Sunday, July 12, 2015

By the mark, twain. Safe water.

In the years before you read Saul Bellow's breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March, most of your imaginary voyages, lavish schemes, and daring rescues somehow related to the Mississippi River, with you either standing watch or at the tiller.  Small matter that you'd in fact only crossed that majestic river twice, neither time on anything resembling a raft.

In those earlier days, you made do with large, flattened cartons of corrugated cardboard or of the occasional broken pallets that found their way into the seemingly inexhaustible stretches of empty lots in the Los Angeles of your youth.

During those days, if you wanted adventure, you had few choices, you could read about it,  imagine it, read about it, or resort to some feat of activity such as jumping off of garage roofs, bicycling down the bed of the Los Angeles river or, it the weather had been kind in providing some actual water and current in that river, attempting a raft-like journey where you were at the whim of the elements.  

The last of these was the only one where there was a possibility of the added adventure of your parents having to rescue you from some remote part of the city, and some law-enforcement or caretaker adult stepping in to rescue you whether you wished rescue or not.

Avid for adventure, you resorted to all three options, developing formative relationships with your imagination, your reading tastes, and your parents, occupying you until your teen years and the university opened other vistas.

In the same manner that Huckleberry Finn hit you with the impact of a dodge ball thrown by the schoolyard bully, The Adventures of Augie March spoke to you in voices of simultaneous encouragement and frustration.  Two or three rereadings of Augie provided undiminished encouragement and in near equal measure the frustration of not knowing how to translate these feelings into useful energy and momentum.  

Rereading the book made you hungry to work at your own writing.  And you did.  Decoding the richness of character, dialogue, moral and physical issues, and coping with Saul Bellow's remarkable intelligence and sense of irony left you, as it were, trying to ride a flotsam raft on the Los Angeles River or steering an imaginary raft on a grassy, vacant lot.

Augie is the fourth novel in the first section of your most recent and current adventure, for now, instead of riding on imaginary rafts, imagining you are variously helping a runaway slave, avoiding crazed film producers who believe you've stolen their materials, escaping from those who would shanghai you into service on a British Naval gunboat, you are a person of your own time, place, and age.  All this is to say you are embarked on what at the moment appears to be the sturdy craft of a book you are hopeful of making seaworthy or river worthy or publication worthy.  

At the moment, you are aware of the meaning behind the name of one of your literary pole stars; you can hear the deck hand on a river boat plying the Mississippi, casting his depth gauge into the water by way of assuring all concerned there is enough depth of water for the ship to make safe passage.  "By the mark, twain," the deck hand calls, noting the depth of two fathoms, twelve feet.

Your current project calls for you to produce a brief essay on the hundred novels that in effect provided you with the most adventures and the rafts or barges or boats they became on the rivers of history and reader tastes and cultural seas.  Angie is by no means the fourth book you read; it rests as number four in its category of Coming of Age only because it was the fourth book you recalled in that category.

You'd read Huck Finn several times before coming upon Augie.  Skimming through Augie once again, you realize with certainty how important his voice was and how much more you were like him than Huck.  Augie comes from immigrants; you are second generation.  Augie comes from working class.  You might have come from a step or two up, but the Great Depression took care of that and so you are from the working class and the class that had to improvise and rearrange in order to survive.

In the recesses of your memory, you hear some of the words and sounds Augie March heard and Franz Kafka heard.  You heard immigrants, eager for the promise of America and more than ready to put up with the pragmatism and improvisational vigor necessary to be who you are, whence you have come, and the result of those from whence you came.

Bellow did in great effect what Twain did; he took America, held it up to the sun and moon, showing both sides of its personality.  He brought voice even closer to home for you than Twain did because Bellow heard the same accents you heard.  Listening to Twain's voices got you started on the journey.  Bellow sounded as though he was talking to you in a closer, more personal way, the way of shared cultures and closer experiences..

For a time, you were stuck between these two, the one a rock, the other a hard place, each of his own making.  They do things with language you watch with amazement.  They call out to you, like the deck hand on the river boat.  "By the mark, twain," they call out.  Safe water.

They are telling you it is safe for you to try with your voices.

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