Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reality is Stranger than Fiction

I'm back from my trip, which involved 2700 miles of driving on the Southern route through western Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana to southern Missouri, and would like to record some of my thoughts. There was snow in the yard here when I left, while the redbuds were blooming down south. The lakes in Vermont were still ice-covered when I returned.

One of my interests has always been to know and understand the people and dynamics of families over multiple generations. This is a far more challenging subject than you might expect, because not only do most people not discuss their families in depth, but they also don't know or understand their families as well as you might like. However, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, families have been going through dramatic changes, and I find them to be of greater interest in understanding changing human lives than the individuals of which they are comprised. Without actually making a study of it in which you go out and formally interview people, the only information you get is likely to accrue slowly over many years as you come to learn about your own family and at most the families of a handful of friends.

I have known Greg since college. At the time we weren't friends at all, because he was so obviously dysfunctional. He didn't want to be there, but his parents had forced him to go, partly because they knew that he would need a college education and partly because that was where they had met. He didn't take studying seriously and became a hell-raiser in the dorm where he lived. He became known for his "hawker-catching" contests, in which someone would spit from high up in a stairwell and someone below would attempt to catch it in his mouth. Besides his rowdy behavior and unkempt appearance, he was born without a thumb on his left hand. Somehow, with a lot of pleading, he managed to graduate, and he soon after became a professional baby photographer.

Greg's talents gradually emerged. He got a state job in Missouri and, because of his innate talent at organization, he rose through the ranks and eventually was placed in charge of the state Medicaid program, which had the largest budget in the state. He went on to study at Harvard to enhance his skills. The same talent was demonstrated in his organization of events at his family's farm, where I came to know him better starting in 1977.

The farm is a tract of about 200 acres that was settled in the 1800's and at its peak included at least two houses, a barn and a schoolhouse. Greg's father's father was a mechanic at Coca-Cola in St. Louis and bought it many years ago. He used the property to hold large parties for the union drivers who delivered Coke. He built a dance floor and bused in people to the site. He also seems to have used the farm as a dumping site for various Coke refuse. The grounds have old trailers full of rusted Coke signs, pipes and all sorts of things. Over the years, the farm has been a family retreat for Greg's family. It is mostly overgrown with trees, and all but one building and two outhouses have collapsed.

Greg is the oldest of four children and has three sisters. He seems to be a throwback to his two grandfathers, who both kept shotguns at their bedsides. Greg's father chose to become bookish and took no interest in mechanical objects or hunting, which caused a large, permanent rift between himself and his father. Greg took up the slack by becoming his grandfather's student on all matters related to the farm. As a boy he learned how to do roof repairs and all kinds of maintenance chores. The oldest sister, Chris, is a tomboy in the extreme. She was deeply impressed by her early experiences at the farm and now loves to operate heavy equipment and take care of three horses. When the company that she worked for in Iowa was bought out and she was fired, she moved to the farm and married her Iowa boyfriend, who sells funeral insurance. Chris is a lot like Greg, only she is louder and rowdier and a fanatic about everything she does. In private, Greg bemoans her lack of actual mechanical skill. The next sister, Andrea, also has many masculine characteristics, but, unlike Chris, is gay. Despite being loud and enthusiastic at times, Andrea has a less obvious sensitive side. Her main vocation is that of a visual artist, and she supports herself by delivering mail as a postal worker. Her recent partner, who is ten years older, was diagnosed with dementia and now lives in assisted living. The youngest sister, Hilary, by all appearances comes from a different family. She lives in Philadelphia, takes no interest in the farm and always looks and acts polished. Comparatively speaking, she is an East Coast snob, and her siblings are country bumpkins who just fell off a turnip truck.

There are many paradoxes to be found in Greg's family. Chief among them is their opposing political views. Greg is a solid Democrat and once even considered running for office. Chris and her husband are solid Republicans, and for many years Chris avoided going to the farm when Greg and his friends were there because she perceived them to be too leftist. Andrea, whom you might think of as an obvious Democrat, because she is a gay artist, voted for George W. Bush. Apparently she liked his decisiveness. As for Hilary, I don't know.

Although I'm not at all like Greg or anyone in his family, I do find them interesting. I think that their family provides both a broad panorama of American life and a microscopic look into some of its oddities. In a rather oblique way, this relates to my interest, or lack thereof, in fiction. I think many writers try unsuccessfully to capture the nature of the American experience, and they usually fail miserably. A few years ago, following a recommendation, I read Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which had won several awards. I found nothing compelling about the novel and am surprised that it was popular. It is about a dull minister in Iowa and life in his dull town. Presumably the protagonist's theological musings add a depth for readers who care about such things, but I don't find them to be of any value except as an exercise in seeing how confused people go about solving problems without understanding anything. In contrast, Greg's family story could easily be transformed into a good novel. Fiction writing has the advantage of allowing the author to fill in the gaps of unknowns by making things up that are plausible yet suit the author's whims. I am struck by how bad American fiction must be if there are so few authors writing compelling stories at least as interesting as Greg's family.

4 comments:

  1. Maybe you'd like Willa Cather's short story "Two Friends," from Obscure Destinies. It's on line on various sites. I find it engrossing, but then I generally think that Cather is about the best of the Americans, though she can be uneven. She is oddly sympathetic to businessmen, and very good at portraying them.

    John

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    1. I just read it and agree with you. It's a finely observed story, which is the sort of thing that I like. In high school I read "Death Comes for the Archbishop," but I don't remember it at all. In any case, "Two Friends" rings true where "Gilead" does not.

      Probably a story about Greg's family would be even more interesting. I didn't mention his wife, who first married an American Indian, with whom she had a child. That daughter became classic white trash and now has three similar children. She works at a spa that Greg's wife started in central Missouri. Greg and his wife also have a daughter who will be taking over the spa business. She married a right- wing miner from South Carolina. And then there is their farm neighbor, Mike, whom Greg has known since childhood. Mike is a beer-bellied, pot-smoking, retired pipe fitter and good ol' boy who always carries around a pistol in a holster, etc., etc.

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  2. If I remember right, you read the Robinson on Liam's recommendation. This is to your credit, as Liam's tastes (unformed, my mind, not to say bad) and yours are pretty clearly divergent. I myself have never read any of Robinson's novels, and I'm fairly certain I never will. Too many people whose opinions I distrust praise her.

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  3. Yes, it was Liam. I agreed with him somewhat on paintings, but on little else. He probably liked "Gilead" because of its Christian theme, which I found idiotic. I think Robinson has become an intellectual defender of Christian faith and values.

    As for Liam, his Ph.D. studies sound crazy to me: "Current interests and pursuits include exploring medieval Irish and Welsh attitudes to gender and sexuality, representations of male beauty in bardic poetry, and the possibility of applying late 20th-century postmodern theory to medieval Celtic literature." I am assuming that's him in the Harvard Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures.

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