Sunday, February 03, 2008

P. G. Wodehouse and Jean Shepherd

P. G. Wodehouse had so many tricks in his bag that it would take a whole book to recount them, and a scholar of combinatorics to determine the many ways they could be grouped and rearranged. "There's Always Golf" (yes, Wodehouse can even make golf worth reading about!) includes a technique that, though relatively simple, is one of my favorites. To set the scene: a spitfire of a young woman, an Amelia-Earhart explorer type, has just been hit on the shin by a golf club slung by a young man who loves her but is miffed at her, primarily because she doesn't love him back and, secondarily, because she's caused him to botch the final hole of a championship round. The lady's reputation for violence has preceded her, and the Old Member, who tells the tale, anticipates fireworks:
It was a moment which I shall not readily forget. I have always ranked it, indeed, among the high spots of my life. Looking back, I find each smallest detail of the scene rising before my eyes as if it had happened yesterday. I see the setting sun crimsoning the western sky. I see the long shadows creeping over the terrace. I see Clarice Fitch hopping about on one leg, while Ernest Plinlimmon, his wrath turned off as if with a tap, stands gaping at the sight of what he has done. And over all, after that first sharp, shrill, piercing cry of agony, there broods a strange, eerie silence.

How long this silence lasted I am not able to say, for at these supreme moments one cannot measure time. But presently Clarice Fitch ceased to hop and, coming to a halt with a hand pressed to her shin, began to speak.
Just as his story reaches its point of greatest dramatic frenzy, Wodehouse abruptly calls a halt; like at moments of great danger or drama in real life, time slows, and every detail of the surroundings is thrown into stark relief. But in Wodehouse, those dramatic moments are almost always in some fashion ludicrous, and the momentary pause is filled, not with real tension, but with luxuriously purple and increasingly absurd descriptions of the scene.

It's a very effective trick, and this instance reminded me of another humorist who employs it well, Jean Shepherd.

Because Shepherd traffics in comedy predicated on carefully recalled domestic detail rather than calibrated whimsy-- his specialty being nostalgia drenched in wry cynicism--I'd never connected the two, but a quick google search reveals that Shepherd claimed Wodehouse as an influence. It becomes quite apparent once you start paying attention to this sort of scene, which turns up again and again in Shepherd's work. For example, in "Wilbur Duckworth and His Magic Baton," from In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966), a senior drum major gives his last performance, twirling two batons through downtown Homan, Indiana, and as the band enters the town square:
The crowd is subdued into a kind of tense silence. They were viewing greatness; the panoply of tradition and pomp, and they knew it. The fourteen-inch merchant mill and the cold-strip picking department at the steel mill rarely see such glory. Children stopped crying; noses ceased to run, eyes sparkled, and blue plumes of exhaled breath hung like smoke wreaths in the air as we slammed into the coda.
Or take this one, from "Duel in the Snow, or, Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid":
[M]y father was one of the most feared Furnace Fighters in Northern Indiana.

"That clanky old son of a bitch," he called it, and many's the night with the snow drifting in through the Venetian blinds and the windows rattling like frozen tom-toms he would roar down the basement steps, knocking over Ball jars and kicking roller skates out of the way, bellowing:


The hot-air registers breathed into the clammy air the whistling breath of the Antarctic. A moment of silence. The stillness of the tundra gripped the living room; the hoarfrost sparkled like jewels in the moonlight on my mother's Brillo pad in the kitchen sink.
Shepherd's debt to Wodehouse appears most clearly in his lyrical asides, like this one about the jungle that is male adolescence:
His jungle is a wilderness he will never fully escape, but those first early years when the bloom is on the peach and the milk teeth have just barely departed are the crucial days in the Great Education.
It's a very Wodehouseian description . . . yet it's clearly inferior. It raises a smile, but it looks flat put up against the bounce--and the lively Biblical reference--of these lines, which follow the earlier scene on the golf course:
Given the situation, one got the general sense, and as the address gathered speed and volume I found myself edging away from Ernest Plinlimmon, fearful lest the lightning playing about his head might include me in its activities. So might the children of Israel have edged away from one of their number who had been so unfortunate as to fall out with the prophet Jeremiah.
What's more surprising is that Shepherd's work has dated more than Wodehouse's: whereas Shepherd's writing both lampoons and laments a recent past that is forever receding, Wodehouse's world is almost entirely self-contained and timeless, unmoored even from its vague origins in Edwardian club life.

That's not to say that Shepherd's work isn't worth seeking out--it's frequently very funny, especially when he reads it himself. And as I'm sure Shepherd knew, being inferior to Wodehouse is no reason to hang one's head. Though we may not be anywhere near as talented or funny as he was, we can always remember that things could be worse. We could, after all, be the execrable Efficient Baxter; the fact that we are not is one for which, as Lord Emsworth and George make clear in this conversation from "Crime Wave at Blandings, " we should be perpetually thankful:
"You can't kill anything much with [an air rifle]," said George, with a wistfulness which betrayed an aspiration to higher things. "Still, it's awfully useful for tickling up crows."

"And Baxter."


"Ha, ha!"

"Ha, ha!"

Once more, Lord Emsworth forced himself to concentrate on the right tone.

"We mustn't laugh about it, my boy. It's no joking matter. It's very wrong to shoot Mr. Baxter."

"But he's a blister."

"He is a blister," agreed Lord Emsworth, always fairminded. "Nevertheless . . . "

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful post. It made my day!