Wednesday, July 02, 2008

And the hearts of the world's Joseph Mitchell fans go pitter-pat . . .

MacDonald Harris's novel Mortal Leap (1964) is about Larry Backus, a sailor in the merchant marine who, having had his identity stripped away by a torpedo during World War II, finds himself claimed by a wealthy woman as her husband, a naval lieutenant on the ship amidst whose wreckage Backus, burned beyond recognition, was recovered. I'll have more to say about the book in coming days, especially about how the story of this autodidact is steeped in books to a degree beyond that of most novels, even those featuring proper intellectuals--but today I just want to quickly share a moment that made me break out into a broad smile.

Backus, still adjusting to life among the cultured and moneyed, has just caused a minor stir by putting catsup on his filet mignon. His father-in-law unexpectedly disrupts the awkward silence that ensues, revealing in the process that he, too, has had to earn his familiarity with money:
After a while Leo remarked, "Joe Gould when he was living in the Village always used to pour catsup out on his plate and eat it with a spoon. He didn't like the stuff but he said it was the only thing in a Village diner that was free."

"Who was Joe Gould?" I demanded, still a little truculent.

"A philosopher," was all he would say. A philosopher who ate catsup? That night after the other had gone to bed I locked myself in the study and looked him up in Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy, but he wasn't there.
If only the Internet had existed in 1964, perhaps the Wikipedia might have been able to come to the rescue!

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