Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the road

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I've spent the past few days on the road--in fiction, that is. And they couldn't have been two more different American roads: the contemporary Southern blacktops traveled by the ex-con Sailor Ripley and his love, Lula Pace Fortune, in Barry Gifford's Wild at Heart (1991), a celebration of all that is broke-down, displaced, casual, passionate, dead-end, and makeshift in American culture; and the still largely virgin motorways, all potholes and cow crossings, of the wide-open American West of the early automobile era, in Sinclair Lewis's Free Air (1919).

I'll have more to say about Sailor and Lula's road, and Gifford's word-drunk, hyper-charged vernacular depiction of it, sometime later. Right now I'm hampered by the fact that the 600-page Sailor and Lula: The Complete Novels is the sort of book that as you read it you know you absolutely have to lend to a friend--and, if that someone is another writer for whom you know you've found a crucial book . . . well, sometimes you have to lend it when you've still got 400 pages to go.

So I'll stick to Lewis, which, coincidentally, was put into my hands by a friend, and also shares with Gifford an infectious joy in unusual language and over-the-top slang. The book, which tells of a young woman's cross-country drive and the freedom from social mustiness she finds there, is full of everything from Minnesota pidgin German to slang phrases that snap like (and make as little sense as) Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner. The language reaches its apotheosis in this bit of venting by Bill, a Minnesota country boy surprised at the high-class company an old friend is keeping in his new home in Seattle:
Aw, how d'you get that way? Rats, you don't want to go tagging after them Willy boys. Damn dirty snobs. And the girls are worse. I tell you, Milt, these hoop-te-doodle society Janes may look all right to hicks like us, but on the side they raise more hell than any milliner's trimmer from Chi that ever vamped a rube burg.
That linguistic verve carries through the whole scene, which turns into the novel's most comic:
He wandered for an hour and came back to find that, in a "dry" city which he had never seen before, the crafty Bill had obtained a quart of bourbon, and was in a state of unsteady beatitude. He wanted, he announced, to dance.

Milt got him into the community bathtub, and soused him under, but Bill's wet body was slippery, and Bill's merry soul was all for frolicsome gamboling, and he slid out of Milt's grasp, he sloshed around in the tub, he sprinkled Milt's sacred good suit with soapy water, and escaped, and in the costume of Adam he danced orientally in Milt's room, till he was seized with sleepiness and cosmic grief, and retired to Milt's bed in tears and nothing else.
Is there a word in that passage that's not perfectly chosen? Nearly all seem to do treble duty: they describe the scene, they cast its events in terms just outsized and unexpected enough to render it grand (if not Biblical), and they mesh sonically so that we trip merrily along, laughing all the way. Even the simplest line, "He wanted, he announced, to dance," conveys exactly the right rhythm for its pronouncement: we can see Bill's face, flattened carefully into drunken seriousness, as he raises a solemn finger and takes his first step to a beat that only he can hear.

And that's ultimately what pleased me most about Free Air: it's a fun book more than anything else. Lewis is always a satirist, but here the satire is gentle, humane, even loving--there's none of the scorched-earth bleakness that makes the laughs in Babbitt, great though they are, so damned hopeless. It's a bon-bon of a book, perfect for summer; take it on the road in your flivver.

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