Sunday, July 11, 2010

`The Small Change of Real Knowledge'

I was reading the J.F. Powers story “The Devil Was the Joker” in the lobby of the YMCA while my seven-year-old was running around somewhere, when I overheard the conversation of two men sitting across from me. One was about forty and white-haired but boyish, wearing black gym shorts and a white T-shirt with a wolf on the front. I started paying attention when he mentioned attending AA meetings, his recent divorce and losing his job with a landscaping company. His friend was the same age, Hispanic and more affable, with a ponytail and thinning hair in front. I started taking notes:

Wolf: “I’m reading this book, man. Eckhart Tolle.”

Ponytail: “I heard of that somewhere.”

W: “You ought to read it. It helped me a lot.”

P: “I’m reading the third Frankenstein. Dean Koontz.”

W: “Where did that take place?”

P: “The old country.”

W: “Like Europe?”

P: “Yeah. I guess.”

W: “What’s his ideology?”

P: “What?”

W: “His ideology. His principles.”

P: “I don’t know. Victor was in biology. In the school the first thing he brought back to life was a frog. The second was a dog. Then he figured if he could reanimate a dog and a frog he could do a human.”

W: “It’s amazing, man, what people think is possible. What’s the original writer who did the Frankenstein book?”

P: “I don’t know. Mary something?”

W: “Poppins?”

P: “No, man. Some woman.”

W: “I dig Carlos Castaneda, that kind of spiritual stuff.”

Ponytail, after looking at the cover of his friend’s paperback: “You’re not a Oprah Book Club member, are you?”

W: “Aw, man, gimme a break. I gotta have a talk with the guy who gave it to me.”

P: “Who’s that?”

W: “The shelter manager.”

Powers’ story deals with two travelling men in the upper Midwest during the Korean War. The older, Mr. McMaster, sells magazine subscriptions and raises funds for the Clementine Fathers. He takes on a failed seminarian, Myles Flynn, as a sort of apprentice. It’s a grimly funny story about swapping stories, real and imaginary, fact and fiction. Powers writes:

“They were getting along very well, different as they were. Mac was a good travelling companion, ready wherever they went with a little quick information about the towns (`Good for business,’ `All Swedes,’ `Wide open’), the small change of real knowledge.”

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