”You! You!” I shouted. “Pay attention, God damn it, now listen to me!”
Probably I was still drunk from the whiskey. I threw a crowbar, a heavy one; it soared end-over-end and vanished softly and invisibly like a bird.
“Listen! this is serious!” I yelled.
It wasn’t that there was nothing there. It was the silence was there, a physical presence, and wouldn’t answer. I wouldn’t have minded if there had been no God, then the universe would be empty and all things would be possible. But that HE should exist--that HE should hover up there looking at me like the fog and be indifferent--was intolerable.
I know that several of my friends have reviewed this book glowingly on GR and maybe some of them feel like they have a special relationship with this book, but the truth of the matter is that MacDonald Harris/ Donald Heiney wrote this book for me. He was a man who planned ahead writing this book three years before I was born and then waiting patiently for me to find it. Unfortunately I must have zigged when he zagged and even though he passed away in 1993 I’m sure he still held the faith that I would eventually read this book.
Larry Backus aka Ben Davenant grew up in a strict Mormon household and all was going well until he was seduced by those evil, insidious, seductive compiled tree slices commonly referred to as books. Reading late one night his father popped into his room to see what he was doing. He hid the Joseph Conrad and yanked out a copy of Nifty Pics
that he had bought under the counter from a local businessman who had heeded the call for supply and demand (capitalism at it’s best). The interesting part was that in Larry’s mind it was a bigger problem getting caught reading Conrad than it was to be found with what his father considered to be pornography.
It made perfect sense to me.
Larry realizing that his home life was going to become more and more a problem so he runs away and joins the Merchant Marines.
He spends time with whores.
He meets a Russian named Victor.
Now Victor’s idea of friendship is basically that “friendship” allows him better access to take advantage of his friends. We all have friends and we try to help them the best we can by softening the blows that we all experience, and being there for our friends when they find themselves in jeopardy. Victor believes that the best service he can perform for Larry is to make sure that calamites not only find Larry, but that they hit hard enough to give him a lesson he won’t forget. The parts of the book that Larry spends with Victor are fascinating and certainly were among the most interesting for me.
Most of the women that Larry has access to are whores and he classifies women into two categories receptacles or machines
. He isn’t picky about the whores he sleeps with. In fact most of his descriptions of the women are not attractive in the least. ”I sat around for an hour or so drinking whiskey, and then I got bored and decided to go upstairs with a girl named Abby, who was short-legged and strong as a bull and looked ready for anything. Everything about her was hard, mechanical, and business-like; it was like going to bed with a tractor.”
His relationship with women is fairly uncomplicated until later in the book when he meets up with Ary.
Larry reads constantly. As a note to all those aspiring writers out there if the book didn’t grab him in the first ten pages he threw it overboard. So if you don’t want your work of brilliance floating in the Pacific Ocean you better make those first ten pages count. Didn't make the cut.
His ship is making an ordinance run during World War II when it is blown up. In the melee that happens he is burned and battered and ends up in a Navy hospital. He doesn’t tell them who he is and they diagnose him with amnesia. Most people believed in a body and also in a soul, or whatever you wanted to call it, an ego. But it was more complicated than they thought. They thought of the ego as a kind of a foggy pear-shaped essence inside you that stayed the same no matter what happened to the body: aware of other people and different from them, knowing its name, preferring coffee with cream, disliking warm beer. It didn’t matter what you did with your body, tattooed yourself blue, became a hashish addict or fell into a sausage machine, you were still you and inside there was an unconquerable soul that went marching on. All this was probably true and I had had an ego like that once too. But what they couldn’t get through their heads was that this part of me had been burned away too that night in the water. They thought the burns were only third degree (charred skin, some tissue damage) but they had gone deeper than that. Or perhaps my ego had been closer to the surface than most people’s, out in the skin where the fire could burn it away. Anyhow it was gone, disappeared with the fingerprints that had slid off on the hot metal and dissolved in the sea.
Since he is found near the wreckage of a destroyer the military makes the assumption that he was on that ship. The wife of a Lieutenant Ben Davenant identifies him as her husband. He liked floating along through the system as a John Doe and it throws a monkey wrench into his plans when Ary claims him. He isn’t sure what she is up to, but decides to play along. Which really is the way that Larry has moved through life like a cork in the ocean letting the tide take him wherever he is supposed to be next.
He decides to live the lie.
The biggest part of the puzzle of course is Ary.It wasn’t enough for her to have two sides, it seemed she was some kind of a polyhedron. Then as I came to know her a little better I saw that all the sides were one, but this didn’t make it any easier to understand. For a long time I didn’t like the tangoing, flower-strewing, slightly affected Ary, and I fought against it and tried to pull her away from that world. When we were together again in the blue bedroom it would be the same as before and I would think I had won, then the next night the house would be full of friends and she would be a stranger again. When I got to know the friends better that side of her seemed a little less mysterious, but by that time I had discovered other sides I hadn’t even suspected. The more I knew her outwardly the more something inward and secret in her seemed to elude me. Who was she anyhow?
There are so many great passages in the book in regards to Ary. Sometimes after we had made love and she had gone to sleep I would lie there contemplating her for what seemed like hours on end. There the two long amber legs came together, the even swell of the stomach tapered away between them, and deeper there was only shadow, mute and chthonic. What was I, some kind of a voyeur? The more I looked the less I understood. But I was looking in the wrong place for the mystery. I began to realize finally that it was not in her body, in this simple concave mechanism which was designed to receive a convexity, but in myself.
The struggle for Larry to become Ben, this privileged college man who did so many things differently than Larry and knew those cultured things about wine, food, and high society that Larry had only read about, is really fascinating to follow. Employing some of the lessons he learned from Victor he listens and learns until he can tentatively begin to speak their language. His ideas about women change as he meets women who are cultured, intelligent, and frankly more fascinating than any women that he has met before. He uses his knowledge of ships to build a business for himself from scratch. He starts to understand his new life, his stolen life, but there is always lurking that thought that he will be found out. MacDonald Harris, the man who wrote this book for me
This is truly an intriguing book infested with philosophy and psychology in an attempt to understand why we are driven to do anything when life itself seems so futile. It seems like a book that you can sit down and finish in a day or two, but it actually took me much longer because I found myself rereading and thinking and savoring these 270 pages. It is too bad this book is so difficult to find. NYRB is really the perfect publisher to bring this book back into print. If after reading this review you decide you must read this book, and I heartily suggest that you do, your best bet might be as Tuck said on the thread for this review to request it through inter-library loan. Meanwhile I will keep trolling through dank, dimly lit paperback exchanges all across the Midwest looking for copies to share with my GR friends.