Thursday, October 30, 2014

Benchmarks along the Failure Highway

Among your favorite narrative poems, three call themselves to your attention by setting a youngish male protagonist off on a quest, which allows you to see them as parallels to the search brought to prototype status with Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.  These three favorites remind you of so-called adventure stories you favored as a boy, when, for the longest time, your most focused thoughts were on adventure.

In addition to the stories you first encountered, such as Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, you made do with the cultural and parental restrictions placed on a young boy by inventing adventures of your own, often based on such other adventures as Gunga Din, Beau Geste, and The King of the Khyber Rifles.  Some abandoned crates and boxes in the spacious empty lot behind your residence served as Fort Zeidernuf from Beau Geste, the then equivalent of the McMurdo Station at the South Pole, and for one solid summer, the mead hall from Beowulf.

The quests that did not begin in books often began instead in various arrangements of those abandoned crates.  In some cases, these crates became the library from which you happened to nave books at hand from which to chose and orchestrate additional quests.  

As such things often go, you were wrenched away from your California base of operations, to pursue, as your father put it, other options, and as your sister and mother noted, to pursue the interiors of libraries in such foreign places as New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Florida.  

Your sister, who had dreams of becoming an archaeologist, but who settled for becoming a Family Therapist, urged you to consider these new libraries in places foreign to you as the equivalent of the famed tombs of Egypt which were discovered and/or vandalized by the likes of the great tomb robber, Belloni, and some of the more reputable archaeologists such as Wheeler and Lord Carnavan.

These treasures led you away from the more linear of the quests, into the more braided and nuanced memoirs and a genre still known today as the coming-of-age novel or bildungsroman, which was your first German word.  The coming-of-age novel represented to you the more modern equivalent of the hero's journey.  

Perhaps because you were so eager yourself to come of age, to, as it were, seek your fortune, whatever that fortune should be, you were drawn to this iteration of the hero's journey, coming in time to see the quest for the treasures you imagined to be at the end of the search--wisdom and perseverance--as a greater goal than mere Spanish doubloons and the spoils of wars and piracy.

Perhaps it was your wording, perhaps your composition style, perhaps even your vocabulary in its tendency toward evangelism of a sort, but any number of teachers in junior and senior high school disagreed with your thesis, which, of course, caused you to be all the more convinced of its truth.  For a few years, you found yourself trying to find identity with Mr. Hemingway's significant character, Nick Adams. 

Then you moved on toward Jerome David Salinger's Holden Caulfield, lingered at some length with what you considered the mischievous distractions provided by Philip Roth characters, arriving at last to the amazing outreach of Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie Marsh.  Here was coming of age in the rewarding sense of being a goal you could hope to achieve for yourself, but on your own terms, not the eponymous narrator.

Augie more or less grew up at the same time you did.  When you came into the world, your parents, pretty well established in middle-class comforts, were beginning to see the slow diminution of their accomplishments, finally having to move from the home they owned in Santa Monica to a rented one in Burbank, then out of a single-dweller home altogether into a long line of apartments, some quite small, others in remote parts of remote towns or cities.

"I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way," the narrator tells us at the outset.  ["I am} first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

You are none of that, in particular the Chicago part, a city it would take you another fifteen years to reach after first having read this book.  Yet you are in your way all those things.  Augie Marsh brought the coming-of-age novel into the twentieth century, yours and Bellows.  He had a sixteen-year head start on you, unmeasured IQ points and ability.  You have always known that, even when reading works of his you found yourself not being able to resonate with.  But he did things with the picaresque novel and its protagonists, the likes of Tom Jones and Humphrey Clinker, of whom you will write later on, that marked his narrative style and his sense of story shape as high water marks.

Rich and diffuse as it is in its apparent ramble, The Adventures of Augie March has a handcrafted, benchmade quality to it unlike most large novels, reminding you of yet another work you will write of, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

You are in effect writing about this novel because of the way it caused you to sit up at the age of twenty-six, having read this for the first time, having scrounged the ten dollars for the hardcover edition, wishing to renew your vows to become not merely a writer, but an author.  This novel has allowed you to live in some comfortable honesty with your desires, your attempts at realizing them, and the trail of bloody failures in the wake of your desires.

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