Rockin’ in the Projects

After finishing James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, I’m rechristening the author Zora Neale Samuel Clemens Brer Fox McBride.[1] Not OMG! But Do Lawd! What a blast – jazz riffing Gullah-lite, not indiscriminately slung but fashioned into a plot that, though somewhat improbable in its tidy tying up at the end, delineates a complicated saga populated by characters we care enough about to shed tears. 

Even if the story hadn’t moved me, I would have kept reading for the sheer pleasure of its sentences.

Here are three:

“She was coming off her once-a-year sin jamboree, an all-night, two-fisted- booze-guzzling, swig-faced affair of delicious tongue-in-groove-licking and love-smacking with her sometimes boyfriend, Hot Sausage, until Sausage withdrew from the festivities for lack of endurance.” 

“After practice on lazy summer afternoons, he’d gather the kids around and tell stories about baseball players long dead, players from the old Negro leagues with names that sounded like brands of candy: Cool Papa Bell, Golly Honey Gibson, Smooth Rube Foster, Bullet Rogan, guys who knocked the ball five hundred feet high into the hot August air at some ballpark far away down south someplace, the stories soaring high over their heads, over the harbor, over their dirty baseball field, past the rude, red-hot projects where they lived.”

And then this masterpiece:

“And there they stayed, a sole phenomenon in the Republic of Brooklyn, where cats hollered like people, dogs ate their own feces, aunties chain-smoked and died at 102, a kid named Spike Lee saw God, the ghosts of the departed Dodgers soaked up all possibility of new hope, and penniless desperation ruled the lives of suckers too black or too poor to leave, while in Manhattan the buses ran on time, the lights never went out, the death of a single white child in a traffic accident was a page one story, while phony versions of black and Latino life ruled the Broadway roost, making white writers rich – West Side StoryPorgy & BessPurlie Victorious – and on it went, the whole business of the white man’s reality lumping together like a giant, lopsided snowball, the Great American Myth, the Big Apple, the Big Kahuna, the City That Never Sleeps, while blacks and Latinos who cleaned apartments and dragged out the trash and made the music and filled the jails with sorrow slept the sleep of the invisible and functioned as local color.”[2]

Ultimately, Deacon King Kong is a comic novel, which provides McBride some leeway when it comes to implausibility. Moreover, it takes place among a community of believers, which is a prerequisite for magic realism. Some of the best dialogue comes from the protagonist Deacon Cuffy Jasper Lambkin[3] (aka Sportscoat) and the ghost of his wife Hettie, who naggingly haunts him throughout the novel, despite her having drowned two years before the action begins.

“Well, Hettie, if I weren’t taking that white man’s good hundred dollars on principle, I surely ain’t gonna take no mess from you ‘bout some fourteen dollars and nine pennies you done squirreled up in Christmas Club money and hid someplace.”

You’re not going to find ghosts or a systematic invasion of ants in The Stranger.

***

I suppose some plot summary is in order. Deacon King Kong is set in 1969 in Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn with the majority of the characters members of the Five Ends Baptist Church. Sportscoat, drunk as a coot on a potent moonshine known as King Kong, stumbles into the project courtyard and shoots Deems Clemens[4] with an antiquated .38 pistol. Back in the day, Sportscoat taught Deems Sunday School and coached him in baseball.  Deems had been a bone fide big league prospect before he abandoned that escape route for the easy money of drug trafficking. Smart, strategic, Deems is a force to be reckoned with, compassionate despite the heroin trafficking and its at its attendant horrors.

Damn, this summarizing is way too hard. I’m gonna cop out and quote the back cover.

“McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportscoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportscoat himself.”

Ultimately, it’s a novel of redemption, a glorious amalgam of love and violence, greed and generosity, teeming with vibrant characters who do justice to the human race. It’s easily the most enjoyable piece of long fiction I’ve read since Infinite Jest, which means it’s most enjoyable novel I’ve read in a quarter of a century, the most enjoyable novel I’ve read this century.

Do yourself a favor and go check it out.


[1] Kudos to former student Rachel Lauren Wolf for turning me on to this gem she described as “a cross between Flannery O’Connor and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

[2] As my wife Caroline is wont to say, “Bartender, I’ll have what he’s having.”

[3] Note the name symbolism. BTW, virtually all of the characters have nicknames.

[4] Ditto above.

Whippersnappers, Stage Moms vs. the Would-Be Wisdom of the Elders (starring Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

For decades social critics have grown hoarse decrying the indisputable fact that North American culture has declined into a cult of youth.  Among other touchstones, they cite sitcoms that almost universally depict adults (especially males) as intellectually inferior to the wisecracking ten-year-old ironists who ultimately rule the ranch(-style) houses of Televisionland. No matter that in real life these child stars possess all of the autonomy of their collie colleague, Lassie, as whip-cracking stage mothers, robbing them of their childhoods, herd them into blinding klieg lights.

Remember Brittany Spears?

I can’t resist.  Check out these before and after pix of Brittany:

Before

After

And, of course, if you buy into perverse premise that aging is horrible, you’re pretty much doomed to a life of diminishing satisfaction as hairlines recede, varicose veins branch out, dogs die, and crowsfeet deepen into talons.  What traditionally has offered recompense for this physical decay is an accumulation of remembered experiences that have formed patterns of meaning that ultimately lead to an august understanding that the life cycle is natural and that death is the mother of beauty. [cue: Ecclesiastes, the Byrds]

However, and here’s the rub, many 21st Century citizens mostly experience “life” through the looking glass of mass media. For example, I calculate that my stay-at-home maternal grandmother spent the last forty years of her life in 16-hour stints of non-stop TV.  If that’s your lifestyle, the patterns you’re accumulating are illusions concocted to sell products and services, so ultimately, you’re experiencing a wildly disappropriate number of happy endings and a constant barrage of eye-pleasing artifacts and sculpted spokespeople who sell the concept that beauty is skin deep.  In the above scenario, the TV saturated senior citizen glued to reruns of Murder She Wrote or, worse, Fox News is less likely than the sober-minded 30-something social worker in providing good advice.

On the other hand, some old soul who has experienced an intense, widely travelled existence, who has weathered childhood, young adulthood, parenthood, widowhood, disease, exaltation, depression, and compassion should be treasured, the way I treasure the planet’s greatest novelist of the last quarter of the previous century.  I’m talking about my man, Gabo, i.e., Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  And when that old soul transformed his experience into a novel, what we got (and get) is not a concoction, but a revelation, the embodiment of wisdom.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, his wide Mercedes, and their two sons in Barcelona, c. 1960

A late novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, offers a case in point.  Ostensibly, the narrative explores an incurable romantic’s life.  Quixotic Florentino Ariza has had a lifelong fixation on an instantaneous infatuation, which, as far as I can determine, has only resulted in one happy ending (see La Comedia Divina).  Love in the Time of Cholera depicts long-lived lives in which wisdom alchemizes from the dross of life, particularly the life of Fermina Daza Urbino, who stands out as one of the greatest female characters of the last fifty years.  Here she is via free indirect speech (in Edith Grossman’s translation) thinking of her dead husband:

For now she understood him better than when he was alive, she understood the yearning of his love, the urgent need he felt to find in her security that seemed the mainstay of his public life and that in reality he never possessed.  One day, at the height of her desperation, she had shouted at him:  “You don’t understand how unhappy I am.”  Unperturbed, he took off his eyeglasses with a characteristic gesture, he flooded her with the transparent waters of his childlike eyes, and in a single phrase he burdened her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom: “Always remember that the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.”  With the first loneliness of her widowhood she had understood that the phrase did not conceal the miserable threat that she attributed to it at the time, but was the lodestone that had given them so many happy hours.

Here are Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza finally consummating their love in their seventies, a scene that no doubt would send most of my current students to the medicine cabinet for some Dramamine:

She took him to the bedroom and, with the lights on, began to undress without false modesty.  Florentino Ariza was on the bed, lying on his back and trying to gain control, once again not knowing what to do with the skin of the tiger he had slain.  She said, “Don’t look.” He asked why without taking his eyes off the ceiling.

“Because you won’t like it,”  she said.

Then he looked at her and saw her naked to her waist, just as he had imagined her.  Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by flabby skin as pale and cold as a frogs [. . .]

It was the first time she had made love in twenty years, and she had been held back by her curiosity how it would feel after so long a respite, but he had not given her time to find out if her body loved him too.  It had been hurried and sad, and she thought: Now we’ve screwed everything up.  But she was wrong: despite the disappointment that each of them felt, despite his regret for his clumsiness and her remorse for the madness of the anisette, they were not apart for a moment in the days that followed [. . .] They did not try to make love again to much later, when the inspiration came to them without looking for it.  They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.

Carpe diem indeed!

 

Folly Beach, East Coast Macondo

chico feo in the morning 1.0

Chico Feo in the Morning, original art by Wesley Moore

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:

macondoEven 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!

Gabo and Clinton

Gabo and Clinton

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.

“Colombia.”

“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

My Colombia sister

My Colombia sister