Thursday, December 07, 2017

`Nought But Shows'

Somewhere I picked up the Modern Library edition of Studs Lonigan when I was a kid, and read it two or three times before my twenty-first birthday, and never again. Once Nabokov had showed me how beautiful prose and the architecture of fiction can be, Farrell’s clunky sentences and stridency became largely unreadable. What kept me reading at first was the raw, unformed power of Farrell’s working-class characters and settings. His people reminded me of my mother’s Irish-American family. Her brothers, from the generation after Studs, were house painters, and had taken their first steps into the middle class after service in World War II.

As an experiment I picked up Farrell’s Omnibus of Short Stories (Vanguard Press, 1956). The epigraph is unexpected: “Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door.” At random I turned to “Street Scene,” originally published in To Whom It May Concern (1944), which begins: “‘Say, do I belong to the human race?’ the old man asked himself aloud as he stood at the corner of Ninth Street and Michigan.” Not a promising start. The reader already sniffs portentousness, a grasping after Bigger Things. Here is the next paragraph:

“It was an Indian summer afternoon. Across the street, in Grant Park, there was a playograph recording of the World Series baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Yankees. The old man wore shapeless clothes; his shirt was gray with dirt, and the toes stuck out of his army boots. He shuffled along and stopped in front of the gold and bronze entrance to the Nation Oil Building.”

The hackneyed language and bargain-basement symbolism make it tough going, though it was interesting to learn about the playograph. Inevitably, a crowd gathers. An audience, really. The old man is putting on a show. He pantomimes undressing, putting on pajamas and lying down in bed. “Street Scene” starts sounding theatrical. The reader has seen such people on the street, afflicted, reading from a covert script. The crowd speculates: Is he “full of canned heat”?  “Coked up with wood alcohol”? A cop shows up, and the old man “meets his gaze with innocent eyes.” He explains to the cop that “maybe I’d just like to lay down and die.” One sense this isn’t the first time he has staged this stunt. A police sergeant shows up and asks, “What’s the matter with you? You can’t die there,” and the old man replies, “Jesus Christ, can’t a man die in peace, even in a free country?”

That’s as close as Farrell gets to comedy. Played differently, the scene might have had a Beckett-like humor about. But another two and a half pages follow, more of the same – much dialogue, a little scene-setting narration. “`I’ll be dead soon,’ he soliloquized,” Farrell writes, again emphasizing the theatricality – not because he is writing meta-fiction, but because mentally ill people often imagine themselves performing on a stage. A patrol wagon takes the old man away. He’ll get “thirty days in Bridewell,” the cop explains to someone in the crowd, “but it won’t do no good. Them bums is jus [sic] bums.” Here’s the concluding paragraph:

“The cop strolled back along Michigan Boulevard. There was a cheer from the crowd by the playograph, and it broke up. The Yankees had won the world series from the Cardinals in four straight games.”

A Leftist cliché: once the show, the “street scene,” is over, the unfeeling mob turns its attention to the other spectacle. Farrell writes sentimental propaganda, though I enjoyed reading “Street Scenes” and several other stories that display occasional hints of tough-guy charm. Call it a wallow in nostalgia. The title of Farrell’s story reminded me of an identically titled poem by David Ferry, one that I wrote about more than nine years ago. One of the lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XV quoted by Ferry seems appropriate:

“That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows”

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