Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Memories from a good childhood.

Two thank you letters that I wrote and mailed recently:

To Mike Goodson,
I wanted to thank you for your GPL Lunch 'n Learn presentation last week! I was so inspired by your talk, I went right out Saturday afternoon with Eric and had my very first Magic Burger! Don’t think I would’ve done it if you hadn’t mentioned it alongside Runt’s. I already have fond memories of going to Runt’s with my daddy back when I was a little girl. It would just be me and him out doing what we liked to call runnin.’ We were supposed to be running errands, but we always got sidetracked with other stuff like burgers at Runts, and bingo at the VFW, Post 2760. Good times. Thanks for reminding us how fun Gadsden was, and still is!

To Dr. Evelyn Brannon (who happens to be the daughter of the dear lady from whom I bought The Bungalow recently),
I wanted to thank you for your GPL Lunch 'n Learn presentation on 50’s fashion yesterday! Your slides brought back memories of playing in my mom’s clothes as a child and of spending endless hours looking at photos of her as a child, adolescent and adult. I look back now at some of those photos of her as a young adult in her matching sweater set, long straight skirt and white socks with saddle oxfords, or as a beautiful bride in her smart ivory suit with gorgeous flocked handbag (which, luckily I have in my possession), and I think of how in those photos she represents the look of the decade…thank you for bringing back these memories for me!

Don'tcha just love memories that come bubbling up unexpectedly?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Interior Monologue...Not my own.

So, I totally dig stream of consciousness writing. No, seriously, I do. My number one favorite book, the book that I must have with me should I ever be stranded on a desert island, is Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner. And I’m not ashamed to say that Kerouac’s On the Road squeezes into my top ten favorite books. Most of my close friends know that about me, and it doesn’t bother them. Some of them even go so far as to email me the names of SOC books should they read one that they think I’ll like. I enjoy stream of consciousness writing because it is a writing style that, to me, is most like real day-to-day thought patterns (and, in some cases, speech patterns). I enjoy stream of consciousness literature so much, I chose to read and lecture on a stream of consciousness novel for my EN 500 class last fall. I picked, no surprises, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Now, just a little bit about the book, in case you didn’t know (some of this is actually from my presentation and paper). The name The Sound and the Fury, taken from the somber Shakespearian play Macbeth, indicates to the reader that the novel is made up of things that clamor, that deafen, that savage, and that ultimately signify nothing. And indeed, from the first section of the book, a section that is narrated by an idiot, readers see that Faulkner’s characters are struggling in vain against each other, against changing societal mores, and against the hand that they have been dealt by God. They make victims and martyrs of themselves as they lash out unsuccessfully against those things and people whom they feel have done them wrong. Faulkner could have had his characters choose different paths, but had he done so, The Sound and the Fury would not be the Southern Gothic masterpiece that it is. In the end, the reader is left uneasy with the realness of the characters and the situations, especially those Southern readers. For who from the South doesn’t have relatives (dead or alive) who resemble one or more of the characters in The Sound and the Fury? Who from the South doesn’t have the same kind of disturbing family stories that, induced by a full belly and a glass of spirits, are told at Thanksgiving gatherings or reunions, long after the youngsters and the polite folk have gone to bed.

Why did the public find The Sound and the Fury a demanding and difficult book? Most likely it was because of Faulkner’s use of the stream of consciousness style, a style of writing first successfully employed by Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce had perfected the use of “interior monologue” in Ulysses by giving his characters long episodes of thought that were sometimes out of sequential order, and sometimes unpunctuated. The purpose of this technique was to allow readers key insight into the frame of mind of the characters. Interior monologue was very appealing to Faulkner for it gave him the freedom to put his character’s deepest and most hidden thoughts out in the open, thereby giving depth beyond the omniscient third-person voice. When Quentin loses control of his thoughts, Faulkner refrains from using punctuation and capitalization in order to emphasize Quentin’s internal monologue. Furthermore, this lack of punctuation and capitalization allows readers to recognize with greater certainty the slipping away of Quentin’s sanity and his rapid spiral towards suicide (Groden 265-266).

now we are getting at it you seem to regard it merely as an experience that will whiten your hair overnight so to speak without altering your appearance at all you wont do it under these conditions it will be a gamble and the strange thing is that man who is conceived by accident and whose every breath is a fresh cast with dice already loaded against him will not face that final main which he knows before hand he has assuredly to face without essaying expedients ranging all the way from violence to petty chicanery that would not deceive a child until someday in very disgust he risks everything on a single blind turn of a card (Faulkner, Sound 177).

The above passage has no commas to indicate pause, no apostrophes to indicate contractions, and no periods to indicate termination of thoughts. It is a fine and obvious example of the use of Joyce’s interior monologue. Throughout the years, Faulkner would repeatedly deny any conscious use of Joyce’s techniques, but he would never distance himself from the comparisons (Groden 264-266).

I’ve just finished another novel that has some lovely stream of consciousness passages, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It is Anna’s thoughts that are stream of consciousness, especially when she is beginning to come unhinged, as she contemplates suicide. Part 7 or Chapter 28 (page 854 of the 1993 Modern Library Edition) begins with the line, “The weather was bright.” The weather is in direct contrast with Anna’s mood. Anna is distraught. She is a married woman, who has left her husband and son to live with her lover. Her lover, Count Vronsky, with whom she has had a daughter, has recently been exercising his independence of Anna. A trapped and anxious Anna has been turning more and more to the drug morphine as a form of escape. She is certain that Vronsky is seeing other women, and is soon to abandon her for someone else. She exhibits outward signs of defensiveness, but internalizes all of her real fears. She baits and tests her lover, and when he fails, she threatens him with, “You…you will be sorry for this.” Indeed, Vronsky will be sorry, but so will Anna.

On her way to find Vronsky (ah, if only they’d had cell phones then), Anna’s thoughts are racing:
"I entreat him to forgive me. I have given in to him. I have owned myself in fault. What for? Can't I live without him?" And leaving unanswered the question how she was going to live without him, she fell to reading the signs on the shops. "Office and warehouse. Dental surgeon. Yes, I'll tell Dolly all about it. She doesn't like Vronsky. I shall be sick and ashamed, but I'll tell her. She loves me, and I'll follow her advice. I won't give in to him; I won't let him train me as he pleases. Filippov…They say they send their dough to Petersburg. The Moscow water is so good for it. Ah, the springs at Mitishtchen, and the pancakes!" And she remembered how, long, long ago, when she was a girl of seventeen, she had gone with her aunt to Troitsa. "Riding, too. Was that really me, with red hands? How much that seemed to me then splendid and out of reach has become worthless, while what I had then has gone out of my reach forever! Could I ever have believed then that I could come to such humiliation? How conceited and self-satisfied he will be when he gets my note! But I will show him.... How horrid that paint smells! Why is it they're always painting and building? Modes et robes," she read. A man bowed to her. It was Annushka's husband. "Our parasites"; she remembered how Vronsky had said that. "Our? Why our? What's so awful is that one can't tear up the past by its roots. One can't tear it out, but one can hide one's memory of it. And I'll hide it." And then she thought of her past with Alexey Alexandrovitch, of how she had blotted the memory of it out of her life. "Dolly will think I'm leaving my second husband, and so I certainly must be in the wrong. As if I cared to be right! I can't help it!" she said, and she wanted to cry. But at once she fell to wondering what those two girls could be smiling about. "Love, most likely. They don't know how dreary it is, how low.... The boulevard and the children. Three boys running, playing at horses. Seryozha! And I'm losing everything and not getting him back. Yes, I'm losing everything, if he doesn't return. Perhaps he was late for the train and has come back by now. Longing for humiliation again!" she said to herself. "No, I'll go to Dolly, and say straight out to her, I'm unhappy, I deserve this, I'm to blame, but still I'm unhappy, help me. These horses, this carriage--how loathsome I am to myself in this carriage--all his; but I won't see them again."

No, indeed, she won’t see them again…

Saturday, September 11, 2010

They Grow 'em Big In Calhoun County...

Met up with Rick Bragg last Friday. He was in town for our Gadsden Reads kickoff. We’re reading his book Prince of Frogtown, and we’ve gone about as crazy for his book as we did four years ago for Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish. Actually, we’ve gone crazier. You see, Rick is a local boy who done good. Came from tough Calhoun County stock (our neighboring county), went to college at Jacksonville State University (where I matriculated for my undergrad…Go, Gamecocks!), worked his way up through the newspaper world and became a New York Times best selling author…many times over. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he won this prize called the Pulitzer. That’s a big one, right? Just kiddin!’ Hah!

Anyway, the Gadsden Reads Committee picked Rick’s book The Prince of Frogtown because it was a book that spoke to our community, to the heart of our town. In Prince of Frogtown, Rick introduced us readers to his daddy, a charming, hard drinking, hard living man who grew up in the mill village of Jacksonville, AL. This was the same Daddy who, in All Over But the Shoutin’ ran out on his wife and kids, little Rick being one of those kids; a man we (and Rick), at times, didn’t trust. There's a whole lot more to the book than just Rick's daddy, but I think you should read the book rather than let me tell you about it.

So why did the book speak to us? In one word:
Gadsden’s got a mill village, and our mayor, Sherman Guyton, came from over there. So did brother and sister Mike Goodson and Glenda Byars, and a host of other interesting characters. Mill villages are about the same all over. There’s good, and there’s bad in each one, depending upon whom you talk to. Some folks, like Glenda, remember their mill village of the 50s as a real sweet and innocent place, a place of starched crinolines, poodle skirts, surreptitious hand-holding with your sweetheart, Magic Burgers with malt shakes, and the Del-Vikings singin’ Come Go With Me. A place you’d never want to leave. Other folks remember their mill village in a less than innocent light. For them, their mill village was probably more like a place of tough and unhealthy work, practically owing your life to the mill, scraping and saving to have a (drink) life. I’d imagine that when they turned on the radio, they’d listen to songs like Hank Williams’ (big daddy, not junior) Your Cheatin’ Heart or Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line. I suspect that they’d be looking for the closest exit out of their mill village…

Everybody there Friday night at the event was connected to Rick in some shape or form, or at least in their minds they were. “I used to live down the street from his momma.” “We went to the same high school…” “I used to pump gas for him…” I heard so many different stories as I made my way through the crowd, talking to folks, welcoming them, thanking them for being there. Everybody was real down home and friendly, just like Rick. I knew quite a few of them from the library. The others I didn’t know, but I can safely say that I know them now. That’s just the kind of night it was. Strangers huggin’ strangers, and folks makin’ friends.

Rick inspires familiarity, accessibility. Rick is of the people. He’s not a stuffy academic. But he sure as heck teaches Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. Rick’s got the stuff that writers, especially Southern ones, will go to the crossroads at midnight to bargain with the devil for. I know this for a fact. I’m not talking out of school when I say that I’ve personally watched at least one writer up close as they tried real hard to capture just that stuff. They got real close, maybe even finalized their own transaction with the devil (I didn’t stick around to find out, but I have my suspicions). But it’s not all about the fluff of barbecue sauce, preaching on the mount and the Civil War. I feel that you’ve either got it or you don’t. You can work at it as if it were a job, and hone that edge, but you can’t fake being a part of that public of which you write, especially the part of that public you call your people. Those people can smell insincerity and falseness like they can smell a pole-cat under the house. And when they’re done with you, they’re done. It’s true. You all know it is…you seen it before…

My daddy was at the event Friday night, sitting in his folding chair, eating a free Chick-fil-a sandwich, having a coke (translation: soda of some sort), and waiting for Rick to show up. Dad’s read more of Rick’s books than I have. He thinks a lot of him. I have my suspicions that they may be cut from the same cloth. About the time Dad finished eating his sandwich and I had begun eating mine, I noticed a discernible change in the atmosphere. That could only mean one thing. My eyes scanned the crowd and, yes sir, there was the man himself. I leaned down to Dad and said, “He’s here.” Dad held real still like a hunter not wanting to scare a deer away and asked, “Who?” “Rick,” I replyed. “Where?” Dad’s eyes squinted a bit as he looked off through the throng of people. I leaned in further, “He’s that big fella over there with beige shirt, directly in front of you, but across the way.” Dad spotted the man of whom I spoke. “Him? He’s too big. You sure that’s him?” “Yep. Dad, he’s a farm boy. You know they grow ‘em big in Calhoun County.” “Well, I never thought he’d be that big.” We just watched as Rick ran a hand through his loose hair before folks started coming up to welcome him. He was on. He made his way to the gazebo to address the crowd…

Later, after Rick had spoken for about five minutes at the mic before turning it back over to our favorite blue grass band Foggy Hollow (which, for the evening, was called Froggy Hollow), Dad was packing up his folding chair and readying to go home. Rick was trying to seat himself at the table we had set up for him, and a hundred or more people were trying their hardest to NOT form a line in front of him. They wanted time with Rick, and by God they were going to get it, one way or the other. Rick knew that, that’s why he kept it short and sweet at the gazebo. He knew that he would give personal time to each and every person there that evening. And that’s exactly what he did. I can’t tell you how many hours the man spent there on that folding chair, smiling, talking, listening and signing, but it was nightfall before he got up to head out.

We had packed up all the tables, given away all the free Chick-fil-a sandwiches, and were just killing time near the courthouse when I saw Rick walking towards his car. He didn’t notice as I observed him. He looked beat and ready to go. I slipped away towards him with my right hand outstretched to thank him. The minute he saw me, he perked back up, and took my hand. He was back on. “How ya holdin’ up?” I queried. Realizing who I was, he shook my hand and then shook his head, “I’m wore slap out.” He was the real Rick. “You stayin’ in town, or are you headed somewhere tonight?” I asked. “Headed to Mobile, but just gonna try to get to Montgomery.” We chatted a bit more about traveling as we headed towards Bobby, who was trying to fit fifty-leven Chick-fil-a warming bags into his vehicle. It was time to say goodbye.

While we were standing there shooting the breeze, Bobby mentioned the fact that there had been a personal biographer there in the crowd, a fellow with a video camera trained on Rick at almost all times. Rick responded with an incredulous, “Yeah! They took a look at me a couple of years ago and said, ‘He don’t look so good!’ They musta been thinking ‘He’s gonna die soon, so we’d better start recording something now…’” Rick just half snorted and shook his head. About that time a slew of Rick’s cousins came walking out of the trees. The leader was a long-legged brunette beauty. She was followed by a thin, tough-looking fellow, and they were followed by what looked to be a passel of kids, all of them boys. One boy, an especially solid looking one, puffed up his chest at the others, looking to challenge them to a fight, or something. He was so cute and fierce looking, taking a stand like that, I started laughing at him. A long-legged older woman, probably the long-legged brunette’s momma, came walking up with a pack of cigarettes in one hand, a lighter in the other. She noticed me watching the little ones, the one in particular. “What’d he do?” she half-jokingly demanded (sounded like she’d had to say that on many occasions before). “Aw, he just come up so tough, like he was gonna clean house,” is all I said. “Yeah, he’d do that,” she affirmed. We stood around for a bit longer, listening to the cousins talking, then called it a night. Last I saw of Rick, he was standing there next to the parking lot, family gathered around him, a loving but tired king, holding court.

Speaking of frogs (isn’t that what we were really talking about?). We’ve got more frogs than you could shake a stick at around here at The Bungalow. Lots of little ones, small green tree frogs, and even smaller mottled brown original recipe frogs. I saw one the other day while I was digging in the pet cemetery. It was no bigger than the nail on my little finger. And while I was watering the sun-burned hydrangea (which is coming back, I may add), I spied a tiny little frog napping in the curl of a new leaf. He was as green as a Granny Smith Apple, and as unconcerned about big ole’ me as could be. I like the little guys. They are nice company. And they were certainly here before Slim and I, so I feel that they have the right of way. There are two of them on the back deck right now…one under the dusty blue aardvark, and one clinging to the edge of the bistro table…