Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
This is a story about people looking for connection. We follow a variety of different characters over the course of the novel, all inhabitants of a smallish town in the American South. They range in age from adolescent to elderly, they span both sexes, they represent different racial backgrounds, and they have strikingly different lived experiences despite living in the same place. Each of our narrators finds a point of connection in John Singer, a deaf man who has become increasingly lonely after his only friend, Antonapoulos, another deaf man, was sent away to an institution. Singer still visits Antonapoulos, and while he seems to enjoy the company of his motley crew of companions, his visits to Antonapoulos seem to be the only thing that bring him real joy. On his last visit to the institution, Antonapoulos has died after a liver illness, and Singer is bereft. He returns to the town only to kill himself, and his 'friends' are left at loose ends.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here
This book was a bit of a downer, though it had pleasurable moments here and there. I love this idea of an American Gothic South, but I just didn't quite get all the way there with this book. I didn't see a lot of Carson in the book (maybe in Mick?) and honestly, I didn't care that much when things happened to the characters. The whole book felt a bit like it was looking at people under a microscope from a distance, which I guess is an achievement in its own right, but it didn't leave me feeling wowed. In reading descriptions of how the book was received (voice to the oppressed, revolutionary) I guess it's just not ringing those bells for me. Maybe it's not the right temporal context. Anyway, here are my thoughts...
Athelstane + Antonapoulos = BFFLs
If you read my last post on Ivanhoe, you may remember Athelstane, the man who adored his meals. In reading the first descriptions of Antonapolous, I think he would have gotten along very well with Athelstane:
For, excepting drinking and a certain solitary secret pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than anything else in the world.One of the issues I had with the book was that I just didn't get the connection between Antonapoulos and Singer. Singer says "Nothing seemed real except the ten years with Antonapoulos." And I thought, really? Hunh.
I thought I got it at first, in that they were the only deaf people in town, so of course signing and having someone to communicate with on that level would be profound in ways I can't imagine. But then later Singer meets some other folks who sign and it's exciting at first, but then he just doesn't really connect with them. So I guess it left me wondering what was so great about Antonapoulos, since he seems like kind of a doofus. Was Singer in love with him? Was I missing some big other level to their relationship?
Nothing gold can stay
One of my favorite scenes is when Mick, a tomboyish girl is playing with her little brothers at a house under construction.
The house was almost finished. The carpenters would leave and the kids would have to find another place to play.It reminded me of playing on the dirt piles and sledding on the dirt hills behind my house before the development was built there. I guess kids and construction sites just go hand in hand, no matter the decade ;)
HP isn't the only one who listens to the radio under people's bushes...
This was my other favorite scene, also with Mick:
When she walked out in the rich parts of town every house had a radio. All the windows were open and she could hear the music very marvelous. After a while she knew which houses tuned in for the programs she wanted to hear. There was one special house that got all the good orchestras. And at night she would go to this house and sneak into the dark yard to listen. There was beautiful shrubbery around this house, and she would sit under a bush near the window. And after it was all over she would stand in the dark yard with her hands in her pockets and think for a long time.Doesn't that just make you want to go into nice neighborhoods and sneak under a bush and listen to the radio?
Toys that sing songs
One of the characters, Biff, sings a song at one point, and it cracked me up, because I'm 100% positive that one of my nephew's toys sings this song. I had never heard it anywhere else, and there it was! Apparently it dates back to the late 1800s.
I went to the animal fair.Lol. I love the image of a baboon combing his auburn hair.
The birds and the beasts were there,
And the old baboon by the light of the moon
Was combing his auburn hair.
Next, since the book really revolves around this quintet, I'd like to give you snippets to paint a portrait of each one.
Jake Blount, revolutionary, proselytizer, "Red"
Jake enters the scene super duper drunk, and while he cares a whole lot about the 'common man', he can't quite get his head around the fact that black folks are also having a lot of challenges in that day and time. He spends most of the book drunk, shouting, or both.
- Biff, the bartender, on Jake: Never had he seen a man change so many times in twelve days. Never had he seen a fellow drink so much, stay drunk so long.
- It was hard to tell what kind of folks he had or what part of the country he was from.
- He was like a man thrown off his track by something.
- Jake, to others: I'm one who knows. I'm a stranger in a strange land.
- Always he felt someone was laughing at him.
Mick was probably my favorite, though I honestly didn't even care that much about what happened to her. It's not that she wasn't well written, I just kind of felt that observational distance from all the characters, which made me far less invested in them as individuals.
- She wanted to think for a long time about two or three certain people, to sing to herself, and to make plans. doesn't this sound like a lovely list of things to do?
- To her older sisters - "I don't want to be like either of you and I don't want to look like either of you. And I won't. That's why I wear shorts. I'd rather be a boy any day." you do you, Mick!
- Portia: Mick has something going on in her all the time.
- Sometimes she hummed to herself as she walked, and other times she listened quietly to the songs inside her. There were all kinds of music in her thoughts.
- She wasn't a member of any bunch.
Singer was interesting, but I thought it was odd for a hearing author to choose a deaf protagonist, especially because it felt like Mick was the actual star of the book. It also raised my feminist hackles that even though she was a phenom and she got published as a lady in her 20s in the 30s, she still had a MALE LEAD CHARACTER. What is it with women and writing stories with leading men? Where are our leading ladies? EH?! I'm all for representation here, and we certainly need more spaces for deaf folks in literature, but I'm still looking for the ladies.
- Jake, on Singer: It was like the face of a friend he had known for a long time.
- He was never busy or in a hurry.
- This man was different from any person of the white race whom Doctor Copeland had ever encountered.
- His hands were a torment to him. They would not rest. They twitched in his sleep, and sometimes he awoke to find them shaping the words in his dreams before his face.
- On Jake: He thinks he and I have a secret together but I do not know what it is.
- He had agreed with each of them in turn, though what it was they wanted him to sanction he did not know.
Dr. Copeland was oozing nuance, but he also felt like such a sad character. I mean, for sure, being a black man in the South in the 30s can't have been anything resembling easy, but his sadness was like, fathoms deep. Like a personal kind of 'everyone lets me down' vibe, from his family to his country. It made him a pretty hard character to like. Maybe I wasn't supposed to like him? Idk.
- Of all I have put in nothing has remained. All has been taken away from me.
- The hopeless suffering of his people made in him a madness, a wild and evil feeling of destruction.
- All that we own is our bodies.
- We spend our lives doing thousands of jobs that are of no real use to anybody. We labor and all of our labor is wasted. Is that service? No, that is slavery.
- He could think of no white person of power in all the town who was both brave and just.
- If I were a man who felt it worth my while to laugh I would surely laugh at that. Dr. Copeland says this to Jake about Jake's idea about how to inform people about inequity and such, and I thought it was such a fantastically wry burn.
I honestly didn't know what I was supposed to think about Biff. He seems to be into Mick, but Mick is not that old, and later on, he's like, oh, and then that passed, and I'm like, what passed? Your pedophilic feelings? It was creepy, and made it strange to know where I was supposed to stand with him. Which I guess is kind of the point? Once again, hands in the air. Idk.
- To his wife, Alice: You never watch and think and figure anything out.
- When us people who know run into each other that's an event.
- It was funny, too, how lonesome a person could be in a crowded house.
- The way I need you is a loneliness I cannot bear.
- Of all the places he had been this was the loneliest town of all.
Books always make me think of other books, and this one was no exception.
Even though he was also sometimes creepy, Biff had a line about androgyny that I liked that reminded me of The Left Hand of Darkness:
By nature all people are of both sexes. Often old men's voices grow high and reedy and they take on a mincing walk. And old women sometimes grow fat and their voices get rough and deep and they grow dark little mustaches. And he even proved it himself - the part of him that sometimes almost wished he was a mother and that Mick and Baby were his kids.
One night soon after Christmas all four of the people chanced to visit him at the same time. This had never happened before. Singer moved about the room with smiles and refreshments and did his best in the way of politeness to make his guests comfortable. But something was wrong.Reminded me of this line from Swann's Way - "I hear that things worked out badly again today, Léonie; you had all your friends here at once."
And yet again, my books make unexpected connections with each other! Came across this line:
At Vocational when they read about the jew in 'Ivanhoe' the other kids would look around at Harry and he would come home and cry.
miry - very muddy or boggy
We have talked of everything now except the most vital subject of all - the way out. What must be done.I often feel like we're looking for a way out, especially in this America in this day and age. We (or at least some of us) know that something is very wrong, and now we must come to agreement on what must be done. So I suppose that even though lots of things have changed since 1930, this - this need to find a way out and agree on what's to be done - hasn't gone away.
So ponder the way out, dear readers, on this breezy, sunny, warm Friday evening. I'm off to the world of Watchmen. Join me if you dare! Read my blob if you care! Keep each other safe. Keep faith. Good night.