? Did it have something to do with a late detachment of his umbilical cord, a bloody separation of his body from those around him? He arrives at the conclusion that the exercise is becoming a pointless guessing game, that to continue it would send him into a labyrinth of astonishment. He would become lost in marshes without ever touching solid ground.

Perhaps he owes to that experience his inability to write at home, as if it were an activity to be avoided at all costs. Writing in the same space where he lives was for much of his life equivalent to committing and obscene act in a holy place. But that’s anecdotal. What is certain is that his fall into uncleanness that characterized, at the end if his adolescence, his confrontation with the word, his printed word, has conditioned his most personal, most secret, most unwitting manner of writing, and has transformed the exercise into a joyful game of concealment, an approach to the art of flight.” (84)

“Without an affirmation of his language, the traveler loses the capacity to aspire to translate the universe; he will become a mere interpreter on the level of a tour guide” (120)

“The mere existence of a great creator erases many of his contemporaries and multitudes of predecessors whose mediocrity only becomes obvious after the appearance of a greater figure” (176)

The Art of Flighttranslated by George Henson, is out now from Deep Vellum Publishing.

Georges de la Tour: St. Francis in Extasy/The Praying Monk beside the Dying Monk

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The Church of El Topo (a still from El Topo)

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Book Acquisitions 4/1/15

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Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) Trailer

Last night I finally watched Jodorowsky’s Dune which is a fantastic film on what can come out of failure. I can’t believe I’ve put off thinking about Jodorowsky for this long. His memoir Where the Bird Sings Best is out in English tomorrow.