Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Numbers Game

Try as you might to recall when you first took it on as a literary meal, intending to digest it and make it as much a part of you as other works by the same author, you can neither identify when you came on board Life on the Mississippi nor when in fact you began to grow suspicious of the information it provided in the lush, rolling paragraphs of its opening pages.  Somewhere, in some other work of his, Sam Clemens had spoken of using dull, dry statistics to build the case for a monumental hoax on the innocent.  This warning was borne out when you happened upon a particular piece of his, "The Petrified Man," which constructed with elaborate care the discovery near the Comstock Lode silver mines the alleged remains of a man who, on closer investigation of the details as presented, had his left thumb attached to his nose.  After a few more paragraphs of seemingly close detail, came the revelation that the right thumb of the long-deceased "discovery" had his right thumb affixed to the little finger of his left hand.

Thus were some readers taken in by the fiction of a petrified individual offering a two-handed nose thumb at them, and you were hopelessly a fan of the author, in whose works you found other magnificent tricks that suited your boyish temperament and grew beyond into the cholers that fired up your youth and middle-aged passions.  Here was a true hero, one who had come to relish the consequences of a prank, in particular a prank advanced upon the unsuspecting embodiment of seriousness, decorum to the point of stuffiness, and a suit of dignity donned without regard for its flaws of tailoring.

It is also true that you note in yourself the complete impossibility of addressing the subject of Life on the Mississippi without some egregious lapse into a tributary of distraction wherein you relate events or comparisons tangential to your most frequent rereading of the work.  In this particular case, your side trip is charted on the possibility that the numbers and physical descriptions imputed to the great river might have some uncharted snags, which leads you to the subject at hand, the numbers game.

You can use numbers to explain things, add an aura of mystery to them, cause confusion, cast the probabilities of things happening or not.  Numbers carry the weight of heavy eaters, the luster of streetwalkers, and the imposing presence of bling; they may be displayed like the up-market foreign cars outside a Sunset Boulevard bistro or reveal the unpleasant truths of sixty-dollar Chevrolet Impalas on a used car lot.

Most of your life has been spent looking over your shoulder at numbers or over the pages of your checking account register, hopeful of some favorable turn of addition which resulted in you having higher numbers than you'd supposed.  You are leery of such cliched tropes as million-dollar smile or toupees and wigs with Porsche price tags, suspicious of writers who present the exact number of words contained in a manuscript, cynical about end-of-season mark-down pricing that removes in many cases sixty or seventy percent from the price of an object.  It has long been a cliche for one character in a story to wonder aloud how much a particular thing cost or for another character who is the perpetual low-baller in the war of economics where you, by implication, foolishly paid too much whether it was for fare on a bus or a senior saver at the local motion picture house.  You could have got it from NetFlix for less.

The digressions attach themselves to your comments on Life on the Mississippi like interest charges on a credit card invoice, this in large measure because the Mississippi, although enormous and powerful and muddy and romantic--all things you in your own ways are--it is not western.  You continually wish to use it as a stepping stone to Roughing It, which is western, or to Innocents Abroad, which you yourself are.  They are all measures of a man at the top of his game, where he had no thought to please his wife or her family, where he had no thought to please even those same elite readers that these works had brought him.  You could and do add the first three-quarters of Huckleberry Finn into this number game because it was a fiction that was cruising along much in the manner of one of the riverboats Twain himself piloted and loved doing.  In Roughing It, were you to turn to the chapter titled "The Mexican Plug Horse," you would find an amazing parallel to the individual at a used car lot, thinking to acquire his first automobile, a parallel showing how much the writer understood of his own dream-to-needs ratio and who in addition understood the perfect target for his investigation was himself and his own innocence abroad.

You hope never to get over your own; much of it has been wrenched from you by circumstances beyond your control, other of it by the mere fact of the age process, yet other of it by random chance, yet there are, as you proceed, large swaths of it, meandering before you like that remarkable river upon which it is doubtful Clemens/Twain was ever happier.

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