Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chabon misses a trick, Westlake upholds his usual standards, and McMurtry sneaks into this post somehow, too

My good friend Bob has sent along what seems to be a clear case of a inexcusable failure to make a Sydney Greenstreet simile! Here it is, from Chapter 7 of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:
At a time when an honorable place in the taxonomy of male elegance was still reserved for the genus Fat Man, Harkoo was a classic instance of the Mystic Potentate species, managing to look at once commanding, stylish, and ultramundane in a vast purple-and-brown caftan, heavily embroidered, that hung down almost to the tops of his Mexican sandals.
The "Mystic Potentate species"? Could there be a more Greenstreetian character than that?

As many of you know, I am on a crusade of sorts--a calm, even patient one, the kind that would not cause even Greenstreet's ample frame to break a sweat--to encourage the use of Greenstreet as a descriptive and metaphorical reference point in fiction. Should any of you know Chabon, I ask you to urge him to correct this oversight in subsequent printings of his Pulitzer Prize–winner. America's literary landscape would be a more well-rounded place for it.

While we're speaking of large men, I have to share a bit of description from Donald Westlake's final novel, Get Real (2009). One of the pleasures of the Dortmunder series is the nearly unhinged joy Westlake took in describing Dortmunder's crony Tiny Bulcher. While Bulcher is far too large to be an apt subject for a Greenstreet reference, nonetheless in book after book Westlake found new and amusing ways to tell us how boot-quakingly enormous Tiny is.

Tiny's entrance in Get Real is one of the simplest, but also one of the best:
As Dortmunder nodded, the doorway filled up with enough person to choke Jonah's whale. This creature, who was known only to those who felt safe in considering him their friend, as Tiny, had the body of a top-of-the-line SUV, in jacket and pants of a neutral gray that made him look like an oncoming low, atop which was a head that didn't make you think so much of Easter Island as Halloween Island.
All these oddities of the human shape call to mind a passage I read the other day in Lonesome Dove (1985). It's fairly long, but so's the book, and I think both are worth it:
Lippy finished his concert and came and joined them. He wore a brown bowler hat he had picked up on the road to San Antonio some years before. Either it had blown out of a stagecoach or the Indians had snatched some careless drummer and not bothered to take his hat. At least those were the two theories Lippy had worked out in order to explain his good fortune in finding the hat. In Augustus's view the hat would have looked better blowing around the country for two years than it did at present. Lippy only wore it when he played the piano; when he was just gambling or sitting around attending to the leak from [the wound in] his stomach he frequently used the hat for an ashtray and then sometimes forgot to empty the ashes before putting the hat back on his head. He only had a few strips of stringy gray hair hanging off his skull, and the ashes didn't make them look much worse, but ashes represented only a fraction of the abuse the bowler had suffered. It was also Lippy's pillow, and had had so many things spilled on it or in it that Augustus could hardly look at it without gagging.

"That hat looks about like a buffalo cud," Augustus said. "A hat ain't meant to be a chamber pot, you know. If I was you, I'd throw it away."

Lippy was so named because his lower lip was about the size of the flap on a saddlebag. He could tuck enough snuff under it to last a normal person at least a month; in general the lip lived a life of its own, there toward the bottom of his face. Even when he was just sitting quietly, studying his cards, the lip waved and wiggled as if it had a breeze blowing across it, which in fact it did. Lippy had something wrong with his nose and breathed with his mouth wide open.

Accustomed as she was to hard doings, it had still taken Lorena a while to get used to the way Lippy slurped when he was eating, and she had once had a dream in which a cowboy walked by Lippy and buttoned the lip to his nose as if it were the flap of a pocket. But her disgust was nothing compared to Xavier's, who suddenly stopped wiping tables and came over and grabbed Lippy's hat off his head. Xavier was in a bad mood, and his features quivered like those of a trapped rabbit.

"Disgrace! I won't have this hat. Who can eat?" Xavier said, though nobody was trying to eat. He took the hat around the bar and flung it out the back door.
If you laughed like I did at that, well, McMurtry's got another 850 pages of it for you. I'm 300 in and have been grateful for each one so far.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Levi,
    I read that McMurtry quote four years ago and still remember it vividly. What a loving, slowed down pleasure McMurtry takes in describing Lippy and his hat! Thanks for sharing.