Sunday, February 8, 2015

Characters Who Help the Reader Define His Own Craziness

For as long as you can recall, the eclectic and varied nature of your memory has been remarked upon by friends, associates, and students, among them one psychiatrist who asked in so many words, "How the fuck are you able to remember so many off-the-wall things?"

At one point, such recognition got you to worrying if you should try to do something, say memorizing more conventional things, such as the names of National Parks, or all fifty-eight of the names of the California Counties.  No help.  For one thing, you couldn't with any ease put to memory facts and names that were of no interest to you.  Then you began to see your memory, which is to say the things you could pull forth with ease, as an index of who you were.

You are often reminded of your memory when you find yourself along shortcut roads, taken to avoid clogged freeways.  These roads are often sites for self-storage facilities, places where people store things that were once of consequence to them.  Now, because of size constraints or simple prioritizing of what goes where, materials in which the owner sees some potential await the call to active duty.

In that metaphoric sense, your memory often waits in the same manner a minor league baseball player awaits the call to move up to The Show, the Major Leagues.  You can never tell when it will be useful to know a cheetah can run at the rate of ninety miles per hour for about thirty seconds.  Anything longer and the cheetah is at risk of stroke.  You can never tell when it will be useful to remember the Italian name, Poldo Sbaffini, for that great, hamburger-eating friend of Popeye, J. Wellington Wimpy.

To your belief, there is no functional use to your storehouse of oddities than the facts of it being vast and interesting. By syllogistic logic, you are, therefore, or ergo, interesting to yourself.  

Ta ta to legions of individuals whose eyes you'd see glazing over with boredom or uncertainty when you held forth in conversation.  But this was a vital lesson; soon you made the connection that too much detail, in particular arcane detail, in conversation or story made the listener or reader quick to recall a previous engagement.  If you were to realize your wish of becoming a storyteller, you had to learn how to engage, not repel, the reader.

For one thing, it makes sense that you would know Poldo Sbaffini; you liked Popeye, you liked the Wimpy character even more so, and your literary agent comes from a family with deep roots in Italy and the Italian language.  Your agent's sister is a movie critic for Italian newspapers.

For another thing, you are looking at the personal copies of your recent short story collection, sent you by your publisher, in a real sense mourning the fact that two remarkable persons, who offered blurbs whenever you needed them, were not alive to provide the blurbs.  Gracious thanks to those who did, but these two, Charles Schulz, and Bob Kane remind you of some of the many characters beyond J. Wellington Wimpy, stored in the vaults of your memory.

From Schulz, the unsurpassed ensemble theater of characters associated with the comic strip, Peanuts.  From Bob Kane, one of your earliest ventures into memorable characters from Batman.  In a sense, the genie is out of the bottle with these two.  Although Batman is often lumped with super heroes, you have no such individuals in your vaults.  You liked Smokey Stover, Major Hoople, the entire Toonerville Trolley ensemble, and those unforgettables, Ignatz Mouse, Offisa Pup, and the eponymous Krazy Kat.

From Gene Ahern's strip, The Squirrel Cage, came the bearded hitchhiker, whose incomprehensible utterance, "Nov shmoz kapop," echoes in your memory to this day when you find it necessary to exclaim something that might otherwise have been quite obscene.  The beauty of this is the possibility of those hearing you uttering it will think you are swearing in Yiddish.

Names beget names and pictures:  Prince Valiant, Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates, and one of your boyhood favorites, Jungle Jim.  Pogo.  Calvin and his magnificent imaginary tiger, Hobbes.

There are times when you look at lists of memorable characters such as Ahab, Ishmael, Tom, Huck, Becky Sharp, Little Nell, and both the Melville and Dickens Pips.  You look at and remember Antonia, Hester Prynne, and the legion of Louise Erdrich characters, thinking, "You guys got me into this.  I followed you all over the place, through the hardscrabble with the Joads and into the poignant sting of Lenny and George."  You think about Julian English and Amory Blaine and Dick Diver and Jay Gatz.
They had a part in it.  So did Marlow and his American spin-off, Philip.  Spade, the Continental Op.  Gantry.  Babbitt.  You guys got me into this game.

Then someone cuts you off on the freeway or the people ahead of you in the ordering line at Cafe Luna can't make up their mind if they want soup or salad with the sandwich and you can hear "Nov schmoz kapop," coming forth.  And you remember as well the characters who got you into this from the times when the comics looked so interesting that you knew you couldn't wait to learn to read.  All characters who helped you define your own craziness.

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