Last week we wrote a review of Capote’s Letters for the Chicago Sun-Times. Lately, there’s been a significant dip in the quantity of LI’s review-writing. This is a good thing – writing reviews is generally a stinky business, unappreciated, underpaid, taking up a huge amount of time, in terms of reading and research and getting the first damn paragraph down, for comparatively little payback in terms of even the most miserly of nature’s rewards, the writer’s self satisfaction at a thing finally and forthrightly said.
In the course of our research, we read Plimpton’s Capote. It is one of those have recorder, will transcribe kind of books. Like Edie. Norman Mailer told an anecdote about meeting Capote in Brooklyn. Mailer at the time was renting a studio in a working class part of Brooklyn. Capote came over, and the two decided to get a drink, so they went to the neighborhood bar, ‘down on Montague Street near Court – a big Irish bar with a long brass rail at which were lined up fifty reasonably disgruntled Irishmen drinking at three thirty in the afternoon.” So Mailer and Capote went there, Capote wearing a gaberdine cape. “He strolled in looking like a beautiful faggot prince. It suddenly came over me. My God, what have I done? I walked behind him as though I had very little to do with him. And Truman just floated through. As he did, the eyes – it was like a movie shot – every eye turned automatically to look at him with a big Irish “I’ve seen everything now”. … It took me half an hour for the adrenaline to come down. I figured people would get rude and I’d get into a fight.”
That, to my mind, is what the fifties was about. Drinking, fighting in bars. There is an image of the fifties as a peaceful time that is based on crime statistics. You can clean out the toilet with those figures – the wifebeating, the kids beating the hell out of each other on street corners, the gaybaiting, little Southern town pinchings and lynchings of blacks, none of that was going to be picked up by the cops, or put into some lousy copbook.
In the summer issue of the Gettysburg Review, this came home for us in a really wonderfully understated essay, Learning to Fight, by a former basketball player, James McKean,. author of a book of essayes entitled Home Stand: A Memoir of Growing Up. Here’s the intro graf:
“Five paragraphs into Richard Ford's New Yorker essay "In the Face," I realized it had taken me years to recognize such men and even longer to stay the hell away from them. Analyzing his own penchant for confrontation and physical violence, Ford explains how he grew up in the fifties in Mississippi and Arkansas, where hitting someone in the face "meant something." It meant you were brave, experienced, impulsive, dangerous, and moving toward "adulthood, the place we were all headed-a step in the right direction." Oh no, I thought, here we go again. By the end of the essay, where he says that he himself is a man "who could be willing to hit you in the face" in response to "some enmity, some affront, some inequity or malfeasance," I wanted to find an Exit sign.”
McKean strings together a number of incidents around the fact that his height has, all through his life, flashed out a mysterious insult that seems to stop a certain type of man in his path – it is as if his physically towering there had been taken as just the kind of affront or inequity that this kind of man must take care of, Richard Ford style, by striking out. McKean grew up in Washington state – where my friend D. currently lives. I know from D’s stories about the life in his little town that Washington is a good state to live in if you want to get in a brawl with a drunk. It isn’t all sobersided living there, reader. McKean grew up there in the fifties, and sixties, and he well describes an aspect of the world that I remember from boyhood, a world in which there were other boys around who would actually hit you. Girls too. A world in which it was possible that you would be dragged off your bike by some larger kid and have to decide where to kick, bite or gouge the said kid. A fist could materialize suddenly from out of nowhere, or a spitball, or a stone, it could come out of the universe and upside your head. Myself, I can't say that I was beat up as a boy. I had my defensive wiles. But I was keenly aware of those lower down the food chain, the perpetually bullied. My fighting was confined to the house, where I battled my brothers. Luckily for them, and for me, my brothers are twins. My ability as an older brother to bully them was limited by the alliance between them that made them two bodies instead of one. And of course there is the fact that they became fairly physically strong, and I'm still the same old skinny shit with a wet paperbag punch.
I probably wouldn't have been good with just one younger male body to boss around. A rough sense of justice gets knocked into you by fair fights. Odd, that world. It is a struggle to concretely realize those chemicals, those aggressions and fears, in an imaginative sense when you have shuffled off that larval stage. Probably if LI were a dad, it would be easier. But being childless, we don’t have tons of contact with boys, and boy’s life. I have my doubts that it is as rough for your average middle class son as it used to be. The civilizing process, and the traumatic circle the wagons style of living popular in the suburbs, has probably doused a lot of the adrenaline raising moments. Or has it?
McKean’s essay makes it clear that being a shade under seven feet has its disadvantages. For one thing, short aggressive guys feel called upon to take you on, or even to suddenly pop you – which is how McKean lost a front tooth.
Here’s another graf and a half
“What I never developed, however, was a lightning bolt right hand. Growing straight up, I had too much else to learn. I remember being sixteen, carefree for a moment in the summer, listening to "Duke of Earl" as I strode through my mother's kitchen, heedless and head bobbing, only to crack my forehead on the top of the dining room door. My eyes crossed. The house shook. Ears ringing and lights popping, I had discovered the edge of the world at last. The standard world, that is, for all manufactured things are measured to a norm. As I kept growing, the world stuck out its knees and elbows. Nothing fit. Not dothes, not cars, not the desks at school. All the tables for measuring height and weight stopped before I stopped. When I sat down in the movie theater, the people behind me groaned and moved five seats over. …
No sleeping bags or backpacks. No spelunking. No basements. No cabin cruisers. No airplane seats. No slow dancing cheek to cheek. No calm and carefree moments while navigating the world, for there were lamps and tables and chairs and glassware balanced everywhere-a panorama of traps. My reach far exceeded my grasp, and bless the poor wreckage in between.”
LI highly recommends searching out this essay.