Some Words are Worth a Thousand Pictures

*A bit of a warning that this is not my usual post about books. It is deeply personal and sad.

What a difference a day makes. Isn’t that how the song goes?

On July 1st I was in the garden reading poetry, lots and lots of poetry and Esther Kinsky’s book Grove which is newly translated into English by Caroline Schmidt and thinking about a review of it for Music & Literature; I had finally just gotten my hair done since the moratorium on such things because of Covid had lifted. And I stopped at the pet food store to buy more (a lot more) food for the birds and chipmunks I’ve been feeding on our deck.

On the afternoon of July 2nd my daughter and I were just about to go swimming when we noticed a car in our driveway which startled both of us. We live in the country, out in the woods, and have a quarter mile long driveway so random, unannounced visitors are a rare occurrence. It was my daughter who first said, “That’s a state police car” and my heart started beating even faster. Different things began to go through my mind as to what the police could possibly want with us. Was I speeding somewhere? But I hadn’t driven on the highway, or much at all really, because of Covid. Did I go into a business without wearing a mask? But, once again, I had barely left the house since the pandemic. When I think back on all of the petty and ridiculous scenarios going through my head I feel silly and naive. When the officer asked me to identify myself and to speak to me alone without my daughter I was still clueless.

“Your husband was riding his motorcycle on US-24 east in Indiana ma’am and there was an accident.”

And desperately, “Well where is he now?

“At the coroner’s in Wabash County, ma’am. You’ll have to contact the Indiana state police.”

Alan had left on June 20th for what would be his third cross country trip from our home in New England to Montana. On that horrible day, July 2nd, a Thursday, he was on his way back home to us and was expected to arrive on Friday. He was a serious and avid motorcyclist and camper and enjoyed every minute of planning his trips and taking them. Locally he would meet with his friends from the Connecticut Rockers to ride and talk bikes but he also had a wonderful network of friends he met through Adventure Rider that were scattered across the US and Canada. A tough, stoic, yet gentle and kind group of men, their meet up in Montana had become a yearly tradition that they enthusiastically looked forward to. Alan considered them brothers—as an only child he always said that friendships were particularly important to him.

I met Alan in 1997 when we were both graduate students in the PhD program for Classics at the University at Buffalo. We liked each other instantly and like quickly grew into love. He had a bike, a Honda CX 500, when I met him so his passion for this hobby is something he had for more than 20 years. He learned everything he could about motorcycles and was meticulous about maintenance and repairs. He was also obsessed with safety, researching and discussing with his friends the most up-to-date safety gear. On the day he was killed it was 90 degrees f. and he had on a brand new, full-face helmet, a custom made Aerostich riding suit, and the highest quality gloves and boots he could find. He had certain rules about riding as well: he never went over the speed limit, he didn’t ride with other groups of bikes, and he didn’t ride at night. To say that he was careful would be a gross understatement.

But he was killed anyway. Yes, killed. He didn’t just die. He didn’t have bad luck, it was not an “accident”—I hate that word. The driver of the truck that killed him went through a yield sign and pulled across the highway–yes, the highway since such things are allowed in Indiana—directly into Alan’s path. A “failure to yield the right of way.” Negligence, stupidity, carelessness.

Two broken legs, two broken arms, a fractured pelvis, a fractured skull, broken ribs, fractured vertebrae, internal bleeding, lacerated organs and a complete atlanto occipital dislocation. A destroyed Triumph Tiger and all of his carefully packed belongings broken and strewn across the highway. And in that moment my life—our life together—was shattered as well.

November 18th of this year would have been our 20th wedding anniversary. We were happy, very happy. Our relationship wasn’t perfect. No relationship is, especially if it lasts 20 years. We both made mistakes. But there was a lot of kindness, and patience and forgiveness and love. A lot of love. We both taught Latin in secondary schools in New England which is where we decided to move after our days in Buffalo. I always thought it was hilarious that we did well for ourselves as teachers of what people call a “dead language.” But Latin, and sometimes Ancient Greek, sustained our household quite adequately and, more importantly, we both loved what we did. In 2006, after suffering an initial miscarriage, we had a daughter who is the best of both of us. She is kind and funny and smart and adorable.

And now my 14 year-old daughter asks me questions like, “Is daddy in heaven?” “Are we going to be poor?” “Will we ever be happy again?” “Are kids going to treat me differently at school because I don’t have a dad anymore?”

A failure to yield the right of way….

I keep having these conversations with him in my head about what happened to his precious bike and his camping things and what paperwork I have to file and who I have to call and how his students and colleagues and motorcycle friends have all been stricken with such grief by his sudden death and how to carry on now. But there is no “we” anymore. Just a mountain of paperwork and chores and decisions that need to be made on my own. The little routines we had are what I miss most—going to bed together, him making me coffee in the morning, watching silly TV, sharing bad jokes, debating over who Henry our tuxedo cat liked better. The loneliness and the emptiness without him is the worst pain I’ve ever suffered. Truly unbearable.

Now that our daughter is about to begin high school we had had many discussions about what we wanted to do when we retired. Various ideas about moving farther north in New England or closer to where our daughter might attend college were always tossed around. But no matter what we decided to do, it would be together—just the two of us, empty-nesters.

But these plans, too, were shattered on that highway in Indiana.

Alan and our daughter.

Alan really had a dislike for social media—the only place he really engaged with people in a meaningful way was on his Adventurer Rider motorcycle forum. So out of respect I never posted about him or shared photos. But since he was killed it has felt cathartic and therapeutic for me to post photos and memories and anecdotes—a small glimpse into the man he was and our happy life together. His quick and sardonic wit were unmatched—one of the qualities that attracted me to him the most. He wore bow ties to work (when we were at work) nearly every day; he was a gifted teacher who connected with students and prided himself on his ability to lecture and engage kids at every level (he was voted faculty member who is most quotable three years in a row); he loved notebooks and fountain pens; even in winter he would work on, improve, and maintain his two motorcycles and camp in the woods on our property. And more recently he took up blacksmithing and set up a makeshift forge in the yard. I’m still not sure what to do with the anvil and giant bag of coal I have sitting in his workshop.

Alan and Henry.

Alan’s belongings, scattered across that highway, have been respectfully and lovingly packed and returned to me by one of his motorcycle friends—the last person to see him alive—who happens to live in Indiana. Today his travel journal arrived and I began reading it and looking through his various notebooks. He had an obsession with notebooks and today, alone, I found a dozen of them around the house and in his workshop. They are mostly filled with to-do lists, travel plans, travel descriptions, packing lists and notes for teaching. His wit, his talent as a teacher, and our everyday life together–those little routines I mentioned—are all present in these notebooks. I felt closer to him reading these than I have since he was killed—as he wrote in one of them, “Some words are worth a thousand pictures.” And a passage he composed for a lecture to first year Latin students felt like he was speaking to me now:

The Greeks and Romans thought of the universe by picturing it as a tapestry—one that was constantly being woven, but never to be completed. Three divine weavers called the Fates created the tapestry of the universe—Lachesis, Clotho, & Atropos—who spin the wool, measure the thread, and cut it. Each thread is a human life. And all of these threads interconnect. You cannot tamper with one without unraveling the others. Although individual life-threads come to an end, they still have their place and interact with others.

That thread, Alan’s thread, cut too soon on that highway in Indiana. And my thread and my daughter’s so interconnected with his own. And all of the wonderful people interconnected with me—friends, and colleagues and Twitter people and readers of this blog who have reached out with love and support. Proof that his theory of those interconnected life threads is so true.

Teacher, friend, colleague, husband, father.

July 2nd.

A failure to yield the right of way.

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This Rock is Trash!: Feed by Tommy Pico

Timmy Pico is a queer, native American poet, living in New York City, trying to navigate the dating scene while constantly being on the road for his profession. His long poem, Feed, reads just like that—a feed of his character’s mind which he calls “Teebs” and all of the personal thoughts that occupy it: “I am 34/ I live in the busiest city in America./ I am about to eat an orange./ Every feed owes itself to death. Poetry is feed/ to the horses within me.”

Pieces of short verse are alternated with prose, dialogue, letters, short recipes, news headlines and lists, all of which showcase Pico’s clever, astute, surprising and hilarious writing. He brings up many melancholy topics–lost love, his heritage, the American president, climate change and his loneliness–but he manages to take each of these things in stride and press forward with his uncanny ability to find humor in nearly every situation.

As a sort of loose organization of the poem, Pico provides a soundtrack to his thoughts; Track 1 is a the song”XO” by Beyonce and Track 19 is “Up the Ladder to the Roof” by the Supremes. He reflects briefly on the lyrics from each track and his subsequent thoughts are launched from there until he “starts” the next track. A clever and subtle way to keep some semblance of form to his meandering thought-feed. Track 12 is my favorite in the playlist:

Track 12: “Shout” by Tears for Fears. First of all, best band name in
America. Second, how cathartic am I right? Really, just let it all out.
What else can ou do in an intractable situation but to shout? Focus
on that full throaty wail where Roland Orzabal reveals the he’s just
waiting for the lover to open up for the destruction his love will no
doubt wreak.

Teebs is not afraid to be brutally honest about his sexual desires, his sometimes awkward dates, and the reasons why he moves on from a relationship (In one instance he finds out that his lover’s favorite book is Atlas Shrugged) But the love interest that is brought up most is a man named Leo, whom we meet in the opening verses of the poem. Leo and Teebs share some nice memories together, but Teebs doesn’t wallow in or become awash with sorrow when they mutually decide to go their separate ways. His relationship with Leo forms a part of the larger patterns in his life—his loneliness, his struggles with dating, and his itinerant lifestyle as a traveling poet. He deftly moves from the very personal—the story of his first meeting with Leo—to more universal, even philosophical, thoughts on love and loneliness:

Ok so in Plato’s Symposium
the philosopher Aristophanes makes
this speech at some white
robe
sweaty ball
table line dinner
about the origin of love.

That at one point
there were three sexes:
the children of the sun (two men)
the children of the earth (two women)
and the children of the moon (man and woman)
attached at the back

Now before you get all
sapiosexual
on me, I don’t know this from Plato

I know this from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

N E WAYS, so yeah at one point
the three sexes were whole
round balls
adherent to each
other attached at the back and spinning

in their own orbit.

The problem
was people

GUNMAN FIRST INTO OKLAHOMA CITY RESTAURANT

were too content in self-possession

there was no ambition no thrill of the chase
no colonalism. So the gods split
the people down the back
and ever since we’ve been looking
for our other
half

Lonely as a kind of math.

Notice the news headline in bold which Pico slips into key parts of the poem. Even though Feed was written and published in 2019, the topics he chooses are still highly sensitive and relevant in the age of Covid, corrupt government and Black Lives Matter.

The poet’s loneliness stems not only from his never ending quest for a fulfilling relationship but also from his heritage as a Native American. He oftentimes talks about the sad and tragic abuse of his tribe, the Kumeyaay Indians, throughout American history. Not surprisingly, cooking and eating with his friends and boyfriends is a common occurrence in Feed, and his lack of a culinary archive in his heritage is a sad and poignant commentary on the history of his tribe. Oftentimes he speaks directly to his readers in missives:

Dear reader,

A roux, I’ve learned tonight in this mid city dinner party apartment
tucked somewhat safely away from asthmatic LA freeways, is the
mixture of butter and flour used to swell sauces and soups and Paul’s
baked sage mac n cheese that I’m whisking alive like an al dente
Evanescence cheese-rock bop. Whistle while you whisk away the rage
scrunched in yr boulders. I says to them around the table I says—

I don’t have a food history.

If the dish is, “subjugate an indigenous population,” here’s an
ingredient of the roux: alienate us from our traditional ways of
gathering and cooking food.

Kumeyaays moved around what ed be called San Diego County with
the seasons. The mountains, the valleys, the coast. Not much arable
land or big game so we followed the food wherever it would go.

Then the missions. Then isolated reservations on stone mountains
where not even a goat could live. Then the starvation. Then the
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Whatever the
military would throw away came canned in the backs of trucks. The
commodities. The powered mil, worms in the oatmeal, corn syrupy
canned peaches. Food stripped of its nutrients. Then came the sugar
blood. the sickness. The glucose meter goes up and up and up.

I says to them around the table I says, I don’t have food stories. With
you, I say, I’m cooking new ones.

This passage is an excellent example of how Pico mixes the melancholy with the hopeful. And he throws in one of his signature witty phrases “I says to them” for just the slightest touch of humor. A constant friends that appears several times throughout the poem is a woman he calls Wilkes with whom he has an ongoing series of conversations about the galaxies:

Me: It’s like, against the infinity of space and all those stars and all
those worlds out there, the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations
other than us is extremely high. But where are they? Even if
interstellar travel is really slow, our sun is relatively young compared to
the age of the universe as a whole. They’d have had millions of years
to get here.
Wilkes: I think it’s paternalistic to assume we’d be demonstrably visited
in our lifetimes. History basicall just started recording itself. They
could have come a million years ago and been like, this rock is trash!

I stayed up yesterday past 2 a.m. reading Feed because I just could not put it down. His topics are timely but, despite the many hardships and obstacles in his life, Pico also has a sense of humor and an optimism that I found I really needed right now.

Feed is one book in a tetralogy of poems that Pico has written and published with Tin House Books and I am eagerly looking forward to reading all four titles.

Finally as an added bonus I made a playlist on Spotify with all of the songs on Teebs’s soundtrack from Feed.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1v75Eq6lFcrPWGRnQOdNQd?si=2G0FRLj5RPeefja7mCxcVA

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Subsumed to Materials of My Art: Summer Snow by Robert Hass

In Summer 2020 edition of The Paris Review, Jesse Nathan ends his interview with poet and author Robert Hass with a couple of unique questions and responses:

INTERVIEWER:

In many of the questions that I’ve asked you, even personal questions, you’ve often responded with literary examples before delving into your own experience. I’m curious why you think that is.

HASS:

I don’t know. It must be the way my mind works. What would be an example?

INTERVIEWER:

When we began this interview, I think I asked what the first thing you’d done that morning was. You said that you had peed. And then you were talking about Issa’s haiku on peeing in the snow and Bloom in Ulysses flipping through a magazine while moving his bowels.

HASS:

There are a couple of possibilities. One is deflection from the personal. Either because you want to keep the private private, or just because it seems narcissistic. I mean, who cares what I do when I first get up in the morning? So I tend to leap toward what brings it to life, what brings a subject to life, which would be all the literary stuff that’s in my head. That would be one explanation. Then, there’s another haiku by Issa that comes to mind—

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.

He’s talking about daikons, those long Japanese radishes. And what I love about the poem as a poem is that Issa has imagined himself stopping to ask for directions, and it’s only after that, as he’s on his way again, that he’s having the thought, the amusing thought, that this guy is so much of his element that he was using his radish to point directions. My impulse is definitely to point with the radish. I have to say, I’m subsumed to materials of my art.

 

It’s not surprising that Robert Hass can seamlessly move from the topic of his morning pee to the haiku of Issa.  In his latest collection of poems, published in February of 2020 by Ecco, Hass is fond of putting seemingly disparate things together, including the title itself, Summer Snow.   Among the pages of this rather lengthy—for him—collection we still find his usual inspirations from earlier collections which include his surroundings in California, his left-leaning politics, his sense of humor and his friends and family.  But sitting next to ordinary topics in the same long poems are his friendships with literary giants like Eugenio Montale, Milosz, and Lyn Hejinian.  Because he gives himself plenty of space with long prose poems to work out the details of unrelated subjects,  he is successful in making these topics fit together perfectly.  For example, it’s not Montale’s brilliant poetry that Hass remembers in a poem, but a mundane, and odd,  conversation about the word “moose”:

Eugenio Montale asked me if there was an American word
For sprezzatura, particularly with respect to poetry.
In rispetto di poesia, he said. And I said, Yes, in American
We call it “moose” and mentioned several poets,
Frank O’Hara among them, who were quite famous,
As fame goes in our sort of work, for their moose.
He wondered if there was an American expression
To convey the general concept of “Eugenio Monale.”
And I said, Yes, we call it “George Seferis.” I also observed—
I was showing off, but how often do you get to talk
To Eugenio Montale—that, in my view, the prose of Seferis,
Especially his diaries from the last years of the war
And the slow wakening to that devastation after,
Was even greater than his poems, though his poems
At their best gave off pure light like the light that flares
From the white walls on the cliffs above the harbor in Skios
Which can make the eyes ache…

Sometimes it is easy to forget we are reading a poem because of the story-like beginning, but then Hass veers into another topic—in this instance a different poet, George Seferis—and then another topic, the dazzling light of Skios. And at the end he ties his piece together by bringing us back to Montale who asks another question about Americans worshipping the Virgin Mary.

One of my favorite poems in the collection has his usual range of divergent topics, but throughout the entire he stays with deeply personal topics from his own life. These personal reflection poems are just as profound, if not more so, than the ones who feature famous authors. He begins with a scribbling he sees on a classroom blackboard, transitions to a friend whose husband has died of cancer, and ends with a final meditation on the words from the blackboard. We also see another example of the pattern of three distinct parts to each of his longer poems. “A Person Should” begins:

The novel is a mirror in the roadway, I saw scrawled
on a blackboard in an empty classroom at a small college
in the Middle West, A Friday in the all, day’s end,
the swift dark descending, the students gone to their parties,
the long blackboards given over to the melancholy
of chalk dust. Underneath the Stendhal in another hand
someone had written very firmly: Poetry is sheet lightning
in a summer field. Which I took to mean that a person should
be able to name their psychic condition or make a figure of it
or see it illuminated out there somewhere in the gravid air.
I quoted the lines once to a friend whose husband was ill
with pancreatic cancer, not apropos of what she was enduring,
but because she’d asked me what I was thinking about.

I finished this collection last week and since then I keep thinking about why I have enjoyed Robert Hass’s poetry so much. The combination of his narrative, long form poems, his personal stories and their accessibility are obvious reasons. But the truly brilliant quality of his poems, I decided after reading his PR interview, lies in his transitions which make the poems and where he takes us within them unexpected. I think we are following along with his thoughts which are subsumed by personal stories, poetry and literature.

 

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And Then The Storm of Shit Begins: By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño

I got a true sense of the horror and brutality perpetrated by the Pinochet regime in Chile in a Comparative Politics class in college when I was assigned to read Jacobo Timerman’s book Chile: Death in the South. The most frightening and memorable parts of the book are the personal accounts of Chileans who were beaten and tortured under Pinochet’s reign of terror. The details of the horrific tortured described by these victims has stayed in my mind for 25 years. Timerman also reveals the strategies of ordinary Chileans to avoid being murdered, tortured or disappearing without a trace. I had this book in the back of my mind as I started to read Bolaño’s novella about a priest who lives through the overthrow of Allende’s socialist government and Pinocet’s seizure of power and implementation of a ruthless dictatorship.

Bolaño, who was himself imprisoned for a short time during Pinochet’s rule, takes a different approach towards describing, or not describing, the human suffering of totalitarianism. This brief story is told by a priest named Sebastian Urrutia Lacroix who is on his deathbed and no longer wishes to remain silent about what he has witnessed in his life: “One has to be responsible, as I have always said. One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too….” Father Lacroix enters the seminary as a teenager and, in addition to his duties as a priest, becomes a prominent poet and literary critic in Chile.

Lacroix has access to the most prominent literary figures of the time including Pablo Neruda whom he meets at a weekend house party. The priest tells various stories about literary friends as well as himself. It’s remarkable that Bolaño not only uses a large variety of literary techniques in his narrative but he makes them flow mellifluously in such a short work. There are stories embedded within stories and Lacroix, as he is telling one of his longer tales, goes on for two or three pages in one long, uninterrupted sentence. For example, the priest takes an extensive tour of European churches and cathedrals in order to study the preservation of these buildings. He finds out that the greatest threat to these monuments are pigeons and priests throughout Europe have taken up falconry to deal with this menace:

…Fr. Pietro whistled and waved his arms and the shadow came down from the sky to the bell-tower and landed on the gauntlet protecting that Italian’s left hand, and then there wa no need to explain, for it was clear to me that the dark bird circling over the church of St. Mary of Perpetual Suffering was a falcon and Fr. Pietro had mastered the art of falconry, and that was the method they were using to rid the old church of pigeons, and then, looking down from the heights, I scanned the steps leading to the portico and the brick-paved square beside the magenta-coloured church, and in all that space, as hard as I looked, I could not see a single pigeon…

One of my favorite literary techniques that Bolaño uses is during a discussion between Lacroix and his mentor, a fellow literary critic, named Farewell. The anaphora employed throughout the conversation makes it appear more like a long-form poem then a dialogue. It’s also a good sampling of Bolaño’s erudite writing which alludes to authors ancient and modern:

And I: You have many years left to live, Farewell, And he: What’s the use, what use are books, they’re shadows, nothing but shadows. And I: Like the shadows you have been watching? And Farewell: Quite. And I: There’s a very interesting book by Plato on precisely that subject. And Farewell: Don’t be an idiot. And I: What are those shadows telling you, Farewell, what is it? And Farewell: They are telling me about the multiplicity of readings. And I: Multiple, perhaps, but thoroughly mediocre and miserable.

But what about Pinochet’s horrible regime and the horrors he inflicts on his fellow Chileans? I had expected something more gruesome, a work of fiction that would as detailed and honest as Timberman’s. But Lacroix, as he says in his opening words, has chosen to keep silent and his account of what takes place in Chile continues to be allusive throughout his deathbed remembrance. One has to pay careful attention to the hints he gives, like the mention of curfews throughout Santiago. Lacroix is recruited by Pinochet and his generals to give them a six week course on Marxism. The dictator and his men are kind to the priest and are good students, but he is riddled with guilt as to whether or not he did the right thing. Could he really have refused Pinochet’s request? Lacroix never says what could have happened to him if he refuses. He doesn’t even speculate. And a female author named Maria Canales holds a weekly literary saloon in her home despite curfews. Her writing is terrible and we can only assume that she is somehow connected to the regime in order to be allowed these privileges.

And so during Pinochet’s 14 year rule, Lacriox continues to read, and write poetry and criticism and only alludes to the vile parts of this dictatorship:

…my howling could only be heard by those who were able to scratch the surface of my writings with the nails of their index fingers, and they were not many, but enough for me, and life went on and on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting that necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look at it closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain…

And what does this deathbed recognition of his continued silence in the midst of totalitarianism accomplish? Few details are given—no torture, rape, accounts of families disappearing in the middle of the night— but he only remarks that the “faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The face I protected, those I attacked, the face I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain.”

His concluding words do not sound like those of a man who has confessed his sins and is contrite: “And then the storm of shit begins.”

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You Listening?: JR by William Gaddis

On August 27th, 1956 William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself in order to protect his idea for his novel JR against any possible copyright infringement.  The idea for JR, he states in the letter, first came to him in the winter of 1956 and he remarks about its plot and themes: “This book is projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in America today; and on the people who handle them; it is also a morality study of a straightforward boy reared in our culture, of a man with an artist’s conscience, and of the figures who surround them in such a competetive (sic) and material economy as ours.”

The eponymous character of the novel is a clever and enterprising eleven year-old boy who is able to build a multi-million dollar corporate empire because the adults around him don’t supervise him or pay very much attention to him.  He starts out by getting in the mail odd, free items he writes away for that are advertised in magazines.  Broken clocks, forks, personal business cards, and free banquet meals are among the things he collects.  When his social studies teacher takes JR’s class on a field trip to Manhattan in order to understand the stock market and buy a share of a company, JR gets a taste for this “competitive, material economy.”  The boy reads enough about the market and corporate and tax laws to acquire a textile company in a small town in upstate New York.  He then hatches a plot to take the employees’ retirement funds to buy a brewery and from there he builds his portfolio by acquiring a plethora of corporations and businesses which include, among many things,  a magazine, a publishing company, and a group of nursing homes, funeral parlors and a cemetery which he franchises as his “healthcare package.”

JR has a phone booth installed in the hallway of his middle school from which he conducts most of his business.  He is smart enough to disguise the fact that he is a child by holding a tattered, dirty handkerchief over the receiver when he is making his business deals or talking to one of his two lawyers.  He convinces his former music teacher, a naive and gullible man named Edward Bast, to be his front man.  Bast’s dirty, cluttered apartment in the Bronyx becomes the uptown headquarters for the JR family of corporations and a rented room at the Waldorf becomes the downtown headquarters. JR also likes to focus on taking over companies who are losing money so he can write them off as tax breaks. The best and funniest parts of the book are when JR is trying to decide what his next business moves will be and then tries to explain his plans to Bast:

No but see that’s earnings before taxes that’s the whole thing. I mean didn’t you read this part Bast? See because like if you can put it all together and write off all these here losses of Eagle against all these profits of like this here brewery then you get to keep them, I mean like otherwise you get screwed out of everything by these taxes like these two old brothers see they had all these profits which they didn’t collect them on account of this here tax so now when they do collect them they’d have this tremendous tax which is this undistributed profits tax, see? See so now they”re scared if one of them dies the other would really get screwed, but if they just sell the whole thing then all they have to pay is this here capital gains tax which is only like half of a half, I mean don’t you even remember this part hey?

The entire book is written in a dialogue in which speakers are never identified; Gaddis uses em dashes to indicate the change of speaker in a dialogue but sometimes there are several people in a room and the only way to distinguish who is saying what is by the characteristic phrases or verbal ticks that are unique to each person.  For instance, JR’s favorite phrases are “these here,” “holy shit” and “hey.” And the adults who work for him, including Mr. Bast and Mr. Davidoff, JR’s public relations manager, start to use the same phrases as their “Boss.”  The corporate world is taken by storm and surprised at the overnight success of JR Corporation and everyone is fascinated with the  mysterious “man” in charge of the company whom no one, except Bast, has ever met.  Davidoff, JR’s public relations man is running the office at the Waldorf and trying to explain to various parties what the “Boss,” whom no one realizes is a 6th grader, wants:

…the Boss saw that piece in Forbes on this collision course we’re running on these mineral interests wants to move fast got this topflight salesman I brought along from Diamond on that Endo divestiture on his way out there with, Hyde….? Haven’t shown up here yet no had them paged down at the bar but…no if you’re driving better leave without them we’ll get them loaded on the company plane with Mister…what? Six cents a mile companywide yes straight from the Boss not his fault if you drive a Cadillac he…time to get rid of what smell in your car..Because this whole Endo shipment’s on its way out there right now, gets there ahead of you and you’ll have them tearing open the crates won’t know a toaster from a hair dryer be lifting the tops of the washing machines to climb on them and…

This type of scattered, disorganized, broken dialogue, especially when characters are on the phone or there are multiple characters in one scene is typical of the novel. It is not an easy, quick read as Gaddis throws a lot of information out at once and therefore demands our complete attention.  There are no chapters or smooth transitions from one scene to the next and time passes—sometimes several days—within the same paragraph. The scattered and broken dialogue is fitting for the larger world which Gaddis is ridiculing.  All of the adults in the book have messy lives and are dealing with  serious issues such as divorces, child custody, alcoholism and suicide.  One couple featured in the book has an older man living with them and each thinks that it’s the other one’s parent.  No wonder why an eleven year-old boy is able to dupe so many people.  And this is what I found to be the saddest commentary in Gaddis’s satire: this type of moralizing, as he puts it, of a boy neglected by everyone around him who falls through the cracks.  Even Bast, who helps JR build his corporation, doesn’t truly listen to JR or offer him appropriate guidance or support for someone his age.  What I thought especially pathetic is that JR’s mother is a nurse who works crazy shifts so is never around and no father is ever mentioned.

JR’s teacher, who takes him on that pivotal field trip to Manhattan, has the only compassionate and emotional comments about the child: “if we can get in these here bellies he said and I asked him what on earth he was talking about, that bleak liittle Vansant boy and it’s not funny, really. He’s so earnest so, he thinks there’s a millionaire behind everything he sees and that’s all he does see, it’s just so sad really.” Sad, indeed, since no adults in his life give him the appropriate direction a young boy needs. Besides this teacher and Mr. Bast everyone else sees him as a brilliant business man and the contrast between the two descriptions of him—the one by his teacher and the one printed in the newspapers—is astonishing.  JR proudly reads to Bast from a newspaper article what corporate America’s perception of him is:

-Okay wait I’ll read it listen. The small closely held company which rose almost overnight from the ruins of a failing upstate textile mill to become the multimillion dollar multiface, facet, faceted JR Corp appears threatened by a credit squeeze whose dramatic repercussions could be felt throughout the corporate and financial world it was reported here today. I mean that was like Tuesday. Attracted by the smell of here it is listen hey, smell of profits and the corporate daring which have characterized the company’s abrupt entry into such diverse areas as pap wait where does it tell about me down here someplace I thought I marked it, reputation both as a ruthless corporate manipulator with a shrewd see this is me hey, a shrewd eye for tax situations, and a man of vision whose almost clair, clair something see this is still me, clairsomething ability to cut through to the heart of a problem and post an answer in profits before the competition has understood the quest continued on where’s the rest of it wait, I even marked it where I have this here bulldog jaw and all might prove there’s more truth than why’d I mark that for it’s, wait no wait this is you hey listen. You listening?

Much has been written about Gaddis’s scathing, satirical rebuke in JR of capitalism, corporate American, the publishing industry and the educational system.  But what I find most tragic is that question that comes out of the mouth of what is, essentially, an overlooked and forgotten child: “You listening?”

The book ends when JR Corp faces scrutiny from the SEC and IRS and Bast has to spend the night in a hospital because of double pneumonia.  When Bast finally gets back to his messy, disgusting apartment in the Bronx,  JR calls him on the phone with more plans.  JR’s words are the last in the novel and, fittingly, in a smaller font than the rest of the text:

—for all these here letters and offers I been getting because I mean like remember this here book that time where they wanted me to write about success and like free enterprise and all hey? And like remember where I read you on the train that time where there was this big groundswill about leading this here parade and entering public life and all? So I mean listen I got this neat idea hey, you listening? Hey? You listening…?

The text, the subject matter, the characters, and the humor make this a brilliant book but expect to take it in at a slow pace. I also recommend The Letters of William Gaddis which was published a few years ago by Dalkey Archive and williamgaddis.org which was a very useful tool to help keep track of all of the characters in the book.  The site has an extensive dramatis personae which I found to be a necessity.

 

 

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