Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Visit with an Old Friend

 A visit with an old friend can be a precarious thing, reminding you how much one or both of you has grown. This prospect is daunting enough without the added possibility of it reminding you of the distance you've grown from one another.

In certain cases, trial runs, as the matter were, you are both at the age and temperament you'd reached when you last met.  This has negative and positive aspects, the negative ones being some vivid memories of your then behavior, the positive aspects residing in the possibility that you have moved farther along the road of becoming some approximation of what you'd hoped,

There are speculative visits, where you wonder how a meeting would go with an old pal from high school or university days, fraught with potential cringe moments when you recall the essential ingredients of the then chemistry between you, certain you have outgrown, bypassed that aspect of your essential nature while at the same time recalling other individuals from your past, relatives, teachers, employers, work mates, who have left you with variations on the theme of a leopard not being able to change its spots.

You find yourself thinking in terms of fifty-fifty propositions.  You may have changed some spots, but the others are still there, waiting for the whistle or command that will bring them forth again, and you will be you, filled with the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old you.

Most poignant among these visits are the ones with those closest ones with whom you are separated by the boundary of life, which you continue to enjoy, and death, which they insist on keeping.  Many of these memories remind you of the fragile nature of humor, how an event or incident or some coded language can bring you gales of fond memory.  Yet, when your laughter or posture of amusement is questioned and you supply explanations, you're met with the dull-eyed looks of incomprehension, followed by an uneasy attempt at retrieving a lost pace.

There is nothing overtly funny, for instance, about ordering liver and onions for lunch at a posh mid-Manhattan restaurant, even in context with one of the diners being a committed vegan as well as being obnoxious.  There is nothing of essential humor in the fact of you being banished from a cemetery, your offense the consumption of a super deluxe torpedo sandwich from the Italian Deli on De la Guerra Street, much less is there any humor in the fact of complaining to a busboy in Spanish and with gestures, that someone has stolen your watermelon.  Yet, all these incidents have ties to associations related to gales of appreciative laughter.

And what if the old friend is a book, long left to wait, as many friendships do, for a considerable span of time?  Is there a commonality of language and interest?  Even more interesting, is there chemistry, and if so, what kind?

Often heard at impromptu or more formal reunions, "Do you remember me? or, "You may not remember me--"Sometimes, in the first eight or ten pages of reunion with an old friend book, such statements come to mind.  When they do, you set the book aside with nervous deliberation, aware you've grown apart, but not quite sure why or how.  Really?  We were friends?

There are a number of old friends with whom there is a chemistry still to be cherished.  You've had the opportunity in recent years to teach the book, watch a diverse group of readers set forth thinking, as you once did, one thing in particular, then coming to a place you're pleased to be able to appreciate.

"This is," you once thought of your friend, "a wonderful book for a boy.  It could not be better in terms of suspense, bewilderment, adventure, and grand surprises."  The book of which you speak is Huckleberry Finn.  Although it is some of those things you once thought of it, Huckleberry Finn, wonderful though it may be, could in fact be better.  Adults do in fact ignore it at their peril, more often than not because it is presented as a boy's book, an "adventure," or a first look at a significant American voice.

Huckleberry Finn does embody some of those tags, yet under the surface of them, it rips into an America every bit as conflicted and tortured as William Styron's Sophie's Choice, forging a new narrative vision, a quintessential American voice in the process of addressing an agonizing racial conflict.

From its opening lines until the introduction of Tom Sawyer toward the final quarter of the novel, and then returning to those elegiac final lines you believe F.Scott Fitzgerald was trying, in his way to emulate, Huck Finn carries its own weight as a story, pushes narrative voice to an undreamed of plateau, evokes a magnificent river in full parade, and takes on significant moral issues.

What possible must-read list could you compile without mentioning Huck Finn?  What other book promised you and delivered on the promise a lifetime of discovery?  

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