Friday, April 29, 2011

Short-a-Day: Keith Ridgway's "Goo Book"

 Originally published in The New Yorker, April 11, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 52.

Not the good book, mind you, that much is clear from the opening line -- "It was fucking hot" -- and the first section's introduction to our anti-hero, the sort of man who "slid through [tourists] like Jesus through children" and "came out the other side with a box purse and what his fingers had thought was a wallet but turned out to be a notebook," a character who dreams of the girl he has just slept with beside the canal as "probably snoring now, dreaming" or alternatively "being robbed, raped, murdered, bullied, torn apart, and if the canal had a tide she would drown, just for him, just because of him." He's the sort of person who worries that one can love too much, the good thief who goes out of his way to return the stolen notebook because he's filled with sentiments himself; he wants only emotionless money.

No, we're talking about the goo book here, a book that he has started to record his sentimental thoughts in -- and which she, his girlfriend, has started to do the same -- as "They couldn't talk. They were not good talkers, either of them." They are anti-Romeo and Juliet, a pair of damaged lovers who like to tie one another up and be hurt because of the way in which they hate themselves: "She hated her name. He hated his name." The book, then, is for tenderness and dreams; their physical lives, on the other hand, are partitioned from that, are meant to take on all the roughness of the world. Ironically, it's not clear that our protagonist knows much of the actual roughness out there: his father has gotten him a job working for some potentially violent characters, deal-makers that he serves as driver for, but he's never actually seen violence done -- he only suspects it. When police collar him and try to turn him, he not only agrees to their terms (easily coerced and fearful of prison), but winds up sleeping with one of the officers, a man named Hawthorn.

He doesn't know what he wants, or where he's going -- "I don't want to get ahead," he tells Hawthorn -- and is the perfectly passive driver: a man who takes action only at the behest of others. Ridgway's writing neatly fits the character, with much of the text being barked directives (short dialogue) or clipped sentences that summarize a life in transit. ("They talked about cars. They talked about money.") Mamet might enjoy working with characters such as these; for us, however, we gain only this singular idea of a subdivided man:

His mind was dividing. Parts of it were roped off. There were things he could say. There were things he could not say but could write in the book. And now there were things he could neither say nor write but only think, and they pressed up against the others like they wanted a fight.

At the story's end, the anti-hero and his lover are fleeing the country (for a more romantic Paris), scared off by paranoia. But while they successfully escape, it's not a happy ending, for he realizes that he's forgotten the book -- all of his goo, his tenderness, his good -- and even though the girl's brought it along, he still knows that, in a pinch, he was willing to forget and leave that part of him behind for good. And what does that say about the part of him that's left? It's a coarse, cautionary tale, then -- this "Goo Book."

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