The Street Hustler Storyteller’s Art Isn’t Dead

Of course it isn’t. It lives on in television infomercial hosts, wrestling announcers and multi-level marketing gurus. But I’m talking about the real thing–the carnival barker, the frontier snake oil salesman, the witch hunter. I didn’t think that was something you could see anymore in a public setting: a silver-tongued philanthropic capitalist addressing a preferably credulous public in order to convince them at length and in grand style to buy whatever it is. In Guatemala I was astonished and really very happy to find that tradition thriving. These people are serious storytellers, doing it to survive.

I took a series of chickenbuses to Chichcastenango, a highland maya town on a hilly plateau at about 6,000 feet where they have a big market on Thursdays and Sundays. It was windy and cold and the thin air made it hard to walk uphill. At one end of town, there’s a pastel-colored graveyard on a cliff, at the other, a stark white church built in 1600 on whose steps the local adherents of the maya religion make their offerings of flowers, tobacco and copal.

Five steps into the market I met a lady selling packets of medicine to kill stomach parasites, ringworm and the like. Four pills for four days. She had a collection of specimens–actual stomach parasites preserved in alcohol in baby food jars. She picked them up one at a time as she lectured. “Look at the size of this one,” she’d say. “This demon came out of the belly of a twelve year old girl.”

Chichicastenango, you’ll recall from my earlier ranting about it, is the town where the Popol Vuh was hidden away for 250 years before Friar Ximenez found it in 1701, transcribed it and copied it into Spanish. I went to the museum in Chicago where that copy now resides; they wouldn’t let me see it, but the whole manuscript’s been scanned online anyway. Anyhow. I went to the monastery courtyard where Ximenez would have sat to make the translation. It’s right in the middle of the market, and it was packed with people resting from the ordeal of shopping. A man by the fountain was telling a story to a crowd of a hundred mostly boys, teenagers and young men. The story consisted of a long series of ad-libbed episodes illustrating how the magic elixir of strength he was offering–in clear plastic vacuum bags with straws like those juice packs you drank in junior high–had caused hilarious awesomeness to spring out wherever it fell. He’d puncture a bag of elixir and use it as a visual aid to demonstrate peeing, a pregnant lady giving milk, a guy spitting at a joke, some more peeing, wine being turned to water, water to blood, hooch being drunk, rain. The resourcefulness of it was impressive, despite the lowbrowness perhaps of the humor. And I stood there and listened for 15 minutes, trying to figure out if there was some underlying thread I’d missed or wasn’t picking up, or if this was just how the story went. Everybody was having a good time, anyhow. And when I left, he still hadn’t tried to sell anybody anything.

Now there’s a storyteller.


A bridge in Chichi. Note the depiction of quetzalcoatl above the arch. (That’s El Nubo in the backpack–my intrepid guide.)

On the long bus ride back from Chichi, a twelve year-old kid got on for the leg from Chimaltenango to Jocotenango with a shoebox full of glue sticks–paste glue in a blue lipstick tube, like I used in 2nd grade. He handed two glue sticks out to every person. He clambered to the middle of the bus, gave a three minute lecture on the proper use and benefits of these glue sticks–great for arts and crafts, a great gift for the niños, easy to use, no mess. He named a price. Then he walked back around collecting up most of the sticks he’d handed out and some money from people who wanted to keep theirs. He got off in Joco, replenished his supply from a bigger box guarded by a girl a couple years younger, and climbed back onto the return bus to present his spiel again.

Then there were the “saved” men. Usually with scars or an arm missing from the civil war. Booming preacher voices, a summary of their path from loneliness and sin to oneness with Dios. They are performing a public service, providing a lesson with a clear moral. They ask for donations.

Out in the Cold Rain and Snow

Serendipity has been circumventing my attempts to celebrate the winter solstice in any true style for several years in a row. This year I get to spend the 21st on a plane. I hope I have a window seat.

The other day I was walking on River Road in Sunderland at around one in the afternoon, getting towards the end of our first big snow storm. The precipitation had turned to a fine sleet, and underfoot were four inches of snow topped by an inch and a half of hard slush. I followed other people’s footprints when I could, but mostly they’d been left hours ago and had healed over with ice.

I was walking by a gap between farmhouses when I heard something from the big, empty field behind them. Music. A couple of chords played on a big ole synth pipe organ, strung together into part of a melody. The sequence repeated itself once, then ceased. I wasn’t sure if I’d really heard it, so I stood there in the iced-over driveway for a minute, looking around at the clapboards and the maple trees for a light in a window, an open garage door. Something that might hint at the source of the sound. Nobody was out.

After a minute I heard whoever it was play through the same half-melody once more. I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. Maybe it was part of a Christmas song. I wanted to figure out how I knew it, and who was playing it.

Fairies? Angels? The Dead?

I turned away from the road, between the farmhouses and into the field, into the wind, the wet ice coming down on my face, turning it numb. Straight ahead over the pines and hemlocks at the far side of the field were the profile of Mt. Toby and the Bull Hill bluffs. Left, a church spire—no, it was the tower of the Blue Heron. The building had been town hall once, but never a church. No synth organ music issued from any of the above. I didn’t hear it again.

The wool coat I had on was getting close to soaked-through. I gave up, turned south over the crunching, sopping-wet fields towards home.

Mother West Wind's Children

I’ve been meaning to read Little, Big for a very long time. The only reason I hadn’t gotten around to it sooner was a misguided foreboding of immense depth and complexity that made me feel like I needed to be prepared for a challenge of such magnitude or I’d run out of steam halfway through. Because it’s Crowley, and I’ve read Crowley and heard him speak (even performed at a reading with him once!), and because everything I’ve heard about Little, Big makes it out to be such a towering monument among the literature of the fantastic, I was expecting to have to psych myself up to read it in the same way I would do for ye densest of literary classics, The Brothers Karamazov or Don Quixote.

Not so at all, it turns out. The prose is inviting rather than forbidding, yet none the less challenging or beautiful because of it—much more like, oh, I don’t know, Great Expectations set in that house where the Pevensie children discover the wardrobe, or Dunsany as written by John Steinbeck. It’s an intensely human story, using the influence of faerie on a little American town as a metaphor to explain the cause of all the heartbreaking flaws and limitations of human nature and the human condition.

There were no answers, none. All that was within the power of mind and speech was to become more precise in how the questions were put. John had asked her: Do fairies really exist? And there wasn’t any answer to that. So he tried harder, and the question got more circumstantial and tentative, and at the same time more precise and exact; and still there were no answers, only the fuller and fuller form of the question, evolving as Auberon had described to her all life evolving, reaching out to limbs and inventing organs, reticulating joints, doing and being in more and more complex yet more and more individuated ways, until the question, perfectly asked, understood its own answerlessness. And then there was an end to that. The last edition, and John died still waiting for an answer.

Yes! Yes. These massive semicolon-linked behemoths of sentences are exactly the kind of thing I want and strive for, the kind I get scolded for attempting all the time—not because such sentences are in any way inherently wrong, no matter that a certain kind of reader, lacking in the self-psyching-up skills, would argue that’s the case—but rather just because I don’t know how to do them right. Or so I tell myself.

How does Crowley make them work? How can he fill page after page with these forbidding monster riddle-sentences and somehow manage to end up with a prose style that is both lyrical and inviting? Maybe it has to do with the subject matter. Is it possible to write about love and existential sadness set against idyllic summer countryside in a way such that reading it doesn’t feel like coming home? Maybe not.

Because then I come to Book Two, titled “Brother North Wind’s Secret”, and a bunch of schoolchildren passing around a book of woodland stories written by their town’s patriarch, John Drinkwater. And around page 135 or so I begin to realize I am reading an homage to Thornton W. Burgess. Burgess was a naturalist children’s author from Cape Cod whom I read far too much of between the ages of eight and twelve: sort of a warmer, fuzzier Aesop, with talking animals learning wise life-lessons in the course of their daily efforts at survival, and teaching us something about the natural world as they go. I suppose he was very formative for me. I remember particularly my third grade reading teacher once scolding me for showing up with about the twentieth Burgess collection I’d read as a proposed subject for a book report. She wouldn’t let me do it, and so I left that phase behind and moved on to more grown-up books. And probably haven’t thought about Burgess since.

What Crowley does with Burgess is use him as a sort of secret passage to the reader’s childhood sense of magic. Little, Big is very much about lost childhood, about the slow compromises we make to replace the pieces of our childish understanding of the world as they fall away. Here’s a little bit of a Burgess story featuring Brother North Wind (from this online archive of his collected works:

The leaves of the trees turned yellow and red and brown and then began to drop, a few at first, then more and more every day until all but the spruce-trees and the pine-trees and the hemlock-trees and the fir-trees and the cedar-trees were bare. By this time most of Peter [Rabbit]’s feathered friends of the summer had departed, and there were days when Peter had oh, such a lonely feeling. The fur of his coat was growing thicker. The grass of the Green Meadows had turned brown. All these things were signs which Peter knew well. He knew that rough Brother North Wind and Jack Frost were on their way down from the Far North.

Peter had few friends to visit now. Johnny Chuck had gone to sleep for the winter ‘way down in his little bedroom under ground. Grandfather Frog had also gone to sleep. So had Old Mr. Toad. Peter spent a great deal of time in the dear Old Briar-patch just sitting still and listening. What he was listening for he didn’t know. It just seemed to him that there was something he ought to hear at this time of year, and so he sat listening and listening and wondering what he was listening for. Then, late one afternoon, there came floating down to him from high up in the sky, faintly at first but growing louder, a sound unlike any Peter had heard all the long summer through. The sound was a voice. Rather it was many voices mingled “Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk, honk!” Peter gave a little jump.

Endings and sadness and onrushing death—but with a cozy sense of as-it-should-be. Now, here’s Crowley reinterpreting the same sort of story:

‘Good Morning, Mr. Crow,’ the Meadow Mouse called out, feeling quite safe in his snuggery in the wall.

‘Is it a good morning?’ said the Black Crow. ‘Not many more days you’ll be saying that.’

‘Now that’s just what I wanted to ask you about,’ the Meadow Mouse said. ‘It seems that a great change is coming over the world. Do you feel it? Do you know what it is?’

‘Ah, foolish Youth!’ said the Black Crow. ‘There is indeed a change coming. It is called Winter, and you’d better be prepared for it.’

‘What will it be like? How shall I prepare for it?’

With a glint in his eye, as though he enjoyed the Meadow Mouse’s discomfort, the Black Crow told him about Winter: how cruel Brother North-wind would come sweeping over the Green Meadow and the Old Pasture, turning the leaves gold and brown and blowing them from the trees; how the grasses would die and the animals that lived on them grow thin with hunger. He told how the cold rains would fall and flood the houses of small creatures like the Meadow Mouse. He described the snow, which sounded rather wonderful to the Meadow Mouse; but then he learned of the terrible cold that would bite him to the bone, and how the small birds would grow weak with cold and tumble frozen from their perches, and the fish would stop swimming and the Laughing Brook laugh no more because its mouth was stopped with ice.

‘But it’s the End of the World,’ cried the Meadow Mouse in despair.

‘So it would seem,’ said the Black Crow gaily.

I just love the contrast between these two passages. Even looking back at the first Crowley passage, you can see how his prose is informed by Burgess, the simplicity and repetition, the narrative voice, even the mood. But even when he’s playing the children’s storyteller, those monster sentences don’t go away. I would argue they work here to convey a sense of breathlessness, of urgency, both in the story itself and the lesson it’s meant to convey. But the difference that strikes me most between the two is that in Crowley’s version, the inherent wisdom of the animals has been taken away. Peter Rabbit knows that winter’s coming; he knows what to do, because that knowledge was born in him. Not so for the Meadow Mouse–because he isn’t an animal, not really. He’s us. A captive audience. He needs the story, because without it he’ll never know how to survive.

Crowley never finishes this story. The mouse goes looking for the secret of Winter, asking every animal he meets. They all have their own answers, but none of them will work for him. And before we can find out if he survives, the schoolchildren stop reading.

If I could make that kind of point with that much grace, well, maybe I could write long-ass sentences too.

Appleseed

This is going to be one of those long, rambly posts that touches everything. So you might as well go get a cup of tea. And maybe not come back. I leave that to you.

My first encounter with the myth of Johnny Appleseed was a big white hardcover picturebook which I swear was called The Joy of Giving, but which I can’t find anywhere on the eeenternets, so maybe I imagined the whole thing. It told the life of Johnny Appleseed in the simplest, most sanguine terms, with cuted-up illustrations and a talking inanimate object sidekick (a shovel, I think). He wore a pot for a hat, dressed in muddy overalls, and hiked barefoot, with a big walking stick and two cloth bags slung over his shoulder: apple seeds and oatmeal. He walked until he was tired, ate supper out of his hat, built an orchard, then started walking again. And now we have apples everywhere, in pies and cider and the American dream.

It doesn’t get simpler than that. And when I turned six or seven and graduated from Mac and Tab Are Friends to that, believe me, I was sold. If I could figure out what the heck that story was actually called it would go on my Jay Ridler Top 100 books lickety split. Along with all the rest of the sappy picture book biographies in that series (each one of which had its own unique variety of inanimate object sidekick).

Sappy and cheeseball though it is, it occurs to me that the talking inanimate sidekick thing–at least as used in that series–is actually a magic realist trope. Everything else about the story dealt in a more or less accurate—albeit syrupy-sweet—manner with the real life of some inspiring historical figure. Madam Curie talked to X-Rays, as I recall, and Louis Pasteur talked to germs. It was awesome. And Will Rogers talked to his lariat. No, really. It’s just taking one element of a story and blowing it up to magical stature via hyperbole in order to grab the fancy of a reader who might otherwise be less than interested. This is why magic realists get accused of pandering and their readers of exoticism. But why the hell else would I have cared what happened to the boring old whitebeard Louis Pasteur if he hadn’t been fighting these big germs that looked like Napoleonic soldiers with bayonets?

It’s apple-picking season. In a couple weeks I will drop off several five-gallon glass carboys at my local orchard to be filled with fresh-pressed, unpasteurized cider. The big Mac tree behind my apartment has been producing apace since August; I’ve been eating at least one a day since then and am now physically invincible. As my affair with the cliff the other day clearly demonstrates. Today, I ate three different varieties of wild apple: a kind of Golden Delicious/Macoun hybrid from the tree outside my work at lunchtime, a hard, mild Spy variety from the edge of a field in Graves Farm Sanctuary at the beginning of my evening hike, and a spicy Macintosh variety from the same field at the end.

Mulling over the last one as I meandered back to the car, I thought of Appleseed. His position in the American myth is unique, closest perhaps to Thoreau (at least among its real, breathing representatives, as opposed say to Longfellow’s Hiawatha) in terms both of pacifism and unabashed love and appreciation for nature. Appleseed has a magnanimity towards the human race that, to my mind at least, the other great naturalists lack. On the the other hand, he is completely un-unique as an unconcerned, if well-intentioned, spreader of colonialism.

Still, I don’t think I can deny being deeply influenced by that spirit–and by Appleseed as a hero–even if there is a bit of hypocrisy involved. Little kids are impressionable, I know. As a six year old I was probably equally enthralled with the story of Helen Keller and her talking water pump or whatever. But not nearly to the degree that her legend can rear up out of a country breeze and hijack my head for a couple of hours.

This is where the dangling spider-threads of my newly adopted fake religion, pseudopagan pantheism, make themselves felt. I am irrevocably a creature of New England. If I ever leave here, I’ll still be that. Which means, because of the legacy of Appleseed and those like him in the oblivious colonialist sense, that as deep as my druidy roots ever reach, they will always have been founded upon a tamed and friendly Nature. I can wander around like an idiot falling off cliffs and getting lost in thickets in the dark without a lot of fear of retribution. No wolves, only the occasional wee black bear to go “aww cute” and scare off, and no place to get lost or horribly crippled where a mere half-mile of excruciating crawling won’t get me to a friendly human dwelling with phones and hot running water. Whenever I meet a serious wilderness enthusiast from west of the Mississippi, I seem to end up getting the same gentle ribbing about being so irrevocably enamored of the nurturing-yet-pansy green hills of my home, even to the point of disregard for real wild things like the Rockies, Yosemite, Olympia. And they’re not wrong. But I can’t help it.

I can’t stand new development. I get very angry when trees get cut down and old farmland gets paved to make way for giant box stores I will never enter and couldn’t even dent with a shoulder-fired missile. And yet at the same time I feel, a bit guiltily, that I owe a lot to Johnny Appleseed. He (or his myth) made what remains of the Western Massachusetts wilderness into the Eden that it is, where I can wander around ignoring trail signs and topography, picking apples and taking meticulous photographs of mushrooms with no regard for life or limb. I could probably live for weeks in the woods this time of year just on apples. Presuming I didn’t get gunned down by hunters. Without him, or the spirit of agricultural imperialism he exemplified, that wouldn’t be possible. My whole philosophy of existence pretty much wouldn’t be possible.

If only I were Erin Hoffman, I could distill all this verbosity down into a heartwrenching 20-line poem that cuts to the quick, sell it, and maybe put it out of my head.

Instead I’ll spend the next year or so mulling over the tragic extinction of the American tall tale, how the sterilization of popular culture into malls and box stores and wax-coated, nasty, gas-chamber megamart apples has utterly exterminated any earnest belief in the old kinds of myths, and the only way to resurrect them is in clinical laboratory examinations such as this. And maybe, If I’m really lucky, six months after that, I’ll have written a story that touches on these sad notions briefly in passing and ultimately fails to do them justice.

The Dogs Shook Their Ears Like Door-Knockers

I couldn’t resist sharing a little bit more of Miguel Ángel Asturias’ The President, which, yes, I am still reading after all this time, partly because of all the TNEO crits piling up on the floor around my desk, but mostly because of the astonishing, cerebellum-like convolutions of the novel’s structure, characters and prose. Each chapter is a unit unto itself, more often than not with its own point-of-view character and its own unique conceit. I have been restricting myself to a chapter a night, often flipping back for multiple re-readings.

The following nocturne comes as a married couple, newly wedded almost by coercion and as a result facing political disfavor and the immanent threat of execution, settle into separate beds in separate rooms and try desperately to sleep:

The moon went in and out of floating niches in the clouds. The road flowed like a river of white bones under bridges of shadow. Now and again everything grew indistinct, with the patina of some old religious relic, only to reappear brightened with gold thread. A vast black eyelid intervened, and cut off this vision seen through flickering eyelids. Its enormous lashes seemed to come from the highest of the volcanoes and spread like a huge spider over the skeleton of the town, plunging it in mourning shadow. The dogs shook their ears like door-knockers, night birds flew through the sky, a moan passed from cypress to cypress and there was a sound of clocks being wound and set. The moon disappeared completely behind the tall summit of a crater and a mist like a bride’s veil came to rest among the houses. Angel Face shut the window.

Asturias spends the first half of the novel establishing his namesake character, Miguel Angel Face, as a left-hand-of-God figure, the eponymous dictator’s personal equivalent to an Archangel Gabriel: beautiful, frigid, fickle and cruel. But by the point of the above excerpt (nearing the end), we see him transformed, a half-redeemed and now entirely sympathetic antihero, more akin to Milton’s Satan. In an astonishing and damning feat of postmodernist cheek, Asturias has written himself into a scathing criticism of a dictatorial government which he himself had served and would continue to serve in the future. He finished El Señor Presidente in 1933, but because of the reigning political climate in Guatemala and his personal implication, it wasn’t published until 1946.

I’ve been thinking of Asturias lately as the originator of the magic realist genre, though, like most originators, he doesn’t actually fit into that genre himself. He was apparently the first to apply the term to fiction (rather than to art), but his own writing is far bleaker, less romantic, less accessible, and more abstract than the flagship works of magic realism’s current market share. All of which tendencies I find myself tempted to strive for in my own writing.

I notice a lot of contemporary writers—Lucius Shepard (in this Strange Horizons interview), Angelica Gorodischer (this interview at Fantastic Metropolis), Alberto Fuguet ((in an essay at Salon.com)—trying deliberately to extricate themselves from the entangling spines of the magic realist umbrella, even as more crossover titles with magic realist leanings (The Shadow of the Wind, Murakami) keep popping up in the bestseller lists. The term having been appropriated and standardized by the publishing industry, I think, deprives the style of some of its impact. Which shouldn’t really come as a surprise; it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with everything from grunge to hip hop to the co-opting of Che Guevara iconography, etc. A year ago, the implication that nothing truly innovative or vibrant could be done anymore with magic realism would have and did piss me off to no end. Now, though, I have to admit I am coming around to the side of the scrappy heroes of the fringe. Not that I’m quite ready to abandon the term altogether. I still do get mildly annoyed when I see some new and bitter initiate of the ivory tower taking attention-begging potshots at magic realism as a whole rather than at any of the actual human beings who perpetrate it. But I do begin to think that Theodora Goss was doing me a favor when she lumped “The Utter Proximity of God” with the surrealists instead.

Which doesn’t exactly bring me back around to Asturias, except in that his authorial mindset and storytelling style were developed entirely out of the influence of the twenty-first century publishing conglomerate climate, but rather squarely under that of European surrealists like Paul Valéry. And so perhaps I do ok for myself by choosing to obsess about him instead of García Marquez for awhile.