Thursday, April 5, 2012

The La Brea Tar Pits, The Catskills Resorts, and Story


Tonight, as you led the discussion of one of your favorite modern short stories, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” you got one of the best group responses to it from any group yet.  There is always a risk in beginning a class with it because of your belief that it takes students of both genders to places where they are separated from their comfort zones the way a tourist is relieved of his wallet by a pickpocket.

First came suspicion, then outright discomfort.

Of course, Tobias Wolff having the writer’s chops he has, the discomfort is the penultimate sensation before the remarkable payoff of feeling in the form of justice being done, in this case, emotional justice being done.

As an avid reader and fond writer of the short story, you enjoy the notion of success in these fictional ventures being measured by the way the more lasting, enduring ones take you places you did not particularly wish to visit, then, for some reason or combination of reasons, made you glad you’d gone.

After experiencing such an effect more than once, you began to realize what a good thing this was, how it in effect became a mantra to recite as you struggled to catch the narrative in some grip from which it could not stray.  In time you realized this meant you had to make the journey into those inner territories of your inner self where you had the least understanding and quite possibly the greatest fears.

Fear and lack of understanding thus provide fertile terrain for investigation.  Of course you approach them tentatively, all the while aware that you have to let go as completely as possible in order to get any good, solid foundation from which to launch forth.

After a time, you begin to get the picture of yourself as some sort of romanticized big game hunter, off on safari, going after precisely the wrong target.  The real game is you, showing off with your safari jacket, your weaponry, your ability to hire some guide who, were Hemingway to write of him, would demonstrate his disdain for you.  The moment you can see the advantages of taking off after yourself in your Abercrombie and Fitch garments and your writing group leader guide, the more you maybe on the scent of story that will turn into a trophy worth keeping.

You have come to believe that the writer, you included in this calculus, do not come close to understanding the enormity of the craft until the time when immersion is more or less complete.  You are in essence as “in” the doing as those poor, benighted animals of eons past who became trapped in the tar pools and dragged into their destiny.
Those tar pits seemed entirely navigable at first or you’d not have ventured so close, and by the time you’d got some of the tar on your shoes or trousers and saw the near impossibility of getting it off, you’d nevertheless go back, of course thinking the next time you’d be more careful, of course thinking you’d be able to get away with the venture.  You recall a vexed mother wondering to you why you continued playing near the tar pits and you found yourself bewildered that she could not see the reasons:  because the tar pits were there and you lived nearby, and because these places where animals once came to live dangerously.

There must be some kind of risk.  Why would you visit a riskless venue in the first place?  Why would you return to a place where there was no chance you might get tar on the bottom of your shoe—unless, of course, there was a risk abroad of greater significance wherein you might tarry, perhaps for the rest of your life.

How good to be able to plan ventures where you are more or less a tour guide to risky places, either through the medium of a story you have or will have written.  You come from a cultural and, thus, story-telling tradition often associated with the resorts in some of the hotels in the Catskills Mountains.  These storytellers worked days as social stewards, leading organized forms of entertainment.  At night, they performed as comics, comedians whose voices ranged from the heavy physicality of exaggeration and burlesque to the more thoughtful by comparison narrators of long, outrageous shaggy-dog stories.  They were called by a Yiddish name, “Tumler,” a person who tumbled and turned things from serious to funny, and conversely, from funny to tragic.

These young men and women took you to landscapes and circumstances so absurd, so filled with the risk of calling down on their heads the clamor of outrage that you could never again accept the possibility of an errand being merely an errand, rather a splendid opportunity for risk and mixed messages.

You have come back from class with the equivalent of tar on your shoes, which is a humbling reminder to wonder if, to glimpse the other side of the equation, any of them, being directed on this evening’s trip with you, also noticed anything black and sticky on their shoes.


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