Friday, December 17, 2010

Aye, There's the Rube

For some time now, you have been convinced that voice is the major force in relating story or, for that matter, any narrative.  At one point in years past, before you were fortunate enough to blunder into editing and, because of that, into teaching, you'd thought to earn your keep through journalism, staying at it until you could earn your keep at writing.  There was a no-nonsense voice in journalism you admired for a long while, carrying you from your undergraduate days on the student daily to a forty-hour-a-week job at the Associated Press night office, right off the editorial room of the L.A. Times.  Added to the subtext of accuracy and authority you saw in the Associated Press style guide was the pulse of event, coming in over various machines, giving you the intimacy of knowing as much about what was going on in the world as you were able to absorb.  You were taken to editorial task at times for trying to add sparkle to such quotidian events as the egg market closing up or down today as the case might have been.  No one, the steely editor reminded you, gives a damn about the drama in the egg market.

This was of course a nail in the coffin of journalism for you; you wanted drama in everything.  Since you worked the late shift--3:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m.--you were turned out into the streets of downtown Los Angeles when the atmosphere of drama and romance hung over the landscape like the aroma of onions from a hamburger grill, sharp, enticing, exciting.  There was a Japanese restaurant around the corner that served a late supper or early breakfast for workers in the downtown floral and fish markets.  A tavern for cheap pitchers of beer featured what seemed to you at the time the most remarkable hamburger known to man, and some slight distance away was the all-night haven of The Pantry on Figueroa Street as well as a Log Cabin where it was possible to secure hot cakes as round and thick as the tires on a child's tricycle.  This, too, turned out to be another nail because its very atmosphere seemed to infuse you with drama and excitement.

Hubbard Keevey, the editor, set you straight when there was an opening day side and you applied for it:  The reporter's excitement is for the story, Lowenkopf.  Your excitement is for the drama of the story.

Thus, when Ronald Albert Lawrence came calling for a visit in a used Cadillac convertible, its rear storage trunk and back seat crammed with stuffed animals from one of the downtown magical streets, and invited you to come with him to join the carnival, you yourself applied a nail to a job with a small town daily newspaper in Calexico, threw some khakis, underwear, and polo shirts into a bag and hied yourself off, little dreaming your first adventure would come on the precursor of I-5, just north of Los Angeles, when said used Cadillac convertible gave up the ghost.

Over the arc of your time with the carnival, you learned a number of things about human nature in general and one resounding truth about Ronald Albert Lawrence, which was his hopeless attraction to automobiles that died of various ailments on lonely back roads of California and Nevada.  You also learned of his ambition to lure just one auto mechanic or used car salesman to one of the carnival booths he managed, avid of wreaking on that hapless individual a symbolic revenge for all the used cars that had died under his ownership.  You learned of remarkable revenge fantasies which, when played out, would have separated the unknowing auto mechanic or used car salesman from hundreds of dollars and endless humiliation.

You also learned about voice and style in another sense than short stories.  As an agent or barker, your job commenced with the ability to attract a strolling carnival goer to your booth, whereupon to try his hand at such things as baseball throw (your favorite), tossing balls into cupcake pans with numbers painted on them, trying to achieve a high score or a low score, guessing an individual's weight-occupation--state or origin (almost your favorite), and similar games of chance.  Always on the lookout for an intriguing pitch, you came up with what you thought a splendid ploy.  "Hey, buddy,"  you'd call out to a passing young man strolling with his date, "You won a prize for the girl you were with last night.  How about winning a prize for this one."  This worked well enough until you tried it on a uniformed Marine with several rows of decorations on his chest, who not only failed to see the humor, but who challenged you first with the flat assertion of being on duty last night, then came at you, determined to secure an apology.  Perhaps worse.  You shall never know.  Someone shouted the magical carnival mantra, "Hey, Rube," which meant there was a potential menace to a carnival worker.
Carnival workers are not Judge Judy; they want and usually get quick justice.  The Marine suffered minor damage to his uniform, was handed a stuffed dog--"for the little lady"--then escorted off the midway.

Fountain pen works best followed by ballpoint pen, followed by direct composition on the computer.  Listen to the voice you trust most, appears to have some awareness of the humor of the human condition, has some eye for the absurd as ordinary.  Hubbard Keevey, one of the great AP editors of the last century, had a gruff, economical mien, a voice reminiscent  of a Boston Bull Terrier at bark; it stuck in your mind because of what he said and how.  Undoubtedly, had he hired you to work day side and get away from the egg market and Pacific Coast League baseball scores, you would have discovered the voice of truth in regard to your own stand on voice at some later time.  It is helpful for you to regard any given moment as a work in progress.  Your regard for it, as demonstrated in your voicing of it internally, saves it from being journalism and offers it a chance for becoming the drama you hope to capture.

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