A decade ago, sick of the blood-sucking capitalists at the MLA changing their research paper guidelines every other year, I decided to create my own how-to guide, something I could run off and hand out to students but also update whenever some OCD sufferer at the Modern Language Association decided that placing periods after abbreviations was so last century.
I decided that rather than writing a dry, clinical exposition, I would make this how-to-guide a narrative featuring two fictional Porter-Gaud students, Bennington Rhodes and Robert “Flip” Burger. Bennington, a good student but not particularly interested in literature, goes about the process systematically whereas poor Flip waits to the night before due dates, which, as the omniscient narrator points out, is not the way to go. Not only could I provide students with a handy guide, but I could also mock their fads and peccadilloes.
Here’s a snippet to show you what I’m talking about, the protagonist Bennington going through the process of selecting a novel for his research paper project:
Even though White Noise looks interesting, Bennington is going ahead to see about Chronicle of a Death Foretold while he’s at it. He types in “garcia marquez literary criticism bibliography,” and presto, right away the number one hit is applicable: “Garcia Marquez – Criticism.” Once again this site yields a plethora of potential sources including one of those handy Harold Bloom anthologies. Although he’s leaning toward White Noise, a painting on the Garcia Marquez site catches his eye. It’s called “Macondo” and features a Latina sleeping with her hair in her hands next to two oranges that are about to be scaled by a trio of ants on a dish next to her bed.
To save time, Bennington logs onto the Porter-Gaud Library page and discovers to his delight, that not only does the library own White Noise and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but also that both books are available. He punches the call letters into his cell phone and heads to the library before the bell rings. As he passes the back entrance to the S&T building, he sees his friends playing hackysack. One of these, Robert Burger (aka Flip) is going to wait until the last minute and choose on a whim Henry James’s The Ambassadors because he’s heard of Henry James and thinks being an ambassador would be a great job because you have diplomatic immunity and can park anywhere you like. Not until it’s too late he discovers his error as he attempts to read the fourth sentence of that novel:
“The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive–the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange or this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first “note,” of Europe. “(9)
Not only is the novel virtually unreadable, the criticism might as well be rendered in Sanskrit for all of the sense it makes to Flip. Even Pink Monkey and Spark Notes summaries are way over his head. If only he had taken his sage teacher’s advice and devoted the time to select a book more to his liking!
As part of the process, I decided to have Bennington compose a high school research essay on Chronicle, which, of course, meant I actually had to do a bit of research. I discovered a fascinating piece from Salon by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez about his first meeting Bill Clinton at a dinner party at William Styron’s on Cape Cod that also featured Carlos Fuentes.
When [Carlos and I] talked about Latin America in general, we realized that [Clinton] was much more interested than we had supposed, although he lacked some essential background. When the conversation seemed to stiffen a bit, we asked him what his favorite movie was, and he answered “High Noon,” by Fred Zinneman, whom he had recently honored in London. When we asked him what he was reading, he sighed and mentioned a book on the economic wars of the future, author and title unknown to me.
“Better to read ‘Don Quixote,’” I said to him. “Everything’s in there.” Now, the ‘Quixote’ is a book that is not read nearly as much as is claimed, although very few will admit to not having read it. With two or three quotes, Clinton showed that he knew it very well indeed. Responding, he asked us what our favorite books were. Styron said his was Huckleberry Finn.
I would have said Oedipus Rex, which has been my bed table book for the last 20 years, but I named The Count of Monte Cristo,”mainly for reasons of technique, which I had some trouble explaining.
Clinton said his was the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Carlos Fuentes stuck loyally to Absalom, Absalom, Faulkner’s stellar novel, no question, although others would choose Light in August purely personal reasons. Clinton, in homage to Faulkner, got to his feet and, pacing around the table, recited from memory Benji’s monologue, the most thrilling passage, and perhaps the most hermetic, from The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner got us to talking about the affinities between Caribbean writers and the cluster of great Southern novelists in the United States. It made much more sense to us to think of the Caribbean not as a geographical region surrounded by its sea but as a much wider historical and cultural belt stretching from the north of Brazil to the Mississippi Basin.
Mark Twain, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and so many others would then be just as Caribbean as Jorge Amado and Derek Walcott. Clinton, born and raised in Arkansas, a Southern state, applauded the notion and professed himself happy to be a Caribbean.
* * *
As I was sipping on an “All -Day IPA” at Chico Feo in those amiable days before the pandemic, a polite young couple plopped down next to me at the bar. The male was unusually clean cut for the clientele, with short well-kempt hair and sporting some subdued ink on his right arm. His lovely companion spoke with a slight accent, so I asked her where she hailed from.
“Ah ha,” I said, “the homeland of the great Gabo – Gabriel Garcia-Marquez!”
“He is dead, you know,” she said with a rueful smile.
So we shot the mierda about the great man’s canon, of which she was very familiar, and that wonderful little magical village Macondo, Gabo’s Yoknapatawpha County, and I mentioned that even though Ronald Reagan wouldn’t give Gabo a visa to visit the US , he and Bill Clinton ended up being drinking buddies. I mentioned Gabo’s comment about Southerners and Caribbean folk sharing folkways and attitudes.
Given that probably most people associate Colombia with drug cartels, I suspect it was nice for her to hear praise for her homeland, and suddenly it occurred to me that Gabo was right, that the eastside of Folly was Mercondo-like. I have Folly friends with a parrot who tortures their dogs by mimicking both the owners’ accents, asking the dogs if they’d like to go for a walk, and then the parrot does a dead-on sound effect of a screen door creaking open. Magical realism right here in the Lowcountry.
“Especially this place,” she said, talking about Chico Feo. It reminds me of home.”
No roof, beers sold out of coolers, the aroma of curried goat wafting from the kitchen inside, free music, day and night . . .
Oh me oh my oh, Chico Feo.
I shook hands with them both and waved good-bye