Walter Walker: A Dime to Dance By; Harper & Row; New York.
Geoffrey Norman: Midnight Water; E.P. Dutton; New York.
Existence — which is all there is, to answer Peggy Lee — consists of little things: there was only one Big Bang, and should there be another, none will be around to record it. Toe charge of the writer (or the painter, sculptor, etc.) is to organize a series of little things in such a way that they are not merely there (i.e., a counterfeit realism passing itself off as a one-to-one correspondence with reality), but so that they betoken, announce, hint at, matter, signify: mean something. Thus, while there may be admirable qualities to a technical report or some similar form, the purpose of which is to convey data, the transcendent value of such is null. The little things must be informed, not simply given form. The specimens do not fully exist when outlined only with regard to geometrical figure and mass. Being comes through values.
One of the problems of (and so with) many modern writers is that they have absolutely nothing to say, yet they are certain of the importance of their saying it. Thus, they present works which say nothing, which is not to be confused with the Nothing (néant) spoken by Samuel Beckett. In some cases, these writers have more than a rudimentary grasp on English composition. But in this they are not unlike those who fill practice sheets with calligraphy: those neat rows are at tractive, yet they are merely finger exercises. One of the reasons why this situation prevails is that many of these writers have experienced nothing — and are far from Nothing. They are like those boudoir Marxists who dress down when dressing up and who know all about “the workers” though they have never done any manual labor. All of the posturing and postulations may have the correct forms, but their relationship to the way that things are is tangential. Toe writers and their works are hollow. A criticism that is often leveled at new writers is that their world is circumscribed by the literal and/or figurative walls of the academy. They write books about books, stories of writers trying to write. This is nothing new. Indeed, it is so old that the air in those confines is becoming exhausted. But this hermetic situation isn’t the whole problem; the argument is not that one must go out into the world to become a profound writer. If this were so, then we’d look to janitors, dishwashers, and the like for powerful works, and even the Soviets have learned (the hard way) that this isn’t exactly the correct direction. Profundity comes from the soul. Valuable writing, as its root indicates, requires values. And a fine handling of little things. Cases in point come from two first time novelists, men who have careers outside of the academy. One is Walter Walker, a lawyer. The other is Geoffrey Norman, columnist of the “Outdoors” department for Esquire. Both stick to their own turf: A Dime to Dance By concerns a lawyer in a small town in Massachusetts; Midnight Water deals with those who make adventurous runs up the Gulf Coast of Florida with drugs in the holds of their ships. That is where the similarities cease. Walker, through a gritty story, proves himself to be sensitive and sensible, aware of the little things that make up quotidian existence and of the values that help give that existence spirit and reason. Norman, for all that he offers in prose that is certainly readable, might as well have gone deep-sea fishing instead of writing Midnight Water; it is devoid of any significance beyond that which the author himself might experience.
Walker’s is a first-person narrative told by a semiworldly man who is a small-town man by choice and inclination. He could have undoubtedly made it in nearby Boston, but he preferred not to. He is more comfortable in his hometown, where all of his old buddies — most of whom never left because of their limited attempts at going anywhere — still meet to discuss the Red Sox over drafts. He is not an underachiever or a failure, just a man who is trying to make sense of his life, which is no small task. Moreover, he tacitly acknowledges that he has an obligation to find that meaning, not only for himself, but because he is the father of a teenaged daughter whom he hopes will eventually address the same issues in her own life. He is a man who realizes that there are a few chances, opportunities, available in any given life, and that the selection of one closes off at least another. Certainly everybody knows that (or claims that he does), but he thinks about the ramifications and the permutations that result from making selections. He must, for example, explain to his 16-year-old daughter why she shouldn’t elope with a no-account punk beyond just saying that “he’s a loser.” He feels somehow obliged to put life into some kind of perspective or order for his beer-drinking buddies, who tend not to see beyond the next glass. As he says to one of them who whines about the life he imagines he could have had:
‘Hey … knock it off, will you? You wanted to get noticed fifteen years ago, you should have lost a hundred pounds and become a halfback You wanted to go on to school, you should have read a few books instead of trying to memorize My Three Sons, or whatever it is you used to watch all the time.’
He is no sob sister, for he adds, “I’m not going to feel guilty over you … I got my own problems.” His daughter, friends, ex-wife, and self are all part of his problems, which are not things that he considers in the sense of having final solutions, but as constituting life. Perhaps one of the reasons why he is not an aggressive lawyer on the outlook for cases is that he recognizes that there are limits to the number of things that an individual can deal with. If this book were the product of the academy, the lawyer would undoubtedly dwell on navel lint. Walker, however, is more of a realist than a short-pants absurdist; his lawyer works. And as a lawyer with a bit of moral fiber, he recognizes the problematic — if not absurd —nature of American justice. He ponders a difficult-almost airtight against him — case:
[W]asn’t there something more I could do to establish Richie’s innocence? Out in San Francisco, somebody had practically gotten away with killing the mayor and a city supervisor by arguing that he had eaten too many Twinkies and that they had made him temporarily insane. Could I establish a diminished-capacity defense in Massachusetts on the basis of all the junk food Richie had eaten at the Burger Pit over the course of his life? No, it wouldn’t work Under that test all the jurors, the judge, the bailiff, the court reporter, the attorneys on both sides — everybody would prove just as demented.
That, as it is, is the real world. It is a world of legalities and Twinkies, of getting ahead and My Three Sons. It is not a place that permits the novelist to close with a “and he lived happily ever after,” nor is it a place that bespeaks the eternal torments as described by Dante — and faked by those writers who have yet to learn how to lace their shoes. Walker knows a world that many do, one wherein the struggles are more akin to those of the Little Engine that Could than to those of a kvetching Sisyphus; they are small but real and meaningful. His diminution is provocative, not petty.
Geoffrey Norman’s reduction is as significant as that achieved through a TV diet exercise show. The elements of Midnight Water are exciting, in the sense of action, much more so than those of A Dime to Dance By. However, while little literature comes from those who spend their lives in closets, less comes from outdoorsmen who pretend to be Papa Hemingway. In place of Walker’s beer drinking pals, waitresses, and petty politicians, Norman offers drug runners, women who “party” at all the right places and in all the “in” ways, and mercenaries. But Norman doesn’t want to present a story that could be serialized in a men’s magazine with a picture of a deer on the cover; he wants to be profound. Striving for profundity is an act that has laid many writers — and readers — low. Complicating matters for Norman is the fact that he bases his approach on a petty nihilism. The titles of both novels come from passages in the books. In Walker’s, a character who thinks that he has “made it” because he has made money selling drugs says to the lawyer:
‘You’re jealous, aren’t you? Here you were, the big hot shit in high school while I was just another nobody. And now we’re all grown up and you’re the one who’s a nobody, just some guy slaving away for a living. You only had one dime to put in the jukebox, didn’t you, man? When your song ended you had to start dancing to somebody else’s music.’
The jukebox is an apt metaphor that tells of the life of little things, of those existences wherein emotions are provoked when it can be uttered, “They’re playing our song.” Pushing the wrong combination of buttons or a skip in the record can be painful. Life is more often like Woolworth’s than I. Magnin. Norman doesn’t realize this. His protagonist, who has essentially no feelings for people other than himself (he quit his job and left his wife because they were cramping his style), neglects the jukebox and pretends to an appreciation of Wagner. It is painfully foolish. After musing a panegyric to John Kennedy, the man continues:
He wondered if young men these days paid any attention to the example of John Kennedy’s little brother who had found himself in midnight water with a chance to be brave and had failed so badly and publicly. The whole thing was sad.
A man who feels melancholy about the perpetrator and not the victim at Chappaquiddick is evidently lacking values on any scale, small or grand. Moreover, Norman, perhaps unwittingly (for the reader is, I think, supposed to identify with the protagonist), undercuts those ill-directed feelings as well as any reasons that a reader may have to look for some sort of meaning from the base and center of the novel. The protagonist’s philosophy is encapsulated in a phrase that’s regularly repeated: “Nothing special.” For example: “He had tried and the marriage had failed. An ordinary story. Nothing special.” In another scene he thinks about all of the sailors — ”Thousands, stretching back through the generations” — who have died at sea, “All of which made him feel like nothing very special. He took a deep breath and said it aloud. ‘Nothing special.”‘ Virtually anything can be falsely justified on the basis of that notion, which brutalizes the meaning of man, which novelists are supposed to address. At one point the subject of reincarnation comes up and the protagonist is asked who he would be if he had a choice. He answers: “Nothing human …. Maybe a bird.” There is little human about him; he is not a who but a what. Perhaps Geoffrey Norman should stick to wildlife and leave the matters of man to those who willingly confront those concerns.