Friday, April 01, 2011

Short-a-Day: David Foster Wallace's "John Billy"

Originally published in Girl With Curious Hair. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 68.

Was telling the dust-watcher how C. Nunn Jr. passed up multitudes of come-hitherish cheerleaders and oriental princesses to return to Minogue and enter into serious commitment with his childhood sweetheart, the illegally buxom and tall Glory Joy duBoise, closest thing to femininity and pulchritude that to date exists in Minogue Oklahoma, eyes like geometry and a all-around bodily form of high allure and near-religious implication, and just as I was commencing a analogy relating the shape of Glory Joy's hips to the tight curve of the distant Big Dirt horizon, the door to the Outside Minogue Tavern busted inward and there against the dusty sunlight was framed the tall, angstified, and tortured frame of Glory Joy duBoise, hand to her limpid and Euclidean eyes, hips (that was similar to horizons) brushing the trauma-struck frame of the busted-inward door.

Language-wise, this is a beautiful and inventive story. Simply from the section quoted above: "illegally buxom," "eyes like geometry," "angstified," "hips (that was similar to horizons)." But at the same time, it raises a valid complaint about post-modernism's weakness for style over substance, and again, from the section above, you've got improper grammar ("Was telling the dust-watcher") right alongside highfalutin (irony intentional) words ("femininity and pulchritude"), to say nothing about the repetition of descriptions ("eyes like geometry" and "hips [that was similar to horizons]" are great; "limpid and Euclidean eyes" and "relating the shape of Glory Joy's hips to the tight curve of the distant Big Dirt horizon" aren't very good). I don't mean to dwell on the technical, because I do believe that Wallace does usually work toward something more -- particularly in his essays -- this tale which seems to get away from him. While "Lyndon" was stifled by its realism, "John Billy" is over-amplified by its increasingly surreal elements. 

At first, these exaggerations are commendable: they're the mark of an excitable narrator in the throes of urban legendry, a man who -- for the service of his town and his friend -- amplifies actual history in the same way in which Homer Simpson, in one episode, is described as a master-fisherman with arms the size of tree trunks. The man must become the myth, and this story is filled with the strengths and weaknesses of the oral (Greek) tradition: rich history giving way to sad repetition. So we get things like this: "C. Nunn Jr. brought down the whole stadium house, solved the runner-plus-interference problem at our ten's Enid sideline by tackling the huge cow-boys, the low Canadian kicker, the inhumanly fast nigra, three Enid cheerleaders, a referee, and one ten-gallon cooler of Enid Gatorade, all at one cataclysmic time." Hyperbole, meet history.

But then the story catches up to the present, with John Billy -- joined now by Glory Joy -- telling Simple Ranger how Nunn's oil-bought sheep ranch was beset by the jealous T. Rex Minogue (whose father founded the town); how Nunn's quest for revenge led to a very serious car accident in which Nunn's eyes popped out of his head and he went into an apocalyptic moral coma of rage; and how Nunn still suffers from relapses, both of eye-popping and Armageddon-like anger, the latest of which has led him once again to face T. Rex, the result of which nobody knows, since Nunn's disappeared. In comes, of course, T. Rex, wheelchair-bound and with death literally written in his eyes (in cursive, apparently: "IMPENDING" in one eye and "DOOM, CANCER" in the other), to give us an ending, an ending in which Nunn suddenly becomes Ranger, the entire community (which has been steadily gathering in the bar) begins to levitate, and Something Metaphysical (or "meadowphysical") Is Said But Not Understood:
we all, me and civilians and Woman and old lone listening sky-eyed Ranger, we all crossed the thin line and slept. Aloft. How we dreamed a community dream of Chuck and Mona May Nunn's good luck boy Chuck Junior, riding his own mixer and might and absent purpose high, chasing a temper, a Daddy, Simple Ranger's DeSoto and farm, an everything of flora, sheep, soil, light, elements, through the windy fire of Oklahoma's roaring, watching stars. Now go on and ask me if we wasn't sorry we ever woke up. Go on.

Are they sorry, then, that they've woke up to what T. Rex apparently showed an eye-drooping C. Nunn Jr.? That is, that the land they treasure and value, their life itself, is so blank and meaningless and wrought of nothing lasting save dust? (This, of course, is foreshadowed in what we know of Simple Ranger, who has spent forty years in isolation, watching the dust for signs of danger.) Or are they sorry that, after finally falling asleep together as a community, creating this new world out of stories, effectively rewriting the past to suit their own purposes, they are now reminded by death's cruel knocks, of what reality really looks like? Given the gradual shifting from the realistic to the mythic to the absurd, "Johny Billy" is attempting the latter, doing its level-headed best to show what is good and bad about stories, but suffers at the cost of making its own point, for, in fact, going that far. At the very least, it's not unenjoyable to read, and it's yet one more side of an early Wallace, one still trying to find his voice.

No comments: