Friday, April 26, 2013

It's Hard Out Here for a Sock Monkey

I woke up today in my monkey cave feelin' the weight of the world on my little monkey shoulders, thinkin' "fuck it all" and reachin' for my first banana of the day. I read a book awhile back where the main guy wakes up and says "what the point of dreamin' when you wake up to the same old shit everyday?" And I said "damn straight" and grabbed me another banana. Then this black dog walks in to my monkey cave with these long floppy ears and big honkin' nose and he say's his name is Dorfmeister. Dorfmeister dog? I ask and he starts barkin' and waggin' his hind end like he wants to dance and sure enough he does want to dance! So while he's up on his hind legs with his forelegs pumpin' to the groove, his drooly pink tongue waggin' back and forth I'm thinkin' if I don't get out of here soon Dorfmeister Dog is going to want to have sex with me. But what I'm more worried about is that Mr. Dorfmeister will get so excited that he will make a big creamy boom boom all over my monkey cave, which isn't exactly spotless but it has yet to be graced with doggy boom-booms. So I grab my copy of Infinite Juice and a twelve-bunch of bananas and sneak my virgin monkey butt out the door.

No sooner am I out of my cave and shielding my little black button eyes from the blazing hot reflections off

the Olema shelf when I see a band of Masai warriors astride a galloping herd of giant giraffes, standing on their backs like circus riders, primitive reins of wildebeest sinew woven through the nostrils of the creatures. The long, brown, dusty tallywhackers of the graceful Masai are waving like snake kites in the breeze as they ride up shouting "Run! Run Meester Sock Monkey, the Bolinians are coming!" I scratch my little sweat sock head and peer as far as I can through the waving heat of the distant mirage when I see them: there must be hundreds of the squat, anvil-headed midgets, running and kicking up the desert dust, little blue billy clubs in their chubby six-fingered mitts, each of them intoning a low guttural chant: "woomba woomba woomba".

I've heard about the Bolinians and their exploits on the Mesa, Wildcat Beach, Smiley's Saloon. I've heard how they're descended from a single Russian fur trader and worship a great white shark named Stumpy. I've heard about these filthy little dope addicts and don't want anything to do with them and their hard, flat bottoms, so before I can smell their stale anus breath I quickly down a banana and grab onto what I think is the tail of a giant giraffe hoping to be whisked away with the tall and graceful Masai but no! I have latched onto a dusty brown tallywhacker and the next thing I know I have been hurled into the air, hurled like an Olympic discus above the clouds of desert dust, soaring high over the Bolinas Lagoon where I can see the elephant seals below me laid out on the low-tide mud flats baking their blubber. I fly onward, Mount Tamalpais now coming into view to the northeast and below me a stand of miraculously muscular hundred-year old eucalyptus overseen by hundreds of circling black turkey vultures with their disgusting red beak accessories between their eyes. Then my soaring stops and I begin my descent into what looks like  forest of orange leaves, but as I begin to fall through them, bouncing off branches like the stuffed monkey that I am, the leaves begin to fly and scatter around me, flying into my button eyes and if I had any nostrils I imagine they would have flown up there too and any other orifice they could find for these are not leaves they are the nomadic Monarchs making their infrequent stop in the woods above Coon Hollow. Oh, Coon Hollow:  here is where
I am destined to fly and, by the grace of the God, land amidst the ancient prehistoric salad of the dinosaurs: Chilean Gunnera, with leaves 6 feet in diameter and stalks of poisonous spikes, thus the bane of the evil Bolinians. And it is here that I hide from the evil little turdlickers, tucked between the leaves of the benevolent sock monkey protector, safe at last from what was shaping up to be a very, very bad day indeed. Good thing I have plenty of bananas, even after grabbing onto the brown and dusty tallywhacker of an unsuspecting Masai warrior and being flung miles from the Bolinas mesa over the lagoon to the safety of Coon Hollow, I still have my bananas. Whew! I think I'll have a couple right now!

(Sing to the tune of "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp")

"You know it's hard out here for a sock monkey
when everybody thinks you're a banana junky
every time I try to get down and funky
there be a whole lotta monkeys talkin' shit"

Monday, April 22, 2013

Heroin, Homosexuals, and the Holy, Holy, Holy...

Behind Bars with John Cheever

 On a good day I call myself a Christian simply because I was raised Catholic, it's the one religion I know something about, and it's programmed into my cultural genes. But don't ask me to quote the Bible, even on a good day. Instead, like many of my generation, most of my adult spiritual education has been focused on Buddhism. I've done all the required spiritual reading: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Siddhartha, Gesture of Balance, Be Here Now, Surfing the Himalayas etc. and I can ramble on about mindfulness and loving-kindness as if I were one of Jack Kornfeld's original apostles. Still, I was baptized and confirmed Catholic, married in the Episcopal Church, had both my children baptized (though you could count the times they've been to church on one hand) and can still recite the Apostle's Creed from memory. In short, I've cut my teeth on Christianity, so it would seem a shame to just discard it like an old glove and start getting up at dawn to contemplate my naval for several hours before coffee.

So imagine my surprise, given my rather average shallow and cursory knowledge of the Old Testament, when, upon completing Falconer it struck me that I had just read a novel inspired by a loose 20th century interpretation of Cain and Abel, with the truncheon having switched hands. Perhaps mine is a culturally programmed reaction to any literature involving fratricide. Still, it occurred to me that perhaps Cheever had asked himself "what if Abel had murdered Cain?" in the context of our 20th century justice system. Or, maybe more accurately, what if Cain took the first premeditated shot at Abel and missed, and Abel came back later and, in a classic spontaneous crime of passion, settled the score?  

In the old story, Cain, the older son of Adam and Eve, murders Abel after God accepts Abel's gift of meat but rejects Cain's gift of crops. Cain supposedly murders his brother in a fit of jealousy. Ezekiel Farragut murders his older brother Eben in a fit of rage:
" ‘I know one thing,’   shouted Farragut. ‘I don't want to be your brother...’
...’Kiss my ass,’ said Eben.
‘You've got Dad's great sense of humor,’ Farragut said.
‘He wanted you to be killed,’ screamed Eben. ‘I bet you didn't know that. He loved me, but he wanted you to be killed. Mother told me. He had an abortionist come out to the house. Your own father wanted you to be killed.’
Then Farragut struck his brother with a fire iron." (p. 174)
What we may not recall is that earlier in the story Eben tried to indirectly kill his brother Ezekiel by encouraging him to swim in Chilton Gut, a narrows between some Atlantic islands where they summered that had a deadly rip tide and was infested with sharks. While Eben runs away, up the beach, a stranger accosts Ezekial:
" ‘You're crazy,’ the stranger said. ‘The tide is turning and even if the rip doesn't get you the sharks will. You can't ever swim here.’ “ (p. 48) But Farragut doesn't acknowledge his brother's skullduggery, or doesn't believe it possible. Given what we know about Farragut's character at this point, it's possible that Farragut doesn't question his brother's innocence, even when it's obvious to the reader that Eben has set him up for certain death.
Perhaps it is Farragut's instinctual tendency to turn the other cheek away from the various forms of injustice that seem to surround him up to his incarceration - his tendency to keep his distance, to avoid involvement in his own supposedly accidental life, a life that was not intended to exist - that makes him such a natural drug addict. The drugs begin as a shield against the horrors of war, and become as time goes on an escape that enables him to sleep through an equally horrific marriage. Farragut seems to have logical, perhaps even justifiable reasons for his dependence on opiates, and in Cheever's hands the professor is perhaps the most likeable drug addict I've ever met. Nonetheless Farragut is a truly helpless sinner, and as events of his life before prison unfold it becomes apparent that he can't sustain his life as a stoned-out spectator. Ironically, it is when Farragut finally takes decisive action to help his suffering sister-in-law, niece and nephew by eliminating the source of their misery - Eben - that society locks him up. Ultimately it is the events inside the walls of Falconer Prison that bring Farragut unwittingly to his senses.
Throughout the novel, Cheever juxtaposes God's mercy against the brutal and destructive laws of man, and the poor dispirited boobs in the Department of Corrections that enforce those laws. It’s this juxtaposition that makes Falconer blasphemous and enlightening at the same time.
Consider the ignominy Chicken’s Bible undergoes during the VD exam:
“ ‘He stole my Bible,’ Chicken screamed, ‘he stole my limp leather copy of the Holy Bible. look, look, the sonofabitch stole my Holy Bible.’Chicken was pointing at the Cuckold. The Cuckold was standing with his knees knocked together in a ludicrous parody of feminine shyness...Chicken pushed him. The Bible fell from between his legs and hit the floor. Chicken grabbed the book... ‘It stinks,’ muttered Chicken. He was holding the Bible to his nose and making loud noises of inhalation. ‘He stuck my Bible up under his balls. Now it stinks. The Holy Scripture stinks of his balls. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy stink.’ " (P. 151)
It’s easy to imagine a Fundamentalist or Evangelist cursing Cheever and his entire family to hell for depicting a Bible in a scrotum, but again that would be missing Cheever’s point. Sure, it’s rolling-on-the-floor-laughing-out-loud hilarious, but it also makes the subtle point that the Bible, to these men, is just another book, good only for its leather cover. Yet for reasons Chicken fails to articulate in any sort of convincing way, it has suddenly become important to him. As readers we can see that Chicken’s sudden interest in the Bible is perhaps a harbinger of death. At the same time, Cheever sets Chicken up as a sort of spiritual agent that will facilitate Farragut’s redemption and freedom.  
Some may say that Falconer is not only blasphemous, but filthy, bawdy, scatological, irreverent and just plain dirty. Those that might be disparaging of Falconer for it’s undeniably raw characteristics may be missing the meaning of the work. When an author chooses to be honest and describe unwholesome, distasteful scenes the way they are, they take the inherent risk of losing easily offended readers. Ironically these are the same readers who may stand to benefit the most from the message, and Cheever’s message in Falconer, though subtle, is powerfully clear.
What makes Cheever’s message so powerful is, again, his ability to juxtapose those things we associate with Christian goodness - love, kindness, charity, forgiveness, tenderness, understanding, compassion etc.- against those things we might associate with sin: homosexuality and drug addiction, in particular, but also the brutality of the Falconer prison environment. The episode describing Farragut’s “withdrawal show” in which he tries to hang himself with the prison’s deputy warden watching enthralls with tense, jerky rhythms:
“When the sweat was in full flood, he began to shake. This began with his hands. He sat on them, but
then his head began to wag. He stood. He was shaking all over. Then his right arm flew out. He pulled it back. His left knee jerked up into the air. He pushed it down, but it went up again and began to go up and down like a piston. He fell and beat his head on the floor, trying to achieve the reasonableness of pain. Pain would give him peace. When he realized that he could not reach pain this way, he began the enormous struggle to hang himself.”(p. 67)
An equally horrific display of satanic brutality comes at the hand of Tiny, the cellblock guard who can be at once kind and at the same time unbelievably cruel:
“Two cats at the end of the block, thinking perhaps that Tiny had food, came toward him...Tiny raised his club, way in the air, and caught a cat on the completion of the falling arc, tearing it in two. At the same time another guard bashed in the head of the big cat. Blood, brains and offal splattered their yellow waterproofs and the sight of carnage reverberated through Farragut’s dental work; caps, inlays, restorations, they all began to ache.” (p. 78)
Oddly enough this experience begins to awaken religion in Farragut:
“The fire detail came in with waste cans, shovels and two lengths of hose. They sluiced down the block and shoveled up the dead cats. They sluiced down the cells as well and Farragut climbed onto his bunk, knelt there and said: ‘Blessed are the meek,” but he couldn’t remember what came next.” (p. 78)
Midway through the novel we find these horrific prison scenes surrounding a tender bittersweet love story, that of Farragut and young Jody.
“They had known one another a month when they became lovers. ‘I’m so glad you ain’t homosexual,’ Jody kept saying when he caressed Farragut’s hair. Then, saying as much one afternoon, he had unfastened Farragut’s trousers and, with every assistance from Farragut, got them down around his knees. From what Farragut had read in the newspapers about prison life he had expect this to happen, but what he had not expected was that this grotesque bonding of their relationship would provide in him so profound a love.” (p. 82)
Even though we can see that Jody isn’t much more than a hustler, Farragut’s professed love for the younger man is convincing. Even when we learn that Jody has played the prison chaplain DiMatteo to help secure his escape, Farragut shows no jealousy, no sense of betrayal. I can’t help but snigger a bit at Cheever’s portrayal of the Catholic priest and Cardinal who help the young hustler escape, given the church’s recent scandals. And I’ll admit that what I first took to be symbolic of Christian charity may actually be more of a sympathetic look at homosexuality in the Catholic Church. When Jody doesn’t return for DiMatteo and instead runs off and marries an Asian woman, the notion that Farragut has been played seems more likely. However the important distinction that Cheever makes is that Farragut’s love is real, pure, selfless, and forgiving. Thus Farragut makes a start at opening up his heart.
With Farragut’s discovery of love comes, shortly thereafter, the discovery that he is clean. When he realizes that he has, after all these years, kicked the smack habit, he discovers courage, not springing up from within, but in the form of a gift from Chicken. During the riot at Amana Prison, it is Chicken who burns his mattress and tries to incite his fellow inmates to rise up, and in the end it is Chicken who vocally mourns the death of the Amana rioters. When Chicken begins to die, Farragut comes to his comfort and aid, not because he has figured out his escape, but because he feels some compassion and sympathy for the old lifer who has not a single friend or relation in the outside world. Chicken in the end repays this kindness with his singular, courageous view of what “happens next”:

“ ‘...if they were going to take me out before a firing squad I’d go out laughing...I’d go out there and I’d dance my soft-shoe and with luck I’d have a good hard-on and then when they got the command to fire I’d throw my arms out so as not to waste any of their ammunition...and then I'd go down a very happy man because I’m intensely interested in what’s going to happen next, I’m very interested in what’s going to happen next.’ ”  (p. 204)
Later, at Chicken’s bedside:
“He [Farragut] went to the chair beside Chicken Number Two’s bed and took the dying man’s warm hand in his. He seemed to draw from Chicken Number Two’s presence a deep sense of freeness; he seemed to take something that Chicken Number Two was lovingly giving to him.” (p. 207)
Just prior to Chicken’s death, Farragut is visited by a young priest. It’s difficult to tell if this visitation is real or if it’s a fever dream. Farragut takes the Holy Eucharist and the priest disappears as mysteriously as he came in. After, Cheever finally shares the circumstances of the fratricide, and even though it’s clear that Ezekial Farragut killed his brother with a fire iron, it appears he had every good reason to do so and in the process has perhaps saved the wife and children from continued psychological torture. Given the current set of circumstances and Farragut’s transition from drug addict to a truly compassionate soul, we eagerly root for his escape. That his escape is finally facilitated by a charitable stranger, we can’t help but get the sense that perhaps God (or Karma as they might say out at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center) has decided to intervene in the case of Ezekial Farragut.
Of course we don't have to read Falconer through a Christian lens to be affected by the novel's sheer wonderfulness. This is a story of a thousand perfect sentences, a thousand indelible images, a thousand stories within the story, a thousand gasps and a thousand laughs, all woven together to create one of the most impactful novels I have ever read; certainly one of my top five favorites if not my favorite. Falconer represents in many ways the novel I aspire to write: funny, imaginative, quirky, bawdy and spirited, fearless and inspiring, meaningful yet entertaining. Falconer is a very clear and accessible model, with the all the characteristics of plain good storytelling that takes the reader from place to place without ever losing the pace of the primary narrative.
As Cheever’s last fully-realized novel, Falconer stands on its own; it needs no footnote, backstory, or other surrounding context for it to be remarkable. However it only takes a cursory exploration into Cheever’s own life to see all of the author’s parallel experiences driving the narrative. Like Farragut, Cheever finally got sober after decades of life-threatening alcohol abuse just prior to writing Falconer. The “prison” of alcoholism and drug addiction is a well-known metaphor and may even be the central analogy in the work. That Cheever was an equal rights advocate in the sack may also played into his honest portrayal of homosexual love. His strained relationship with his brother, the failure of his father’s business, his on-again, off-again marriage, the counseling, the therapy, his own experience as a fallen brahmin, - all of these life experiences are brought to bear in Falconer. It seems a shame that not long after Falconer, which some have characterized as his crowning achievement, his life as we know it was over and he was off to find out “what happens next”.  

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Bolinians Pt. III: The Battle of Bolinas

Though several months have passed, the timeless story of our Russian fur-trader Dimitri Pavlovich or, as known to the natives, "Man With Forever Erection", has been simmering in eager expectation of boiling over into a full-blown conflagration. That time has come. The little known Battle of Bolinas, systematically covered up by the Bolsheviks and the Communists as a national embarrassment, has recently been discovered in the archives of the Mission San Rafael and Mission Sonoma, as the only known chronicle of the only known direct confrontation between Mexico and Russia, aside from the infamous vodka/tequila barfathons held every spring in Daytona Beach, Florida in the early eighties.

The Bolinians, as the offspring of Dimitri Pavlovich and several Miwok Maidens, had decided to take their feral ways deep into the fir and bay forests by night and the deep, endless seaside caves of the Pt. Reyes peninsula by day, preferring to avoid the relentless insults from the purebreds. On the morning that their father met the Mexican rancher, Gregorio Briones, the Bolinians, whose group numbered about 40 that day, were hiding on the periphery of the meadow where the Caballero had decided to graze some of his cattle. Briones, a veteran of the Mexican Navy, and his team of brothers, cousins and other distant relatives from his father's big rancho in Pt. Reyes Station were slowly walking their mounts through the lowing cattle, completely unaware that they were being watched from the surrounding woods. Then, at the head of the meadow, a man in a long red velvet robe with otter-fur trim and a sealskin nightcap that hung with his long braids down his back emerged from the woods with two giant hounds, each half the man's height. It was Dimitri Pavlovich, feeling harmonious and sated after a morning of frisky sex with two 14-year old twin Miwoks who smelled like freshly squeezed milk from...oh my god! Pavlovich stopped suddenly, in awe of the cattle now grazing on his field and their incredible odor. He felt a powerful pang of homesickness, having not seen any four-legged beef on the hoof since his tour of duty around the summer palaces of the Czar and other Russian royals.
Pavlovich in better days.

"Beef!" shouted Pavlovich, running through the waist high grass toward the herd, his arms open, velvet robes billowing in the wind. "Beef on the hoof! I haven't seen beef like this since the Moscow Opera!" He turned to his hounds, Fyodor and Mikhail and said with a tease: "You fellas are gonna love you some beef on the hoof, lemme tell ya." The dogs whimpered and drooled, each giving Pavlovich a hearty lick to the crotch in hopes of gaining their master's favor.

Without a word, Gregorio Briones brought his mount to a halt and signaled his horsemen into battle formation, a line of 5 Alta Californians each with the Briones family pancho trimmed in silver and matching sombreros with silver bands, rifles shouldered and ready. "Who is this fucking nut?" shouted Gregorio, doubting very much that any of his cousins or brothers would have any idea who the man in the flowing robes and shiny oiled nightcap could be. Pavlovich, who was now chasing the shy cattle around in circles, seemed to take no notice of the men on horseback, who were the first relatively white men he had seen since his exile to the Farallones.

Meanwhile the Bolinians, none of them taller than an Ewok, began to advance on all fours from their hiding places among the dark Monterey pines encircling the meadow, completely hidden by the tall golden grass. Pavlovich had his sights set on a particular cow whom he stalked with a strange Dorian whistle reminiscent of the Russian dirge that accompanies a burial at sea, and the cow, hypnotized, had stopped in it's tracks.
"You!" Briones shouted. "Don't fuck with my cow!" But words were not enough to stop the beef-starved Russian. Slowly, Pavlovich approached the beast, whistling plaintively, his arms outstretched as if he were meeting a long lost lover. Just as the Russian was about to throw his arms around the neck of the beast there came a shout.
"Senor! The grass is alive! The grass is possessed by the devil!!" It was one of Briones cousins, Buddy (or, in his native tongue "Budlito"). Then, as if on cue, the little Bolinians popped their anvil shaped heads up from the grass and began to run. Briones, thinking the little brown monsters were coming for him and his cousins, raised his rifle, as did the rest of his crew, hoping to scare the Bolinians off. The Bolinians had never seen a firearm of any sort and kept on coming but, just as Briones was about to give the order to fire, the Bolinians veered off, running past the Mexicans and heading for their father, Dimitri Pavlovich, who now sat on the back of his hypnotized cow, his two giant wolfhounds at his side

When he heard the bloodthirsty cries of his offspring, Pavlovich signaled to the Mexicans: "Shoot the little fuckers! Hurry up! Blast 'em to eternity or they'll tear me limb from limb!" The Mexicans were too confused, perplexed and slightly amused by the little circus unfolding before them to want to shoot anybody, and Pavlovich, desperately trying to spur his bovine mount into action with his buckskin slippers, began to sob with terror. The Bolinians had him, his dogs and his beautiful black angus surrounded. They clucked and hissed, trying to woo Fyodor and Mikhail away from their master, but the dogs, never particularly friendly with the little brown creatures that pulled on their tails and tormented them whenever they raided the camp from their hideouts in the woods, were having none of it.

Then without warning a stout little Bolinian named Chuck rushed Pavlovich and his cow, screaming unintelligible Bolinian nonsense (which can still be heard to this day at Smiley's Saloon) and slapping himself on the ass. At this the Mexicans started to laugh hysterically, alarming the dogs, who pounced on Chuck and...

(to be continued...bwaaahaaaa!)