Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Notes on Recent Reading 11 [Wright, Kerouac & Burroughs, Gilbert]

The Long Dream [Wright]

Wright’s last novel, another coming-of-age account from The Jim Crow South, is rich in factual detail and convincing dialect. Fortunately, it has become necessary for Americans to acquire from written records a knowledge of what the relation between the races was like in the days before the sixties. Wright delineates the Southern variant of this fundamental American ratio with subtlety and accuracy. Like Mailer, he points his finger on the sexual element in American racism.

Though dreams, visions, and fantasies are most often the heart of the stories in which they appear, I found the dream sequences of Wright’s novel distracting ornamentation reflecting little beyond the decay of Freudianism. Further, the conclusion of the plot is unlikely, loosing the thematic knots with Fish’s sudden flight to France (he would surely have had no passport), but then all is redeemed with a final sentence nothing short of luxurious.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks [Kerouac and Burroughs]

This fictionalized account of the New York Beat scene in the middle forties including Lucien Carr’s killing of David Kammerer remained unpublished at Carr’s request until his death in 2005. Literary judgment might, however, have concurred. It’s loose as can be, but much of the book is dialogue, doubtless preserving the tone of conversation of that earlier time in this particular subculture. It has the same fascination of the tape transcript in Visions of Cody. It’s striking how much the people drink. Fancy drinks, often, like Pernod. Somehow I would have imagined this bunch, even with Carr among them, as more bookish than the story suggests. But maybe I’m thinking of me. The book is an entertainment, though it may have been an exorcism of the horrific incident for the people involved.

Other versions of the murder appear in Kerouac’s The Town and the Country and Vanity of Duluoz as well as in Holmes’ Go, in Edie Parker’s memoir, a number of biographies, a much-read 1976 New Yorker article by Aaron Latham, and a story by John Hollander.

H. M. S. Pinafore [Gilbert]

Reading Gilbert’s libretto for H. M. S. Pinafore I felt even more strongly than when I see the work performed that its pleasures are largely formal. What one enjoys are the Gilbertian chops that had been evident in the Bab Ballads, the marvelous melodious play of sound that all relish in nursery school, (but so many neglect afterwards) and the romance plot, proceeding so delightfully, seeming inevitable like a fugue.

The social themes reflect upper middle class concerns, but rarely do they imply political positions. For all the stress on marriages impossible because of the social hierarchy, it turns out that Ralph Rackstraw, the ideal of the British sailor, is such an impressive figure because he is, in fact, of upper class birth. His marriage is conventional after all. The enthusiastic nationalism that has led to so much suffering is celebrated every bit as much as it is mocked. Some things cannot be exaggerated. The unusually pointed song about the “ruler of the Queen’s Na-vee” is devastating and clearly directed at First Lord of the Admirality W. H. Smith despite Gilbert’s disclaimer, but, then, in the play at any rate, he doesn’t seem somehow to do much harm.

And meanwhile the plot proceeds like very satisfying clockwork.

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